Art and Obscenity

11 March 2017

The topic of this week’s show is Art and Obscenity. Specifically, we’re thinking about where art and obscenity intersect.

So, what exactly do we mean by “obscene”? The Supreme Court defines it as any material which "appeals to a prurient interest in sex, portrays sexual conduct in a patently offensive way," and which "does not have any serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value." Taken at face value, then, art—by definition—could never be obscene, and that would be the end of our discussion!

Given that the Supreme Court has also declared corporations to be people and money to be speech, we probably shouldn’t let their idiosyncratic interpretation of concepts dictate the way we talk about obscenity. So, instead of trying to define “obscene,” it might be more useful to start our discussion with an example of a work that is—or, at least, was—considered obscene.

One piece that comes to mind is Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” a common variety porcelain urinal that Duchamp tried, unsuccessfully, to enter into an exhibition in New York in 1917 using the pseudonym “R. Mutt.”  In its day, Duchamp’s work caused a huge scandal, with people calling vulgar, immoral, and indecent. Some even claimed the piece had zero artistic merit.

Despite its initial reception, Duchamp is now credited as having changed modern art forever with this piece. By using a ready-made object instead of painstakingly creating the work with his own two hands, in one bold (albeit lazy!) move, Duchamp invented what we now call ‘conceptual art.’

While Duchamp’s “Fountain” might seem fairly tame to us denizens of the twenty-first century, we can understand why people were up in arms about that work back in 1917. Indeed, there’s probably still plenty who think it doesn’t deserve to be called 'art' at all, but those judgments may have less to do with it being obscene per se and more to do with it being conceptual.

Regardless of your feelings about Duchamp, the art world has been diligent in continuing to supply us with many new works to get upset about. Take someone like Damien Hirst, the artist who dissects huge animals and then displays them suspended in formaldehyde in glass cases. He’s the kind of figure, some would argue, that puts the ‘con’ in ‘contemporary art.’ Or there’s the controversial photographer Andres Serrano, whose most notorious work is a photo of a crucifix floating in the artist’s own urine. The name of it, “Piss Christ,” is considered too obscene to say on the radio, so John and Ken can't even mention it by name on the air!

But consider—Impressionism was also once considered offensive for its portrayals of common people doing common activities. So, what people tend to find obscene or shocking changes over time. I bet someday the works of Hirst, Serrano, and their ilk will seem tame, maybe even quaint. But in contrast to what? What will artists of the future do to shock and offend us? Where do we go after “Piss Christ”? And how far is too far?

Perhaps that’s what the Supreme Court was groping at in its lame attempt to define what counts as “obscene.” There is a line that divides genuine art from (mere) obscenity and we need to get clear on where that is so that obscenity for its own sake is not protected by the First Amendment. However, I don't think we can get very far without admitting a category of material that is obscene and also has serious artistic merit. It's in this grey area that things get really interesting.  

Imagine, for example, that an artist takes very beautifully shot but graphic B&W photos of acts of bestiality. Would this cross the line from genuine art into mere obscenity? It certainly seems to fit the first two parts of the Supreme Court’s definition, though I get stuck when thinking about the third part, or whether the work has any “serious” artistic value. How would we go about deciding this question? And why would we think it is the job of lawyers and judges to decide what counts as genuine art? Who are they to decide what has serious artistic value?

Moreover, in this case I'm imagining, it seems like the law already has it covered. In most states in the U.S., for example, it’s a misdemeanor or even a felony to engage in acts of bestiality, so our fictional artist would simply be breaking laws that are already on the books without us needing any special laws just because the acts are done in the name of art.

So, let’s change the example slightly. Imagine our artist is a painter, not a photographer, and that the graphic images of bestiality were made without the use of any actual animals. Imagine further that the images are painted to look like B&W photos and they are perfectly rendered. It would be difficult to tell these images apart from images in our first example. Would you consider this art, obscenity, or a maybe bit of both? Would knowing these were paintings and not photos of actual animals make a difference in your assessment? While both examples are clear transgressions of some sort, the photorealistic paintings might only transgress our moral or cultural conventions, whereas the photos of actual animals also transgress the law. 

So, while artists don’t have any special rights that puts them above the laws that the rest of us have to follow, they do have the right, nay, some might even say, the duty to transgress conventions, to make us reconsider our values, beliefs and attitudes. In their role as subversives, iconoclasts, culture-jammers and agitators, surely artists are bound to produce work that offends, work that will be called “obscene” by their peers. If all art ever did was comfort and reassure us, it would fail in an essential task.   

Image: "Cabeza de Vaca" by Andres Serrano

Comments (5)

dedo's picture


Monday, March 13, 2017 -- 12:32 PM

I like the article with some

I like the article with some minor exceptions: It is the role of philosophy to make us reconsider our values, not art. Art is an expression of value...always. This article lays out the problem well, but assumes all the examples are correctly classified as art. If that were true, then the premise that it "could never be obscene" would actually hold true. It is the non-artfulness of some obscenity that seems to be in the grey area for many people, including this author. To get to the bottom of the dispute requires addressing the definition of art, the underlying philosophy, and the corruption of values that underlines them. Claiming an idea and value are corrupt is much less taboo than claiming a piece of 'art' is taboo. To me, it's the artist that is obscene, not the art...or urinal. Objects are never obscene, it is only when someone stamps them as art and thus creates a totem of value that obscenity exists.

420_ZaRAthUsTRa's picture


Tuesday, March 14, 2017 -- 9:58 PM

It's a tough one to balance

It's a tough one to balance freedom of expression with keeping things decent...
While decency can be used disparagingly against perfectly fine art I think there is a point where things can cross the line...
but even then - should we not be free to see the obscene?

Aspie Mind's picture

Aspie Mind

Thursday, March 16, 2017 -- 11:10 PM

You asked if there was any

You asked if there was any justification for censorship, anything that should not be seen, but you were much too genteel, having been primed by art. Yes, there is: the videos of ISIL beheading captives, "snuff films". They knew they were making something obscene from the get-go, did it because it was. Such things are traumatic, once seen can never be unseen. I don't know how anybody could be screened to determine that seeing such things would not damage them, except for psychpaths.

MJA's picture


Monday, June 16, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

"Remember how in that

"Remember how in that communion only, beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities (for he has hold not of an image but of a reality), and bringing forth and nourishing true virtue to become the friend of God and be immortal, if mortal man may." 
-Plato, Symposium 

djs's picture


Saturday, June 23, 2018 -- 4:37 AM

An appeal to what is lawful

An appeal to what is lawful as a guide for a philosophy is concerning on multiple fronts:
* Laws have an inherent intent, that is usually discernable, and they don't perfectly express that intent - this is acknowledged by the fact the intent of laws are clarified by case law. Philosophy should be dealing with the ideas underlying existing laws
* Laws generally describe the absolute minimum acceptable actions between parties - the bottom of the barrel so to speak. Philosophy is about describing and defining the finest model of a thing (an ideal) and should not rest on the bottom of the barrel for it's weight.
* Laws change over time, generally in response to changes in societies philosophical dispositions, and so defining a philosophy by what is currently lawful feels circular.
I guess a summary would be that a societies laws define the minimally acceptable actions at a given point in time for a specified group. Philosophy ought to be shooting for a timeless, all-humanity, vision from which the narrow band of minimally acceptable actions can be drawn out of.