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The Sensitivity Police

Sunday, 27. February 2022 21:53

A while back I sent out a non-fiction book I was working on to readers to gather some feedback. Most of the feedback was extremely useful and supportive. One reader questioned some of my work on the grounds that if I were to publish the book as written, some of it would offend the target audience. Since the reviewer was a high school teacher of grades 11 and 12, I listened: the target audience was college freshmen and sophomores or at least people of that age. While some of her comments rankled, after some conversations I saw her point. She was “in the trenches” with the precise students who would become my audience, so her insights into their ways of thinking and responding were quite useful. I modified a number of sentences in the book based on her input. Some I left alone; to change them would have been to completely change who I am. Those parts that I changed certainly modified who I “am,” but did not significantly alter the content; more extreme changes would have completely altered the content and the voice of the author.

I did not mind making the alterations; the edits had purpose, and that purpose served to broaden the prospective readership; they were, to my mind, practical.

This is not necessarily the case with other authors’ experiences with readers, particularly “sensitivity readers.” For example, Kate Clanchy detailed her experience with sensitivity readers for her memoir, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me in her essay “How sensitivity readers corrupt literature;” it was not a happy one:

They [sensitivity readers] have of course special areas of expertise — Islam, blackness, disability — but these emerge through inference, not announcement. Their scopes vary, too. One Reader fusspots around single words: I should not use “disfigure” of a landscape (infraction level 3, as presumably comparing bings — spoil heaps — to boils might be harmful to acne sufferers). Nor should I use “handicap” in its ordinary sense of “impede” (infraction level 2, serious); and I should prefer the acronym “SEN” to its origin phrase, special educational needs, because it is more inclusive (infraction level 2). Others have grander ambitions: paragraphs, sub-sections and even entire chapters should be revised. Still others focus on issues around the presentation of the book. One suggests the authors of endorsements containing the words “love” and “humanity” might want to “rethink their stance”. To add to the cacophony, the Readers contradict each other freely, even praising and disparaging the same passages.

Clanchy is not the only writer to have trouble with sensitivity readers. Consider the experience of Ryan Holiday or the findings of Zoe Dubno. While many writers consider sensitivity readers acceptable, perhaps even desirable, for children’s or young adult works, they find these same readers anathema for adult work.  Clanchy, for example, says that since her book was meant for an adult audience, “Adults are able to put books down if they upset them, so their books may safely contain difficult ideas. I don’t, for example, agree with my Readers that the references to looks, attraction and sexuality in my book should be removed in case readers are hurt by a metaphor as a child might plausibly be.”

This does not stop publishers from employing them. There is a great concern with “online outrage,” which can, if fact, affect the bottom line. And, from a publishing viewpoint, that’s what it’s all about. From an artistic viewpoint, it’s another thing entirely. Art, some say, is supposed to challenge and disturb. This applies not only to written art, but to painting, photography, sculpture, dance, and any other art you can name. Making art acceptable to everyone, will certainly broaden your audience, and should, theoretically, help your sales. But does it make your work better? Are those really sales that you want, or would you rather retain some vestige of your artistic integrity and identity?

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The Importance of Structure

Sunday, 6. June 2021 23:10

Another blogger I know was recently having trouble with a post. The problem it seemed was that he could not get the material arranged so that it would make sense to his audience. He told me that he had tried four or five different approaches to the material, and nothing seemed to work. When I asked him how he was structuring his material, he said, “I just write it. I don’t worry about structure.” There, I thought, was his problem.

Often when art does not “work,” the reason is lack of structure. Structure, of course, is “the arrangement and relationship of the parts.” Structure comforts the audience and lets them know that the piece is organized, and they can understand it because the piece has a form which will lead them through the work, regardless of how complex it might be. Without structure our ideas, no matter how good, can be understood only with great difficulty.

Structure does not just happen; it has to be created along with the work of art. How a creator achieves structure depends on the type of work involved. Structure for narrative arts is usually found in the plot and/or character; those are the things that hold the whole together. Plot provides a support to undergird the whole, whether that is a short story or a novel.

