“Taste is only to be educated by contemplation, not of the tolerably good, but of the truly excellent. I, therefore, show you only the best works; and when you are grounded in these, you will have a standard for the rest, which you will know how to value, without overrating them. And I show you the best in each class, that you may perceive that no class is to be despised, but that each gives delight when a man of genius attains its highest point. For instance, this piece, by a French artist, is galant, to a degree which you see nowhere else, and is therefore a model in its way.”
—Goethe to Johnann Peter Eckermann.
§.00 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a multifaceted German artist, scientist and statesman. He was the author of the influential novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, as well as numerous other works of fiction and nonfiction. The date of the first production of Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin—August 28th—was chosen by Liszt in honor of Goethe, as it was the same date as the late-artist’s birth (August 28th, 1749).
§.01 Johnann Peter Eckermann was a German author, soldier, multi-linguist, artist, and close friend of Goethe and Soret.
Johann Peter Eckermann; translated by John Oxenford (2010). Conversations of Goethe with Johann Peter Eckermann. HXA.
Those that wish to shift any power structure will need to pervade not just in the military, the media and the legislation-complex but also in the arts.
– A Brief Primer on Fiction Writing, Part. 4
In the previous installment of this series I briskly documented the strange case of the self-styled “Leftist Fight Club,” created by the organization, Knights of Socialism (no, really, that’s what they call themselves) of the University of Central Florida. The group was inspired by the film Fight Club which was, in turn, inspired by the fictional novel of the same name by freelance journalist and transgressive novelist, Chuck Palahniuk. I illustrated this organization due to how starkly it showed the way in which art can work as a model for human action (outside of a momentary shaping of consciousness – that is to say, that which moves well beyond merely evoking a, “Ah, that’s cool.”). But it is far from a isolated incident.
Art as a model for human action. (continued)
Casting our attention back in time to the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte we can see the power of dynamic art to sway the minds and hearts of men by the numerous cartoons which were printed by the British to defame him after that once venerable sovereignty had set its sights upon the newly founded French Empire.
Such ridiculous caricatures upset the Emperor nearly as much as it amused its target demographics. In fact, the artwork so perturbed Napoleon (who as a master statesman knew well enough the import of “optics”) that he attempted, unsuccessfully, to convince the British newspapers to suppress them which only further inflamed the pre-war tensions between the two countries and invariably contributed to Britain’s ultimate decision to topple the new, and seemingly ever-expanding, French regime. The British, however, were not the only one’s utilizing art to their political ends, for Napoleon himself commissioned numerous paintings of himself, typically highly romanticized, after each of his successful battles to the effect that every battle was garnished in a aura of sacrality. The most popular of these numerous portraits, Napoleon Crossing The Alps, is still endlessly reproduced today.
But let us return to our central concern, writing, and flash forth to 1909, Paris.
Le Figuro has just published a most shocking text upon the front page of their magazine.
The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism.
The text, penned by the avante-garde Alexandrian-Italian poet, F.T. Marinetti, venerate the arrival of the machinic age and establish, “-war as the world’s only hygiene-,” and “-scorn for woman-,” as well as a whole host of revolutionary political aspirations which were as negatory and violet as they were prescient and constructive. The document would go on to spawn the socio-political art movement known as Futurism (not to be confused with Futurology – someone who is interested in prospective technology, a term which, today, is often used interchangeably with what we shall call lowercase ‘futurism’). The Futurists in their near 40 year reign, lead by Marinetti, aided in the creation of Fascism, guided the rise of Mussolini, championed both World Wars (and fought in them), pioneered the arts with the creation of noise music and free word poetry and inspired three of the most well known modern art movements, Dada, Vorticism and Surrealism – all three of which, in turn, continue in their own subtle ways, to influence art to this very day.
The reason futurism was so successful is that, despite it’s chaotic veneer, it, rather uniquely, was expressly designed and consciously, methodically implemented into every sphere of life. There were futurist theories on war, aesthetics, dance, music, politics (they advocated for women’s suffrage and sexual liberation for the express purpose of destabilizing society). They even had futurist cook books. But more than all of the ephermera, Futurism was a philosophy of life, wherein one strove ever to extend and glorify, not just one’s self, but the whole of the world even at the cost of its selfsame destruction. It was the endless, ceaseless, remorseless, ripping away of all that which was stultified and corrosive and hurling oneself at the world with, as Marinetti put it, “-ardor, splendor, and generosity, to swell the enthusiastic fervor of the primordial elements.”
