Is Naked Art a Form of Pornography?

I’m often asked, “What’s the difference between pornography and naked art?” Usually the person who asks this assumes there is no difference, and his question is intended to help me see that. This video offers the beginning of an answer to why there is a difference.

Defining our terms is a good place to start. One of the best definitions of porn is “sexually explicit content intended to sexually arouse.” If you agree with this, I think you’ll see why the nudes depicted in the Sistine Chapel are not pornographic. They aren’t sexually explicit, or even if you thought they were, they were not intended to sexually arouse and don’t have that effect.

Next, we should take a look at the intention of the pornographer and the artist, and the intention of the viewer. The intention of the pornographer and the intention of the artist are very different. Here’s an example.

A porn producer would be mystified and offended if someone said his film was beautiful, but failed to turn the viewer on. His clear goal was to sexually arouse his viewers. Similarly, if Michelangelo was told his paintings in the Sistine Chapel did little to arouse delight and instead aroused a strong sexual desire, he would either be bothered that his paintings had this effect or worried about the mental health of the informer.

In short, art is created to be appreciated. Porn is created to be consumed.

Pornography makes no critical appeal to viewers to consider the mode or means of depiction. The point of porn is masturbation. Naked art stops short of this because other features pull the audience’s attention. It calls attention to the medium, not just the content.

Related: Consumerism and the Culture of Porn

What about the intention of the viewer? Many people are turned on by content not intended to sexually arouse. But in those situations, while the content is not objectively pornographic, it may subjectively become pornographic to the viewer.

The goal is to get the intention of the artist and the viewer in sync, along with the goodness and dignity of the human person.

Dr. Michael Waldstein, a scholar of St. Paul John II, said, “Some images of the naked body push us to concupiscence; others do not. Going into the Sistine Chapel and looking at the naked women on the ceiling is a very different experience than watching a pornographic movie. It is not presumption, but the experience of many men, that one can look with purity at Michelangelo’s nudes and take delight in their beauty. Michelangelo himself must have looked at the nudes in a pure way in order to paint them in a pure way.”

Of course if one does feel a slide to concupiscence when looking at Michelangelo’s work, it is a good idea to look away. That need to look away should also be a trumpet blast that one is in serious need of transformation.