André-Louis Paré
n° 134 - spring-summer 2023

Thinking About Pornography in a Different Way

In his book Penser la pornographie (PUF, 2003), philosopher Ruwen Ogien (1947–2017) rejects the arguments of pornophobes, both conservative and progressive alike. While some consider pornography as a threat to the nuclear family and the traditional values it represents, others criticize the degradation of human relationships that pornography generates. Ogien’s objections are based on a minimalist ethics whose principles include that of not doing harm to others. According to the philosopher, we should regard the production or consumption of pornographic images as innocuous as long as they don’t harm anyone. In his discussion, he closely examines the perspectives of groups who oppose pornography based on an essential concept of the sexual benefit supposedly inherent in human nature. Yet this concept condemns the rights of adults to decide what to do with their own lives. As an essay of applied ethics, Penser la pornographie joins the ongoing debate between those who wish to suppress pornography in the name of human dignity and those who, while acknowledging its existence, advocate for tolerance of individual tastes and desires in accordance with the rules of minimalist ethics.

Four years later, Ogien published La liberté d’o ffenser: Le sexe, l’art et la morale (La Musardine, 2007), and this time, he took on censorship in the field of artistic expression. He defends the freedom to exhibit works that can shock and ofiend viewers, as long as the works do no harm to anyone. Admittedly, artworks depicting images deemed obscene can be found to be in bad taste and cause repulsion, yet should they be banned for these reasons? To protect themselves against the indignation of certain audiences, museums and other cultural institutions have introduced content warnings alerting viewers that some people may find the work distressing. This was the case for the Evergon: Theatres of the Intimate exhibition, presented recently at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, in which a space dedicated to works that are sexual in nature came with a warning. In such instances, when no one is obliged to see the work, Ogien advocates for the acceptance of sexual representation in public places.

It must be said, however, that with the advent of the internet and the proliferation of screens, the freedom to offend is unfolding in an entirely different terrain. So-called pornographic images can circulate easily, and I am not referring to sex industry websites ofiering their products in the name of entertainment culture. On social media, the censorship of images is done by algorithms, which all too often mix up nudity, eroticism and pornography, and restrain the published content to a certain extent. In this issue dedicated to associating visual art and pornography, Jessica Ragazzini’s essay focuses precisely on the debate around images of artworks that Facebook has blocked. She analyzes the strategies some museums have developed to counter this unwarranted censorship. Still concerning pornography, the other essays in this issue focus more on the creation of works and performative actions that explore the world of pornography in various ways. This artistic incursion might upset some readers, but it pertains quite significantly to the real attitudes of artists who, for some years, have explored another kind of pornography—alternative, gay, lesbian, trans, queer, feminist—which no doubt has transformed the very contours of conventional pornography.

Commercial pornography is developed within a capitalist economy that mainly supports the history of heteronormative sexuality. The goal of this commerce is to produce images of non-simulated sexual acts that can excite and stimulate male sexual pleasure. To counter this phallocentric view, the essays in this issue are part of a “post-pornographic” movement. Post-porn is associated with a range of minority practices, which claim the power to accept one’s sexualized body outside the dictates of the industry. Julie Lavigne, art historian, professor in the Department of Sexology at the Université du Québec à Montréal, author of La traversée de la pornographie. Politique et érotisme dans l’art féministe (Éditions du remue-ménage, 2014) and co-editor of this issue, presents an overview of art practices that she calls “Autopornography.” Her essay recounts the history of claims made by artists “whose gender, gender expression or sexuality is marginalized” and who, as a result, have turned away from a pornography subjected to commercial power. Unlike the porn industry’s image of the woman-as-object, autopornography is carried out within a self’s creative subjectivity.

In this process of “caring for oneself,” the body is seen as a laboratory for experimentation, as the art practice of arkadi lavoie lachapelle shows. In their essay, AM Trépanier examines lavoie lachapelle’s work, focusing on the Masturbation alchimique : les vagues exhibition in 2022, in which pornography moves away from “heteropatriarchy” in order to ofier healing and adaptive paths through a “transformative process” committed to “therapeutic self-eroticism.” Charlene K. Lau’s essay, “The New Pornographers,” first recalls the feminist debate on pornography and then analyzes the works of artists Narcissister and Heji Shin who reappropriate “the transgressive and polemical language of pornography.” Peter Dubé explores the genesis of gay desire, particularly through the art practices of Tom of Finland, Paul Berlin and Evergon. Although the porn industry may support homosexual desire, for these artists inspiration comes more from an iconography that is often mythological and that encourages a consideration of the generative power of specific identities. Despite the very difierent cultural context, Mayookh Barua’s essay also reflects on gay sexual desire based on Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar’s (1934–2003) work An Old Man… (1995). His insightful analysis of this artist’s work prompts us to reflect on the excessive aspect of marginalized homosexual desire, as well as on the work’s eroticism.

Artist Emma-Kate Guimond offers an analysis of Michael Martini’s performance inspired by “Hansel and Gretel,” the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tale. She examines this performance in parallel with Karen Finley’s performative works. Often provocative and shameless, Finley’s actions react to the sexual violence and humiliation of women in patriarchal systems. This is also the case for Chilean artist MariaBasura, whom Claire Lahuerta discusses in her essay. The Fuck the Fascism film assembles a series of actions through which the artist and her collaborators confront “the vestiges of colonialism with fascinating brutality” in order “to counter the neoliberal obscenity that destroys the most marginalized of individuals.” Lastly, in the “Essay” section, Vancouver photographer Steven Audia writes about his personal experience as a photographer, which led him to found Studio X, a business dedicated to celebrating the human body, particularly those of sex workers.

Translated by Oana Avasilichioaei

Émilie Jouvet, Too Much Pussy, 2010. 1 h 20 min. Courtesy of the artist.
Photo: © Emilie Jouvet/Too Much Pussy.