Art, Beauty, and Pornography


This fascinating book isolates the significant factors underlying the proliferation of pornography in American society. With incommon originality, Jon Huer contends that a culture with an insatiable appetite for the beautiful will demand it with ever-increasing intensity, and inevitably create a "culture of pornography."
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This fascinating book isolates the significant factors underlying the proliferation of pornography in American society. With incommon originality, Jon Huer contends that a culture with an insatiable appetite for the beautiful will demand it with ever-increasing intensity, and inevitably create a "culture of pornography."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780879753979
  • Publisher: Prometheus Books
  • Publication date: 4/28/1987
  • Pages: 239
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 0.87 (d)

Meet the Author

"Reaffirms the value of art as a gesture of symbolic idealism." Artweek
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Table of Contents

Preface 9
1. Connections and Disconnections 13
2. What Is Art? 21
3. What Is Beauty? 33
4. Art and Beauty 49
5. Analysis of the Arts 65
6. The Ultimate Judgment 79
7. The Artist 89
8. The Hero in Art 107
9. Art Collection 117
10. Material and Immaterial Art 137
11. Art and Democracy 151
12. From Art to Pornography 169
13. What is Pornography? 183
14. Pornography and the Marketplace 195
15. Freedom and the Moral Community 211
Conclusion: A Journey Back to Art 229
Index 233
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First Chapter


Connections and Disconnections

Art and pornography ostensibly stand on opposite ends of a traditional dichotomy: art is considered beautiful, while pornography is viewed by many to be ugly; art is moral, while pornography is often thought of as immoral, and so on. In this traditional model, beauty of course stands on the side of art. The connection between art and beauty has been so strong in our traditional cultural assumptions that philosophers consider both under one classification, "aesthetics," which means both "the study of art" and "the beautiful." In fact, we frequently assume art and beauty to be two sides of one coin; if not exactly identical, both are necessary to make up the whole. But is this really true? Is there actually a link between art and beauty or is our traditional view mistaken?

Then there is beauty and pornography, the latter being one of those things in American culture that attracts and repels at the same time: it fascinates people of all ages and yet draws strong condemnation from some quarters, the intensity of which is matched only by the curiosity that pornography evokes in those who seem to like it. But those who tolerate or even approve of pornography--for private as well as public reasons--might never associate it with beauty; at best, pornography is considered a "necessary evil" that occupies a corner in the marketplace. To its detractors pornography is dirty, ugly, and evil; beauty is the last thing one would connect with it. After all, it is "obvious" that we connect art, and not pornography, with beauty. But could this view be mistaken?

Contrary to our traditional response, I would suggest that (1) art and beauty are unrelated and (2) beauty and pornography are related.

The role of beauty in art has been debated since the time of Plato, but these discussions have largely centered on the nature of its role in art, not whether it plays a role at all. In fact, beauty does not stand on the side of art, and is not the cause of art. In many respects, beauty is inversely related to art; that is, the more "beautiful" an artwork is initially, the less "artistic" it tends to be in the long run, historically speaking.

Take the simple example of the wind-chime. An infant, if positioned comfortably under the wind-chime, will delight in the many and varied sounds it creates at his touch. But the child is responding to the beauty of the sound, not to art. The sounds, as pretty as they are, are no symphony, and the wind-chime no orchestra. There is no intentional arrangement present. No matter how pleasing the wind-chime's sound may be, it will never become a symphony. Here we have two separate concepts: art and beauty. Beauty remains only what is pleasurable, although this has many variations in form and content. Art is not created out of beauty, and something does not necessarily have to contain beauty to be art.

How is art created? Surely, a symphony can be inspired out of wind-chime sounds, but then a symphony might be inspired out of anything. There is no logical connection between beauty and art in the sense that the sounds of the wind-chime will directly inspire a symphony. There is no historical evidence linking an artwork (say, Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, da Vinci's Mona Lisa, or Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet) to beauty, either in the latter's means or as its end. How does the wind-chime make its logical leap from being the source of beautiful sounds to an artwork like the Unfinished Symphony? The wind-chime sounds remain pleasant and beautiful, but they are still not art, like a composition. And the two shall never meet.

