Pornography

Reflection

This is the last part in a series about developing a speciality in philosophy. As an undergrad studies in philosophy are of course pretty broad, but as we've seen over the past weeks you can sometimes develop an interest into something strongly and specifically concerned with one corner of a discipline.

In my case this just turned out to be a pretty general theory of the intersection of ethics and aesthetics. Basically my work for about five years of writing in aesthetics focused on typically ethically shaky artworks, particularly propaganda. Generally speaking I argued that such works in one way or another preserved their artistic merits and that the ethical qualms you might have with a film qua film couldn't really hang on the situation in was produced in or necessarily it's content.

The argument basically advances a more fine grain understanding of the aesthetic branch of axiology--the philosophic study of values. This kind of fine grained distinction isn't common in analytic discussions of aesthetics. In the following paper I extend that theory further to other aesthetic objects as distinct from artworks.

Essentially I apply models I'd developed for propaganda and moved it into an area of aesthetics where philosophers generally want to make a different, higher level distinction between artwork and pornography. These are aesthetic objects we want to be able to distinguish between, but it's easier said than done. There are some consequences of my definition of pornography which are maybe unpalatable to some but which aren't discussed in detail.

This is maybe the most all encompassing work I did on this intersection of ethics and aesthetics.

Briefly, a note on references. This paper drew extensively from A Philosophy of Mass Art by Noël Carroll and Art, Emotions, and Ethics by Berys Gaut. It also references a seminal paper by George Dickie, "New Institutional Theory of Art" which I've found pretty reliable as theory of art to test my own models against. Obviously I just assume a basic knowledge of certain films with some explanation, this is typical in some specialized philosophy papers. For the sake of honestly and completeness I've just let the references sit in there as they did in my original paper; for the sake of ease for me I haven't hyperlinked everything--it's almost like a philosophical paper isn't intended for a mass audience and is a sort of antiquated format intended for a printed page.

I. Introduction

Previously I have looked at the intersection of aesthetics and ethics. There is a general tendency to inquire into the ethical status of artworks themselves and worry about what kinds of ethical beliefs and stances they are involved in. Needless to say, these are problems which have their origin in Plato and are hard to work out now particularly in the ways art has changed in the 20th Century. The questions about ethics and art have been controversial the whole time, possibly even being a debate between Plato and Aristotle in those early works of Western philosophy (Gaut, 4). Philosophers and critics alike ask ethical questions such as what are an artwork’s ethical instructions or its preconditions. The answers here would provide some information on if the artwork is ethical or not. When I look at these problems though I am not particularly compelled. I am not convinced that the intersection between ethics and art is at all this way. It does not seem to me that an artwork can have an ethical value at the level of its aesthetically good or bad making features. I would like to provide my thoughts along these lines.

In the past I looked at ethical issues surrounding Nazi propaganda films and began to draw similar conclusions. I considered arguments from Susan Sontag who judged The Triumph of the Will by the merits of the time and place, Nazi Germany, where it was made before she considered its merits as a film. Eventually I was led to the conclusion that the conditions of making the film are not sufficient as grounds for judging the ethical value of the film. I moved that the ethics of a film are not a good or a bad making feature of the work but rather that if the film was good or bad then it has some kind of ethical relationship to the audience. Bad artworks, e.g. B-movies like Manos the Hands of Fate or any other work truly depraved of good making features, have a moral status in that audiences should not be subjected to them.

Now I would like to turn my attention once again to the ethical standing of artworks. In what way can an artwork be ethically good or bad. However, I would like to move towards a greater degree of abstraction and toward a broader theory than one which is only relevant to one art form or possibly even one genre. To accomplish this goal there will be a new focus in terms of what works are examined, there will be some definitional work, and finally there will be some reasoning. This paper looks at pornography as the morally questionable form. Pornography is a topic which philosophers of art, theorists and critics, and socially conscious individuals alike worry about in ethical terms. The worry is one which comes from how unsavory the topic can be but also from a fear of the unknown. These are issues to be cleared up with definitions and reasoning.

