Is It Art?: Obscenity in the USA

junkyardarts November 5, 2010 Comments Off on Is It Art?: Obscenity in the USA

Sally Mann - Immediate FamilyArt is arguably our most subjective form of expression, and as artists and patrons of the arts we are often faced with such unanswerable questions including ‘is it art?’  First we would have to define what art is, and frankly that seems an impossible task as this definition would inevitably change through the decades.

Another, more salty, quandary is ‘is it pornography’.  Though it seems this word brings up clear images one would decisively say are indeed pornographic, more difficult is nudity in artwork, and subsequently, child nudity. Ooh the arguments I got into after this essay…

It is the context and intent of the photographs that must be scrutinized when determining whether imagery should be considered pornographic or indecent.

Photographer Sally Mann has for years come under fire for her photographs of her three children, Emmet, Jessie and Virginia.  Many of these photographs show her children engaging in normal, childhood activities: swimming, playing dress-up, walking through a field.  Had the children been wearing clothes, there would be no complaint, I am sure; but as it were, Mann photographed her children in what she considered their natural state, which was in the nude.

It is clear to me that her work is far from pornographic; she is not subjecting her children to indecent or immoral acts, nor is her photographing them demeaning or objectifying – all things I would consider pornography to encompass.  More importantly, her work shows children doing what children Sally Mann Immediate Familydo, whether or not it is disturbing to adults or parents.  Be they hanging from a branch (or in this case…a meat hook), sitting precariously on a railing, dreaming up fantasies to live out that day; the fact that they are nude should not conjure up feelings of shame or discomfort.

As an Art Administrator I am tasked to balance what the ramifications are for showing work that is both reviled and revered.  Mann’s voyeuristic approach to photography indeed shows children in the nude, but it is far from porn – to the extent that the implication is laughable.  In addition to the subject matter, Mann’s stylistic approach is what makes her work so memorable and recognizable and certainly of value to the art community (her landscapes, for example hold an equally eerie feeling thanks to her stylized techniques and point of view).  Her framing, use of light, mood and texture are, what I think, often create this ‘dangerous’ appearance, particularly when the children are the subject.  Had the photos been less stylized, perhaps the images wouldn’t be seen as so worrisome, though arguably, they wouldn’t be as important or interesting either. I understand that I am a pretty liberal person, but looking at Mann’s work, and the breathtaking, intimate, portraits of her family…I just do not get the argument that her work is ‘pornographic’ as so many have suggested.

Now the real question is: why do so many art critics enjoy looking at images of children that seem to be enveloped in an aura of danger, unease or peril.  Children experiencing exposure/exposure – in it’s many facets and definitions.

With Mann’s work as an example of ‘artistically acceptable’ child nudes, one can easily see where certain images would cross that invisible line of indecency.  In the case of New York v Ferber, the images of children masturbating is clearly, and painfully obviously, inappropriate and illegal.  And if you weren’t sure why, it’s because children do not have the cognitive dissonance to consent to sexual acts or displays, and thus any imagery of that would be considered involuntary.  The work of Jock Sturges is walking a finer ‘line’ with his photographs of girls who are going through puberty and show prominent sex characteristics, and posing by the girls which could be considered sexually charged.  I fully understand the concern that surrounds many of his photographs – though I would not consider them pornographic per se –  interestingly, I won’t include images of them in this essay either…curious.

Sally Mann Immediate FamilyThe big question is whether the exhibition of such artistic works will propagate child porn in this country. I do not believe that to be true, nor do I believe that those who contribute to that problem in this country will be seeking out these works to derive sexual pleasure from.  I just don’t see child predators heading out to drop $50 on a Mann’s Immediate Family just to sneak a peak, but then again, I don’t know any predators so who knows!  Maybe they have deep pockets and exquisite taste in photography.


Here are some standard methods of gauging child pornography and obscenity.  Interesting to see which definitions you agree with, which seem dramatically outdated and which you find too lenient.  What do you think about our method of testing obscenity?:

The Miller Test (currently in use):

1.        An average person, applying contemporary local community standards, Sally Mann Immediate Familyfinds that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interest.

2.        The work depicts, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable state law.

3.        The material lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

The Hicklin Rule (used until 1957):

“The test of obscenity is whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall.”

The Roth Test

obscenity is like other types of unprotected speech that is “utterly without social importance.”

“Sex and obscenity are not synonymous. Obscene material is material which deals with sex in a manner appealing to prurient interest. The portrayal of sex, e.g., in art, literature and scientific works, is not itself sufficient reason to deny material the constitutional protection of freedom of speech and press …. The standard for judging obscenity … is whether, to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material, taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interest”.

Grad School Essays /Sally Mann /

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