All this from a five page short-story/manifesto written by a relatively unknown, non-native-born poet.
Remember that when next you doubt the efficacy of your penmanship.
Lift up your heads!
Erect on the summit of the world, once again we hurl defiance to the stars!
America’s prevailing pathos in terms of the directionality of politics is one wholly obsessed with the ideals of Freedom. So much so that the phrase “muh freedom” has become nearly ubiquitous among the online far-right (and I utilize the phrase “far-right” without either praise or condemnation). Some may say that it, that is, the prevailing pathos, is “Democracy” but Democracy is only good, to the average American political thinker, because it is indelibly tied to notions of individual liberty and equalitarian empathy, shorn of that it would be as roundly condemned as Fascism. That is to say, Americans believe that (or act as if they believe that) Democracy is not itself Freedom, but rather the best vestibule in which Freedom may be found. Talk of Law & Order by old school conservatives is scorned and laughed at or considered to be underhandedly advocating for some variant or other of puerile authoritarian control. Who needs Order when one has Progression? The Progression, is of course, the belief in the End of History, the convergence of all men and ideas to a point of total transmogrification and universal cohesion. Universal governance under one system alone. Poli-eco singularity.
The idea is, perhaps, best summarized by the American political scientist, Yoshihiro Francis Fukuyama, who wrote in his 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man:
“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Preempting criticism of his works as being too parochial and providential, he also writes,
“The End of History was never linked to a specifically American model of social or political organization. Following Alexandre Kojève, the Russian-French philosopher who inspired my original argument, I believe that the European Union more accurately reflects what the world will look like at the end of history than the contemporary United States. The EU’s attempt to transcend sovereignty and traditional power politics by establishing a transnational rule of law is much more in line with a “post-historical” world than the Americans’ continuing belief in God, national sovereignty, and their military.”
Here Fukayama echoes sentiments that have become extremely mainstream, that being that America believes in God, national sovereignty and The Military and that this is a problem. The problem with this perceived problem is that, unlike America’s religious impulses, national sovereignty and the military do not require belief, they are empricially verifiable. Either a nation is sovereign (has control over its borders and complete autonomy within them) or it is not. Either a nation has a military or it does not; and that military is either supported or it is not (to whatever degree). These are not questions of faith. Jacques Derrida has made some similar critiques of Fukayama and posits, rather interestingly, that the Asian-American’s End of History theory is merely a extension of perverse Christian eschatology (the theological study of the “end of things,” typified by contemplation of the end times, the rapture and The Kingdom of God, destiny of the soul, ect). Derrida goes on to say that Fukayama is merely a demagogic priest of the emerging global-liberal-capitalist hegemony and that The End of History is that order’s central driving doctrine; its gospel.
More to the heart of the matter, these sentiments are indicative of a much wider public, not merely constrained to Fukayama and other similar thinkers such as Alexandre Kojeve or Noam Chomsky. It is the idea that there could be no other option to some kind of liberal hegemony (even if they do not refer to it as such), that is both all expansive and all consuming. Why it is wrong: The idea of a post-political state of man is only possible when the friend/enemy distinction is wholly exhausted and disintegrated. Such a state could well be imagined by the Cyberpunks, some of whom posit a period of time wherein man and machine merges to form a new, semi-synthetic biological entity. For everyone else, such a state sounds more like the stuff of science fiction, which is not to say that it is, for this reason, incorrect, for much that was once fantastical is now a omnipresent reality. One thing that can be said with great authority and certitude is that so long as Man organizes himself into groups, of any kind, there will ever be differential interests possessed thereby. So long as there are differential interests there can be no overarching thede to the whole of humanity. But this is not a argument against Fukuyama, who, as expressed above, states that his conception is merely that The End of History is not to say that there will be no further human development but that Liberal Democracy is the zenith of human ordering which no other governmental methodology can or could ever contend with.
Such a proclamation is either extremely arrogant or extremely deluded. For if Liberal Democracy were the very height of human collective modality one might rightly wonder why it seems to be devouring itself, why it seems to be collapsing, why it seems to be faltering so noticeably at every turn (for liberals and progressives are correct when they say that there is something slightly fascistic about the rise of Nationalistic Populism – I merely would posit that this isn’t a inherentlybad thing). If Democracy is the end of governmental history, history is a man with a gun to his head, his finger itching at the trigger.
