Fotograf Magazine

“Tatiana: I can take anything in bed”*

*Leo – Czech porn magazine, 12/2002, pp. 29-31.


One of the impulses that made me look closely at pornographic images is their unsettling ubiquity in contemporary everyday life. There is a contradiction between porn images and my personal experience. And there is also the fear that although I consider my sex life to be altogether vigorous, it is more likely that pornography will have an impact on my sex life than vice versa. What type of representation, then, does a porn image offer?

Pornography is most commonly defined negatively: by an enumeration of what it is not. Its opposite is art. Within the context of the visual arts (including the fine arts as well as performing and dramatic arts) pornography shares the same means of expression and media. Pornography and art are two exclusive areas of human activity that operate alongside one another, and at the same time from totally opposite positions. This conundrum, in terms of assigning a definition, was most clearly illustrated by Richard Nixon in the debate on the limits of pornography, when in response to the liberal findings of the Congressional Committee on Obscenity and Pornography he wrote in 1970 in an article in the New York Times: “The Commission contends that the proliferation of filthy books and plays has no lasting harmful efect on a man’s character. If that be true, it must also be true that great books, great paintings and great plays have no ennobling effect on a man’s conduct.”[ref]In Lynda Nead, Female Nude, Routedge, 1992, p. 90.[/ref] The elevating effect of art is therefore conditionally bound with the ill effects of pornography.

For the lack of differentiating attributes, pornographic representation is defined by its purpose – its aim is to provoke a physical reaction. In order to identify a scene or an image as pornographic it is therefore necessary that its entire impact aspires to nothing that is “elevating”, thus reducing itself to a single purpose – to effect in the viewer the sensation of physical sexual arousal.[ref]Or, as Czech law phrases it in the Criminal Code of the Czech Republic – “as a rule, such work will be regarded as pornographic whose sole purpose is to provoke sexual arousal… Whether a work is pornographic will be judged on the basis of the content of an entire work, not its segment or a chapter. It will depend not only on the nature of the work, but also on a manner of its application.”[/ref]

In an effort to specify the terminology in the area of obscenity, the British art historian Kenneth Clark wrote in his report to the Longford Committee[ref]A committee of experts headed by Lord Longford, formed in order to specify the legal definition of pornography. The definition the committee proposed was attacked in more liberal circles as a threat to the freedom of expression.[/ref] in 1972: “To my mind art exists in the realm of contemplation, and is bound by some sort of imaginative transposition. The moment art becomes an incentive to action it loses its true character. This is my objection to painting with a Communist program, and this would also apply to pornography.”[ref]In Nead, p.27.[/ref] In terms of function and strategies, Clark puts pornography on the same level as representation in advertisement and propaganda. A representation whose purpose is to provoke a reaction, to stir one into action, to manipulate, can no longer be a simple, or “natural” image. It is a multi-level representation, one that is motivated and historically conditioned – a myth, in the sense that Roland Barthes conceived the term.


The pornographic drive


In the context of the debate on images being either natural or conventional, Ernst Gombrich in contrast believes that images can be regarded as “natural signs”; therefore, in order to understand them we do not need any additional knowledge. If an image needs decoding, we do not employ an apparatus of knowledge or convention, but some sort of biological program: …our survival depends on recognizing certain signs. We are thus programmed for scanning the world in the search of an object that we need, or which we need to avoid.[ref]W.J.T.Mitchell: Iconology, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1986, p.79.[/ref] To put it simply, Gombrich regards as natural what we learn without difficulty, i.e., what we share with animals, what is objective and scientific, what we need in order to survive in the realm of “nature”.

This take on the issues of the image enabled Gombrich to solve the problem of the ubiquity of pornographic representation in society by referring to them as being “natural”: “…erotic nudes displayed with monotonous regularity on the covers and pages of magazines in our cities. It seems so unlikely that the answer to this genre must depend on imprinting.”[ref]Mitchell, p. 89.[/ref] Gombrich regards photographic images as representations that we understand automatically, as we share these with animals: they are part of our survival strategy as a biological species.