In some rare cases what holds a narrative together is simply an idea or theme; works that rely only on theme often have a far more tenuous structure than those relying on plot or character. They may be far more difficult for an audience to follow. Still, any structure is better than no structure.

There are also non-narrative pieces such as essays or non-fiction. These also require some sort of structure. Often we find that the author will approach the material in a narrative form, presenting a story. There are, of course, forms of argument and logic which can be used to structure a non-narrative piece and can provide a very solid structure for the presentation of ideas.

All that can be said about written work can also be said about visual and plastic arts as well. Here, logic and argument do not apply. What does apply varies with the work. There is a theory that every piece of visual art should tell a story. In those cases, the sorts of structure used in narrative come into play, except far more subtly.

But what about those pieces of art that don’t tell a story or those called “meditations”? These non-narrative works, whether written, spoken, or visual offer thoughts on a subject or try to create a mood. Regardless, unless there is some underlying structure, something to hold everything together, then we are left only with disparate disconnected elements.  If the work is visual or plastic, often the structure can come from the principles of composition. These principles are not the only source of support, but they go a long way in providing cohesion.

But what If the meditations are in written form? Perhaps the idea can hold the piece together. But structure can also come from putting the meditation into a formal structure. For example, the author might put the meditation into a sonnet form and thereby provide the work with an external structural foundation. Or the author might frame the written piece using one of the forms of logic or argument so that the audience is guided from part to part and does not have to wander around among disconnected ideas.

No matter how grand or original or new our ideas might be, we must still provide a framework for our audience’s understanding. We must give them the structure to support our ideas, our images, our art. So, upon embarking on a new project, we would do well to first consider the structure that will support the work. If we develop solid underpinnings, our work will benefit.

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And the Winner Is…

Monday, 17. February 2020 0:56

The Academy Awards marked the end of the awards season for films, but not the end of the discussion and controversy surrounding the awards and the films, actors, and directors who did and did not get nominated or who did and did not win this or that award. Coupled with that are the discussions of who or what film should have won this or that award, and there is discussion of the snubs and the possible reasons for them.

There were two lessons to be taken from this year’s award season. The first is that nominations, wins, and snubs are political as well as aesthetic.

Artists who do not work in film understand that the various awards shows are simply spectacles attached to juried film contests. Unlike standard juried art shows, however, film awards programs are fostered by a series of advertisements not unlike electioneering. The reason is, of course, the potential income that winning such awards can bring. Still, at the bottom, the awards are nothing but grandly publicized juried contests with a great number of jurors.

As such, they are subject to all the vagaries of any juried show. Each juror has not only a personal aesthetic which informs his/her judgement, i.e. what is artistically worthy of an award, but a personal political view as well. That political view may include any number of considerations of what is politically appropriate at the moment with respect to the contestants and the milieu in which they work. Of course some of these considerations will overlap juror-to-juror; some will not. Multiply these concerns by the number of jurors and it is easy to see why some films rise to the top and some do not in any particular year.

Awards are voted and announced and then there is great indignation that someone’s choice did not win. However, if pressed, that person cannot tell you why this film should have won over the one that was chosen. The second lesson to be learned is that many film enthusiasts cannot articulate why they think one film is better than another one; they just think it is.

Perhaps the first problem to acknowledge is that comparing films is like comparing apples and roses and tricycles. Films are one-off creations, much like any handcrafted artifact. Yes, there are series and franchises, but each film is expected to stand on its own just like each painting or sculpture or photograph is expected to stand on its own.

If we are to compare a film about a “members of a poor family who scheme to become employed by a wealthy family” and a film about “a stand-up comedian…whose history of abuse causes him to become a nihilistic criminal” and a film about “two young British soldiers during the First World war who are ordered to deliver a message” we must have some sort of set of standards as to what makes a film good. Most people seem to have that, but are unable to articulate it. When questioned, they simply say, “It was just better.”

