Erotica vs. Pornography
I've been having this or similar discussions with other poets and artists lately, because I write homerotic texts, and make homoerotic photos and artwork. I can tell you my personal working definition of where the line lies between eroticism and porn, but that's just mine, nothing definitive.
(Can music be homoerotic? That's the question posed by two compilations of older recordings recently released on CRI, titled Gay American Composers, Vols. I and II. They are excellent compilations, by the way, and have returned to print some of my old favorite vinyl recordings from CRI's back catalogue; CRI is a label devoted entirely to new music, a genuine rarity in the music biz. Composers included on the two CDs include: Henry Cowell, Harry Partch, Samuel Barber, Marc Blitzstein, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Ben Weber, John Cage, Alwin Nikolais, Robert Helps, Lee Hoiby, Lou Harrison, Chester Biscardi, Ned Rorem, David Del Tredici, Robert Maggio, Conrad Cummings, William Hibbard, Jerry Hunt. The question of homoeroticism in music is implicit more than explicit, yet several of the composers echo my ideas in their artist's statements: these are composers who happen to be gay, rather than "gay composers." On the other hand, if every gay artist, composer, and writer in America suddenly decided to stop working for a week, all at once, there would be a vast echoing silence. Broadway would shut down, so would several TV networks, concert halls, and magazines—and not just the obvious ones. Think about it.)
The problem with commonplace definitions of eroticism and pornography is that they are socially-driven, not artistically. All such socially-driven definitions will remain vague and equivocal in a pluralistic society, wherever diversity is present and not legislated against, and thus rarely be of any real use. The old legal standard of I don't know what pornography is, but I know it when I see it can only carry us so far. In the face of conformist pressure, there is always a tendency to take one's desires underground, into the shadows; which may not serve them in the most healthy way.
I tend to look at eros and pornography through the eyes of an artist. As a photographer, I could say that there is some truth to the joke about lighting, and that would be true. As a writer, I don't find reading pron to be very interesting—it can even be unintentionally hilarious, when it's really badly written. Nothing makes pornography wilt like derisive laughter. On the other hand, eros maintains space for the laughter of joy and pllay. It's easy to define porn as demeaning, as objectifying, as sterile. Yet the Venus de Milo is universal, an objectified vision of the goddess of love (at least that is the meaning accrued to this statue whose origins remain veiled); and other art that includes sexuality, that is considered great art, can demean its subjects, or objectify them, or be emotionally sterile. Perhaps the main difference between erotica and porn is in how you use them, or the amount of emotional connection you feel to the person(s) being represente in the art itself.
As a creative artist:
• I am unable to define anything as pornographic that brings more compassion (love, eros) into the world.
• I am unable to condemn any artwork that brings more lust into the world, if that lust is uplifting (putz aside) rather than exploitative or coercive.
• I am unable to define as pornography anything that heals or enhances relations between persons, or between persons and the world; as opposed to anything that increases alienation or emotional distance from the other.
• I am able to define as pornography that which inspires a misdirection of love/compassion, in the forms of greed, avarice, or pride, or the desire to possess, use, manipulate, and coerce.
As you might deduce, my definitions are contextual and relational, and refer to how the art is used rather than what it contains. Intention matters more than content per se.
As such, these defintions can apply to more than art, and its products. They can apply to science, religion, politics, and everyday life. Is your job erotic (does it enhance your life and compassion) or is it pornographic (does it reduce, demean, or stifle the growth of your personhood)?
The problem of definition lies directly in the lack of clarity between the many uses in English of the word "love." Eros, itself a Greek root word, is also about life-force, the power under life; it does not refer only to sexuality, or sensuality, as is commonly assumed. The Greeks had multiple words for "love," in its different manifestations, including some with unavoidable overlap: eros, agape, storge, philokalia, and more. These words are discussed in theology regularly, but poetry rarely; that theological arguments often underlie attacks on pornography should come as no surprise. In theology, the Greek roots are often defined as sexual love (eros), family love (storge), brotherly or companionship love (philokalia), and spiritual or altruistic love (agape). I think you can safely bet which ones are emphasized as the best forms of love in most Abrahmaic theological writings.
