Fine Art or Soft Porn?

Francesca Ramsay
Sep 18, 2019 · 5 min read

An object that has been made under the premise of ‘art’, does not make it such. Art is more complicated than that, it has to be, otherwise we give in to those innumerable masses who stand in front of a Malevich, say, and declare ‘I could have done that.’ And to prove their point perhaps will paint a red square on a white background and call it art. And if we have to admit that their creation is art, then every doodle and emoji and emoticon and spray painted scrawl is art. And if all this is art then we really have lost our standards.

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Kasimir Malevich, Black Square (1915) Picture credit: Tate
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I have spent a lot of time looking at pictures of naked people, and at real naked people, in a non-sexual sense. What makes it art instead of porn?

Let’s look at Venus, goddess of (among other things) sex.

Depicted multiple times over the course of her existence (and even now, her name is given to all sorts of unexpected objects and figures), she has managed to shoehorn herself, like every aspiring courtesan’s hopes to, into the conservative homes of the elite. As a goddess with a pretty blue background (not to say birth), it seems quite a feat that Venus has always been depicted under the guise of fine art. That is, until the nineteenth century, when something terrible happens. She slips off the ethereal goddess cloak and turns instead, to soft porn.

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Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (c. 1480’s) Picture credit: Uffizzi
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William-Adolphe Bouguereau, The Birth of Venus (1879) Picture credit: Wikipedia

What is the difference between these two images? Same subject, same scene. One is fine art, the other (regardless of how it has been lauded through history) is straight up softcore porn. A number of subtle differences create this jarringly different end. These fall under three headings; pose, reason for creation, and imagined aftermath. (I believe you can use these headings in order to analyse other such paintings to the same effect.)

One. The pose. Botticelli’s Venus poses in the manner of ancient statuary. This is something the educated Renaissance viewer would have recognised. Inadvertently flaunting her nudity in a half-hearted attempt to cover her modesty, the goddess averts her eyes from the viewer, allowing him the privacy in which to view her body. Even the three other figures have the same distant gaze. Despite the in-your-face grandeur and glitz of Botticelli’s painting when you see it in the flesh, this is a somewhat distant image. Certainly the nude is closer to inanimate sculpture (something to be viewed at leisure) than any living body.

Conversely, Bouguereau’s Venus, painted around four hundred years later, adopts the proudly sexual pose later popularised by the pin-up girls of the 1950’s. Her downwards gaze directly at the viewer makes him complicit in her nudity. Transactional, even.

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That Bouguereau has chosen to leave the hair of his Venus hanging down her back, rather than have her attempting to cover herself up with it (as with Botticelli’s), coupled with this inherently sexual pose, implies a certain knowledge of the figure that she is a sexual object. She’s even messing with her hair, a sure fire flirting technique (if the CosmoGirl magazines of my youth were anything to go by). Certainly the gathering of fantastical creatures gazing at her do nothing to disband this theory.

Two. What are the reasons these two paintings were created? Botticelli’s tells a story. The figures (to Renaissance eyes) have been signposted as to who they are. They fit snugly within the classical trope. Bouguereau’s Venus, on the other hand, is surrounded by generic mythological figures. The only signpost we have that she is the goddess is her standing on a scallop shell. Otherwise she is an anonymous naked women surrounded by strange fish-humans and babies. The reasoning behind this painting isn’t to tell a story, it’s to brazenly display a sexualised naked woman. It may be well painted but it’s lazy, it’s basic, and it’s not art.

Three. Aftermath? Well, we can clearly see what will happen to Botticelli’s Venus- she floats to the shore, gets robed up and heads off onto the island. And Bouguereau’s? Well I can only imagine some kind of weird kinky orgy. PornHub with mermaids.

For centuries, people have been trying to get away with looking at sexy pictures under the guise of less animalistic pleasures (research the sixteenth-century Venetian taste of having your courtesan painted as a mythological figure for more of this). Throughout the Italian Renaissance, artists played the classic game ‘how sexy can I make this picture and still have it accepted into the church?’ It’s certainly one of the skills of a great artist, elevating the animal to a higher plane, be it sex (see Michelangelo and his Neo-Platonism for a prime example of this), food, drink or fighting. And Bouguereau, well, he just doesn’t cut it. Unfortunately, the art world doesn’t seem to have learnt this lesson. Which is why this perv is still at large…

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Jeff Koons, Dirty-Jeff on Top (1991). Picture credit: www.jeffkoons.com

I can’t stand all that bullshit about art being life and life being art. It’s a cop-out. If all life is art, and every action we take, we take as artists, the whole thing loses its meaning. Art is something extra to add to life, it can be difficult or joyful or perverse, but it is more than our general existence. And sex is certainly not art, it’s shagging. And straight up naked pictures, well, they’re just porn.

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Francesca Ramsay

Written by

Somewhat lackadaisical art historian. Freelance arts writer and editor. Very often not writing about art. Let’s talk: www.francescaramsay.co.uk

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

Francesca Ramsay

Written by

Somewhat lackadaisical art historian. Freelance arts writer and editor. Very often not writing about art. Let’s talk: www.francescaramsay.co.uk

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

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