So my two take-aways from this year’s film awards seasons are: (1) these awards shows are simply hoopla associated with juried contests for films. There are hundreds of jurors, and they all come with their own aesthetics and political positions which influence their votes. (2) Non-jurors (and perhaps jurors as well) also have their own aesthetics and political positions with regards to the evaluation of film, but they cannot articulate their standards.

We should take these two considerations into account the next time we submit pieces to juried shows; it is likely that responses to our work will incorporate them.

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It’s All in the Details

Sunday, 31. December 2017 19:38

One of the first things that we teach beginning scene painters is that they cannot use the detail that they would if they were painting a canvas for wall display. To begin with, the nearest audience member is likely to be at least 20-30 feet from the scenery while the farthest is likely to be over 100 feet away. This shift in perception is confusing to some new painters until they understand the viewer’s perspective. Once they figure that out, they begin to realize that we are not really asking them to omit detail; rather we are asking them to change the way they think about it.

In acting training we seem to do the opposite. We ask that actors learn everything possible about the characters they are portraying, even though some of the things they learn may not be directly useful in the show. The rationale is that the more the actor knows about the character the more thorough his/her performance is likely to be. One of my acting coaches said, “When you know whether your character likes oatmeal cookies with or without raisins, you know the character well enough. Until then, you do not.” Yes, an extreme statement, but he made the point—again asking students to change the way they think about detail.

Not only is detail important, but knowing how much to apply to any particular artistic creation is critical. Like the well-prepared actor, we may know of lots of details that relate to the subject at hand, and like the well-prepared scene painter, we can then choose whether to incorporate those details directly or hold them back. This is true in every art. Too much detail can clutter the composition and prevent proper focus on the part of the viewer. Too little detail may make the work appear barren and plain or, worse, unfinished.

And it’s not just a matter of quantity. Sometimes the trick is know exactly what detail to include, and to be sure that the included detail has just the right characteristics. I know a fine-art photographer, for example, who will spend significant time and energy modifying the color of a single fingernail. Looking at some of her intermediate proofs, I have been able to see how the color choice impacts the entire image and understand why she goes to such extremes.

And she is not the only one. Both stage and film directors spend enormous time and money on effects or props or sets that are visible to the audience for just minutes (and in some cases seconds). In the minds of these directors, those details add significantly to the meaning of the piece, justifying the expenses.

The argument that a detail is too small to be of concern, especially when it’s a tiny part of a larger, more complex work simply does not hold. The fact is that detail can make or break a work of art.  Too much and the work becomes confusing; too little and the work can be bare and unfocused. In either case, the success or failure of the work depends ultimately on the detail.

We, following the examples of the directors or actors or scene painters noted above, may need to change the way we think about detail. We need to be sure that in every piece of art we produce there exists the precise detail that not only contributes, but makes the piece. I can almost guarantee that the time and effort will be worth it.

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What We Really Want to do is Make Poetry

Monday, 14. August 2017 1:14

In reviewing the photographic work of Ren Hang, the Chinese photographer and poet, who ended his life earlier this year, I realized that each of his photographs is a visual poem—much in the same way that the late poet/songwriter/composer/performer Leonard Cohen’s songs were poetry. Note that here I am using the secondary definition of poetry: “a quality of beauty and intensity of emotion regarded as characteristic of poems.” And those characteristics are specifically, “a concentrated awareness of experience” created with elements “arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm.”

One often hears about the poetry of a Tennessee Williams play, or the poetry of a particular ballerina, or the visual poetry of any number of painters and photographers. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the iconographic work in every genre of art, indeed in every sub-genre, is poetic in nature, i.e. they have some sort of concentrated awareness, the elements of which are arranged to work intricately with each other to generate a specific emotional or intellectual response.

A simplistic explanation would be that the “poetic” artist is simply following the Principles of Design. Although sources provide many different lists of these principles, the Getty list is a solid one and lists nine principles of design: balance, emphasis, movement, pattern, repetition, proportion, rhythm, variety, and unity. And yes, these principles do contribute to poetic possibilities of a work of art.

