Monday, June 21, 2010

When is it Art? When is it Pornography?

Awhile back a good friend gave me a beautiful book called "Great Women of the Bible in Art and Literature" by Dorothee Soelle and Joe H. Kirchberger. It is a beautiful collection of insights on about a dozen women from the Bible complete with paintings of how these women have been portrayed in art throughout the centuries. I've really enjoyed it. Yet as I was flipping through it with my husband he pointed about that we would probably have to hide this book from our son when he got older because it had some naked women in it.

One of the pictures that he was concerned with is Jan Massys, "Judith" painted in the 14th century. It portrays Judith, a woman mentioned in the apocrypha, totally bare chested, wrapped in a scarlet cloth and holding the severed head of the general Holofernes (if you want to read the whole story it is fantastic). There is also Theodore Chasseriau's Esther which depicts a very bare chested and beautiful Esther getting ready for her night with the King.

Now my question is, "Are these appropriate pictures to have in my home?" It isn't like I'm hanging them on the wall, but if my son ever wanted to he could pick this book up and stare at these painting all he wanted. Will a naked woman, even if it is a 400 year-old painting, just be a naked woman to a 10 year-old boy and should I be concerned about having pictures like this around where one day he can find them? (Keep in mind he is 2 and half right now so I'm not super worried about it... yet).

Personally I think these paintings are beautiful and I don't think that the intent of the artists were at all pornographic. I believe their intent in showing these women bare chested was to emphasize their femininity and their power. Up until the last century it was very common for women to bare their chests while breastfeeding and breasts back then would have equated femininity and maternity whereas today they equate sex. Still, if this was a photograph instead of a painting there would be NO way I would tolerate it in my home. I would consider it pornography.

So where do we draw the line between art and pornography? Is there a difference or it is all relative?

I'd really love to hear what you think or what has been your experience.


  1. Hi, my friend told me about your blog and I've really enjoyed reading it. This post really stuck out because this one has always confused me. Especially being around theater. Things are OK to do, and say, if your character is doing, and saying, them, but you yourself would never do them. I guess my thoughts would be as long as it is tasteful and not overdone.

  2. I absolutely think it's ok to have it in your home. I fear our culture of making nudity- breasts particularly- so incredibly "taboo" only make them more appealing to, say, the average teenage boy. If you can show them as not-always-sexual, non-curious (though still sacred) objects, I think it helps a lot for the day that, no matter how diligent you are, your son will somehow see breasts. It's a good opportunity to have a "learning experience" in your home, in your control, of how to handle such things, how to be respectful and reverent of the female body (And explain why WE don't walk around showing our breasts).

  3. For me a picture ceases to be art when the intention of the artwork is to arouse a person sexually.

    I don't believe either of the images you referenced fit into that category. They were not painted with the intention of sexually exciting their intended audience.

    You can always go with the 1964 Supreme Court decision definition as described by Justice Potter Stewart, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced . . . [b]ut I know it when I see it . . . "

  4. I love your blog, I just heard about it from a friend recently.

    I agree with the comments so far, a lot of it has to deal with the intention and if the purpose is a sexual purpose. I am an art major and as such I am required to take many drawing classes, and last semester, for the first time, I was in a class where we had a nude model. I was really uncomfortable with the idea initially. I went to class and after the first session I was very relieved. I couldn't believe how NONsexual it was. I thought it might be weird since there are male students in the class as well, but no, the female model was completely professional and it wasn't at all awkward or uncomfortable like I thought it might be. That changed my perspective a lot, because I realized that it is not a nude body that is evil, it is the environment, action, or intention of the nude person/photographer/film maker, etc. that makes it evil because it is twisted into a perverse thing. I'm not saying that artwork isn't ever pornographic, because I have definitely seen that happen, but what I am saying is Yes, it is possible for it to NOT be pornographic as well.

  5. What a thought-provoking question that is often re-visited by many. By the way, I enjoy reading your blog and I'm the art history student you met a long time ago when you spoke at the WRI farewell meeting where I sang a song from Wicked.

    Anyway, I think this is a very tricky question that requires a lot of thought in measuring where your own personal standards are. However, I would agree that these images in my mind are in no way pornographic and while I understand your desire to be cautious, I think it's good to teach your kids that not all nudity is bad. Bodies are sacred, beautiful things and you're exactly right that the standards of representation have changed over time. I agree that having this in your home is a great way for you to have control over the learning environment where you teach your son these important lessons in a profane world. Plus, not to be pessimistic, but there are plenty of wholesole images that can be turned pornographic, and that is a power that rests within a person's own mind and their use of agency.