W.J.T. Mitchell contextualizes Gombrich’s views within the line of thought derived from Hobbes and Darwin, which differentiates and creates dichotomies between man (culture) and nature. This thinking is deeply ingrained within Western culture, based as it is on the Christian dichotomy of Body and Spirit. If we rank certain images in the area of “the natural”, meaning what is inborn or native to us, we thereby confer on them some sort of metaphysical, or at least biological origin, thus marking them as perennial, unmotivated, or scientifically objective. And we also make them autonomous and distinct – and a sort of threat to us from the part of higher forces and our determination. According to Mitchell, the “naturalness” of the image is the Western world’s ideal. Raising its “realism” to the status of an objective, “natural” or “true” image, Western culture then employs the same as a sort of device to measure the relative falsity of the icons of others. Mitchell calls for a critical judgment regarding whether in fact there is not present in our culture an idolatry of “realistic” images.

The dichotomy of nature and culture also forms the central motif of the feminist critique of pornography. In her study Pornography and Silence, with the subtitle Culture’s Revenge Against Nature[ref]Susan Griffin, Pornography and Silence. Culture’s Revenge Against Nature, & Row, London, 1982.[/ref] Susan Griffin sees pornography as the weapon that a culturally constructed “humanity” uses to fend off the uncontrollable power of nature, of a natural Eros. Eros is suppressed in order to preserve the cultural ego. According to Griffin, pure erotic desire, unmarked by cultural influences, manifests itself in its entirety as a unity of emotions and their form of expression. The ability to fully experience love in oneself entails a return to the trusting state of childhood, with all of the childlike bliss and devotion, but also the child’s vulnerability, an acknowledged dependence, and in the end also a sense of mortality. The pornographic form of perceiving sex and relationships protects us from this mortal universal unity, and it prevents the dissolution of the ego within Eros and the resultant collapse of cultural constructs.

Griffin thus places pornographic representations in the area of culture, among the manufactured and motivated, in the province of Spirit, reading them as manipulated images of Nature. She points out the ideological misuse of the seeming realism of pornographic images. She in fact regards them as a deliberate weapon of the patriarchal “pornographic mind”[ref]In Griffin, the “pornographic mind” denotes a way of looking at the world that establishes an artificial antagonism of culture versus nature, thus implanting to the individual an inner conflict between his sensuous self and his rational self.[/ref] against Nature, personified by default by women.


Pornographic convention


To Nelson Goodman[ref]Nelson Goodman: Ways of World Making – Způsoby světatvorby, Archa, Bratislava, 1997.[/ref] there are no representations other than the conventional. In his opinion, neither photographs nor realistic depictions have any special status, for we also need to teach ourselves to read them. He recognizes that every image, every symbolic system, is examined from the point of view of relative similarities and differences from another one. This comparison is a conventional one, for there does not exist any objective reality that could serve as a “natural” paradigm. The set of differences between each system of representations therefore does not spring from any original, inherent “nature”, but from use, custom and convention. It draws on practice, not on metaphysics. What must be looked into are not differences between individual representations, but differences between the conventions of their interpretation and usage.

In his study Ways of Seeing[ref]John Berger, Ways of Seeing, Penguin Books, London, 1972.[/ref]
John Berger examined the similarities of scenes and postures in the tradition of European oil painting and 1960s soft-core pornography. The two phenomena evinced similarities, both in the gestures of the models employed, and in the types of their representation. He thus found that both categories of representation, although belonging to the radically opposite spheres of art and obscenity, were based not on the object of representation, but on the conventions according to which we look at a painting placed in a gallery or a photograph reproduced in a magazine purchased in a sex shop. The theoretical and legal frameworks for establishing whether a given content is pornographic both stress the significance of the whole – i.e., the work in its entirety, intention, placement, circle of respondents and degree of accessibility, rather than the fragment of an isolated representation. They stress overall social convention in the consumption of a given representation over a representation abstracted from its context.:: The radical conventionalism of Nelson Goodman cancels the differences between individual visual systems, and thus also the difference between image and text. It is curious that in his critical analysis of Gombrich’s statements on pornography, Mitchell objects to the role of visual media in pornography: according to him, words are more compelling than images, and images have a relatively small impact unless they are verbalized by the addition of narrative fantasy.[ref]W.J.T.Mitchell, p. 89.[/ref] This remark is fascinating and leads directly to the age-old disputes regarding the relationship between text and image, and which system is more “truth-like”, as well as to a sort of psychosomatic aspect of the consumption of pornographic materials.

