The distinction between the erotic and the obscene, between art and pornography, continue to cause conflict to this day. One need only recall the recent brouhaha when FaceBook censored Courbet's 1866 painting The Origin of the World (L'Origine du monde) in a social media post.
Though many would agree with Justice Potter Stewart that “I know it when I see it," obscenity is difficult to define and its perception can vary over time (e.g., in the 1896 short film The May Irwin Kiss, a fairly chaste peck on the lips, was considered pornographic). However, many would class graphic depictions of sexual subject matter created solely for sexual arousal as obscene, whether or not there is any “redeeming social value.”
While every age tends to think it invented sex (cf. Cole Porter's 1934 lyrics for Anything Goes), the current exhibit at the Museum of Sex - Hardcore: A Century & a Half of Obscene Imagery — seeks to show that hardcore pornographic imagery, which is so readily available today online, is not a 21st century invention but has been around for a very long time.
As a museum exhibit, it begins with establishing a context for its thesis: Text panels discuss the graphic frescoes uncovered in Pompeii, the 16th century “father of pornography” Pietro Aretino, and “Fanny Hill,” considered the first pornographic novel, all illustrated with period imagery. Further context is offered by samples of 19th century brothel guides and “health manuals.”
The advent of photography added a level of reality to pornographic imagery that did not exist before. The viewer knew that these were real people presented in the images, not an artist's imagining. While the long exposure times and singular nature of the daguerreotype process limited its use by pornographers, the eventual shift to the negative/positive process allowed multiple copies to be easily made. By the 1860's there was booming trade in salacious images created as “artist studies.” Consequently, the crux of the exhibit is a selection of thirty late 19th and early 20th century photographs. These small vintage prints illustrate many of the tropes of modern hardcore pornography: erections, body fluids, genital close-ups, insertion of animate and inanimate objects in various orifices, straight and gay, groups, etc. There is even an example of an early selfie taken by a spanking fetishist. (Near the end of the exhibit area there is another display of almost fifty snapshots found hidden in the walls of a Brooklyn brownstone. It provides a vernacular contrast to the more “professional” images shown before.) Unfortunately, the space in which the exhibit is mounted has dark walls and low lighting — not the best environment to view photographs or read text panels.
While sequences of still images and stereographs offered a bit more realism for the viewer's titillation, it was not until the development of motion pictures that the next big boom in hardcore occurred with the first porn film appearing in 1896. Movie porn is illustrated in the exhibit with three video loops of mid-20th century low-budget silent stag reels (shown next to a loop of 30's porn cartoons). The action is mostly straight though one film shows a rare example of gay oral sex (most films of this period were hetero-centric given the even more underground nature of homosexuality). Oddly, the exhibit then jumps to the early 1970's and closes with a video clip from Deep Throat as an example of porn's cross-over success into the mainstream culture (though in the 1980's the Reagan years brought a significant backlash).
While this exhibit does cover “a century & a half of obscene imagery,” it felt incomplete. There were a number of technological developments that impacted hardcore porn imagery and production that deserve mention (and examplars). In the 1950's, way before the advent of digital and cellfones, Edwin Land's “instant film” Polaroid cameras sparked an upsurge in homemade porn. Similarly, in the 1970's, videotape and camcorders gave new meaning to the term “home movies” (let alone impacting on the economics and talent pool of the professional porn industry as depicted in the film Boogie Nights). It would be interesting to see how these and other issues would be addressed in a more comprehensive exhibit
Hard Core A Century and a Half of Obscene Imagery Museum of Sex 233 Fifth Ave. Chelsea Map 212 689 6337 museumofsex.com June 25 through Thurs, Dec 31, 2015 Hours: Sun-Thurs, 10 to 8; Fri, Sat, 10 to 9