But that’s not enough. Many artists work to use all nine elements in their work, and that work (including poetry itself) may qualify as “good” or even “very good,” but it never quite rises to the level of poetry that I am talking about. We have all seen plays, movies, dance productions, paintings, photographs, sculptures, and have heard songs, concerts, readings that, upon analysis, did use all of the principles of design, but only a few reach that iconic level that I am calling poetry.

The question is why. If all the pieces are there, what prevents the work from reaching its absolute potential? The answer, I think, is all of those elements must not only be there, but must be interconnected and work together—along with form and content—like the wheels and cogs in an intricate mechanical device. Indeed these elements must be melded together integrally so that it is almost impossible for the viewer to isolate any one individual part. This fusion of all the components of the piece creates a beauty that is larger than the sum of the parts.

And that is what we who claim to be artists are trying to do—make work that transcends the components that we manipulate to create the work. And even though the Ren Hangs and Tennessee Williamses and Leonard Cohens make it look easy, it isn’t. (And if you dig, you‘ll discover it wasn’t easy for them either.) But, like them, we want our work to be the best it can be, and that requires constant effort and self-evaluation. But with effort, we too can make work that may not be perfect, but is certainly poetry.

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Conceptual Art or Intellectual Exercise?

Sunday, 2. July 2017 23:58

On June 21, the New York Times reported that Jeff Koonswould donate a monumental sculpture, a hand holding a bouquet of balloon tulips, to the City of Paris to honor victims of the 2015 terrorist attacks.” It turns out, however, that “Mr. Koons donated the concept, not the construction,” and that the city needed to raise $3.9 million to make and install the 30-ton work.

The whole notion of conceptual art is controversial and has been since its inception. An internet slide show about it defines conceptual art as “art that is intended to convey an idea or concept to the perceiver and need not involve the creation of appreciation of a traditional art object such as a painting of sculpture. (Dictionary)”

Some say that all art is conceptual, at least all good art. Such work has something to say and says it with greater or lesser measures of success. “Conceptual art,” as a movement, simply values “the ideas over the formal or visual components of art works.

Implicit in any definition or discussion of conceptual art is the idea that there must be a physical manifestation of the concept. Even some of the more extreme examples, such as the text work of Lawrence Weiner has physical manifestation, albeit lettering on a wall (here, for example).

While no one is challenging the value of a great idea, whether artistic or technical, the question becomes whether it is legitimate to call such an idea art. A concept is no more than a theory or idea. It must be realized to become art. Anyone who works as an artist knows that there are many ideas or concepts that die in the attempted realization. This fact has driven a number of artists to adopt new media to their service—because the need to realize the idea was so strong.

Even with that, some concepts seemingly defy adequate expression: an idea just doesn’t work as a stage or screen play once you try to express it in dialogue. The thought cannot be realized fully in two-dimensional space. The concept cannot find proper expression in any plastic medium.

Whatever the reason, an unrealized concept is just that—unrealized. It’s an idea, a vision, and nothing more. And attempting to pass off an unrealized idea as art turns that art into an intellectual exercise, or, at worst, an art-world in-joke which is really about cleverness and ego rather than anything that could reasonable be called art.

What Koons attempted to “donate” was the idea of a sculpture, not the sculpture itself. He wanted to give Paris an idea. This is not completely unprecedented; Sol LeWittsold wall drawings that buyers then executed on their own.

Although opinion is divided about the Koon’s “gift,” the majority seem to fall into the negative column. These responses may be best summed up by Isabel Pasquier, an art critic at one of France’s leading radio stations: “Whether you appreciate his art or not, Jeff Koons is a businessman, and we quickly understood that he was offering Paris to himself as a present.”