To address these problems I will offer a definition of pornography distinct from art. Essentially I believe that pornography is a bigger area than is often assumed, it is not artistic but it is aesthetic. The definition of mass art Noël Carroll give in A Philosophy of Mass Art will be invoked to provide a framework for how pornography of all kinds can still be understood as aesthetic objects. Carroll will be relevant because pornographies have mass appeal but it is not clear that they have artistic appeal at all.

Making the distinctions from that definitional section will point to new and more well formed ethical questions. These ethical questions will be much closer to the kinds of questions that should be put to art or to aesthetic objects in general. However this section will be primarily an in depth examination of Carroll’s argument against ethical propositionalism about art which is the most problematic position on the ethics of art objects as far as I am concerned. Propositionalism is not problematic entirely because it levels a good argument, but actually because it is more misguided. With these sections there should emerge a new, more abstract view of what ethical problems about art and aesthetic objects should be.

II. Definitions

A reasonable definition of pornography is difficult to move toward. It is difficult in particular in a climate of aesthetics which is synonymous with philosophy of art because pornography raises the question of what falls into the category of artworks and not artworks in the first place and is just an unwholesome topic of discussion. Pornography, it seems to me, should not fall into the category of artworks at all though. But, perhaps to the irritation of anyone providing a taxonomy of artworks, pornographies are strongly art-like. This art-like wrinkle paired with the distribution of pornographies next to conventional entertainments in pay-per-view catalogues in hotel rooms all around us perhaps create the error in thinking this is a genre distinction. Pornography is not a genre and despite the abundance of borderline cases which have grown with more liberal views toward what can be shown in art, pornography is not art at all.

The intuitive response about if pornography is artwork is to say that it is not. This is a response that should be defended if for no other reason than it is intuitive. Part of the reason for the interest in distinguishing pornography is that it seems that there should be a strong line between the arts and the pornographies. Even so, that pornography is not artwork squares with strong conclusions about artwork in general. Drawing from an institutional theory of art gives way to drawing a sharper line around pornography. Institutional views state that a work of art is an artifact of a kind created to be presented to an “artworld” public (Dickie, “New Institutional Theory of Art”). Even if there is a sort of porn-going or porn-appreciating public, pornography by its nature is not of the kind to be presented to an “artworld” public, it is of the kind to be presented to a different public. People who turn to pornography, it must be said, are not looking for the same things an artworld is looking for. The artworld subsumes all these different kinds of art forms under its banner--visual art, sculpture, film, photography, etc. all have a place at the table--and that artworld shuns these pornographic works. This is the case not because they are not aesthetic but only because they are not artistic. Clearly sometimes eschewing a work is a mistake and the artworld grows to accommodate works one time labeled pornographic. But a definition of art can, it seems, push out pornography without having to fall back on an “I know it when I see it” clause.

Even with definitions of art which discriminate pornography there is room for positive definitions of these works. Such a definition would shed some light on the art-like properties of pornography as well. Invoking Dickie’s definition is a good approach for this case. An artwork, it might be said, should be looked at with a critical eye or as an artwork. Pornography is quite different. Pornography, it seems, is intended, perhaps quite rightly in its standard instances, to be looked at with an insatiated eye; pornography as a representation of sex or of anything is meant to be seen as satiating that desire to see something represented. There is a key difference between artworks and pornography here. Artworks are looked at one way and pornography is looked at another way. Perhaps this explains why one seems to know it when one sees it.

Pornography is in how it is delivered or meant to be seen. That is fine, but what the upshot is is that pornography is some depiction which one might say is not meant to be looked at in the artistic way but rather in the insatiated, pornographic way. This opens up pornography to be a representation of all sorts of things--sex, violence, a rosy view of the past, and so on--so long as it is not an artistic depiction of these things but rather a depiction of something purely for that satisfaction value. Pornography is not an artistic depiction of these things. Even so, it is art-like and particularly it is mass art-like. It would be wrong to say that pornography is aimed at the widest possible audience, the contrary might be more the case, but pornography of many different stripes so construed does appeal to a very wide audience. Thus it is important to go forward with an understanding of pornography as decidedly not art, but also borrow from Noël Carroll’s definition of mass artworks.

