From the vault: What's pornography, what's art

By Joe Cadagin, Daily Fine Arts Editor
Published November 2, 2011

Do you remember your first trip to an art museum as a kid? You most likely went with an elementary school class to some local temple of the arts — an overwhelming, pillared structure that struck awe and reverence into you. Since I grew up near Ann Arbor, my first trip was, in fact, to the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

Like every child’s first visit, mine inevitably included hilariously awkward encounters with white-marble statues in various states of undress. At each set of exposed breasts, buttocks or genitalia, our embarrassed chaperone tried in vain to stop our childish pointing and giggling. All we were taught about decency and morality had been literally stripped away in what we thought was a place of art and culture.

Édouard Manet’s infamous painting “Olympia” was met with a similar reaction when it went on display in 1865 at the Paris Salon, an annual art exhibition organized by the respected École des Beaux-Arts. The painting depicts a nude courtesan, reclining on a bed and lifting her head to greet her next client. Confronted with the intense gaze of the woman and her brazen sexuality, exhibit-goers laughed, jeered, shouted and spat at the canvas. A guard even had to be stationed next to the painting to protect it from vandals.

It wasn’t as if Parisians hadn’t seen naked figures in art before. In fact, the tradition of depicting female beauty and sensuality through paintings of reclining nudes has its origins in the Renaissance. What offended the conservative Parisian public was the dominant attitude of the woman in “Olympia,” who is depicted not as a delicate and submissive nymph, but as an independent woman in control of her body.

In 2008, over 140 years after “Olympia” was first displayed, my family visited an exhibit of work by American artist Jeff Koons at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Koons is famous for his colorful renderings of kitschy and banal objects — best known are his enormous stainless steel sculptures of balloon animals.

As we toured the exhibit, we stumbled upon a gallery with a small sign warning viewers of “offensive” and “sexually explicit” material. The sign was in reference to Koons’s 2003 oil painting “Elvis,” which depicts two images of bare-breasted Playboy model Heather Kozar and an inflatable lobster pool toy.

As a hormonal 16-year-old, I found it hard to tear myself from the work. I felt like Ralphie Parker staring at the glowing leg lamp in “A Christmas Story.” The sexy, glossy, curvaceous, airbrushed image of Kozar was the last thing I had expected to see at a museum, and it was an awkward feeling to be seeing it along with my parents and 13-year-old brother.

The security guard in the gallery, who believed it was his duty to guard not just the exhibit but also the innocence of the adolescents inside it, chastised my father for allowing my brother and me to see such depraved and pornographic “art.” My father, in no uncertain terms, told the guard to “shove off” and said he would decide what was suitable for his own children.

At the Koons exhibit, my dad was faced with the same question that the security guard and visitors to the 1865 Paris Salon had to answer: Where does one draw the line between art and pornography? Of course, there’s always former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous criterion, “I know it when I see it.” Yet Stewart’s subjective remark doesn’t explain why some forms of nudity are deemed universally acceptable and even artistically uplifting while others are labeled smut.

Why isn't there a little sign at the entrance to the hall of nude, white-marble statues in every major art museum warning museum-goers of “graphic” and “sexually explicit” material? Why is it wrong for kids to watch an R-rated movie, but enriching for them to see an erotic sculpture like Auguste Rodin’s “The Kiss?”

Context may have something to do with it. In “Olympia,” instead of the subtle sensuality of a Venus, the Parisian public was shocked to see a common prostitute with suggestive body language. The private world of adults had infiltrated the public world of the exhibit space. The same can be said for the Chicago security guard and Koons’s “Elvis.” An image he thought should have been confined to a cellophane-wrapped girlie magazine was now on the wall of an art museum to corrupt the minds of innocent children.

While the security guard probably wouldn't have balked at “Olympia,” for kids who haven't developed this concept of artistic nudity, any naked statue or reclining nude is an obscene and shocking sight — hence my classmate’s giggling at UMMA. As they grow up, however, children learn to see the difference in merit in the nudity of art and the arousal-driven indecency of a “Girls Gone Wild” video.

What's fascinating is that society, too, takes time to develop a more complex concept of art versus obscenity. Consider Manet's “Olympia.” A work that almost caused a riot in 1865 is now recognized universally as a masterpiece of pre-Impressionism. With time, viewers began to focus less on the controversial subject material and more on Manet’s skills as an artist. While Koons’s “Elvis” hasn’t reached this level of acceptance, a time may come when museum-goers see the meaning behind the work. Until then, Justice Stewart’s dictum will be the best tool we have for detecting depravity — we’ll know it when we see it.