But there are other Greek words applicable to this topic: pragma (pragmatic, expedient love), ludus (playful love, and also joyous love), mania (in which the lover is possessed by being in love, unstable, highly emotional—what in Western culture is taken as romantic love, courtly love, obsessive love).
Ludus applies to erotic art, perhaps, while mania might more often apply to pornography: the desire to possess the love-object, or the sexual experience. Ludus is child-like, open to experimentation, and exploratory; I know of people involved in the bondage/discipline/sado-masochism scene who I would call ludus lovers, because their attitudes are entirely open and pleasure-seeking and, well, joyous. (It ain't my scene, personally, but I have friends who are deeply into it, and we've talked about it regularly.) Frankly, mania is given far too much ink in our culture already, because it umbrellas everything from adolescently-impassioned love-letters to stalker movies. This is the legacy of The Art of Courtly Love, and how the assumptions in that model of romantic love continue to play out in our times. (cf. Gail and Snell Putney, The Adjusted American: Normal neuoroses in the individual and society, 1964)
The confusion around mania, as opposed to eros, may lie at the very root of this question of the difference between eroticism and pornography.
The thing to remember about Eros is that it refers to more than sexual love: it is eros that drives us in life. When someone turns to business entrepeneurship, and derives emotional sustenance and fulfillment from it, that person is responding to an erotic urge—although some of those same theologians would call it a misplaced erotic urge, because it is not being used to fuel agape. (This point is highly contestable: in most Western theologies agape is priveleged over all other forms of love, because it brings us closer to God—which is based on the assumption that we are separated from God—whereas the panentheistic mystical tradition, which is a parallel stream in Christianity, says that there is no separation, everything is in God, and everything is God. So, eros is agape, and agape can be expressed via eros. Virtually all of the Christian mystics, as well as mystics from other religious traditions, say this. Then again, most mainstream theologians are bean-counters rather than genuine mystics.) Eros can be responsible for passionate activity in any arena, when we love what we are doing, when we are inspired and completely dedicated to the task at hand. Writing poetry (making music)—the creative act—is itself an erotic activity. For myself, I feel some of my nature/visionary poems are erotically charged, even though they have nothing at all to do with sex or sexuality. Yet they are charged with eros, with passion, with com-passion. Through our voices, we give birth to the words that make the world.
Mania, by contrast, is obsessive and possessive. It cannot let go, and does not want to let go, of the love-object. And I use the word "love-object" deliberately, because mania is always a projection: some image from our own undeveloped self projected onto the "perfect love," "perfect mate," and/or "perfect date" or "perfect romantic partner." Something we think is lacking in ourselves, a lack in us that can only be soothed by possessing the other person or object. Sexuality as a form of empowerment—but never self-empowerment, because mania is always a projection, thus, the maniac is always looking outside themselves to aquire their self-esteem. "My life can only be complete if I acquire the perfecet mate, the perfect kids, the perfect house, the perfect car." Rather than looking within to accomplish the sacred marriage or opposites within one's own self, the maniac looks to others, looks outward, and never looks within.
The maniac is indeed looking outward, but he sees only himself, in that he sees only what he projects, rather than what is actually there. So, in that sense, the maniac is looking inward, because it's all about self-gratification. Different partners every night amounts to masturbation-with-help. All that the sex maniac sees is reflections of his own desire: a world of mirrors.
But the maniac is not looking inward in any genuine way, because this outward projection and mirroring is the only way in which the maniac know himself. Genuine self-contemplation, self-reflection, and self-knowledge are precluded, because to this person all knowledge (and self-worth, and even self-love) come from outside himself, even if all he can see outside himself is the mirrors. The genuine inward journey begins by discarding what we think we know of the world, and giving up those masks and mirrors and projections we place onto the world. Genuine self-knowledge begins with removing those outer masks, and seeing what's actually there. At which point, the person realizes that they are not who they thought they were, and must go inside themselves to see what's really in there, rather than what they assumed was there. It is often a painful and difficult odyssey, because it begins with discovering we are not who we thought we are, and it will reveal to our inner eye every wound we have taken in life—but also every wound we have inflicted on others during our lifetime.