In part 1 of this series we firmly established a useful linguistic categorization which well encapsulates and differentiates porn from erotica. Thus, it is now crucial to examine the ways which both forms of sexual expression are treated in contemporary America. Such a investigation cannot be conducted without first mentioning the landmark court case, Jacobellis v. Ohio. The case arose when Nico Jacobellis, a manager at the Cleveland Heights Art Theatre in Ohio, was convicted under state law of possessing and exhibiting a “obscene film.” The film in question was Louis Malle’s Les Amants (The Lovers, 1958), a fairly risque flick for the time which told the story of a young woman in a passionless marriage who seeks affection outside the sacral bonds of matrimony. The two most questionable scenes from the film are, respectively: a scene where the protagonist, whilst coupling with her secret lover gasps with increasing intensity as she climaxes (the camera shows us only her face) and (what was most shocking to 50s Americans) a half-second long female nipple shot. Gasp!
Whilst that might sound incredibly tame by today’s standards it was quite the big deal, as was evidenced by the conviction of Mr. Jacobellis. One should recall that the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (Hays Code), The Catholic Church and their motion-picture monitoring group, The Legion of Decency, all held considerable social capital at the time (certainly far more than they do today). The Hays Code is far too lengthy to be here included in its entirety, however a sampling of sections relevant to our inquiry will help grant a modern viewer better insight into the social mores of The Fifties.
The Hayes Code as Regards Sexuality in Film:
Impure love must not be presented as attractive and beautiful.
It must not be the subject of comedy or farce, or treated as material for laughter.
It must not be presented in such a way to arouse passion or morbid curiosity on the part of the audience.
It must not be made to seem right and permissible.
In general, it must not be detailed in method and manner.
Dances suggesting or representing sexual actions or indecent passions are forbidden.
Sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden.
[Rape and seduction] are never the proper subject for comedy.
Complete nudity is never permitted. This includes nudity in fact or in silhouette, or any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture.
Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races) is forbidden
The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing.
As one can not fail to observe, religious stricture and racial/tribal in-group loyalty are strongly at work within The Code. Curiously, these strictures failed against Jacobellis and his defender, Justice Potter Stewart who, upon finding the court opposed to censorship but failing to describe precisely why, declared,
“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”
The case was subsequently overturned, the film (and Jacobellis) unscathed by proscription and all that follows with it. It was truly a landmark case, one which put the First Amendment front and center of all such related cases proceeding above any and all other prevailing social mores. These trends would only intensify post-Sexual Revolution; that is, both extreme deference to the First Amendment in place of a broader social contextualization and the continued inability to properly define Justice Stewart’s that.
It is precisely the that which Mr. Stewart was referring to that we are here attempting to get to the bottom of. It is, broadly speaking, the point at which a ostensibly public (generally artistic) depiction of sex “goes too far” and transgresses the collective’s moral orthodoxy. The fact that, not just moral orthodoxy, but social standards generally, have fractalized markedly since the sexual revolution (though there are some rollbacks – on that another time) only intensify the confusion surrounding discussions of the subject. However, one thing is quite clear, most American do not consider pornography to be a moral good which numerous studies have shown, such as the 2016 Statistica Poll, Americans’ moral stance towards pornography in 2016. The poll (see graph below) is fascinating; only 34% of Americans find porn morally acceptable, whereas 61 % find it morally wrong with a meager 4 % making up the remaining apathetic or undecided total.
Now there are a plethora of such opinion polls, studies and surveys investigating America’s relationship to pornography but very little committed to erotica. This is primarily because there is very little effort made by most academics to powerfully differentiate the terms. This is a shame because it is absolutely essential to have a embedded descriptor for upward moving sexual art. If the same question would have been asked but in place of “pornography” the words “contemporary romance novels” was inserted (which can be, by and large classed as erotica) instead, I guarantee the results would be far more favorable towards the medium. For one might put a adult romance novel out of sight of ones children but in familiar company one is unlikely to blush (especially woman who make up the vast market share of the romance fiction industry) given the mediums fundamentally Aphroditic qualities. Yet these very same individuals would be aghast to have a friend walk in on them watching the Dionysian displays of “hard-core” pornography; there is a very potent distinction here which bares further elaboration, a inherent impulse, instinctual and deeply rooted understanding of what constitutes a healthy and socially conducive sexual-artistic fabric, even if it is masked by hypocrisy.
