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Eaton, A.W.. A Lady in the Street But a Freak in the Bed: On the Distinction Between Erotic Art And Pornography
2018, British Journal of Aesthetics, 58 (4): 469-488
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Added by: Quentin Pharr and Clotilde Torregrossa
Abstract: How, if at all, are we to distinguish between the works that we call ‘art’ and those that we call ‘pornography’? This question gets a grip because from classical Greek vases and the frescoes of Pompeii to Renaissance mythological painting and sculpture to Modernist prints, the European artistic tradition is chock-full of art that looks a lot like pornography. In this paper I propose a way of thinking about the distinction that is grounded in art historical considerations regarding the function of erotic images in 16 th -century Italy. This exploration suggests that the root of the erotic art/pornography distinction was—at least in this context—class: in particular, the need for a special category of unsanctioned illicit images arose at the very time when print culture was beginning to threaten elite privilege. What made an erotic representation exceed the boundaries of acceptability, I suggest, was not its extreme libidinosity but, rather, its widespread availability and, thereby, its threat to one of the mechanisms of sustaining class privilege.

Comment (from this Blueprint): Eaton argues that what really matters in the distinction between pornography and erotic art, has little to do with artistic or aesthetic features, value, or function. Instead, the distinction follows social power structures along the class line: the priviledged reserve art status (and positive value) to works available only in an exclusive ‘private iconic circuit’ but are otherwise no different from those available in the ‘public iconic circuit’ and labelled pornography (and evaluated negatively). Eaton likens the distinction to that between two kinds of prostitute: a ‘courtesan’ and a ‘whore’, suggesting that in both cases the distinctions originate in class divisions and serve to reinforce them. Eaton’s text can serve as a great case study in the debate surrounding the distinction between low and high art, as well as a sceptical argument against the classificatory project altogether: could all our attempts to distinguish art from non-art be just expressions of discrimination along various lines of priviledge?

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