Visual Culture, Pornography and Censorship

Editorial: hypocrisy in our attitude to sex. It is both celebrated and maligned, and the censorship laws allow young people to view explicit violence while classifying sex for adults only, based on psuedo-scientific analysis of 'normal' or 'aberrant'. This history of public attitude from the Enlightenment on, libertinism a radical opposition to status quo, advertising and porn, and artists exercising self-censorship.

The history of the denigration, censorship and commodification of sexual desire and expression in western culture is a long one, and constantly intersects with our own cultural history. 'Pornography', originally 'writing about' (and later representing) the activities of prostitutes, is clearly a negative, derogatory term. It echoes the peculiar Judaeo-Christian view of the body and its sexual desires as inherently 'sinful'. But pornography, more than simply the representation of the erotic, is also big business founded upon the commodification of sexual desires, the result of a historical process that began in earnest, so far as we can tell, in the early eighteenth century. As such, its emergence is also a monument to the failure of the Judaeo-Christian religious and cultural tradition in Europe to severely restrict or even eradicate sensual enjoyment and sexual desires from western human experience.

An almost exact opposite to this project of suppression is the exaltation of sex as symbol of divine union found in the culture of ancient India, and kept alive in the visual and oral culture of the cult of Tantrism. In this tradition the universal goddess is worshipped through both the symbols and rituals of sex.(1) Sex in Tantra is a grammar describing the complex union of spirit and matter in the body and the world, a simile of the constant bliss of divinity enjoyed by the gods, and a psycho-physical method (yoga) for attaining that blissful union. Tantra's influence on mainstream Hinduism over many centuries has been profound. This can be seen in the sexual imagery associated with the worship of Shiva as lingam (the phallus) and his partner as yoni (vulva), and the way the heaven of medieval Hinduism, depicted usually as an intermediate band of sculptures about 2 metres above the ground surrounding each temple, was sculpted as a band of lovers, whose explicit sexual antics express the bliss of their status and conjunction with the divine. These bands of sculptures, at first condemned and defaced as proof of Hindu 'devil-worship' by India's Muslim and Christian invaders, are, significantly, now the site of a thriving western sex-tourist industry, an off-shoot of the great western commercial pornographic empire.(2)

I have referred to this traditional Indian spiritual eroticism in an attempt to bring into focus the contrasting religious paradigm that dictated a complete separation between spirituality and sexuality in the west, and which still, to a great extent, influences our sexual politics. But this attempt to suppress and discipline sexual expression was never uncontested or entirely successful. Aristocrats and princes were always notoriously bad-listeners when it came to being forbidden the pleasures of the senses, and this resistance became most pronounced during and following the Renaissance. Covent Garden, founded in London in the late seventeenth century, is perhaps the largest monument to this impulse to ignore 'good' spiritual advice, essentially having been founded to allow the dominant classes to enjoy its new theatres, coffee houses and brothels without interference from the Bishop of London.(3)

But it should also be pointed out that this libertine impulse was supported by other lesser known traditions, mostly deriving from a pre-Christian classical world, that kept alive the notion that sexual desire and its expression was natural and necessary to human existence. Two main sites of resistance should be noted here: the first a popular baudy tradition visible, for instance, in the marginal world of travelling players, criminals and prostitutes, and the literate, sophisticated resistance of the educated libertines. But it is chiefly through surviving works of literature and art by the second group that we can trace the progress of the birth of modern pornography in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

In the 'forbidden' books of the French Enlightenment (often composed for a profitable under-the-counter sale by better known literary figures), we find pornographic narratives closely tied to an articulate resistance to clerical and intellectual domination. Take, for instance, the depiction of the clergy as hypocritical fornicators in the 'forbidden' classic, Thérèse Philosophe.(4) Here the heroine's journey to philosophical enlightenment (an iconoclastic libertine philosophical materialism), initiated by her fashionably Cartesian father confessor, is also a graphic journey towards her knowledge of sexual pleasure as a form of the highest good. In this journey nature, reason and sex are linked together in a trinity opposing ignorance, hypocrisy and tyranny.

