It’s Not Porn, It’s Art

It’s got lots of naked women (or men) in suggestive poses. But it’s thoroughly artistic — I swear! Therefore it can’t be considered pornography, and it doesn’t matter that it’s hidden under my bed.

Pornographic works carry a considerable stigma in the U.S. and (to a lesser extent) in other Western countries. However, a lot of classic works of art contain nudity (and, occasionally, sex acts). For this reason, legally a work of art is not considered pornographic under U.S. obscenity laws; what constitutes “artistic merit” is left somewhat vague.

One result is that fictional characters (and occasionally real people) will try to get away with reading, watching, or creating something that most people would consider pornographic by claiming that the item in question is really a “work of art”. For teenage boys (the usual claimant) this never works. Occasionally it’s the “artist” making the claim, in which case he or she may or may not get away with it. Bonus points if he insists that the fault is in the viewer, who has a dirty mind.

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In either case, the item in question will be something very few people would consider “artistic”, unless the trope is being played with, particularly if the item in question genuinely does possess artistic merit even if it is porn — i.e., they’re defending themselves from the belief that True Art is Clean. After all, who said that porn can’t be art? This trope is something of an inversion of the standard idea of Moral Guardians, who are typically presumed wrongnote — hence why Moral Guardians themselves often use this trope in works made by them (or works parodying them). National Geographic Nudity follows on the same “these naked people are depicted solely for educational purposes” line, not just in the trope-naming magazine, but in other venues too (including an entire genre of magazine dedicated to nudism which was presumably educational to those interested in that subject matter … but as with National Geographic served other purposes for other readers).

This trope ends up the subject of debate whenever a so-called mainstream film with unsimulated sexual acts is released (such films have turned up in cinemas since the 1960s but have become higher profile in recent years), or in the case of an increasing number of TV series and films, increased explicitness that stops just short of unsimulated. For some, the simple fact the film is being released in a venue other than an adult video store defines it as “not porn”, or if a “notable director” or actors are involved. Porn Without Plot is not a delineator as there are many porn films with storylines that go beyond “seducing the pizza delivery boy.”