Gutteral mind: The canonization of porn

Making the case for sex as artistic expression

Anyone who is anyone watches America’s Next Top Model – no, really – and anyone who watches it knows that you never blame the photographer. If this is true, we can assume that a model‘s posing of her body is of equal importance to the photographer ability to capture, right?

Well, let me run with this for a second. Most of the photographers on Top Model are male, and all the models are female. According to the above logic, their jobs are of equal importance. Still, this set-up is only one example of the male voyeur relationship that is played out in many professions. As the fabulous Guerrilla Girls, a group of New York City-based feminist artists, point out, about five per cent of the artists in the Modern Art section of the Metropolitan Museum in New York are women, but 85 per cent of the nudes are female. Men like Man Ray, Matisse, Phil Spector, and yeah, Hugh Hefner, owe a whole lot of their career to photographing, recording, painting, and distributing female bodies, and these things are widely regarded as art. However, I think credit should be given where credit is due. The object of art – the model and her body – should be factored in to considering what makes art art, and what makes art great.

Up until fairly recently, women have been institutionally barred from artistic expressions – whether writing, composing, or painting. However, women are encouraged to involve themselves with certain art forms that are coded as inherently “feminine.” Generally, the artistic fields available to women are based around bodily communication – singing, dancing, modelling, and gymnastics all use the body as an instrument for artistic expression. These expressions, however, are fleeting; whereas a theatre actor’s performance would only be remembered by those who viewed it, the playwright can have his vision performed time and again. In this way, the actor’s brilliant performance gets swept away with time, while the playwright’s vision lives on. And since one criteria for a “great work” is that it stands the test of time, this means that body-art has often fallen outside the criteria for genius. Times have changed though, and with new-fangled technology, like film, we began to create archives of bodily art. Without recording technologies we wouldn’t be able to canonize the genius of women like Marilyn Monroe, Katharine Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot, or Pamela motherfuckin’ Anderson today.

Feminists have been reclaiming the value of women’s art work for decades. Riot grrl knitting circles and radical quilting bees have sprung up in activist hubs like Olympia, Washington and Portland, Oregon. However, there have been few attempts to reclaim the art of bodily expression that is porn – mastered by both males and females, but generally coded with a big fat F.

For feminists such as Dworkin and Co., porn is regarded as women living out male fantasies for the male gaze. And okay, there’s totally some truth to that. But ignoring the fact that some women chose to be porn actors and that these women worked really hard to be able to master these techniques – some may even call them “artistic” techniques – trivializes both their work and their choices. Is the male gaze the only thing that gives value to this form of bodily artistic expression, or does the object – the performer – add their own merit to the scene?

It doesn’t matter what end of the cultural spectrum we’re talking about – high or low, ballet or porn, soft or hard – women artists are generally measured by bodily expression that is often closely tied up with their sexual appeal. Too often in porno, a real genius of bodily expression is attributed to some sort of svengali dude pulling the strings behind the curtains – it was the lighting, the dialogue, the cinematography, the angle, the production, or what have you. But what about the actresses on screen? There’s something to be said for the mastery of moans, grunts, muscles, and cunts. When I go to a strip show and the girl on stage puts a banana in her vagina and then blows it past my ear, that’s a fucking skill, okay?

Since sexual expression is one of the art forms that has always welcomed women with open arms – as problematic as that reception may be – women may turn to sex to say things they might not have any other means of expressing. Because of their long-standing exclusion from the realm of major artistic achievement, many women still find bodily art as the form of expression most open to them. What’s more, women are often configured outside of language, and a lot of times they don’t have words to explain what they’re feeling. You think the Betty Everett shoop-shoop’ed all her way to a kiss for no reason? While “it’s in his kiss” may have been the most direct expression of her big hit, the shoop-shoops and doo-langs gave expression to a feeling she couldn’t quite articulate within the confines of male language. The dominant language of our culture is necessarily bound up with the long history of patriarchal domination, and this often doesn’t leave room for women to express themselves, so they have to invent. However, sexual language has been subject to women’s subversion ever since Adam and Eve did the dirty, and women know how to use it.

The potential for porn to let the subaltern speak has begun to gain recognition in the mainstream, and many artists have begun to wrestle it from the grips of that evil monster known as patriarchy. A new idea has emerged: perhaps the medium of porn can be reappropriated to say some pretty sex-positive and feminist things.

Still, the problem with porn is its repetition of the same heteroboring story lines. Good thing that women like Annie Sprinkle have been breaking the boundaries and genres of the medium by creating women-focused porn and documentary porn – movies which she calls “post-porn modern.” Meanwhile, groups such as Montreal’s Lickety Split smut zine or San Francisco’s Sharing is Sexy give porn back to the people by operating collectively and choosing to produce porn and erotica that deliberately subverts what can be found on the pages of a more mainstream, specifically male-centred publications like Hustler.

These groups recognize that sex and porn are mediums where the use of the body is one half of the artistic equation, and that our culture’s new ability to preserve these kinds of expressions means we have an opportunity to create a new canon that recognizes the way both men and women use their bodies creatively. Whether or not the foundational texts is something patriarchal like Gerard Damiano’s Deep Throat or something a little bit more wild and feminist like Maria Beatty’s Skateboard Kink Freak is up to us. So get your video camera and start she-bumping for the love of all that is slightly dirty.

Julie will be back with more patriarchy-bashing next semester. ‘Til then you can reach her at