by Jess Howard
Earlier on this month, Playboy magazine announced that their publication will no longer be featuring nudity as of March 2016. Citing the rise of easy access to internet pornography, the company has decided to pull their famous images from the publication in a bid to reconcile their disintegrating readership with their increasing online audience, which went nudity free at the end of last year.
Playboy made a name for itself during the 1950s, when sex and nudity where far less mainstream and far more taboo. Having previously worked for Esquire, after leaving due to a financial disagreement (when he was denied a raise of $5) founder Hugh Hefner set up the publication from his home in Chicago, Illinois. Unsure as to whether or not the publication would thrive, the first magazine was undated in case a second issue was not produced. Having purchased a nude image of film star Marilyn Monroe, taken before she had found success in the entertainment industry, Hefner placed it on the cover. As we now know, the magazine was to be a huge success.
Playboy making the decision to remove nudity from its publication causes a number of questions to arise. Aside from the notion that the internet is increasingly responsible for the demise of magazine and print publications, there is also the company’s suggestion that pornography is becoming too mainstream, and far to easily accessible to the public. This has therefore stripped Playboy of the edge that made it so popular in the sexually repressed, post-war 1950s US (and later across the world). Previously I have written an article on revenge porn, but this allows us to discuss pornography in a different light. It allows me to ask where does pornography fit into art and day-to-day society?
Instead of looking to the accessibility of pornography, where each day millions of photographs or videos are accessed daily, and pornography has become a £63,000,000,000 industry, I find it interesting to consider how pornographic images fit into art history and the visual arts, where it is considered to be more of an art form than a method of sexual expression. There is no doubt about it, these types of images are far more respected in an art gallery than they would be on an X rated website.
what is it about nude art forms that sets them in much higher standing that the images of Playboy, online images or purchasable videos?
Artists have been painting nudes for hundreds of years, historically through the role and form of the Venus. Titian painted Venus of Urbino, a painting of a young woman laid out on a bed, for the Duke of Urbino II Della Rovere as a gift to his wife in 1538, whilst both Impressionist and Cubist artists painted nudes throughout the majority of each movement. But what is it about nude art forms that sets them in much higher standing that the images of Playboy, online images or purchasable videos?
Could the artist play a significant role in this, with their reputation and social standing, particularly historically, being held in higher esteem than those who film and produce pornography for easily accessible use? In my opinion, it is seemingly rare in today’s society for people to know the names and works of many modern artists, whilst internet personalities are becoming more famous every day.
Alternatively, is it the way in which we view these images? The white cube or black box gallery setting says something far more highbrow about an image than what can be contextually read from a top shelf magazine. Or is it the medium? Do we have a higher opinion of nudity being produced in oil or watercolour than we do in photograph or film? Although, if this were the case, then nude photographs taken by an artist for display in a gallery would fall into the same category as mainstream pornography. As we delve deeper into the issues of why one industry seems to have more societal value than the other, it becomes far more of a grey area.
we must look to how society’s opinions of sex and nudity have developed through time
Arguably, to make a decision as to whether or not art and pornography can be looked at through the same eyes we must look to how society’s opinions of sex and nudity have developed through time. Whereas, historically, nudity has been considered shocking, and was relatively unseen, today we see sex on a daily basis, be it through music videos, the internet or advertising. I would argue that it is not art’s attitude to the naked form itself that has changed, but rather society’s opinions on what is or isn’t considered to be extreme of obscene. An emerging level of open-mindedness that is inevitably only going to increase.