PRINT February 1996

Q & A

Hard-Core Culture

THE IMAGE ON the July 3, 1995, cover of Time magazine struck a chord with the public as few do: a boy stares, wide-eyed, at the blue-green triple-X glow of a computer monitor. The accompanying article—and resulting furor over its accuracy—trumpeted cyberporn as Public Leviathan No. 1. For some time the pornography issue has been a Gordian knot in which free speech, feminism, free enterprise, violence against women, child sexuality, and gay rights are knitted into a tightly balled mess. Add in the accessibility of the Internet—with its promise of porn dumped right into the home—and it becomes clear why many find the issue so compelling.

As New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani is preparing to rid Times Square of its legendary smut spots and Congress has charged into the on-line fray with the Exon amendment, which would criminalize the computer transmission of “obscene” material, there has been a landslide of serious attention in the press paid to the workings and consequences of pornography (Death-of-a-Porn-Star is the most fecund ground, yielding recent articles in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and Out). Even Hollywood is interested, embracing rated-X matter in films like Showgirls and Striptease; a biopic on Hustler magnate Larry Flynt is scheduled.

Art, of course, has long trafficked in what is unsanctioned by society at large. Pornography is no exception. Artists have appropriated porn imagery in work ranging from Richard Prince’s mid-’80s “Entertainers,” electric-colored photos of porn stars, to Sue Williams’ blood-and-guts paintings of copulating couples, to the output of a host of lesser-known artists, including Tom Burr, Jeff Burton, and Aura Rosenberg.

Today, pornography seems to be on everyone’s mind. Can this be called a porno moment?

JOHN WATERS (director): Yes, I think it’s a porno moment. I was recently a judge for the Male Erotic Video Awards, and at one point Jeff Stryker came out fully clothed, with his zipper down and a huge hard-on hanging out, and the entire audience gave him a standing ovation. I kept thinking that ten or fifteen years ago this sort of venue would have been raided. What amazes me about pornography is that men just don’t seem to be embarrassed by it—and I do think that men in general, gay or straight, seem to love pornography. I was on a plane once, and a Japanese man sitting next to me took out a porn magazine—close-up shots of vaginas and so on, nothing soft-core about it—and started leafing through it as though it were the in-flight magazine. He kept right on flipping through as if it were utterly natural. Porn really is everywhere now—anyone in any suburban town can go right out and pick some up—and the irony is that the one place trying to get rid of or regulate it is Manhattan!

AMY ADLER (attorney and senior research associate, Freedom Forum Media Center): It’s not just a porno moment—it’s a kiddie-porn moment. Children are one of the last good rhetorical weapons left in the culture wars. My theory is that all the anxiety about child pornography manifested in the media, law enforcement, and the courts is producing the very responses in popular culture that these forces are trying to regulate—look at Calvin Klein, or the kinderwhore look that used to be associated with Courtney Love, or the obsession with child sex-abuse cases, which has arisen only in the last ten years. All these things reflect a growing fascination in our culture with childhood sexuality, which I think the legal and regulatory climate may actually be stimulating. Perhaps making this material taboo creates desire for it. Repression is never complete enough, and it often produces the very thing it purports to repress. And as culture responds, the cycle only escalates, driving calls for greater repression.

I think the increased fascination with children’s sexuality may stem from two other cultural shifts: the transformation of gender roles and the growth of cyberspace. Much of the focus on children as sexual objects represents a reaction to the changing role of women and a longing for the day when women as sexual objects were docile and easily controlled. It’s interesting in this context that a lot of the anxiety over child sexual abuse started in day-care centers, places where women left their children when they went off to work.

Rapid technological change may also explain the new focus on children’s sexuality. A lot of the outcry over child pornography specifically concerns cyberporn—parents’ anxieties that they don’t know enough about technology to control what their children see and a deeper anxiety about their inability to control their children’s burgeoning sexuality. The way sexuality and technology are both seen as “out of control” may explain why pornography, especially on-line porn, has become such an incredibly popular target.

IAN GITTLER (photographer): People are always interested in sex and how it’s dealt with in culture, but a number of things, like sex on the Internet, or a porn star committing suicide, or the tape of a famous mainstream actor that shows he was previously involved in porn, make it seem more like a porno moment than it really is. These are just ways for the popular media to look into sexual matter without the directness that might terrorize advertisers.

Most of the technological revolutions since the ’70s have been linked to the distribution of pornography. The first video titles available commercially on Betamax were porn flicks, and the first CD-ROMs were porn CD-ROMs. Porn seems to be the greatest attraction to the Internet for the average person. The people who produce this sort of “entertainment” are always eager to pursue new avenues of distribution, because they’re always facing limitations and legal hassles. It’s a way of getting around obscenity laws and popular dissent about whether they have the right to do what they do.

MARILYN MINTER (artist): Ten years ago, the opposition to those who wanted to censor pornography came from Screw magazine; now there are academics and intellectuals arguing for the sake of pornographic images. This is the only difference between the situation surrounding porn today and that of a decade back. Pornography is about fantasy, and people need images for arousal. I’m not opposed to porn, obviously. There’s a lot of fear and prejudice surrounding it because of its abusive history, but for some people, the only sexual expression they have is through pornography, and repressing it is even more dangerous. It would be more productive for women to interface with the industry, to create images for their own pleasure, instead of trying to censor it, which is never going to succeed anyway. Then again, maybe porn is supposed to be nasty and dirty—I don’t know. I do know this, however: nobody has politically correct fantasies, and you can’t police desire.

TOM BURR (artist): There does seem to be a greater spectacle involving pornography, coupled with concern over it on a legislative level. But what seems to be the issue is not so much the images themselves but the spectacle of their removal. In my ongoing work, I’ve found it interesting to locate pornography within several different contexts. One is the architectural context of 42nd Street—the particular kinds of storefronts and interior spaces laid over preexisting spaces. The other is the context of historic “blue laws” that allow some sort of pornographic ambiance to coexist alongside at least the idea of a repressive shield, perfect examples of which are the computerized modules you see on television that cover up body parts; the images are excluded from vision on only a symbolic level. However, I don’t find this particular period to be more riddled with pornographic material than any other time—only the context of porn and fascination with the idea of it have changed.

PAUL THEROUX (writer): If more people are talking about pornography right now maybe it’s because there’s greater freedom to do so. What is true, generally speaking, is that pornography has always been created by repression. I find that the pornography a culture produces is a portrait of a country’s male subconscious. Wherever there is segregation of the sexes, for instance, you tend to find pornography—you certainly find it in Japan, China, India, Germany, all of Western Europe, and the United States. Pornography also seems to be a function of religious, particularly Christian, repression. But I have found several places in the world where there is no pornography. For instance, the Trobriand Islanders, whom the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski studied, have no pornography, nor do they have any interest in it, but they have a lot of sexual license and the sexes live fairly equally. The boys and girls are introduced to sex at an early age, when they begin to show an interest. Pornography also seems to be largely absent in many African nations—I lived in both Uganda and Malawi, and found little evidence of pornography there.

But it’s hard to talk about pornography, and one of the reasons is that there has been no exhaustive, encyclopedic work done on it—either you get pictures with no text, or you get pompous, pretentious text that doesn’t include the pictures. There’s nothing in-between. It’s sort of strange that every art form has had something comprehensive published about it but pornography. I think the whole subject of pornography makes people who speak about it highly tendentious.

David Colman contributes this column regularly to Artforum.