(The above featured image was used with permission, and both Molli and Brittney have asked for feedback on their site.)
Molli is an aspiring model; Brittney is a photographer trying to put together a portfolio. Molli poses nude for Brittney and they post the test shots here, hoping to get feedback. They link it to Facebook and the social network bans the photos. Brittney gets upset and complains about American prudishness and about her photos being art, not porn. She also protests that people have a choice to click the link or not (as they do with the links in this blog post), and that she is not forcing anyone to see nudity if they don’t want to. I suspect this is a scenario most of my readers would be familiar wit
The standard way of dealing with such links is by labeling them NSFW. This tells people that they should be aware that they could get in trouble, or offend people, or maybe even just look creepy if they click on it in public. It also acts as a warning to parents who may not want their kids to see such things. It is, I think, a reasonable pragmatic compromise that protects everyone’s freedom, but it hides an interesting philosophical problem. I would suggest that once something is deemed art, no matter how “dirty” it might be, it should no longer be labelled “not safe for work.” Its sexual content should no longer to be regarded as prurient, but a part of something bigger and more important.
What I am suggesting may seem odd. I appear to be claiming that once something is labelled art it will no longer arouse the viewer, but I would never claim such a thing. Art has always inspired sexual thoughts and some of the most beautiful paintings are also the most erotic. My position instead is that even if we consider arousal to be negative (which many of us do not), it is a small price to pay for artistic exploration. Great art can inspire fear, anger, awe, disgust, curiosity, puzzlement, confusion, and any other emotion we can think of. We should not exclude erotic desire from the list of acceptable reactions, even in public.
Brittney’s objections took a different form. She complained about American’s fear of the body. She’s right, of course. America is much more puritanical than the French or Germans, for example. But this isn’t a concern about art, it’s about culture and a part of a different discussion.
She also pointed out that people have the freedom not to look if they don’t want to. Again, I’m in complete agreement, although the issue isn’t that people don’t want to look at nudity, it is that they neither want to be seen looking at nudity nor see others aroused by it. But even this too is overly simplistic because the fact of the matter is that many of us are indeed open to seeing or being seen as long as the other people involved are people whom we want to see or whom we want to see us. The precondition for voyeurism and exhibitionism is our own sexual desire and thus, Brittney’s objections are about erotic norms and not art in and of itself.
I’m not giving people an excuse to walk around tumescent; modesty and decency are important virtues however we choose to define them. I’m arguing instead that it is the “artness” of the art that must be given priority over all else. People are turned on by a shocking array of things and the very act of hiding them makes them more desirable. A person with a shoe fetish should not be prohibited from shopping at Zappos in public; he or she should only be prohibited from looking for the sole purpose of sexual gratification.
My proposal then rests on our intentions. If the viewer is looking at Molli’s pictures just to see her naked, then the behavior may indeed be inappropriate for work. But if he or she is looking because of an interested in photography, then there should be nothing wrong with doing so. It is true that we may not be able to separate our feelings so neatly. We feel more than one thing at a time and may appreciate art for art’s sake while being aroused at the same time, but this only makes the freedom to look more important. The demand for emotional purity is untenable.
Maybe it turns out that Molli herself is aroused by having people look at her naked and that she has her own sexual reasons for posing; I think it’s a fair bet that most models are exhibitionists by definition. Even so, this still wouldn’t change the fact that her motivations become irrelevant once the photographs have been taken. Art in the world remains art, however we react to it. This is why it scared Plato so much. Art has a life of its own. The only solution is to prevent people from looking at the internet at work at all, and not to let them look at magazine either, or listen to music, or see other people, or engage their imagination. George Orwell reminded us that we can’t ban arousal; we most definitely should not prohibit art in the process.
One final thing: virtually everyone in my generation has encountered this issue before. In an episode of The Partridge Family titled “My Heart Belongs to a Two-Car Garage,” a bohemian artist paints a nude woman on the family’s garage, scandalizing the neighborhood. People freak out and they make sure to keep the garage door up so as to hide the body. But eventually a museum buys the painting and displays it, at which point the whole family is encouraged to look. In the final scene, they have this interaction:
Chris (the youngest boy): “Mom, how come I can look at the garage here and I couldn’t at home?”
Shirley (the Mom): “Well, because now it’s a work of art.”
Tracy (the youngest girl): “Why wasn’t it a work of art at home?”
Shirley: “Well, um… then we didn’t know it was a work of art”
(oldest girl): “And, sometimes we don’t know if something is good until someone tells us.”
Pervy old man, whom we haven’t met before: ”I liked her even before she was art.”
Artist: “You got good taste!”
The Partridge Family plays it for laughs but also gets it right. How we choose to look at a picture is our own business, but it’s role as art eclipses our prurience. Art is a special category and must be respected, at work and on Facebook.