To use another illustration: Let us take the Miss America Pageant, an annual celebration of feminine beauty in American society, in which the most "beautiful" woman is selected to represent American womanhood. She is considered the most beautiful woman in America, or "The Beauty Queen," other necessary virtues being reasonably present in her person. Still, does American society consider Miss America a "work of art" to be treasured and cherished? Apparently not, for we seem to get tired of the most beautiful woman in America and go eagerly after another beauty at the end of the year. Why do we so unceremoniously discard the most beautiful woman in America, if beauty were art, while another woman, by the name of Mona Lisa, who is no lavish beauty, is universally admired for centuries?

Because the infant delights in the wind-chime's sounds, and because we select women (and sometimes men) for the celebration of things beautiful, history has long assumed that there is some "natural" ability in human beings to respond to art, forgetting that the response is not to art, but to beautiful things. This temptation to unite beauty and art has been almost irresistable. Wherever we see beauty, we presume art to exist as well. There is another, equally pervasive assumption about art and beauty: Art is, on this view, anything that humans create as part of their response to the beautiful; human history is, after all, a history of trying to make life more comfortable and pleasant, and art emerges essentially in the midst of this process. The term aesthetics has traditionally referred to both that which is art and that which is beautiful, and the art-public has more or less accepted the notion of art-as-beauty and beauty-as-art. Inspite of these traditional assumptions, I shall argue subsequently that art and beauty are two mutually exclusive categories.

I believe these assumptions are grave errors that permeate every level of society. As a first step in making my case, I shall define "art" and "aesthetics" (traditionally thought of as one and the same) as two separate concepts. Art refers to an object we already recognize as an artwork; Madame Bovary or the Hammerklavier is an artwork, about which I shall have much to say in succeeding chapters. Aesthetics refers to any object of beauty that is created and exists for the sole purpose of pleasing our senses. Madame Bovary, or the Hammerklavier, has nothing to do with beauty as the term is understood normally, and certainly was not created in the pursuit of beauty, for beauty merely leads to beauty in its logical sequence. Art is a specific conception, associated with a particular set of ideas. Beauty is a general response to the environment that culminates in diffused accommodation of that environment.

Now that the separation of art and aesthetics has been established, we can move on to the last of the three concepts: "pornography." How is pornography related to art and aesthetics? Let us turn our attention to the objects in Figures 1-1 and 1-2: the first being the famous Aphrodite of Cyrene while the second is a model. Similarly posed and presented, both figures are beautiful. The former has survived historical judgment; the latter the scrutiny of a mercilessly competitive marketplace where many vie for the honor. What makes one a work of art, to be worshiped and admired, yet the other is pornography to be discarded, even condemned? If art is beautiful and, conversely, the beautiful is art, why is the model, obviously beautiful as a physical human specimen, subject to scorn and abuse? These questions lead to another equally important aspect of the art-beauty-pornography triad.

Figure 1-2, the unfortunate maiden of contempt, is an aesthetically pleasing object because her image pleases our senses, which always desire the beautiful, in human bodies as well as other objects. There are three indisputable facts that need to be set forth at this point: (1) that the depiction in Figure 1-2 is beautiful, (2) that it is not art, and (3) that the same object is pornography. But the irony surrounding this contradiction--i.e., the state of being both beautiful and contemptible at the same time--raises an intriguing question: how can beauty lead to pornography in this instance, instead of art? Searching for an answer to this question establishes the surprising, even disturbing, fact that the pursuit of the beautiful, if it follows its own logical progression, almost inevitably produces pornography and almost never art. (The latter case has already been examined in the wind-chime-symphony example.) Why, contrary to our belief, does beauty have nothing to do with art and everything to do with pornography? The answer lies in the very nature of beauty, or aesthetics.

