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How Obscene! How James Joyce Told the Difference Between Art and Porn

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At the risk of beating a dead horse, I'd like to tackle a recurrent question in the art world: Is it art or is it porn? I've been inspired by press coverage of Nobuyoshi Araki's photography collection, which has sprung up in recent exhibits in London and New York.

A portion of Araki's oeuvre features kinbaku, or erotic bondage. Japanese women, naked or partially dressed in traditional kimonos, are trussed and bound in various poses. The palimpsest of dichotomies within each image -- propriety and licentiousness, pain and pleasure, clothed and nude, modern and traditional, beauty and taboo, restraint and playfulness -- arrests the viewer.

But these pale in their controversy to the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit that traveled to Cincinnati in 1989 and showcased homosexual S & M. Among the photographs was an image of artist himself with the handle of a bullwhip inserted in his anus. This would've been too much for the wholesome denizens of mid-western America, but it irreverently tested the boundaries of a country and a time struggling with the spreading terror of the AIDS epidemic.

The day after the exhibit opened, sheriff deputies raided it. A grand jury indicted the Mapplethorpe photographs on obscenity charges, and the case went to trial. Art critics and curators from around the country were called into court to defend the photographs as art.

I don't have to transcript of the trial to hand, but I imagine there was a lot of cumbersome, academic art-speak thrown about, which in itself lent credence to the images as "art." In the end, Mapplethorpe's defense prevailed, and the jury comprised of Ohio's common folk capitulated that a photograph of a man's arm in another man's anus could indeed be deemed art.

The US court considers art as work, which taken as a whole, possesses serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value. Of course, this offers a minefield of other questions -- such as the ever-elastic standards of value. But splitting semantic hairs aside, the legal definition of art, at least to me, doesn't cut the mustard. Something essential, of the inexplicable, x-factor ilk, seems to be missing. And I find myself challenged to come up with a touchstone of art that I find personally satisfying.

This mission led me back to yet another art vs. obscenity trial, this one in 1933, in the case of United States v. One Book Called [James Joyce's] Ulysses. Hard to imagine in this day and age that Ulysses stirred up such a tizzy that New York postal officials seized and burned 500 copies of the book. (Though admittedly, when I was in college, struggling through Stephen Daedalus' trek across Sandymount Strand in Chapter 3, I was tempted to do the same).

In a decision that would be a hallmark for freedom of speech, Ulysses was judged not obscene on the grounds that offensive language in a literary work is not obscene where it does not promote lust. Judge John M. Woolsey's ruling in favor of Ulysses' publisher Random House is fondly remembered for its avuncular and erudite consideration of the modern classic and is worth the read for those interested.

Joyce knew exactly what he was doing, I think. I can even imagine him on the sidelines watching with delight as though he'd intentionally orchestrated the brilliant PR coup. And it is to the master himself that I turn now to clarify the difference between art and obscenity.

Questions of art, poetics and pornography had been central to his mind for a long time. As early as Portrait of an Artist, he quotes Aquinas on the subject of "proper" and "improper" art. Proper art has to do with aesthetic experience, which is static. Proper art doesn't move you to do anything. It is aesthetic arrest.

Improper art, on the other hand, is kinetic. It moves you with desire, loathing or fear for the object represented. Consequently, it moves you to action. Thus you're not in aesthetic arrest. Art that moves you with desire towards an object, Joyce called pornographic. According to Joyce, all advertising is pornographic art. Whether a part of a woman's anatomy or a MacDonald's Big Mac or a piece of vintage recording gear, you are moved, not simply enchanted, by the object in view.

Further, Joyce specifies three aspects in a piece of art that must be recognized -- wholeness and integrity; harmony; and radiance. The point I want to focus on is the last -- radiance. Sort of the je-ne-sais-quoi quality of art. And not too different from Joyce's secular definition of epiphany: the sudden, dramatic, startling moment that seems to have heightened significance and be surrounded with a kind of magic aura.

When all the components of a piece of art -- such as the integrity, harmony and rhythm -- come together, the result is a mysterious radiance that emanates from the piece. Radiance that arrests, holding your wonder and stilling your heart.

There is a sense in Joyce's understanding that true art, as opposed to pornography, is transcendent. Art seems to be an interface between the rhythm and integrity created in the material world, which call down and attract those corresponding components of a higher realm, such that the artwork is, for the beholder, a gateway to the sublime.

Perhaps this is the true touchstone -- the sustained and profound wonder art effects. Do Araki's photographs pull this off? Most of them do for me. And Mapplethorpe's? Again, most of them.

Perhaps, in the end, obscenity does not have to be exclusive to true art. Perhaps it can be counted as another factor in the harmonious, rhythmic composition of the whole. A critical catalyst in stirring up and redefining beauty. Of waking up art and its viewers from a soporific acceptance of the status quo -- and igniting controversy.

Obscenity, in the hands of skilled, Promethean, culture-bringer of an artist, forces a new way of seeing, with the result that the once seemingly obscene becomes beauty itself. Perhaps obscenity is the necessary yeast in the evolution of aesthetics.

But this is a far cry from the sloppy, slapdash, one-track-minded porn so ubiquitous on the Internet. Which to me is so utterly boring. So boring as to remind me of Hannah Arendt's phase, the banality of evil. I should like to co-opt the underlying humdrumness of the sentiment and proffer the tagline to art's baser brother -- the banality of pornography. And end with the sigh it deserves.