    Plus you want your son to be able to take an art history class in his future, right :) By the way if you want an excellent image of Judith, check out Artemisia Gentilleschi. If you are interested in more insights about women and art, check out a guest post that I wrote on

  6. The tradition of illustrating bare chested women in heroic history hearkens back to antiquity and the worship of the Queen of Heaven, spoken of in the Old Testament. She is that same goddess worshiped under many names in many cultures: Isis, Hathor, Aster, Astarte and Aphrodite. These goddesses, like their human counterparts, were almost always depicted bare chested since the breast was one of their common icons - not because they were women but because an ancient cosmological phenomenon looked like a female human breast to the ancients. They also described it as an eye or the hub and nave of a wheel. They also remembered this astral icon as a child in the womb of the celestial goddess. That's where the 'child on the lap' imagery so prevalent in ancient cultures and the Catholic tradition of Jesus on Mary's lap comes from. So, depicting bare breasted women was a way of equating them with these ancient goddesses, much like depicting a king with a crown gave him elevated status. So, what we are discussing here is ancient, sacred imagery, not pornography.

  7. I agree with what you wrote about it being art. There are many famous staues and paintings out there that are very tastefully done if you understand the period of the piece. If it was a photograph than it would have been done in more recent times, so the thought and intent are different. I agree that it can be a great teaching tool for our youth as more and more schools are taking away art education from our children. I think that as a parent you can direct your children for good and teach them properly the rightous way to view such things.

  8. What wonderful insights you all have. I think it is a really good point that we need to teach our children, when they are young, about the sacred nature of the body and help them learn the difference between righteous uses of it and wicked ones. I also especially like what toekneenose said about breasts being like putting a crown on the top of a kings head. I think these artists had MUCH different perspectives on women's body that many people do today.

    So I'm thinking the book stays. I'll just have to make sure to talk about it at a young age with my son and daughter and I think you are all right... it will be a GREAT teaching tool.

    Besides they are such BEAUTIFUL paintings!

  9. I am teaching my kids art history at home this summer, and one of the things we are going over is renaissance paintings. I think that art can be beautiful and moving. I also think it is an individual experience. I suspect my girls will laugh and we will have to discuss modesty, but I also am hoping that they see how beautiful the body really is. People and the media are what make it bad. It was never intended to be filthy and bad. I think art can teach my girls a different perspective.

  10. I think you have to be careful. Ask your husband. I don't know. I don't have any boys. I do know that I have lived through and been redeemed from the sin of pornography and allot of religious people are in denial that they have a problem. I believe a young boy starting puberty needs to avoid at all costs the things that would cause him to sin in his mind. I clicked and saw the picture and got embarrassed but that's me. When I breastfeed my toddler in public I am completely covered up because I understand we are fallen creatures and any pervert can look at that and get sexually aroused. I just think you have to be cautious but above all else pray first and then ask your husband. :)

  11. Thanks for being the newest follower of my blog. This is a very important question you brought up. I am sad to see so many women in the previous comments "tugged in the wrong direction". Your husband knows what turns a man on and it doesn't have to be "sexually provocative" to be sexually provocative. I am an artist and have faced this same question with my art books. Needless to say I have thrown a few out or painted over with permanent marker the exposed parts.

    Search the teachings of the living prophets and apostles and not the traditions of an immoral society that ended and crumbled centuries ago.

    It might interest you to know this quote by president Monson, Ensign 1992 “An Example of the Believers”:

    "we live in a time when there are those who mock virtue, who peddle pornography under the guise of art or culture, who turn a blind eye, a deaf ear, and a calloused heart to the teachings of Jesus and a code of decency. Many of our young people are tugged in the wrong direction and enticed to partake of the sins of the world."

    I let my husband read these comments and review your question and asked him if he would give some words from a male perspective. I hope it will help too.

    We have an appointment we need to be at right now so he will come back later and comment.
    May the Lord bless you. Take care.

    It might interest you to know this quote by president Monson:

    "we live in a time when there are those who mock virtue, who peddle pornography under the guise of art or culture, who turn a blind eye, a deaf ear, and a calloused heart to the teachings of Jesus and a code of decency. Many of our young people are tugged in the wrong direction and enticed to partake of the sins of the world."