Every beautiful object is an object of pleasure, as defined by our senses. The more beautiful the object, the more pleasurable it becomes. By the same logic, the most beautiful object is that which most pleases our senses. It turns out that our quest for the beautiful is not the same as our quest for art; instead, it is a quest for an ever-increasing volume of beautiful things. Since art and beauty have no connection, the quest for beauty leads to something quite different: things that please our senses. Just imagine a beautiful sunset with all its usual, eye-pleasing components--colors, clouds, the splendor of a setting sun, the gleaming earth, and so on. Then add a female figure, fully dressed, to the picture. The visual sense is pleased with the addition but it wants more. At least from the male sense's viewpoint, the eye demands that, to increase its visual pleasure, the female disrobe. With the female now in the nude, the eye is more pleased than before. Could the visual sense demand more pleasure? Certainly. We can add a male figure, another female figure, still more figures in variations and combinations and so on--as many as our eyes can demand and our imaginations can supply. Without following this line of thought any farther, what is more pleasing to our senses than a sexual object, or pornography? We discover, with some consternation, that the connection between art and beauty, which is often taken for granted, does not actually exist, while that between beauty and pornography--a connection never before suspected--does exist.

Obviously, the pursuit of the beautiful does not result invariably in pornography. Yet, I am prepared to argue that pornography occupies a commanding position among the sense-pleasing objects in our environment. The reason is simply that sex (as a simple natural fact, Freud's views notwithstanding) is the most persistent sensory element in our existence. A small distance exists between trying to please the senses generally and trying to please the most dominant of those senses. It is sensorily pleasurable to hear the sound of the wind-chime; but the senses also take pleasure in sexually stimulating objects. The conventional approach has always considered the wind-chime to be music (as art). However, we discover that the pleasure associated with the wind-chime is the same pleasure, given its sensory nature, that is associated with the strongest of such sensory pleasures, that is, sexual pleasure. The senses that desire to be pleased do not stop at the wind-chime. As long as society is willing and able to provide further sensory pleasures, there is no reason that the pursuit will not end with the most powerful of such pleasures. Hence, sexual pleasures in general and pornographic pleasures in particular are the end result.

By separating art from the beautiful ("aesthetics") and joining the beautiful with pornography, I am attempting to enhance our understanding of art-experience and make the issue of pornography less confusing. To summarize the main points of contention in this introduction: the aesthetic quest for beauty (for that which is pleasing to the senses) has never caused artistic accomplishments; but it has certainly and ironically motivated pornographers because, to put it simply, pornography pleases the senses. (To prove this point further, I devised a test to see if people could tell the "obvious" difference between art and pornography. I selected ten "erotic art" photos and mixed them randomly with ten pornographic pictures taken from popular men's magazines. Even my fellow social scientists failed the test.)

Three types of activity will concern us in the course of our discussion: art produces artworks; aesthetics produces pleasant, beautiful things; and pornography produces sexually stimulating things. Let us call the producer of art "the artist," the producer of aesthetics "the entertainer," and the producer of pornography "the pornographer." We have no trouble with the first and the last, but the idea of "entertainer" for the one who gives us beautiful things might require further explanation. This should help the skeptics among us who still find it difficult to believe that beauty is connected to pornography and not to art, a skepticism that I hope will decrease as we move along. Here, in schematic form, are the three activities:

Artist: the art-producer, one who gives us artworks.

Entertainer: the beauty-producer, one who gives us pleasurable things, many of which are quite beautiful to look at. (How else can we describe one whose sole purpose is to please our senses with beautiful and pleasant objects?)

Pornographer: the pornography-producer, one who gives us sexually pleasurable things, many of which are quite beautiful to look at.

The descriptions of the entertainer and the pornographer are almost identical (with the exception of the word "sexually" applied to the function of the latter), which makes sense if one thinks about it. While art and beauty are unrelated, beauty and pornography are actually cousins; they can and do easily exchange their functions, identities, and ideas with each other, but the same could not be said of the artist. (See the diagram at the end of this chapter.)

There are practical problems, however, despite this seemingly clear classification of the three activities and their interrelations, for we tend to hear confusing descriptions of entertainers as artists. There are "recording artists" (for rock and country singers); a group made up of popular singers like Michael Jackson and Prince produced a record, calling it "United Support of Artists." For many it is quite natural to call someone like Frank Sinatra, a superb entertainer to be sure, "the Artist of the Decade." These and many other similar uses of the term artist create confusion, but it is a confusion we must overcome for the sake of art experience. This overcoming will not be made easier unless we can clarify the respective meanings of, and interrelations among, art, beauty, and pornography. This we shall attempt to do in the following pages.

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