A Philosopher's Blog

Naked in the Museum

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 28, 2009

The Met had an impromptu and unexpected addition to its exhibits when  Kathleen Neil disrobed so she could be photographed by Zack Hyman. Since she was naked in public, it is hardly a surprise that she was arrested. Naturally enough, people are wondering whether this is a case of art or not.

On one hand, the answer is easy: it all depends on which theory of art (if any) is correct. On the other hand, the answer is rather difficult to determine: which theory (if any) is correct? Rather than wander about in various theories, I’ll just ramble a bit about the matter.

On the face of it, this could be art. After all, photographs seem to be well-established as a form of art (within limits, of course) and art involving naked folks is also well established. So, to use an argument by analogy: if other photographs of naked people are art, then this photo can also be considered art. Of course, the focus of the controversy is the fact that Neil got naked in a public place. While this is generally illegal, what is illegal need not automatically be considered to be non-art. After all, the legal status of something does not entail anything about its aesthetic status.

Some folks have been asserting that the photo is pornographic because Neil is naked. While it is easy enough to take all naked photos to be pornographic, there seems to be an important distinction between what would be porn and what would not be. Of course, the possibility of artistic pornography should also be given reasonable consideration.

Since this is a blog rather than a major essay, I will but dip my toe in the shallow end of theory. At this depth, I would say that the intent of the photographer (and the subject perhaps) would be an important factor. While both art and porn are generally taken to aim at creating an emotional effect or stimulating a response, the types of responses that art aims for seems to be distinct from that of pornography. Roughly put, porn aims and sexual excitement whereas art (generally) tries to aim at a somewhat higher target (the heart or mind rather than the groin). In this case, Hyman and Neil seemed to have an artistic intent and hence I’d be inclined to agree with them that they were attempting to create art.

Not surprisingly, some folks dismiss the notion of artistic intent. After all, it can be rather difficult to tell what the artist’s true intent might have been at the time. In this case, the usual default is to consider the work itself. In this case, the challenge would be to lay bare the qualities that would distinguish a work of art from pure (or mere) pornography. While this might seem a simple thing, it can actually be rather challenging. True, most porn would tend to be easy to spot as such because of the quality (or lack thereof). But this does raise the obvious objection that porn might be art, albeit poor art. These difficulties serve to illustrate that we do not really have any truly effective definitions of “art” and “porn” that would allow us to properly sort things out.

We can, of course, follow the old adage and say that art (or porn) is in the eye of the beholder. If someone sees a naked photo as porn, it is porn to him. If he sees it as art, it is art to him. Of course, this makes it a rather subjective matter and would seem to imply that any obscenity would lie within the audience rather than the work.

The conclusion to be drawn is the usual one: we still lack a proper account of art, despite centuries of discussion.

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3 Responses

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  1. biomass2 said, on August 28, 2009 at 6:16 pm

    “I will but dip my toe in the shallow end of theory.”

    Your “toe”. (giggle)

  2. kernunos said, on September 5, 2009 at 10:16 am

    I would have to see the subject. If she was hot then I would say ‘art’ but if she was fuggly then definitely ‘illegal’. What? I’m honest anyway.


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