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Art or Porn?

By Association Member Frederick Potter.

The question “What is art?” is one that has been asked by many over the centuries. In Europe, art was once seen as skillfully crafted realistic paintings or sculpture that accurately depicted the scene or human form. The great masters such a Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Rembrandt created incredible masterpieces that to this day many believe have yet to be rivaled in both their technique and emotional impact. Such works set the standard by which all other art was to be judged.

As world travel increased due to commerce these same Europeans became exposed to other cultures and in doing so they began to understand that radically different perspectives on art existed. An artwork did not have to conform to ‘realism’ to be considered valid art. In addition some art, in particular that which came from Africa, India and China, contained overt sexual themes that caused embarrassment amongst the ‘proper’ society of Western Europe. Despite the fact that many of the themes in European paintings contained nudes, even many religious themed paintings of angels and mortals, they were not considered to be improper because the intent was to glorify God’s creation (the human body) and did not portray people involved in sexual acts.

Other countries and cultures, however, considered the depiction of sexual acts to be sacred and valid as a means to glorify the miracle of creating new life. Paintings and sculpture of the Indian Kama Sutra, the African fertility idols and the Chinese depictions of the art of lovemaking were testament to the differing attitudes from mainstream European thought. As these alternative ways of seeing began to filter into the European mindset, their perspectives also began to change. Soon, the art created in many parts of Europe began to take on a more “daring” perspective.

As an artist my medium of choice is photography. Ever since it was first discovered how to capture light onto a physical medium, nudes were one of the subjects of choice for those that practiced the art of photography. Though for many years photography was not considered to be ‘real art.’ It was thought that ‘real art’ had to be created through many hours of painstaking labour - chiseling away marble or delicately laying dabs of oil on canvas. Photography, on the other hand, could create an image in a fraction of a second, requiring little, if any, artistic skill on the part of the practitioner.

This misunderstanding with regard to the medium meant that the photographer was therefore thought of as more of a technician than an artist.

It could be argued that photography, in its’ early stages, was indeed little more than the act of recording an image on a photosensitive medium; but as the technology of photography matured and the understanding of its vocabulary increased, so did the required skills and artistic abilities of the photographers. As the technology dropped in price and therefore became available to the average public, anyone who could drop a few bucks for a Brownie Instamatic camera could be a ‘photographer.’ It still took many decades, and the works of famous photographers such as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Richard Avedon, to create an understanding in the minds of those within the art community that there was more to photography than simply ‘snapping a picture.’

Photography seems to have taken several divergent paths. Consumer photography is associated with, and probably always will be, snapping pics of birthdays, friends, vacations and other family events. Even with the latest and greatest digital cameras with face recognition, auto exposure and focusing and preset effects, the end results are little better than what was obtained with the previous generation of plastic “point and shoot” cameras. And so let’s not fool ourselves by calling anyone who can point and shoot a simple camera a ‘photographer.’

‘Real’ photographers, in the fields of journalism, advertising, glamour, fashion etc have gone beyond the technical limitations of the camera itself and understand that the camera is nothing more than a tool. A chisel is also a tool, but even a monkey can whack a chisel against a piece of stone - this is not what makes a sculptor.

Art, any art, is about creating emotions in the audience. It is about communicating the ideas, feelings, biases and passions of the artist in a way that the audience is able to experience a part of what the artist is feeling. In order to do this, the artist first has to have a clear idea of the message or emotion that he/she is trying to communicate and then being able to realize these emotions in an external physical form.

Great artists will be able to mirror the emotions and perspectives in the hearts of their audience. They will create an emotional response that will become imbedded in that person’s consciousness. ‘Crappy’ artists will throw together any old thing and then scorn the public for being too unenlightened to see their brilliance. Sometimes there is a fuzzy line between those who can see and understand art and those who simply will never get it. It is this dynamic that keeps the ‘crappy’ artists employed; for many people would like others to believe that they too are brilliant in that they buy into the art and by extension are better than those who are not brilliant enough to see it.