What hypocrisy? You might rightly ask. We’ll tackle that in part 3.
Observe the cover image; is it pornographic or erotic or is there no worthy distinctions to be drawn between such fickle words at all?
The argument about how human sexuality should be properly represented in the arts is a extremely old one with three broad factions splitting up the lion share of opinions. Either sexuality should be displayed as the artist pleases – no holds barred – or, there should be some kind of restrictions placed upon sexualization (whether in regard to sex acts or simply mood/lighting/setting and more numinous aesthetic parameters) or that sex and sensuality in art should be harshly suppressed if not outright banned. Regardless of which camp (if any) one falls into in this discussion, on matters of sex-in-art there is a ever present question: Is it erotica or is it porn? Let us turn our attention, briefly, to some linguistic definitions for these two words to help use in navigating the murky terrain established by these two rather nebulous terms.
pornography (n.) – 1843, “ancient obscene painting, especially in temples of Bacchus,” from French pornographie, from Greek pornographos “(one) depicting prostitutes,” from porne “prostitute,” originally “bought, purchased” (with an original notion, probably of “female slave sold for prostitution”), related to pernanai “to sell” (from PIE *perə-, variant of root “to traffic in, to sell”) + graphein “to write”. A brothel in ancient Greek was a porneion.
erotica (n.) – 1820, noun use of neuter plural of Greek erotikos “amatory” (see erotic); originally a booksellers’ catalogue heading. erotic (adj.) – 1650s, from the French érotique(16c.), from Greek erotikos “caused by passionate love/referring to love,” from eros (genitive erotos) “sexual love.”
There is then, something inherently commercial and prurient about pornography embedded within the word itself whereas erotica, definitively, is more inter-personal (booksellers’ catalog connotation aside).
Archetypally speaking, these distinct categories are perhaps best personified by the Greek gods, Dionysus and Aphrodite. Dionysus was classically represented as a young, beautiful man (in older depictions he was bearded and gaudily dressed), often nude; the deity of wine, intoxication, rituals, madness, religious ecstasy and theatre. Aphrodite, contrary to many modernistic conceptions of the goddess, was not a being of carnal delight but of love, child bearing, civic unity, the sea (from which she was born) and, in dire times, war (due her relationship with Ares, god of War). Dionysus – (or Bacchus, as he was later known) a transient being of lasciviousness, celebration and epiphany, who appeared to his followers randomly, wildly bestowing gifts of wine and joyous madness, disappearing just as suddenly as he had come – might then be seen as an embodiment or harbinger of both the brevity and bliss of carnality.
In contrast, Aphrodite was a lasting goddess, that is, she was a being of continuance, of that which lasted and withstood the test of time (births being the most notable example of this – a continuation of the species being the most potent and lasting of all human pursuits).
Sex, under the auspices of Aphrodite, was ultimately tied to love and was seen as an eminently sacred enterprise, so much so that her priests (all female) took strict vows of chastity. Bacchanalians, however, were possessed of no such sacral impulse (due to Dionysus’ affinity for transgression of all things) as Dionysus and would often congregate in orgiastic rituals where all sexes and ages would copulate with wild abandon. So disturbing were these lascivious displays of Dionysian Orgia in 186 BC the Roman Senate attempted a catch-all ban – called the Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus (senatorial decree concerning the Bacchanalia) – on the Dionysian religion itself to put an end to the supposedly sexually depraved displays.
So as a linguistic dialectic, the pornographic/erotic distinction might best be seen as a distinction between these two divine aspect, that of Dionysus and Aphrodite, bliss of momentary carnal delight and the dutiful cultivation of those emotional bonds and by extension, social bonds, which foster the continued procession of humanity itself.
Pornography, thus, is generally considered “in bad taste” or “base” because it is a inherently selfish enterprise and one which has very low time-horizons. Any individual who pleasures himself or herself to the Bacchanalian displays of the thousands of porn sites across the web is elevating the senses for but a brief moment. The action can not be built upon in any meaningful way, societally speaking (and in this age to speak of the actions of people is, in no uncertain terms, to be speaking of some aspect of some society – for how common are the hermits!). In many ways the pornographic ritual of self-pleasuring is lower than the Bacchanalia, for in the latter instance one was, at the very least bonding both with his/her community and with the terrestrial aspects of Dionysus himself.