Good art must, I think, communicate with the perceiver. Conceptual artists would argue that what is communicated is an idea, a concept. While that view is certainly valid, it is also valid that art might communicate an emotion, a feeling and be just as successful. The one thing that is certain—at least in my mind—is that whatever art communicates, that art must be realized in the physical world, no matter how ephemeral that realization might be. Otherwise it’s not art; it’s a dream.

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Art is Powerful and so are Artists

Tuesday, 7. February 2017 0:37

This week a conversation with a friend who is an actor and a writer turned to politics, as so many conversations do these days. He said that he was being very cautious lately because “Federico Garcia Lorca was shot in the street.  You know that sometimes they take the poets first. Why do they do that?” “Because artists are powerful,” was my response.

I was thinking at the time about Patsy Rodenberg’s comments in the video Why I Do Theatre. She says much the same thing as my friend, that often repressive regimes want to suppress the artists first, because artists are powerful and use that power to tell the truth, which is something intolerable to those same repressive governments.

Make no mistake, art is indeed powerful. And that power ranges from the trivial (Hitler’s toothbrush mustache was reportedly copied from Charlie Chaplin and Oliver Hardy) to the profound  (Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, among others moved people with their photographs of American farmers during the Great Depression. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible as a response to the witch trials of 1950s McCarthyism. Shepherd Fairey’s Hope poster became for a time one of modern America’s most influential and imitated pieces of art.)

And powerful art is not limited to the US. Leo Tolstoy has been an influence on a significant numbers of other writers, philosophers, and politicians. Anouilh’s Antigone “became a symbol for the [French] underground during WWII). Rodenberg’s South African actors had all been imprisoned, presumably because they spoke the truth and had influence, at least in the view of Apartheid.  Ai Weiwei continues to make art that is “highly and openly critical of the Chinese Government’s stance on democracy and human rights.

And the power of art translates into personal power for the artist. In a Tiffany’s ad during the 2017 Super Bowl, Lady Gaga says that her transformation into an artist was due to the power that she felt; she goes on to say that talking about how creative one is is “empowering and important.”

Perhaps it’s time that we too recognize the power that we have, that we understand the nature and the potential influence of the creativity we possess. The artists that produced many of the Super Bowl 2017 ads did just that. In addition to making ads to influence buying, several made ads with political content, one of which was so powerful that Fox Sports deemed it “too controversial” to present in full so it ended with a web address where viewers could see the conclusion. The ad generated enough traffic to the 84 Lumber website where the entire ad was posted to crash the website. That’s power.

Certainly all of us do not set out to make political art—but it may be anyway. Nobel winner Toni Morrison has said that “all good art is political.” And she makes a pretty good case for there being no other choice. Morrison is not the only person who thinks this is the case. Regardless of whether we agree, we must remember that by virtue of being creative and artistic, what we make is important and influential and we, ourselves, are powerful. How we use that power is up to each of us individually.

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The Line Between Art and Not

Sunday, 29. November 2015 23:56

Where is the line between Instagram and fine art photography?

Where is the line between popular fiction and literature? (Anyone who says that popular literature has nothing to say about the human condition has read neither Dickens nor King.)

Where is the line between flash mob and ballet?

Where is the line between “tired businessman” theatre and real dramatic art? (We are taught that Shakespeare’s work competed with bear-baiting for the tired businessmen of his day.)

Where is the line between greeting card or newspaper verse and poetry?

Where is the line between sketches, illustrations, and cartoons and visual fine art? (And if there is a line on which side of it do Ralph Steadman and Banksy fall?)

Where are the lines between pornography, pinup art, erotic art, artistic nude, and fine art?

Where is the line between commercial film and art film? (So where do Jim Jarmusch and Woody Allen belong?)

Where is the line between movie music and symphony? (Then where does John Williams fit in?)

Where is the line between professional wrestling and performance art?