Now we come to the topic of erotic art, or even art that is not so erotic but may contain a nude or body part in the image. Here is where the discussion gets ugly, passionate, polarized and emotionally diverse. I can think of no other issue, except perhaps religion, that has caused so much controversy as the depiction of the erotic. Since we are talking about photography, I will for the purpose of this essay ignore for the most part getting into a debate about the merits or lack thereof in such things as African phallic sculptures or ancient scrolls depicting people making love. Whilst there is no denying that such examples are significant to the subject in question, there simply is not enough scope in one article to include these other areas and be able to do justice to them.

Maybe I will write another book!

For now, let’s just focus on photography. However, in order to keep the reader on the same page, let me offer up some of my definitions on key photography points. It’s not that I am authorised to define these points, but in order for you to digest the rest of the text, it is important for you to understand where I am coming from. Feel free to create your own definitions.

PORNOGRAPHY: That which is created for the sole purpose of invoking sexual arousal in the audience and has no other redeeming qualities.

ART: That which is created to expand the intellectual, emotional or social perspective of the audience by creating a visual that causes the audience to see and feel things from the perspective of the artist.

EROTIC: That which may instill or arouse sexual feelings in the viewer but which has a much broader and deeper meaning than these emotions alone.

PHOTOGRAPHER: A person who has learned the tools, techniques and craft of creating images with light and the subsequent manipulations of those images, to create a final image that surpasses the abilities of the average person and elevates the final result to what would be considered Art (see above).

GLAMOUR: The photographic process whereby people are made to appear more attractive and beautiful than what they or others would consider themselves be.

FINE ART: In relation to the photography of people, this type of photography uses the human form to create an artistic expression whereby the essential elements (the human form) become secondary to the visual message that the photographer is trying to create.

CRAP: The unskilled, vague or crude production of an image by a person who does not fit the definition of a photographer and whose work does not conform to any of the other above definitions with the exception of porn.

Hey, I’m not Webster. These definitions are nothing more than my opinion and are just there to clarify my meaning in the following text.

Both glamour and fine art photography frequently have nude or partially nude subjects. For some people, anything that has even the slightest hint of eroticism is, in their mind, porn. Yet these same people will look at a nude painting or statue by one of the old masters and gleefully call it art. Even the Pope, who is arguably one of the most conservative people on the planet, has an extensive collection of art, many of which depict the nude body. Go on a tour of the Vatican, and you will see breasts and bums all over the place.

So, why is there so often a negative reaction with regard to photographic depiction of erotica? The answer may be due, in part, to its history. Painting and sculpture, from the beginning, has always been a skill that was slowly cultivated over many years of study and practice. You couldn’t fake being a great painter. It was clearly obvious to everyone, since the standard was realism, who could and could not paint. Things are different today with ‘art’ paintings being created by elephants and monkeys that fetch enviable prices. Things no longer need to be realistic for it to be considered a painting worth hanging. Most of us are familiar with ‘artists’ who fashion their work from the tossing, dropping, smearing or trampling of the paint on a piece of canvas. Please refer to my above definition of ‘crap.’

Photography, on the other hand, emerged as more of a technical invention and as such could be performed by relatively unskilled people. It quickly became the tool of choice in the production of pornography. It is hard to say what the ratio was (or is) but I would venture that porn constituted a significant percentage of the images taken. When cameras were produced for the average consumer, this ratio changed with the majority of images being of the snapshot variety of family events. This is not to say that porn did not also experience a substantial boost in production.

So the nude in photography quickly became synonymous with porn. Despite the massive changes in the photography industry, many, if not most, people still associate any form of nude photography as being porn.