The pornographic images mentioned by Gombrich in his essay are certainly (although he does not explicitly state this) either photographs or films. In the course of history – a fact that alone contradicts the thesis of the “naturalness” of pornographic images – photography established itself as the most privileged “pornographic” medium. In the past, other media also contributed to the category of the obscene, including drawing, painting and printmaking, not least for the simple reason that photography had not yet been invented. Technological progress, which brought along with it the possibility of a seemingly objective representation, also had an impact on the development of the category of the obscene. The definition of the obscene became increasingly narrow. In individual works, new qualities would be discovered that could justify their existence outside of the category of the obscene – whether the degree of skill employed or the authenticity of the drawing technique, its documentary value, or the antique nature of the object as such. In becoming widespread, photography drew both all the attention and the full burden of obscenity. Its apparent objectivity and proximity to life caused incidents such as that in Hamburg in 1881, when photographic reproductions of Titian’s Venus were confiscated as obscene works, even though no one would have dreamed of laying such a charge against the painting itself – regarded as an authentic chef-d’ouvre. Photography has two qualities which make it an ideal medium of obscenity – it is easily and cheaply reproduced (as with prints), and it also has a peculiar relation to reality. Semiologists define photography as the harness of icon and index. Icons are signs whose signifier bears a close resemblance to the object that they refer to, while the index captures the fact that photography is caused by reality, but is rather an effect of reality. According to Mitchell, in terms of material signs, photography occupies the same elusive position that an impression has with mental signs: it has a dual relation to reality – as it is both effected by it and resembling it.


The myth of pornography


Is pornography a myth? That is, does it signify something different than is apparent?

According to Roland Barthes[ref]Roland Barthes, Mytologie, Dokořán, Praha, 2004. 111[/ref], the myth is a historical utterance, the subject of which can be any other semiological sign. Myth itself is a secondary semiological system, a meta-language. It takes a statement – whether verbal, visual, or any other – and uses it as material for an utterance of its own. In the semiological scheme where the sign is formed by a correlation of the signifier and the signified, myth takes from the primary system a ready sign, which it then turns into its mythic signifier.

Barthes claims that myth empties out the original statement, deforming the original sign, stripping it of its memory, de-politicizing it, turning it from a thing of history into a thing of nature. In affecting this shift, myth changes the original statement for a deformed, mythical utterance, which nonetheless can never entirely cancel out the original one. They grant one another alibi. According to Barthes, with myth there is always a “someplace else”. It can shift focus alternately on the original sign, or on the sign of its meta-language.

Thus pornographic magazines may appear to be extravagant or radical obscene sexual material, but their real impact on society may paradoxically perform the role of the moralist. They may perform a similar role as the allegories of the corporeal orgies of hell in the scenes of the Last Judgment in Gothic portals – the only pornographic images of their day.

Pornography strips sex of its liberating potential, something that should naturally be its property. The essence of sexuality is the transcendence of one’s physical and psychic confines towards another human being, the canceling of one’s own physical limitations in order to open up, to permeate and be permeated. In its most vulgar form, in its public presence and pseudo-democratic accessibility, pornography robs us of the opportunity to rebel through sex, to express freedom through sexuality. Any such expression of freedom is promptly dragged down into the sphere of pornography, which is firmly encoded in the public mind as a debased phenomenon.

The problem of pornography lies not in its sexually explicit content, but in its form, which being graphically anti-aesthetic and presenting only a peculiar “pornographic” type of people, as well as being unfeeling, allows for the notion of sexuality to be filled with a deformed content.

Lenka Klodová