  12. oops that was a copy clip error didn't mean to double that quote. But I guess it doesn't hurt to hear it twice :)

  13. Brace yourself. This is as short as I could get it. My name is Joseph and my wife showed me this entry and asked that I address it from a man’s perspective. I think you have a really legitimate question and a very important one. Please forgive the length of this comment, but I feel this is extremely important.

    First of all, in my opinion, to say this line between art and pornography is relative is to deny the absolute truth that many of your commentors declared so clearly – the woman’s body is sacred. That is so true.

    However, I am appalled at how so many of them still feel it is appropriate to exploit that sacredness just to teach a lesson to their boy. I noticed that all the comments came from women. I wish I could comment on each one of them and tell you why I feel they are so terribly wrong in saying it is ok to expose a young boy to the “art” of the woman’s body. I don’t have that space here.

    I don’t think the line exists between art and pornography. This protective line comes before any one takes this sacred temple of the body and plasters it all over a canvas for the whole world to see. The problem with placing the line between the two is because it does become satanically relative. Where exactly do you stop if it is relative? “And thus the devil cheateth their souls.” (2 Ne. 28:21). Think of other things that are sacred and ask yourself if you would ever take them to the public world. The temple or your own sacred, intimate moments with your spouse for example. Measure the art also by envisioning it on the chapel wall or on the walls of the temple. Sacred things are meant to be kept sacred.

    I hope you didn’t buy into anything these commenting women said about allowing it to stay, much less deliberately exposing your son to it. You’ve heard the story of the king who needed a carriage driver and wanted to test them on their skill on a road through the mountains with a steep cliff on the side. He tested three of them. The first two came within inches of the edge and boasted of their great skill. The third told the king he stayed as far from the edge as he possibly could for safety’s sake. The third was obviously hired.

    You have been entrusted with a great gift in your son and the question to ask is how close to the edge are you willing to get without sending him careening into the chasm of pornography? My suggestion is to get as far from the edge as possible. Not everything good is right. If I gave you an ice cream cone with a cockroach embedded in it would you really try to eat around it? After all, “it’s really good except for that one part.” It may be beautiful “art”, but, in my honest opinion, in this sex crazed society I think to teach him in the way these women suggest is to set him deliberately on the “land mine” itself and ask him to be so careful the way he moves on it.

    Will you need to have “the talk” with your son? Absolutely! Don’t side step the issue and address it boldly and reverently when the time comes. Share your testimony on its sacredness. It is a sacred issue and needs to be approached as such (D&C 63:64). Whatever you do, don’t pull out the “art” and make his being a boy any more difficult than it is already going to be. Try to filter your choices through the scriptures and the words of the living prophets, not through the philosophy of decadent societies that have always been noted for their immorality before they fell. The Greek gods were all immoral anyway.

    Finally, your husband was probably on to something when he suggested that your son not be allowed to see them. Talk with him and pray with him. This is about your son together. Your differing perspectives will be so vital in helping him through his teenage years.

    That is my abbreviated opinion on the matter, but I feel very strongly about it. May God bless you, and I know he will, as you seek your son’s best interest.

  14. I agree with many of the comments.

    1. Of course, intent should be considered. (Is it meant to stimulate; is it sexual in nature.)

    2. Also, nudity is not dirty. Our spirits' temples are sacred, but not secret. We use discretion to decide when what is acceptable. I made it a point to not hide breastfeeding with any of my kids, and *especially* this last time, when I had a teenage son and often his friends at the house. Breastfeeding is technically an extension of reproduction, but not the same as other reproductive behaviors. ;) Breasts are for feeding babies, and babies eat far more often than big people, necessitating exposing them often. I don't have a problem with teenage boys seeing breastfeeding. In fact, they are the most important demographic, to me, since they are very soon to become husbands and fathers and should be prepared to support their wives in child-rearing.

    3. We should know what bodies look like! Bodies have a wide range of normal quirks and differences, and rarely look like the air-brushed, anorexic, unhealthy, prepubescent bodies that inundate us through the media. I'm not advocating knowing what everyone looks like naked, but a little non-sexual nudity can be educational, and encouraging. We are all beautiful.

