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February 12

Is Porn In The Eye Of The Beholder, Or Has The Male Gaze Ruined Everything?

By Sister Wolf

I was browsing on a favorite Facebook page dedicated to the Aesthetic Movement in art, when I saw a post about a painting that had been deleted. Apparently, it had evinced a flurry of lewd comments, and the page's administrator decided to just take the post down. Naturally, I was intrigued: What could have caused such a fuss?

I learned that painting was by Marcel René von Herrfeldt (1889 - 1965), a German artist associated with the Munich School whose style was initially consistent with Art Nouveau. Since I'm not an art history scholar, I'll just add that the image was posted by a respected art critic who I've followed on Facebook since I first landed there.

 von Herrfeldt nude


Now, look at the painting and what's your reaction? Is it "art"? Is it "high art" or "lowbrow art" or is it just kitsch? If it's not art, then what is it?

My initial feeling was, "Aha! No wonder it caused such controversy." To use a technical term, it struck me as trash. Or more even technical, cheesy. It also looks like pin-up art, a genre with which Herrfeldt has become associated. As a fan of pin-up art, I still find it offensively coarse.

Looking at other nudes by artists of the mid and late nineteenth century, I am enchanted. The women are just as nude, and just as unabashed in their nakedness. But gazing at them, I feel the passion of the artist, and uplifted by the beauty of the technique employed. I wonder if it's the viewer's response that determines whether something is art or just porn. That doesn't seem right, but it doesn't seem entirely wrong either.

Consider the motto of the Aesthetic Movement: Art for art's sake. The motive was to divorce art from its traditional obligation to convey a moral or sociopolitical message. The imperative was to exalt taste, the pursuit of beauty, and self-expression over moral expectations and conformity. The movement's principles can be traced to Walter Pater, who states that the purpose of life is to pursue sensual beauty and live in the moment.

Okay, good, but whose idea of sensual beauty and taste is valid? And what is it about Herrfeldt's painting that is so off-putting? Is it the woman's frank, come-hither expression? Is it the wildly idealized physique?

I don't think it's either of those aspects, because they permeate the art of the Aesthetic Movement. Is it the shaved pubic area? Or is it the colonialist theme of a slave-girl saying COME FUCK ME with her smile? To me, it's porn, not that porn isn't a valid genre. In the old fashioned sense of porn being strictly aimed at arousing prurient interest without any redeeming artistic merit.

What about Gustave Courbet, who led the Realist Movement in French painting, whose "erotic" nudes caused so much scandal they were censored by the police? The Origin of the World (L'Origine du monde) (1866), which depicts female genitalia, was not publicly exhibited until 1988.

 

The Origin of the World (L'Origine du monde).jpg


The Origin of the World still retains the power to shock and trigger censorship. It is graphic and realistic but to me it is also reverent, and therein lies its beauty. It is far from porn, in my view; it is sublime, reflecting the painter's sense of awe and unflinching adoration.

 

The Origin of the World (L'Origine du monde).jpg

 

Facebook and Instagram are both skewing our notions about nudity and art. I tried to post a painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau of a beautiful little girl with huge soulful eyes. It was instantly removed, because I didn't notice that the child was topless. If I didn't notice, why would anyone else? Porn may indeed be in the eye of the beholder. Those who feel uneasy about a painting of a topless four year old child may have some perverted longings that escape me. Where I see only innocence, they see something naughty.

 

William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1825-1905)_-_Child_at_Bath_(1886)

 

Bouguereau is one of my favorite artists, and I'm aware that his work has fallen in and out of favor over the years. He was a traditionalist who concentrated on the nude female form. Degas criticized his style as reliant on "slick and artificial surfaces." The art historian Kenneth Clark faulted Bouguereau's painting for "lubricity" and he was reviled by the avant-garde. But his idealized goddesses, nymphs, bathers, shepherdesses, and madonnas are, in my eyes, the epitome of artistic beauty.
If Bouguereau's nudes are salacious, then what nudes are acceptable? Is our culture going to reject all art that reflects the so-called "male gaze" in favor of art that only depicts unattractive nudes? I'm more concerned about the Pedophile Gaze, which panics at depictions of topless young children.

 

Bouguereau-Evening_Mood_1882


I don't want the ignorant employees and algorithms of Instagram, Tumblr and Facebook to decide what is safe to look at. I'd rather take my chances and scroll past images I find offensive. I can't even account for my own taste, given that Herrfeldt painting and my love for Bouguereau.

If porn is in the eye of the beholder, we can all just quote Justice Potter Stewart, who famously said about porn and obscenity that he couldn't describe it but “I know it when I see it." Can anyone else make a decision that suits each of us, or should we just trust our own lying eyes?

 

 
Image Credits:
The Origin of the World (L'Origine du monde)
William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - Child at Bath (1886)

Von Herrfeldt - Nude
Bouguereau - Evening Mood (1882)
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