It is in the clubs and salons of the eighteenth century that we first find the beginnings of the commodification of sexual desire in a recognisable pornographic genre. But following the 'consumer revolution' of the eighteenth century the often moral, philosophical context of this erotic literature and its visual expression is eroded and replaced by more popular appeal to 'forbidden' fun, driven by hopes of commercial profit. We can surmise that this occurred through a process that finds its mirror in the world of goods, where increasing and more widespread demand turned what were once expensive, rare or hand-crafted luxury items, such as tea, coffee, fob-watches, umbrellas and stockings, as well as books and prints, into cheaper, 'popoluxe' items, hastily assembled in workshops for a much larger, poorer, and less discriminating market. Hogarth is one artist who exemplifies this shift in consumption and taste, with his popular but moral narrative prints. Another is his gifted younger contemporary, Thomas Rowlandson, who exemplifies this shift towards a larger, less discriminating market with his series of pornographic jokey prints.(5)

The expansion of the world of goods from the eighteenth century also gave rise to that 'magic system', advertising. Competition for market share demanded persuasion, and sexual desire was discovered to be an important manipulative tool in this business. Commercial art is akin to pornography in the way it works – no more powerful weapon exists in the advertiser's arsenal than visuals that involve the target's sexual desires. Just like the pornographic image, the ad's sexual appeal overcomes the consumer's normal resistance or boredom, and insinuates itself into even the dullest minds. An early example of this is the use of women's bodies in many well known early commercial art nouveau posters, 'artfully' promoting soap, bicycles, etc.

Today, even if the poster, the image or film sequence gets into trouble with the censors for being more explicit than what is thought by some to be 'acceptable', the effect is usually commercial success. A notorious example of this is the series of Calvin Klein ads that referenced images from cheap porn movies. This successful 'sex effect' can also be seen in popular books, music videos, and tv soaps and films. In today's popular culture, as always, sex sells. The need to sell media product, and associated or sponsoring products, to an increasingly accepting audience, inevitably erodes those fragile constraints once imposed and maintained by religion. This can be seen in the quite rapid changes in what is seen to be acceptable to television: while Sex/Life might have been censored, this must be measured against the shifting background of the increasing presence in the media of what was once enacted only furtively, in private, between consenting adults, behind closed doors.

To a certain extent, visual artists have inherited the role of resistance to the culture of the contemporary 'state-church', of corporatism and mass-consumerism. As such, they sometimes find themselves weaving in and out of the 'sexploitation' of consumerism, whether to utilize its imagery, shock its complacency, or simply to try and be more truthful – from a personal stance – about the multiple but still buried roles of sex in our lives. While many attempt, in the neo-language of the critics, to draw attention to and recover the 'marginal', this can also be read as part of a more mainstream game plan, to shock, challenge and undermine the vestiges of a persistent but slowly declining wowserism, a voyeuristic prudery and aggressive willingness to engage in a public display of suppressing all visible forms of sensual enjoyment – whether this is justified in terms of social discipline, crime prevention, or protecting the innocence of the young. The inherent contradictions in our culture of this simultaneous manipulation of sexual desires for commercial gain, and moralistic grandstanding, can be seen most clearly when we look at how violence and sex are treated by the censor. Currently, graphically hacking a woman or child to pieces with a sword might earn for a film a MA classification, while explicit love making will earn it the coveted 'adult only' classification (R).

As Jack Cross points out, the moral issues for the censor, increasingly, turn on a consideration of contexts, rather than the old blanket ban on anything seen to be 'unseemly' by whoever is accepted as a 'moral authority'. Under these circumstances there have been calls to reform the law, to separate violence from sex as categories, and to ensure, at a minimum, that artists do not have to suffer from the ad hoc and occasional application of laws normally evaded by professional advertisers and pornographers from within their profitable, and legally sanctioned zones.

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