Florida is another country. In most of the rest of the world, Michelangelo’s sculpture of David is celebrated as one of the finest works of the Italian Renaissance. It is the star attraction at Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia, where it has resided since 1870.
David was tiny in relation to Goliath, so it’s ironic that the statue is over five metres tall. When first made, at the start of the 1500s, it had symbolic value for a small city-state regularly under threat from larger, more powerful forces. David, the smaller, weaker one, slew the giant against the odds.
But what strikes most viewers is the beauty of the idealised youth, the scale, the artfulness of the carving, and, yes, it has to be said, the fact that he is naked. David’s undersize genitalia are on full display, and small or not, you can’t miss them.
It’s this absence of fig leaves that worried two Florida parents recently when a teacher used a picture of the statue in class without first alerting them. One of them described the image as “pornographic”. The consequence of their complaints has been the forced resignation of the teacher.
In a surreal twist, it turns out that The Simpsons predicted something quite similar in a 1990 episode: Springfield residents oppose the display of Michelangelo’s David in a touring exhibition, describing it as “filth”. A protester tells Marge Simpson (who calmly defends David as art): “It graphically portrays parts of the human body which, practical as they may be, are evil.” On Springfield TV the announcer asks the rhetorical question that is presumably being asked all over Florida today: “Is it a masterpiece or just some guy with his pants down?”
All this invites the question, what is pornography? The simplest answer is that it is any depiction or portrayal that is created mainly or exclusively to arouse the viewer.
The ultimate tribute to a great work of art is to linger in front of it and to be transported by it; the ultimate tribute to pornography is masturbation to orgasm. That’s what it’s for.
Art and pornography aren’t mutually exclusive categories, as art can incorporate pornographic elements. Historically most western art has been created by men for heterosexual (and occasionally homosexual) men. As John Berger demonstrated back in 1972 in his TV series Ways of Seeing, much of this used myths and Biblical stories as pretexts for depicting naked women twisting to display their buttocks and breasts to the straight male gaze.
Artists used the artiness of art as a smokescreen for titillation. If it wasn’t exactly pornography, a lot of it was heading that way.
But sometimes artists go much further and include explicit sexual content to shock or arouse. Think of Robert Mapplethorpe’s self-portrait with a bullwhip or Jeff Koons’ Made in Heaven series, in which he photographed himself in flagrante delicto with his then wife, Ilona Staller, aka Cicciolina.
For such NSFW art to be more than pornography, which it superficially resembles, it needs to embody a way of seeing its subject, a tenderness, perhaps, a heightened beauty in the way the bodies are depicted, or else should have irony, or humour, or be of symbolic significance beyond literal readings of what is depicted.
The Ancient Greek sculptor Praxiteles made two statues of Aphrodite. One depicted her draped, but in the other she was naked in the characteristic “Venus pudica” pose with her hand hiding her most intimate parts. This second statue was kept in a temple in Knidos. Pliny the Elder recounts the story of a young man who became so obsessed with the representation of the goddess that he hid in the temple overnight and left semen stains on its marble buttocks. So there certainly is at least one classical precedent for treating a statue as pornography.
But what this and the protesting parents in Florida show is that what makes something useable as pornography can be partly in the eye of the beholder. With enough imagination you could see David as some hot young guy with his pants down. But that’s a very quirky reading and involves ignoring so much else about it.
A fetishist could get highly aroused by a shoe catalogue, but it would be a category mistake to infer from that that the catalogue is pornography. It’s still a shoe catalogue that someone is using as pornography.
Perhaps the parents’ complaints show more about their minds and how they work than they do about Michelangelo’s art.