    4. I know this is an extreme position, but modesty can be relative to a culture's standards. In the Pacific (before the whole world became Westernized...) there were peoples who felt that bare chests were no problem, but bare thighs were akin to full nudity.

    So, should you keep a book of scriptural artwork around the house that includes partial nudity? I would. But it also depends on your personal feelings about it, and your family history. If you have loved ones who struggle with pornography, that is absolutely your most important consideration.

    Good question! sally

  15. Very good Joseph. I am not LDS but I applaud your efforts. I think we should get more honest men to respond. I Amen-ed when you said not to make it harder on it than it is already going to be. Young boys will have trouble with their "member" throughout their whole life and especially in their youth. Jesus said "if your eye causes you to sin gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of the body than for your whole body to go into hell (Mathew 5:29)". God didn't put bare chested women in the Bible. When Adam & Eve sinned they made themselves clothes that weren't suitable so God made them better clothes out of animal skins. It covers better (Genesis 3:21).

  16. I agree with Joseph. Also, I think it is ridiculous to believe that these pictures were ever meant by the painters to be viewed with the abstract detachment that some previous commenters seem to think.

    Artists make decisions about what to include in their art based upon the emotional response that they want to evoke in their audience. Based on the way you've described those paintings being set, the stage of the stories depicted involve the suggestion of sexual intercourse (prevented as in Judith, and impending as in Esther). The artists meant for viewers to think of this in order to locate the scene in the story. Therefore, the painters made bare-chestedness as sexual suggestion necessary to the painting for viewers to understand it.

    But because it was meant to evoke those feelings, this means that those paintings ARE pornography. And not only is it pornography, it is pornography of the most insidious and deceptive variety because it is being presented in a biblical context. Just ask yourself, how would Satan try to get good church members pulled into pornography? By packaging it as Bible art, of course!

  17. As a male I would have to say that the intent of the artist is irrelevant in the end; the intent of the viewer is what defines how an image affects someone. I know how I and my friends thought in our youth, and the artistic intentions of an artist did not make seeing a nude female any less stimulating. The medium didn't matter. Photography may be more enticing or arousing than painting or sculpture, but that does not make painting or sculpture somehow "safe."

    Whether or not you keep that book around in your house is obviously completely up to you and it should be a decision that you and your husband make together. My opinion--since you asked for it :)--is that there is no line between art and pornography; art that arouses sexual appetites IS pornography.

  18. I would say absolutely NOT keep a book with bare-chested women in it in your home.

    Although the artist may have had good intentions, it is still - no matter what anyone says or WHEN the picture was taken or WHEN the painting was created - an immodest, underdressed, naked woman. Period. The art still could have been valuable and breathtaking if the women's breasts were not revealed.

    I'm speaking from a lot (and I mean, a lot) of knowledge about pornography. I've learned how men's minds think, including little boys. Let me tell you, that if a little boy saw a "not-intended-to-arouse-sexual-feelings-or-fantasies" painting of bare-chested woman, he would stare right at the chest and be very curious. He wouldn't think, "Oh, this is such lovely art and feminine beauty." A little boy would be curious and want to learn or see more.

    Most boys' first introduction to viewing naked women starts at young ages. Most men EVEN IN THE CHURCH have viewed or been addicted to pornography at one point in their lives.

    A mission president reported that over 90% of the missionaries in the mission field had problems ON THEIR MISSIONS with pornography. And that is common.

    A survey was taken in a regular family ward once and over 80% of the men in the congregation had recently viewed pornography.

    I have attended the women's meetings. I have been a wife wounded. I have close, best friends who've suffered abuse and eventually divorce due to their husbands' porn addictions.

    My point is, that generally-speaking, it's not that big of a deal for women to see other naked women (considered "art") or even naked men. Women aren't wired like men. Men are visually turned on, whereas women are generally turned on by touch. A pair of breasts to a man - to most men - and ESPECIALLY to young boys and teens, are a pair of breasts. Whether it's from a playboy magazine, on a nude beach, in the hospital, or a famous, historic painting, it's still nudity, and we are to be pure, modest, and chaste, no exceptions.

    I am not saying all men go nuts and become addicted to porn if they view a nude painting. But let me ask you; if it's a question, isn't that maybe the Spirit's way of suggesting it is inappropriate?

    The fact that we even have to "justify" and "rationalize" these naked paintings suggests they are inappropriate. Would you leave the book open with little boys and girls playing? Would you leave it open on your coffee table if the prophet was coming? Can you feel the spirit when viewing an immodest woman?

