Hermes with the Infant Dionysius, by Praxiteles.

Hermes with the Infant Dionysius, by Praxiteles.

“Art for me means all works of imagination, from poetry to television commercials to pornography, with questions of quality still operative,” Camille Paglia, Sex, Art and American Culture.

Once again, I find myself in agreement with Paglia.

Lets think about this. No one would question the artistic merit of good poetry. But television commercials? And yet, how many times have we laughed because of a good television commercial. Some of the best tidbits of comedy are found in such genres. A well done television commercial does have artistic merit.

And then there is the eternal quagmire of “porn”. For some, porn is the all encompassing evil that is destroying our society. For others, porn is a harmless pastime. For me, as I have often stated here, I think most of what passes for “porn” is of fairly low quality and without any merit, save as a masturbation aid. Even then, most porn today falls short. The ubiquitous nature of modern porn means that the former shock value of pre-internet porn, namely, seeing something of a sexually explicit nature only occasionally, something whose very scarcity aided in the arousal process, has now vanished. I remember the first time I saw a porn video. This was during the pre-internet age, when porn had to be purchased either through the mail or in a video store. It took a bit of effort to acquire such items of salaciousness. But because of this, because of the rarity and difficulty of viewing such forbidden subjects, the arousal factor was nearly instantaneous. Today, the same videos I saw all those years ago would hardly arouse me at all. There is simply too much of it. They have now become blase and boring.

And this does not even take into consideration the pre-VCR days, when porn films either had to be seen in an old, run down movie theater, or again, purchased through the mail or in an adult store. Today we can view all the porn we want, any time we want, on our smart phones.

But aside from the world of sexually explicit films, nude images are also considered porn by some. They are just a less virile form of pornography. To me, this is where the world of art and porn intersect most comprehensively. Yes, some nude images are also of a low quality, and do not merit the label of “art”. The photos in Hustler would be a good example of this. But there are many nude images, even in a popular magazine such as Playboy, which are well done, finely choreographed depictions of the human body. What most anti-porn crusaders do not seem to understand, or perhaps understand all too well, is that any nude is inherently erotic. Being nude is not a normal state; we spend our days in public clothed (as we should) and nudity is usually only reserved for private or intimate encounters. This is the universal norm. The nude image ignores these societal strictures for clothing, and by doing so creates a slight shock factor, in the same way an explicit video does, only without the same depth of instantaneous arousal. Still, it is erotic.

Classical antiquity, Greek and Roman culture, was replete with nude statues, painting or other types of images, such as on Greek vases. The advent of Christianity, as well as the general decline in civilized life following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, put a temporary end to the such artwork. And yet, with the advent of Italian Renaissance, a thousand years after the fall of Rome, a revival of interest in nude artwork commenced. And since that time there has been an open controversy, even hostility between those who embrace such artwork as good and beautiful reflections of God’s creation, and those who reject such artwork as evil, harmful manifestation of Satan’s realm.

Aphrodite of Cnidus, a famous nude by Praxiteles.

Aphrodite of Cnidus, a famous nude by Praxiteles.

Praxiteles (4th cent. BC), was one of the greatest sculptures of ancient Greece. The first photo in this post is his most famous extant piece: Hermes and the Infant Dionysius. It may be an original, or it may be Roman copy, but whatever the case, the statue we have today is a brilliant example of the beauty that Greeks sought in their artwork. Praxiteles was particularly renowned for his soft, almost misty depictions of human form. The sinuous contrapposto of Hermes, the main figure, creates a fluidity of form which is remarkable for a marble statue. For the ancient Greeks, as this statue reflects, male beauty was the epitome of the human form, although Praxiteles did do female nudes as well. As a matter of fact, he was the first Greek artist to sculpt female nudes in life size statues.

His most famous work in antiquity was the Aphrodite of Cnidos, seen directly above. It was the first full scale nude statue of a woman. Unfortunately only later copies survive, but the higher quality of these give us some indication of the charm and beauty of the original. It was said to even have engendered sexual arousal in the viewer, which would make it a prime candidate for “porn” and therefore banishment today among some circles.  Is it then, like some cheap video bought at a sleazy adult store thirty years ago, “porn”, because it sparked arousal in men? And yet if you found the original today buried in your backyard, you would become an instant multimillionaire. Whatever the case, as we can tell from this later copy, Praxiteles was a master of creating the female form as well, in both beautiful and erotic ways.

Smut to some, art to others.

Smut to some, art to others.

So what is porn and what is art? There is no answer to this question. The photo above maintains many of the same principles of artistic beauty that Praxiteles mastered over two thousand years ago, and which are universal among all forms of sculpture, painting or photography, namely, grace, balance, and harmony, and yet this photo, because it is of a nude woman, is still inherently problematic in our world.

I find it amusing how the ancient Greeks were perfectly fine with nudity in art; while we in our modern, technologically driven world still struggle in a schizophrenic way with artistic depictions of erotic beauty.