Tuesday, December 01, 2009

"Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better." --Andre Gide

I was thinking about something during my Ed Psych class the other day, because I spend Ed Psych class alternately thinking about Ed Psych and thinking about totally unrelated but very interesting things. I've seen advertisements/heard a lot of talk lately for a group called Citizens for Decency. I was thinking about how I'm very anti-pornography, and wondering how I could get involved to help fight sexual addictions. But then I started thinking about free speech.

The age-old conundrum.

I really do believe that pornography is harmful, dangerous, addictive, and a powerful force that can and will destroy relationships and families. I don't want pornography around. I don't know that pornography should be protected under free speech. But here's the problem.

Who gets to decide what's pornography and what's not?

The inherent difficulty in denying pornography the protection afforded by "free speech" is that things that are pornographic to some may not be to others. If we can oulaw Girls Gone Wild, can't we outlaw sex scenes in movies and on television? And if we can do that, can't we outlaw certain magazines? And if we do that, what about books and paintings and figure drawing classes? I reject the archaic notion that the human body is something to be ashamed of and hidden all the time. But it shouldn't be flaunted in such a way that is removed from all emotion and meaning.

I just have a problem with someone else defining the line between the two.

We had the MOST AMAZING DISCUSSION EVER in my American Lit class over the summer. Boy, I admire Bro. Allen's guts for having the conversation that he demanded of our class. He assigned us an article published in the most recent edition of "Irreantum," an LDS literary magazine. It was called "Reading About Sex in Mormon Fiction--If We Can Read" by B.W. Jorgensen. Which was a pretty brilliant article. I can't find it online, but if you can somehow get ahold of it, read it. I thought I'd share it here because I believe words are powerful and I want anyone and everyone who stumbles across this post to have the opportunity to ponder these things. (Presumptuous sounding of me, I know.) These insights are mostly from an LDS perspective and pertaining to literature specifically, but I believe they can apply to all views on the arts.

Our class was basically a discussion of this question:

How do we discern pornography from literature/art?

Okay, first of all. A common conception of "right and wrong" looks like this:

GOOD ---------- BAD

When perhaps a more accurate way of thinking is like this:

BAD ---------- GOOD ---------- BAD

(That's why the path is called the "straight and narrow," not the "straight and all the way over to one side" path.)

This model suggests that it's possible to attempt to stay soooo far away from the bad that we end up sinning in the sense of losing focus. Which I believe is very possible, and perhaps even common. Sometimes we set a standard and then stay as far away from it as possible, when we're supposed to stay as CLOSE to it. E.G. "If abstaining from R-rated movies is bad, then abstaining from PG-13 movies is even better. Or better yet, I'll only watch PG. Or no, how about G? Or even none at all!?" No. I stand convinced that the Lord would have us seek and understand truth in all of the forms He's made it available to us in. The author included this fantastic quote from Brigham Young: "I intend to know the whole of it, both good and bad. Shall I practise evil? No; neither have I told you to practise it, but to learn by the light of truth every principle there is in existence in the world...Though I mean to learn all that is in heaven, earth, and hell [,do] I need to commit iniquity to do it? No. If I were to go into the bowels of hell to find out what is there, that does not make it necessary that I should committ one evil, or blaspheme in any way the name of my maker."

That right there is some awesome principle. THAT CAN BE VERY EASILY USED TO JUSTIFY SIN. But Brigham Young explicitly tells us not to. So how can you tell? When it comes to literature, how can you tell whether you/the author is "going into the bowels of hell to see what's there" or "blaspheming the name of your/their Maker"? How can you tell the difference between an evil book and a good book that has evil in it? We know that everyone's maturity level/standards are different, but there must be SOME kind of line. No one could get away with reading Playboy "only academically" in the sight of the Lord. So what's the line?

As a class, we came up with a short list of characteristics that distinguish pornography from literature/art. (I would argue pretty strongly that this list can also help us distinguish "good" literature from "bad" literature. Or art in general.) Check it out:

- inspires negative actions towards self and others
- characters are not individuals, but rather perfected "stick figures" with parts and sensations only
- does not attempt to reveal truth or explore the human condition (purpose is strictly arousal)

- inspires positive actions towards self and others
- characters are individuals, with flaws and conflicts and strengths
- attempts to understand the human experience by exploring some truth (purpose)

I feel pretty comfortable with these definitions.


It's a futile exercise to attempt to categorize EVERYTHING into only these two boxes. A 13-year-old boy cannot look at a statue of Venus in the same objective way that a middle-aged woman can. (Catered to gender roles more than I'm comfortable with there, but you get the idea.) But on the other hand, a middle-aged woman may be aroused by the David, which was not it's purpose. And if you were to show a Playboy magazine to some aboriginal tribe in the middle of nowhere, they may react not with arousal or excitement, but with confusion or laughter or disinterest. And we in America react similarly to what other cultures find attractive. My point is that it doesn't have to be arousing to be pornography and it doesn't have to be pornography to be arousing.

