Moral panic: Porn, art, or both?


There’s plenty of debate on where the line is between art and pornography, or whether there really is a line at all. But before we start comparing the two, it’s a good idea to first define both terms.

Art: “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance” (Define Art at, 2015).

Pornography: “obscene writings, drawings, photographs, or the like, especially those having little or no artistic merit” (Define Pornography at, 2015).

So what are the differences and similarities between the raw definitions of these two terms? Looking at the definition of art on its own, it seems as though pornography fits the same criteria. Pornography is created for the sole purpose of being aesthetically beautiful, appealing, and of more than ordinary significance; as per the definition of art. However, the dictionary definition of pornography completely contradicts this, stating that the word ‘pornography’ is especially definitive of erotic images with little or no artistic merit. So why is it that one thing can essentially be defined by two vastly different terms?

Dictionary definitions aside, art and pornography share many fundamental concepts. I created the cover image above to illustrate an art gallery hosting content that some people would consider pornographic, though many would also argue that there is plenty of artistic merit to the images, allowing them to essentially fall under both definitions. The dictionary definition of pornography is fairly broad as it relies heavily on the reader’s perception of what can be considered ‘obscene’. For example, in some cultures where faces or complete bodies are to be covered, a facial portrait may be considered obscene. So is there any art that can’t be considered pornographic? Or any porn that can’t be considered art?

The two following characteristics can often be used, to an extent, to determine if an artwork can be considered pornographic:

  • Viewer intention
    • “It’s what people are going to use it for. Are they going to look at it and admire it? Or are they going to use it in a sexual way?” (The Resident 2009). However, using this alone to determine whether or not an artwork is pornographic is unreliable, as it’s impossible to determine the intention of every viewer of an artwork.
  • Artist’s intention
    • Many would also say that it’s more so the intention of the content creator than the viewer, however artists aren’t always able to convey their intended meaning to their audience. It’s possible that their artwork could be interpreted as something completely different to what they intended, and this also relies on the viewer intention.

What I’ve concluded from this is that it’s often hard to determine whether an image can be defined as art, pornography, or even both. The way in which we define both of these terms are too broad to draw any sort of definitive line between the two. Contributing to this are the ambiguous dictionary definition of pornography, varying cultural perceptions of what is obscene, and difficulties in determining the intent of both the viewer and artist of a piece of content. Until we can refine these, we will always have issues differing between what is and isn’t porn.


Cover image Photoshop’d from the following images: 1 2 3 4 5 6

Scerra, S., 2011, Drawing the line between art and porn… if there is one, Called To Write, viewed 19 April 2015, <>

The Resident 2009, Nudity: Art or Porn?, online video, 22 December, The Resident, viewed 20 April 2015, <>