Pornography is not artwork, but it is aesthetic. There are conventions for what these works do to satisfy their anti-art qualities. Pornography is beholden to style, and has typical forms, but is not consumed as art at all. It does however share some properties with mass art in terms of its appeal, multiple instances, and physical distribution practices. All these factors are relevant to Carroll’s definition of mass arts. Carroll gives three criteria for a work being a work of mass art; it must be multiply instanced, distributed with deeply penetrating medium, and third it “is intentionally designed to gravitate in its structural choices… toward those choices that promise accessibility with minimum effort, virtually on first contact, for the largest number of untutored… audiences” (Carroll, 196). It is important to remember that this is an addendum to a definition of art, the mass appeal/minimum effort clause should not be confused for pornographic prima facia. Pornography does not bear mass artistic appeal or appeal in a way Carroll means here.

Instead pornography has to be understood as its own kind of aesthetic object which is not artwork. Thus, one might run the mass artwork definition from Carroll for mass aesthetic objects which would take in a much wider swath of things. Included in the set of mass aesthetic objects would be pornography because these works are multiply instanced, travel though often more far reaching technologies than even mass artworks, and most importantly these mass aesthetic objects are intended to reach the widest possible audience in any case. Mass artwork has a certain narrowness to it.

Agreeing on this definition is somewhat superficial, what I have tried to give here is an account of a broad category of works which resemble art but which are decidedly not art. It is easy to understand pornography in its own category then as aesthetic but distinguished from art. Pornography does not trade in artistic representations so much as it does in representations made only to gratify or titillate. There is an admittedly broad inclusion of works under this definition and not, I think, only depictions of sex. There is a taxonomy emerging here. In aesthetics there are artistic depictions and non-artistic depictions and some of those non-artistic depictions, much like the artistic depictions, are going to be good or bad in spite of being non-artistic. Some of those non-artistic depictions are going to be these pornographies which concern ethicists about art. They should not be thus concerned. This definition gives pornography a fair shake of things in questions of aesthetics, but it has some interesting ramifications for ethical questions.

III. Ethical Problems

Pornography represents a real issue for where ethics intersects with aesthetics. The ethical character of art is a long disputed case in general. On the whole however ethics does not factor in a compelling way as a good or bad making property of art and this is similarly the case for pornography. There are a number of ethical theories about art which take this approach of presupposing some kind of ethical property in artworks which can be dispensed with. Propositionalism is one such example which Carroll considers. Carroll’s thoughts on propositionalism about art can be imported to cases of pornography much like his discussion of mass art factors here. Additionally conclusions can be drawn about where the ethical characteristics of aesthetic works really lies once problematic ethical views about art have been dispensed. For instance a work which is viewed as morally bad on a propositionalist or the related consequentialist view may in fact be a good work aesthetically speaking. This outcome will be the case for artworks and pornography.

The propositionalist is a presumptuous ethical stance to take towards art. Briefly the propositionalist believes works of art are involved in moral education by implying certain morals through narrative or other fundamental features of the work. A propositionalist may “believe that pornography generically implies--even if it does not state outright--that women are merely objects whose sole purpose is to pleasure males” (Carroll, 296). And this is a strong accusation against pornography, particularly when misconstrued as art. But it seems like this accusation is more about a work being unsavory and perhaps not good or bad in a purely aesthetic way.

The position makes implications of its own about works with normative questions. The propositionalist asks if a work ought to be considered good if it makes these kinds of implications. Additionally he assumes beforehand that art is a vehicle for moral education (Carroll, 298 and 305). These two assumptions are at the heart of the propositionalist’s stance but they do not seem well grounded. Questions of ethics and questions of aesthetics are two different categories of value question. In my opinion these problems should not mingle so readily. Assumptions about ethics and art are made very often, art just happens to be attractive for ethical consideration. The knee jerk reaction to mingling ethics with art is that it makes sense, but it is not hard to take down the fundamentals of propositonalist views.