So then we're back to the relative question. Can a book that is pornographic to one person be art to another? Yes? But here's why, according to Jorgensen and Brother Allen and most of my American Lit class and myself. THE EVIL OF A WORK OF ART LIES LESS IN WHAT IT IS AND MORE IN HOW WE CHOOSE TO READ IT. Maybe there's a spectrum. For every work and every individual, perhaps we can gauge using a more fluid concept. Like this:


And certain things I would put unquestioningly on one side of the spectrum. Playboy magazine goes on the "Inherent Harm" side of the line. But there are other things that are different for everyone.

We can choose to read "Lady Chatterly's Lover" pornographically. Many do. Or we can choose not to. And when we find ourselves having difficulty making that choice, we know it, and we'd best put the book down/change the channel/avert our eyes. And I believe that the most people are strong enough to gauge that. And if you're not yet, don't chance it.

We shouldn't eliminate all of the literature or art in the whole world that could be viewed pornographically. Because let's face it, there are some weird people out there for whom nothing is safe. But I'm all for freedom of speech and here's why.

Brother Allen: "If we are going to explore the human experience, and the human experience is a mess, then literature MUST be dangerous."

I believe in humanity's ability to view art as art. You have a spiritual gauge. You were born with it. Everyone was. I know that not everyone chooses to view things the same way. And I respect whatever decision they choose to make. However, I believe in the right to read just as strongly as I believe in the right to abstain. I won't tell you to read something as long as you don't judge me for reading it. I won't tell my American Lit class to read "Brokeback Mountain" because I know that there are people in the class who would not choose to view the sex scene as revealing something about the characters, but rather as pornography/something offensive. But I believe that the author wrote that scene into the book not to arouse his readers. The details of the scene are important to the story and the development of the conflict and characters and relationship. And that's why I read. There are certain lines you cannot cross without losing your ability to gauge. But I believe that the Lord would have us seek out truth wherever we can feel His light teach it to us.

For some, it is enough to seek truth in heaven. But I myself yearn for all truth, in heaven, earth and hell. While I don't readily connect with those who are satisfied with heaven alone, I recognize that it is enough for them, and that neither my way nor their way is better. I hope that I can continue to live in such a way that my mind and heart are always open to learning. And visiting hell in art is a hell of a lot safer.


Mandi said...

Liz, thank you for sharing this. I--just, thank you.

Petey said...

Brilliant. I like that agency is always so essential to our learning, especially in that we can choose our own meaning---we decide we get out of it. You will DIG Tool, whenever you finally get a chance to sit down and visit with them. And I'm kinda thinkin we should date.

Liz-a-nator said...

That, Petey, is a wonderful idea.

Scott and Carrie Chapman said...

I just fell in love with you all over again. My husband and I are in a constant silent battle over what books I read and what books he doesn't. The battle has calmed however, when I told him that I draw my lines between what is educating me and what is entertaining me. I read A Million Little Pieces and walked away with a deeper understanding of addicts. I put down Wicked because I could not learn much from it, and reading it would have been only for entertainment purposes. I don't know why I just wrote all that. You get me all "riled" up... (how on earth do you spell riled?)

Anonymous said...

As a very recovered (male) porn addict of many, many years ago, who is extremely active now in the Church and who dedicates his life to service, this post which I very randomly stumbled across rang painfully true. I am one who has to avoid just about anything that's even remotely arousing. It is sad. However I often think about the huge amount of great literature and art out there which I am missing because of past mistakes. And I must miss those things, because of the danger now existent there.

No one who knows me now would dream this was the case for me. All I can say is, this is a DANGEROUS - spiritually - WORLD we live in now, because if I fell in ideal circumstances with great parents and living close to the Church all my childhood, no doubt thousands upon millions are falling all over the world too. I just thought I would say that because while agency MUST be protected, I feel that in lieu of the knowledge that likely more people, esp. guys, have struggled with pornography than those who haven't, generally people who proclaim and publish and post pictures, literature, and even their own wardrobe are being selfish to not be conservative--not to censor everything but be very careful and conservative--and mindful of the spiritually wounded and weak all around them.

That was long, but from the heart. Thanks again for the great thoughts.

Josh Allen said...

Liz -- great thoughts. I'm glad my class still resonates. Here's a thought I had while reading this:

Perhaps God is less concerned about exactly where the line between art and pornography lies and is instead more concerned that his children actively seek that line, that they think critically about what they see and how they interpret the world.

Seeking for answers, I think, is more important than the answers.

In fact, I've come to believe that true worship is really just seeking, whether that seeking is for wisdom, knowledge, or relationships.

Dava Tuttle said...

I'm a big believer in intent. The intent of the creator to have sway over the actions and emotions of the viewer. If someone comes along with the motive to arouse in others emotions and feelings that are better left untouched then, in my opinion, that person is creating pornography. If someone is creating a body of work (whether literature, art, theatre, etc.) with the idea being to bring more beauty, more enlightenment, and more joy into the world then it is artistic and noteworthy. Alternatively, there is the intent of the viewer. Altogether there are too many ifs for me to say with any certainty that there should be a line drawn in the law of man to forbid the freedom of expression. It is nearly impossible to govern by intent.