Art / Porn / Evangelicalism

Evangelicals think pornography is art.

In taking the single “sort of” art history class my partially retrograde Christian liberal arts school offers, it is abundantly clear, if it wasn’t so already, that evangelicalism has a troubled relationship with art. It must be noted that the class itself was very interesting and more than competently taught, but it was evident in the reactions of several of my fellow students. Any time nudes were shown or discussed, there was always a minor uproar.

The evangelical fear and loathing of pornography is in many ways understandable. Though the general acceptance of pornography as a fact of life is relatively recent, evangelicals and other strands of Christianity, fundamentalist or not, seem to be the only ones consistent in saying that it wasn’t a benign force: porn affects us. Their downfall, though, is that when pushed to the limits, their ideology cannot sustain their critique.

Evangelicalism as a movement in Christianity represents a turn inward; a sharp rebuke of the liberal theology so popular at the turn of the 20th century. The focus moved from the social to the personal, the primary question no longer being “what can I do for others?” but “how do I keep myself pure?”.  Though this does not totally preclude any social action, it fostered a deep suspicion of the humanist, populist movements that liberal theology aligned itself with, causing the evangelicalism of the late 20th century to pair its politics of personal piety with capital and neoliberalism.

This alignment is the fundamental contradiction that ultimately robs evangelicalism of any robust critique of pornography: promoting a strict, legalistic mode of piety while refusing to recognize the role of capitalism in the things this motive of piety aims to suppress. This contradiction itself denotes a complicity. It has been pointed out before  that evangelical sexual piety is part-and-parcel with modern/neoliberal class structure; much of evangelical/middle-class identity is derived from a policing of sexuality. This quest for purity is rendered Sisyphean when placed in the thrall of capital: the pornography industry in aggregate generates billions more than mainstream entertainments. Capital simply has no interest in destroying that which contributes to its growth.

Further undercutting evangelicalism’s campaign against pornography is an ingrained distrust of images. Images deceive and distract. This has its roots in the proud tradition of iconoclasm, and it extends the austere aesthetic of the evangelical sanctuary to society at large. While this could serve as a valid critical stance, it has more often than not manifested as a repressive legalism, especially when it comes to depictions of sexuality and the naked human form. In the effort to avoid and censor pornography, images and portrayals that are not designed to evoke lust and desire are cast as such. Effectively, there is no difference between Blue Valentine and Big Wet Butts 6. If art is pornography, pornography is art. Evangelicalism inadvertently affirms what it so desperately wishes to destroy. 

If my last post is any indication, the excesses of pornography can and should be engaged on aesthetic grounds. Evangelicalism, by and large, has opted out of this conversation, finding itself aligned with the very forces that proliferate the desires it seeks to quell.

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After Pornified

Here’s a book review I wrote for a feminist theory class. Serves as a basic introduction to the notion of feminist pornography.

The outcry against pornography has, for the most part, become just as banal as pornography itself is pervasive. The language of anti-porn is couched most often in terms of bans and censorship, which in this day and age only leads to a brutal steamrolling beneath the immensity of the First Amendment and its accompanying cries of “free speech!”  Censorship is most unfashionable. All the same, it is becoming quite clear that the sheer volume of pornography consumed on a daily basis worldwide is, if not affecting us directly, symptomatic of deep-seated, increasingly dark sociocultural trends.

It is obvious that pornography is predominantly a male enterprise; produced for and consumed by men. Pornography is a product of masculine gaze and desire. The gaze objectifies the female body; the desire contorts it at will. The woman has no subjectivity, but is subjected to the fantasy of the end-user obscured by the camera lens.

Censorship of pornography has failed unequivocally, and it probably was not the best way to combat the negative effects of pornography in the first place. Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin engage pornography as a human rights/legal issue, citing how pornography has been involved in real-life rapes and acts of genocide. Though this approach is both novel and necessary, it is not the only avenue for change.

Anne G. Sabo’s book After Pornified, a reference to writer Pamela Paul’s journalistic exposition of the real effect of the ever-proliferating adult industry, outlines how women address gender inequality by producing their own pornography, engaging pornography on its own aesthetic grounds, taking the adage “the answer to pornography is not no pornography, but better pornography” as their clarion call. .  In lieu of a traditional argument, the book is structured as a series of overviews of the people and production companies involved in this fairly new movement of feminist pornography, outlining the goals and personalities of the creators and providing intensive descriptions and personal reactions to the films themselves. The overarching project of all of these directors and production companies is a feminist “re-visioning” of pornography, that is, a pornography that incorporates a distinctly female gaze and reflects a distinctly female desire. How this differentiates from mainstream pornography is quite interesting.

Sabo’s descriptions of the films themselves, though they feature explicit sexual activity, do not strike as overtly or abjectly pornographic. The images Sabo relays to the reader are images invested with care and attention. Their camera work and shot selection are deliberate; their soundtracks are tailored to the images. Contrasting these films with any piece of mainstream pornography perfectly delineates the difference between what Foucault labeled the scientia sexualis (science of sexuality) and ars erotica (erotic arts) respectively.  The works of feminist pornography are joyous explorations of human sexuality, whereas mainstream porn strikes as intensely mechanical and careless, the viewing experience described as akin to “…watching open-heart surgery.” by filmmaker John Waters. Mainstream pornography is only interested in alienated body parts; feminist pornography is interested in what those bodies represent. These films are not afraid to engage the whole person of the spectator, rather than just certain points of anatomy. This is to say that the narratives of these films are not simply tacked on or selected from a list of prefabricated and exceedingly ludicrous plots, they are meant to give meaningful context to the explicit images, and the explicit images in turn support the overarching narrative. These films defy the conventional definitions of pornography; some may even be art. Further, the films employ a non-objectifying gaze in which neither subject is subordinated to the other. All people within the frame retain their full status as “human” and act accordingly.

A further contrast is the filmmakers themselves. The filmmakers profiled by Sabo all seem to be highly educated, several holding Ph.D.’s, and all have a distinctive aesthetic sensibility and an underlying politics that informs their work. This is what produces the aforementioned care and attention; these pornographers are intensely aware of where their works fits into the wider sociopolitical context.  The prerogative of mainstream pornographers is profit, beholden to the whims of supply and demand. There is no reflection or critical engagement, just insert tab A into slot B, money shot, acquire cash. This is where pornography distinguishes itself from art: it is purely commodity, hastily made to satisfy a demand. The films discussed by Sabo may not in fact qualify as pornography, as they resist commoditization of the work itself or the persons depicted within them.

This emerging genre of pornography, produced and distributed by women fighting tooth and nail to restore female agency to the one most resistant to it, is a necessary component in the overarching struggle for equality/acceptance of difference.  The films encourage an open dialogue about sexuality and desire for men and women, rather than engaging in an arms race to be the kinkiest or most depraved, only to further characterize sex itself as filth. They embody an alternate trajectory the porn industry could have taken; an attempt to stake out a middle ground between popular cinema and “adult entertainment”, an effort that could have resulted in an honest conversation about what it means to be human, rather than its current state of increasingly outrageous and violent tests of tissue elasticity.

The films Sabo describes are an undeniably valid effort to combat gender inequality in its highest concentrations, but on aesthetic grounds. While recasting the violations of pornography on terms of human rights is an absolutely vital enterprise, truly feminist pornography has the ability to redress and reform using the medium itself. It is by no means the complete answer, but another tool in the toolkit. Adapting a line from Sabo’s introduction, now that we know porn affects, why not make it a positive effect?