Again, the propositionalist maintains that there are morals implied by works of art. These morals correspond with good and bad making features of the artwork. Carroll summarizes; “Where the information is counterfeit, the work is morally bad; where enlightened, the work is good. Thus, propositionalism appears to provide the means to evaluate artworks morally” (Carroll, 305-306). There is no getting more clear on the position itself than that, even though the view does link up with other ethical views about art.

Taking down propositonalism leads into some very interesting ethical territory though. Carroll shows that in cases of narrative works it is often true that good works rarely provide anything of an argument for some kind of new ethical realization to come about in the audience. For example “that hypocrisy is repugnant may be the moral of Tartiffe, but this cannot be thought of as something Molière discovered. Rather audiences knew it before encountering the play, and, in fact, could only understand the play in virtue of their antecedent moral convictions” (Carroll, 309). This insight is not the final blow for propositionalism, but it is a critical observation towards taking the view down. If there is an ethical quality to art it is rarely exceptional. A more thorough conclusion is that “propositionalism cannot supply us with a general framework for assessing the moral status of artworks, because there are so few interesting and informative moral propositions to be derived from art” (Carroll, 310). Artworks are trivially moral in the way the propositionalist believes them to be.

It seems to me that the propositionalist may allow matters of aesthetic good and bad to transgress into morals. They moralize artworks. What should be a matter of taste rather than of good or bad art making features is allowed to be the only quality that matters in determining if a work is good or bad. At most these qualities should be understood as unsavory or in poor taste, but not as features which undercut whether the work was a good work or a bad one. If aesthetic works are more or less trivially moral the propositionalist is at best making mountains out of mole hills, but more likely indicating something which simply does not exist.

As a further note on schools of thought about the ethics of art, propositionalism goes hand in hand with consequentialism. Rather than hold that aesthetic works imply morals good or bad, consequentialism assumes the educative capacity of artworks and looks at the ethical behavior of the audience. The consequentialist is tacitly involved in “transferring their moral assessments of those presumed behavioral consequences to the artwork itself” (Carroll, 295). Obviously these cases are hard to pin down. But of greater significance is that this view gets farther afield of what are relevant aesthetic issues. Real world defenses based on subliminal messages or causal forces of an artwork are a punchline. If a heavy statue was a bludgeoning weapon in a murder, perhaps the most causally direct way an artwork could be involved in an ethical case, that does not make it in any way a lesser statue.

Perhaps distancing pornography from artwork will give these ethical problems less promontory because the aesthetic objects is not one which seems so inviting to ethical questions. Can openers are mass aesthetic objects for which it makes no sense to ask ethical questions about. Having a definition of pornography that does not outright use some moralizing equivocation about obscenity proves a stronger definition and one which permits real analysis of the relevant works without getting bogged down in propositionalism. Ethical questions about artwork should come after an interrogation of the artwork qua artwork as it were.

By looking at aesthetic objects as they are, I think that there is a way to bring ethics back into consideration about art. Looking at the taxonomy I hastily outlined earlier there is going to be instances of pornography with all the good making, non-artistic features of the order of aesthetic object. These features are probably nothing like the good making features of art and it is not my project to imagine what those features are. But I might advance that works which are particularly stimulating to the appropriately artistically-uninterested viewer are meeting whatever criteria could define a good pornography qua pornography. There may be any number of repulsive pornographies qua pornography. And any of these works may be unsavory, tasteless, but they might not be bad instances of an aesthetic object and they categorically are not instances of artworks and should not be seen as such.

Ethics reenters the picture when we understand that bad works are the type of thing which audiences should not be subjected to lightly. It is wrong to display works which profane the senses under the considerations of their particular aesthetic order. In cases of traditional filmmaking, examples come easily; Manos the Hands of Fate--widely understood to be among the worst films ever made--is not a film which should be unleashed on an unwitting audience. The prospect of the fieldwork required to begin making these kind of cannon distinctions of good and bad pornography is unsettling to say the least, but probably always underway on some computer with an internet connection. This is not to say that pornography occupies at all the same status as these artistic aesthetic objects, but there could be great non-artistic depictions intended for this insatiable eye, those works are just as not beholden to these problematic ethical views as artworks, but their cases of good and bad instances may likewise be the kind of thing which should not be released on the relevant audience either.