But the past few decades have seen massive changes to the field of photography. Brilliant photographers have produced amazing art that has been accepted and embraced by the mainstream art community. This despite the fact that they contain nudes. Museums hang them. Art collectors buy them. A whole new and accepted art form has emerged from this field. Now, with the development of the computer, the field has taken a monumental leap forward and photographers now have the tools to create images that would have been impossible only a few years ago. Images that would have been considered to be strictly within the domain of the traditional painter. And with this technology comes an ever increasing demand for the photographer to have skills, albeit technical ones, that are at least on par with the old master painters.

Things have now come full circle and photography now ranks with the best of mainstream art. But technology has changed far faster than the prejudices of people. Those who are uneducated in art and inexperienced with the different cultures of the world still hang on to their beliefs that anything that shows a nipple or a penis is porn.

There are many cultures where a woman is required to be covered from head to toe, lest the appearance of more would instill an unholy lust in those hapless men who were unfortunate enough to catch a glimpse of a wayward leg or arm. Break this rule and a woman may find herself being beaten, stoned or imprisoned. In contrast, many European cultures, of which we are more familiar with, have far more open societies where nudity is commonplace and those that view it are not driven to trauma or excessive lust due to the fact that it has become a normal part of the culture and so is not forbidden fruit.

Someone once said that if society dictated that all women must wear earmuffs in public, and all men must wear gloves, that men would have an insatiable desire to place their fingers in women’s ears.

Go to a nude beach in Europe and children will happily build sand castles while naked (oops! I mean nude.) men and women walk past. The sight of nipples and penises are not interesting to them because it has not been made overly interesting by society. Children’s reactions are governed largely by the reactions of their parents, teachers and societal taboos. This is also true of adults. When a commercial on Russian television used photos of nude women to show how the new Motorola cell phone could use a picture for call display, no one blinked an eye. When I went shopping in the middle of the hot summer in Odessa and saw more than one woman shopping wearing nothing but a fishnet body stocking and high heels, no one stared or gave it much concern.

Don’t forget that North America (Canada included) is a relatively young culture, being only a few hundred years old, and was settled by Puritans and others who disagreed with the European way of life and sought a world where their own values could flourish unfettered. As a result there is still a pervasive Judeo-Christian morality base that has survived to this day and has become an impediment to those pursuing photographic art in North America.

Porn has been around ever since mankind found ways to express their thoughts. Virtually every medium has been used for the production of pornography. Painting, drawing, writing, movies and photography are a few that come readily to mind. But despite this, all of those media have also produced great art.

And so it is with photography. While it has (and probably will always continue to) been used to create pornography, the field has matured far beyond that. Unfortunately, many people have not matured much beyond what they learned from their conservative parents or teachers.

Oleanna and I, and most European cultures, sit back in amazement when we witness the furor caused by a nipple peak from a ‘wardrobe malfunction’, or the seemingly incomprehensible hypocrisy associated with the uncensored depiction of violence, human degradation and suffering while censoring depictions of couples sharing love. But simply because we have a different perspective on the issue does not make it any more right or wrong than the perspective that all women should wear burkas.

An attempt to resolve this through ‘intelligent discussion’ is like arguing which is a better color, red or blue. All perspectives are correct and all are completely wrong.

What is morally right in issues of nudity? Well, for you, it is whatever you say it is. I may or may not share your perspective, but there are millions of others who insist their perspective is correct. I can, to some extent, attempt to rebel against what I see as a society that has lost perspective, but in the end, we cannot change others, only ourselves.

That being said, I would encourage all people to look beyond their nose to other cultures, other ideas and other ways of looking at the same things. Travel. Read. Most of all, try to look at a LOT of art. Look at what is being done around the world by the many great photographers who have inspired me and continue to inspire a whole new generation of artists.

When you open your mind and heart to the many new possibilities in photographic art, you will experience an amazing awakening, perhaps even an epiphany, and will see images with a fresh, new perspective. Hopefully, you will see photography as just as much a fine art form as any other medium.
Even if it does show an occasional nipple!

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