    It has been said that all immodest women and girls are walking pornography - which they are. I don't think pictures or paintings are exempt, whether they were MEANT pornographically or not.

    I speak from experience. I think it is very unwise to have in your home, especially with a son.


  19. I just typed a long comment and then my internet connection claimed to have an error... so I don't know if it posted or not.

    Either way, I just read the last few comments. I agree with your husband and I thank him for expressing his abbreviated opinion!!

    Also, "elopingcamel" hit the nail right on the head!

    The previous comments saying it's OKAY and DIFFERENT to have "nude art" vs pornography are totally decieved and misled. I hope none of them have sons.

    Another point I wanted to make is that many men - normal, Latter-Day Saint husbands sealed in the temple - were first introduced to some sort of porn as young as five years old. Wives' husbands at the Women's Group I attend often became hooked as young as that, or age 7, 8, 9, etc. It can happen BEFORE puberty.

    Parents cannot be too careful or too sheltering for their sons. Why is pornography talked about in every general conference, most stake conferences, many ensign issues, etc.? Because it is a RAMPANT, serious issue. It spreads like a disease.

    If any parent is reading this, PLEASE don't think you could ever go overboard in your monitoring of internet and computer use, music listened to, time spent with friends, etc.

    One mom's son was at a scouts activity at the church and no leader showed up. One of the boys showed the others how to dial 1-800-SEX (or whatever...I don't know the number) and each boy took their two-minute turn on the church phone.

    It is everywhere. Please be gaurded, prayerful, and speak to your children openly and often!!!! Pornography is heartbreaking.


  20. I completely agree with Breeana (my best friend!) Personally...all nude art is pornography and guys who see it are not going to be like "well i am not going to get turned on because it is 400 years old". it doesn't matter if it is 400 years old or 4 days still shows breasts and guys likes breasts...drawn in a picture or photographed. Just like computer games...some of those characters are RAUNCHY and super dressed immodest and people say "well they are not real." Are you kidding? do you think that matters? Satan is still going to tempt a person with that...real or not.

    One thing that was hard was when i was pregnant I would go to the library and want to check out pregnancy books but golly!! Too many naked women and even though I'm not a guy, I STILL do not want to look at that. It makes ME uncomfortable.

    Better safe than sorry. Satan can turn the most "innocent" thing into the most devastating thing.
    It's not a risk worth taking.

  21. I also remember this saying "if you feel like you have to rationalize, you're always wrong". Meaning if you don't feel good about it from the start, and have lots of questions, and trying to make yourself feel better...I think the Spirit is trying to say that it's just not the best and should be avoided.

  22. Sin is sin, no matter how we dress it up or what red tape we try to use to justify it.

    The naked body is beautiful, but it is meant to be covered. Why tempt the flesh at all?

  23. If the Ensign was doing an article on Esther, would they publish that picture?

  24. "If the Savior stood beside you, would you do the things you do?" Love that song! As a woman, I want to post just to add weight to the side of the scale that says 'No' as a woman!

    I heard a beautiful presentation on community standards, and our obligation to make a difference from this group:
    We have an obligation to stand up and speak out! No. I wouldn't keep it in my home. I can't believe how many times and places I have been tested to see if I will hide my eyes to the filth, allowing it to filtrate in. School plays, magazines in the grocery store line, billboards, movies even at church activities, even in the chapel on Sunday. I like the Aaron Tippen song "You've got to stand for something or you'll fall for anything
    You've got to be your own man not a puppet on a string
    Never compromise what's right and uphold your family name
    You've got to stand for something or you'll fall for anything." I have taken a stand, and have thankfully witnessed billboards on the freeway replaced after letters were sent with regards to their content. If we just accept, then the community standards continue to fall! Not only 'No' to allowing them, but I think the publisher of the book and book distributor should know how you feel about the pictures, and find ones that ARE appropriate! Artists would create appropriate works if they were appreciated and rewarded for doing so.

  25. The pictures probably shouldn't be pornographic, but based on our day, I fall on the cautious side. You can compare it to the makeup issue (in an opposite way). Some people say makeup is bad because that's what the prostitutes wore initially. Well, look at it in modern context. Are you really going to stand out that way by wearing a little makeup in our society? No. Someone's probably already stated that, but I haven't read all the comments! I need to go to bed!