Art “versus” Porn?

This week there is controversy in the Adult Content world regarding changes to the crowd-funding platform Patreon’s terms of service, which include restricting the creators from offering certain kinds of rewards (webcam sessions, Snapchat access, subscriptions to other services) and from funding certain efforts (website creation/maintenance, erotic video). The new TOS also omits a paragraph from the previous iteration which affirmed the value of erotic expression in an artistic context, and which explicitly declared such content an acceptable use of the platform, and it is that perennially prickly distinction which I should like to address in this essay.

[In an effort at full disclosure, I should submit that The SMUT Project has a page on Patreon, that we are a signatory to a circulating open letter that responds to these moves, and that the content we produce may or may not be subject to Patreon’s self-censorship depending on how that process is conducted.]

It seems that Patreon is the latest in a long line of those who would undertake the role of chaperoning eroticism in the arts, and while the effort is certainly nothing new in itself the modern twist is that its role is one of facilitation; they are not a governmental body dictating how people can be punished for what they produce, and they are not a publishing entity determined to curate a specific cultural brand, they are simply a means of connecting creators with patrons, which puts them in the unique position of being able to dictate both what people are able to support and what content is able to be supported through their platform. (This is, of course, their privilege. While the internet is a public utility, its services are not, and Patreon remains a private organization that can do what it wants to manage its affairs.)

Let’s take as read that I am not arguing for the facilitation of what anyone in their right mind would consider authentically obscene. To my mind the emphasis on strengthening the language against depictions of sexualized violence and the victimization of children and animals is some combination of low hanging fruit, red herring, and pushing the open door. What’s more it’s a tired cop out, which always prefaces these discussions, the assumption that that sort of bilge somehow comes with the territory of respectable pornography.

What we’re really talking about is a matter of taste– what is art, and what is porn? — and my question is: Why does it have to be one or the other?

We all know that there’s a difference. If you imagine one scene with soft lighting and violin music and another with platform heels and constamoaning you probably would assign them to different categories. But the aesthetics of it aren’t what I’m talking about; David LaChapelle’s photography is more garish and tacky than most porn and he’s still considered an artist.

What I mean to say is that something specifically designed for arousal, something meant to push one’s buttons, shouldn’t be written off as being without appreciable artistic merit. The point of art is to affect and stimulate the human soul, and I don’t think we should demand that sexuality be separate from that. Our response to the erotic is part of our humanity, and so is the way we address that response in others.

We have to stop pretending that a thoughtful, enlightened, sophisticated approach to life and to human expression is necessarily a chaste one. It’s bad for art, it’s bad for sex, and yes, it’s bad for society.

Video porn isn’t the same as cinema, erotic writing isn’t the same as literature, and I don’t know that either of them need to be indistinguishable from their more accepted counterparts. But I do think that they are both art forms unto themselves. They have traditions, they have genres, they have periods and movements, they have icons, they have practitioners great and small. And just because a good deal of what’s produced falls flat or rings false in the sophisticated ear doesn’t invalidate the medium, it just means it’s bad art.

I think if we started treating and thinking of and criticizing pornography that way it might rise to the occasion and prove itself worthy. Maybe if we treated it with respect it might really become respectable.


FOR THE RECORD: As I was writing this article I received an email sent to Patreon’s Adult Content creators by their CEO Jack Conte. It emphasized Patreon’s implicit support of its erotic creators and committed to working with them on a case-by-case basis in the event of a policy violation.  It also reiterated that the changes are meant to address the obscene and declared that they affect very few of their NSFW accounts.  I found it genuine and we will have to see how they handle things from here on out.

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