Crossing the line

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Bare bodies coming together in a dimly lit room—nothing catches people’s attention more than pleasures of the flesh. This is especially true in the case of contemporary art and media, where artists and producers are constantly pushing the limits in search of that ever-elusive shock factor.

With an unusual level of ballsiness and startling lack of clothes, Miley Cyrus proved this during this year’s MTV Video Music Awards when she performed a sexually charged rendition of “We Can’t Stop” and “Blurred Lines” with Robin Thicke. With her raunchy bit, Cyrus drew attention to the thin line that separates art from porn—the line that, once crossed, can turn a Disney darling into a risqué music artist overnight.

In spite of her racy performance, Cyrus may not deserve half the flak she’s getting. The presence of sexual elements in media is not a new phenomenon. Sex in art even goes as far back as the Stone Age, when copulating couples were carved or painted onto many a cave wall.

Although there are people who would like to argue differently, contemporary tastes are very much sexed up. As Alfred Marasigan, a part-time lecturer from the Fine Arts Program, shared in Heights Ateneo’s “Art or Porn” talk last September 9, “Porn is becoming more and more normal.”

With the growing liberalization of media, it seems that the line separating art from porn isn’t very clear-cut nowadays.

Defining the constraints

The ways people react to media that feature sex and nudity are just as varied as the definitions for art itself. Some feel desire, others contemplate the underlying themes of the work, while others still are simply disgusted by the assault on their senses.

Such was the case with Cyrus’ performance at the VMAs. Although a few people tried in vain to search for the artistic significance of her “coming of age” number, many people were simply repulsed.

During his talk, Marasigan equated art with enrichment and arousal and defined porn as the act of exploiting a subject for pleasure. Still, he admits that objectively establishing a line between the two is easier said than done, since it depends on personal opinion.

Filipino director Brillante Mendoza’s work often raises this question of where to draw the line. Although he has been critically acclaimed worldwide for his gritty take on social realities, his propensity for featuring explicit sex scenes have gotten his films heavily censored on Philippine screens.

For Marasigan, graphic images can transcend pornography when they express a deeper message. “Art is all about an effective synthesis of real life. If it is not effective, personal and true, your shock value will be put to waste.”

As for Filipino Department instructor and pop culture pundit Aristotle Atienza, whether or not porn cheapens art depends on how it is executed. The use of sex gains value when it enables the artist to push the limits of what is and isn’t acceptable in society.

“We need art and media education to equip us with the tools to criticize this phenomenon,” says Atienza. “If all we have is what the Church inculcated in us as children, we will always see this kind of art as vulgar and nothing more.”

Transcending boundaries

It is very difficult for most people to look past the graphic elements present in contemporary art and media. More often than not, people are too fixated on the act of sex or the human body to notice the message behind the photo or film they’re looking at.

“Because you see someone naked, you are prevented from transcending certain thresholds of meaning. It’s like your [view] is fixed because you already reacted to the piece. You won’t be able to have a higher reading or interpretation of it,” shares Marasigan in a mix of English and Filipino.

Things are more complicated for actual pornography. Since most pornographic films chiefly focus on the carnal act of sex, most people choose to dismiss pornography as cheap entertainment that does nothing more than arouse viewers.

However, Atienza argues that because the line between art and porn is starting to blur, some forms of pornography are actually starting to find themselves in the realm of art. “Pornography strives to become a form of popular culture, albeit a lower form of popular culture,” he shares.

Take X-Art for instance, an emerging porn website. Unlike other forms of pornography, X-Art does not only seek to provide its audience with tactile pleasure. Instead of focusing exclusively on the act of sex, X-Art tries to capture feelings of passion, and sometimes even love, by using sex as an anchor. Sex is merely the context in which these emotions are presented.

According to both Marasigan and Atienza, art and porn are constantly influencing one another. This mix of genres has given rise to a new niche on the shared continuum of art and porn: Erotic art. It is here that we can place avant-garde works dealing with pornography and sexuality, such as X-Art and other more unconventional and subversive works.

Zooming out

Black Swan, Juno and Kickass 2 are a few films have passed the Bechdel Test, a test that determines if a particular film has a gender bias against women. The Bechdel Test requires films to have at least two named women in it who talk to each other about something other than a man.

Unfortunately, with the exception of the previously mentioned films, the way women are portrayed in pop culture often transforms them into nothing more than eye candy. Despite the advances female empowerment has made in modern times, it seems as if women are still being subjected to an impossible double standard for the pleasure of men.

Various movements are working to reverse such ideas. The Hawkeye Initiative, a satirical Tumblr page, emphasizes how women in comics are “deformed, hypersexualized and unrealistically dressed” by showing male superhero Hawkeye in sexually provocative poses of female characters.

Similarly, a group of University of Auckland law students created a feminist parody to challenge Robin Thicke’s hit single “Blurred Lines.” It featured altered lyrics and half-naked men prancing about like the nude women in the original. The official song and video were accused of glamorizing sexual violence and encouraging misogynistic behavior. The line “I know you want it” is considered particularly offensive for reinforcing the rape myth that a woman means “yes” even when she says “no.”

But according to Atienza, the link between graphic content and the degradation of women isn’t clear. Citing pornography as an instance, he says, “Kailangan pa rin natin ng mas malalim na studies upang makita ang epekto ng porn sa isang tao, (We need to conduct more in-depth studies on the effects of porn on a person).” Also, Atienza believes that despite what critics say, viewers are still able to decide for themselves how they will be affected. Simply banning such material is too easy a fix, he adds, as advocating censorship infringes on the right to freedom of expression.

One could also describe society as becoming increasingly accepting of sexual themes in pop culture. While people were once ashamed to speak of such taboos, it is no longer as scandalous as it once was precisely because it is pervasive in mainstream media. “We become receptive because [sex] becomes normalized, maybe we’ve become tired of repressing it for so long,” explains Marasigan.

Tracing the trajectory

Although people have varied views on pornography’s growing presence in art, one thing is clear: Sex has certainly spiced things up.

The increasing exposure people have to such images can be a double-edged sword. If pornography is used carelessly, it can lose its status as a taboo—where then would people turn to get their next high? On the other hand, the prevalence of graphic sex in art and media could encourage artists to use these themes more creatively in order to stand out.

While there is no denying that sex sells, organizations such as the Media and Television Review and Classification Board and religious groups still play a role in limiting its influence in the public sphere. Atienza believes that those on both sides of the issue should be open-minded to each other’s ideas. At the same time, he notes that provoking the ire of such institutions may actually be a profit-driven decision on the part of the artists or producers.

But controversial or not, two important questions remain. In Marasigan’s words: “How far can you give yourself to people? And how far will people react to this [art]?”

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