Difference Between Nudity in Art and Pornography

Like the old Supreme Court ruling so succinctly put it, “I don’t know how to define pornography, but I know it when I see it.” The line between the ordinary nude human form is a narrow one, and one we’ve only felt the need to draw in recent decades. As recently as 1916, the United States mint issued silver quarters with a bare-breasted Lady Liberty on them, and nobody had a problem with it.



Asking “Is it art or is it porn?” tends to provoke practitioners of both – pornographers who will protest that what they’re making is indeed art, and artists who will be tempted to create a painting so ambiguous that the question can never be answered. But the biggest agreed standard is intent: If the work was intended to make any artistic statement, it’s art. If it was intended just to arouse, such as the videos on YouPorn, it’s porn.


But what if you get aroused at some niche stimulus? Director Quentin Tarantino has famously copped to a foot fetish and tends to include at least one scene with a barefoot woman in nearly every one of his films. So, are feet porn for him? The question gets tricky. In the subjective eye of the beholder, anything can be either or both. There are many videos out there supposedly done as porn for niche interests that other people wouldn’t see the point to.

By the way, cultural variations tend to push this boundary around. In Japan, showing public hair is a huge taboo, so even movies that will show anything else will avoid showing one patch of it. In Victorian times, merely the knee was considered sexy, so skirts went all the way down to the ankles and to show a woman’s knee in public would raise a scandal. So, the supposed indecency of a situation may be more of a factor of the social context than anything else.

Moral guardians and censors tend to not care about this question and slash the line well past art into simple health education. Currently in US culture, breastfeeding in public is frowned on, schools struggle to teach sex education, and plain old art galleries have a difficult time showing innocent Greek statuary without getting shut down. This tends to blur the line and make the distinction all that harder to draw; if we’re destined to cover every inch of human flesh no matter how innocent, doesn’t that make everything porn?