Macedonio “The Mace” Guerra speaking in Kristoffer Diaz’s Pulitizer finalist play, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity says there is none. He speaks passionately about the art that is professional wrestling. Luis Galindo, the actor who portrayed Macedonio in the Stages Repertory Theatre production of the play says, “Ultimately, the play is about art.” Even Wikipedia recognizes professional wrestling as a performing art. There is no question that it is performance, but where does it fall in the art continuum? Where are the lines?

Even though the postmodernists said that there is no distinction between high and low art, many who are in the arts act as though the opposite were true. Perhaps it is because many of us in the arts are snobs. Maintaining this position is becoming more and more a difficult in a world where everything is open to investigation with the click of a mouse.

It seems to me that the question is not so much where the line is, but whether there really is a line at all. Is it all just about labels?

Penn Jillette says in Every Day is an Atheist Holiday, “Ron Jeremy has the same job as Picasso and Bach. I know that the mall Santa is the same as Bob Dylan and Katharine Hepburn.” He seems to equate art and show business and says, paraphrasing Billy West, that there is only one show business and all artists and performers are in it.

Of course there is art that is more sophisticated than other art. There is art that encompasses what it means to be human in a much more profound way than other art. There is art that is more expensive than other art.

So perhaps the line should not be between high and low, but between more and less sophisticated or more and less profound or even more and less valuable.

However, the fact that some art is more something-or-other than other art does not prevent the less something-or-other art from being art from speaking to people. Perhaps those people have less education, less sophistication, less money. That does not mean that art that appeals to them is worthless. It just means that those of us who spend our time thinking about art have to think about it all, not just the parts that we think are worthy or the parts that we like.

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High, Low, and Hot

Sunday, 6. September 2015 23:59

The first time I encountered the question of high and low art was in college. When I questioned a professor on why Erskine Caldwell was not critically considered, I was treated to a very interested dose of double-speak, which boiled down to he didn’t know but felt obligated to defend the position of those who did. Since that time I have learned several things, not the least of which is that Caldwell’s books had, in fact, “won him critical acclaim, but also made him controversial among Southerners.” Perhaps the problem was that I went to the college in the South.

For those who haven’t encountered the terms, “high art is appreciated by those with the most cultivated taste. Low art is for the masses, accessible and easily comprehended.” It’s an idea that has its origins in the 18th century, and quickly became the “’correct’ way to classify art.”

We read over and over again that the distinction between high and low art has been eliminated. First it was the post-modernists. Then it was the French New Wave. Then it was Andy Warhol. And there were others, but the idea persists. In fact, the idea is so persistent that Ivan Hewett, writing for The Telegraph in January, 2015 asks “Is it time to end the distinction between high and low art?

Hewett is not the only one. Michael Nirenberg in “It’s a Man’s World: Men’s Adventure Magazines, the Postwar Pulps” reviews the book by the same name specifically discussing the cover art work on men’s adventure magazines of the 1950s and 1960s. Nirenberg makes the point that Mort Künstler, Norman Saunders, Clarence Dore, George Mayers, George Gross, John Styga, Joe Little, Walter Popp, James Bama, and Norm Eastman have created cover art that is nothing short of amazing. “Each page is a study in classic fine art illustration….These artists were able to harness the high art aspirations of American realism and apply it to what was considered low culture values at the time.”

Huffington Post Senior Arts and Culture Editor, Katherine Brooks also wants to end the distinction. In “I Beg Of Your, Please Stop Saying ‘This Isn’t Art” she says, “one man’s trashy art is another man’s masterpiece.” Her assertion is based on scientific studies which find that our aesthetic experiences activate brain areas “that are largely constant across individuals. But these areas are responsible for mediating our subjective and personal experiences.” She concludes that Kant’s idea that beauty is subjective is, in fact, correct and that “humans are capable of having very, very different tastes in art.”

So, at least according to these writers, it’s not about the subject matter or the appeal of the work (although some would say it is about the quality of the work). The division between high and low art is completely artificial, having grown out of a period when the classification and sub-classification of virtually everything was thought to be imperative.