Mania is truly eros defiled, or misdirected love and compassion. Mania leads to power over others, while eros leads to power with. As the saying goes, which would you choose: The love of power, or the power of love?
I can define as pornographic anything that seeks power-over, that enhances the love of power, that projects completion of the sacred marriage onto anything outside the self. Pornography replicates the self via projection. Pornography truly does not see the Other, but only the projected self.
I can define as erotic anything that seeks power-with, that is an appreciation of beauty, that does not seek to own the other but to unite with them as equals, and/or to help them become more fully and beautifully who they already are. Eroticism enhances the self via engagement.
Mania is what drives pornography. Eros is what drives eroticism.
So, it seems to me that part of the confusion around erotica vs. pornography lies in the dearth of useful language with which to talk about it. The I don't know what it is, but I know it when I see it test is not, in the end, either useful or pragmatic, since it invites relativism over concensus, and opinion over discourse.
A further distinction between eros and pornography lies in the arena of assumptions about spirit and flesh. An erotic viewpoint tends to view spirit and flesh as one. A pornographic viewpoint tends to view spirit and flesh as separate, and even in battle with one another; this is the legacy of the body-hating, Christian theological, dichotomous worldview templated onto Western culture by Augustine and Paul, although it has its roots in older Platonic Greek thought, and reached its ultimate formulation in Cartesian dualism. Ultimately, in this worldview, since spirit and flesh are not one, flesh is just another form of matter to be exploited. There is no holiness, no sacredness in pornography. The great irony in this is that Christianity was meant to be a religion of inclusive love, not one of hatred, separation, and dualism. But by making spirit holy and flesh unholy, Christian theologians created the very conditions that spawned the pornographic industry so many of them object to.
Matthew Fox says it clearly, I think:
I wonder how many Christians have been invited to meditate on the fact that the word carnal is at the heart of their primary doctrine of Incarnation. Our culture, having been poisoned by negative attitudes toward flesh, is ill at ease with the notion. Indeed, a religious faith that claims to believe that "the word was made flesh" actually denigrates flesh and has turned "flesh" over to the pornographic industries rather than sanctifying it and including it in our spiritual practice. It is time for the ambivalence towards flesh to cease. Either flesh is sacred or it is not. Either the divine is present, incarnated (which literally means "made flesh"), or it is not. If it is not, it is time that worship and education became enfleshed, incarnated, in order to provide a proper home (eikos) for the Divine, which is clearly biased in favor of flesh, having, after all, made it. Our very language is biased agains the flesh: Webster's Dictionary says that the antonym or opposite of carnal is spiritual or intellectual. Here we are, two thousand years after the Incarnation of Jesus, and our language still doesn't get it: that flesh and spirit are one. . . .
The textual revolution that marked the modern era, which began with the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, has not been kind to the flesh. Text is not fleshy, but context is. Flesh's brilliance is not easily illuminated on the printed page. Flesh is too colorful for that, too tactile, too full of breath, too soft and yielding to the touch. During the modern era flesh became denigrated in whole new ways—its glory is not of a mathematical and quantitative kind. Flesh is qualitative. Body counts soared during the modern era. Flesh became expendable: human flesh in human wars but also animal flesh and bird flesh and what flesh and fish flesh and soil flesh and forest flesh.
As the modern era's preoccupation with text yields to a postmodern concern for context, perhaps flesh can score a comeback. Perhaps humans can learn to love their flesh anew—and with it the flesh of others on whom we are so dependent and interdependent. —Matthew Fox, Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh: Lessons for transforming evil in soul and society, p. 57 ff.
When the body is denigrated and demeaned, so is sexuality and eroticism, and that is what opens the door to pornography. Ironically, without a culturally-proscribed hatred of the flesh, there would be no pornography. Pornography is highly dependent on religion, even when it is explicitly blasphemous.
But eros celebrates. Eros embodies, and sanctifies, and makes holy. Thus, erotic art is celebratory, and erotic poetry is a poetry of praise.