It isn’t. Whether we appreciate Claude Monet or Robert Crumb or Steven King or Leo Tolstoy or Neil Gaiman or Pablo Picasso or one of the “pulp artists” listed above is not important. What should be more concerning is that there are people, educated people, cultured people, people of great taste who appreciate each of these artists. Indeed, there are some who appreciate all of these artists and many more. The question is: what to those who appreciate it all know that we don’t? Perhaps we should be learning whatever that is.

(The title? It came from a radio show that I listened to when I was quite young and radio station offerings were an eclectic jumble of shows that would appeal to different audience segments at various times of the day. “High, Low, and Hot” was an afternoon show that featured blues, jazz—old and new, and R&B, with complete disregard for which were considered high and which low. It was, I am discovering, remarkably influential in forming my personal aesthetic.)

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The Problem with Porn

Tuesday, 14. July 2015 23:23

One of the Terms of Use of a web-site hosting company to which I was planning on moving my web sites is “No adult content.” That phrase is usually code for pornography, but still, it is an ambiguous term that is open to a lot of interpretations. Since some of my work is not appropriate for children and because I didn’t want to make an expensive mistake, I asked for a clarification. They asked to see my work so they could make a determination. I sent them links to my photography web site and to a couple of projects that have not yet appeared on the web. They concluded that my work was definitely not pornography and that they would be happy to host my site.

This incident led me to think about pornography—what it is, how it works. So I did a little informal research. One of the first things I discovered was that no two people have the same definition. Even dictionaries disagree about the definition. I discovered that almost everyone has an opinion. Some I asked even took the discussion beyond definitions and opined about various sociological and psychological impacts of porn. It also became apparent that the range of activities that constitute porn also varies from person to person.

Definitions seemed not only to revolve around content, but around treatment as well: “intercourse filmed for commercial purposes,” “impersonal recording of sex,” “a visual recording of sex that has no artistic merit,” “it has to do with intent.”

Some could not frame a definition and were of the “I can’t really give you a definition, but I know it when I see it” school of thought made famous by Justice Potter Stewart in Jacobellis v. Ohio. (Obviously, the sales staff at my new hosting site are in this camp.)

Interestingly, almost everyone—except those whose ideas included an extremely wide range of “offensive” behaviors—had a definition that contained at least one element of the Miller Test, although no one quoted it directly or stated it in exactly the same way. (I’m sure that some I asked had never even heard of Miller v. California.)

Why is that important? Well, one of the elements of the Miller test that was mentioned had to do with art. The respondent said that porn is a work about sex “having little or no artistic merit.” (Actually Miller is considerably broader than that.)

It turns out that no one knows what that phrase means either—mostly because no one can articulate the components of artistic merit. Again, they know it when they see it, or so they say; they just don’t have the words to define it. In this case, however, I may have a clue. A couple of people that I talked to suggested that one of the problems with pornography is that it leaves nothing to the imagination. A slight change of wording yields “pornography does not engage the imagination of the audience.” And that, I think, in addition to being true, is the key.

The next step for me was to look at pieces of art that are non-pornographic in terms of content. Of the pieces that are, to my mind, very good, those that exhibit significant artistic merit, in some way engage the audience’s imagination. It may be that the audience wonders how the story ends; it may be that the audience tries to discern the meaning of the piece; it may be that audience spends some time putting the elements of the piece together; it may be some entirely different thing. There are certainly many ways to engage an audience’s imagination.

But some artists don’t bother. Art that falls into the less-than-significantly-good categories, even though it adheres to the principles of design and all of the corollaries, does not engage the viewer’s imagination. This seems to hold true for all media, at least all that I examined. It’s a simple thing—engaging the imagination of the audience—but a very important thing. It is something of which all artists should be aware if they are not already.

So the problem with porn, or at least one of the problems with porn, is the same as the problem with much art that we find lacking: it fails to engage the imagination of its audience. Engaging the imagination of the viewer may not be on our minds as we create, but perhaps it should be. Perhaps it should be foremost in our minds—that is if we want our work to be the best it can be.

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