SmutTalk: Erotica vs. Porn

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So, I’ve been talking with folks about what constitutes erotica, and what constitutes pornography. Not new subjects, and not subjects any argument is going to solve any time soon.

Here, for what it’s worth, is Joseph Campbell talking about James Joyce’s definition of porn (aka “improper art”):

Joyce’s theory of art included what he called “proper art” and “improper art.” To Joyce, proper art has to do with the esthetic (sense) experience. It is static. It is not moving you to do anything. It is in esthetic arrest. 

For the static art, Joyce goes to Aquinas, Dante (the model for Joyce’s work), and Aristotle. He goes to Aquinas for beauty – beauty is what pleases.

What he called improper art is kinetic – it moves you with either desire, loathing, or fear for the object represented. Consequently it moves you to action – you are not in esthetic arrest. Art that moves you is either with desire or loathing or fear toward the object or away from the object.

Art that moves you with desire toward the object, Joyce calls pornographic. All advertising is pornographic art. You are not simply enchanted by the object you are beholding. You want it. However, if you look at a Picasso portrait, it certainly doesn’t look like someone you would like to meet, but you still like the picture. It is formally organized and interesting.

Art that repels you, Joyce calls didactic. He says that 90% of all writers use didactic pornographics trying to get you to turn away from something, but applying a chocolate coating that will hold your interest. — Joseph Campbell, “Mythic Worlds, Modern Words”

And here’s what I said this morning to Madeleine Marzio over on The Erotic Writers Group on Google+:

Funny enough, I have been discussing this very subject with another writer, Tess Mackenzie, on her blog (here’s a link). We come at the issue in different ways, I think, but we’ve both narrowed it down, for us, to where the focus is: is it on the people, who happen to be having sex; or is it on the sex, and the people are there as props? If the story centers around the characters and their journeys, that’s erotica. If it centers around act A followed by act B, that’s porn. 

At least, that’s how I see it today. 😉

What’s your definition of erotica? Porn?

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9 thoughts on “SmutTalk: Erotica vs. Porn

  1. I went to Tess McKenzie’s blog and skimmed some of what she had there–I think you’re right that ‘erotica,’ especially if it’s defined by focus on character rather than action, has to have some emotional content.

    Emotional identification with a character is what drives me to share his/her emotions, whether sexual or otherwise…and if I see no emotions or motives with which I can identify, why should I care what happens? It’s certainly not going to turn me on, no matter how beautifully accomplished or thoroughly kinky the sex may be.

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  2. Hey!!!

    Um, hi. Wave. And sorry, now I’m going to join in over here and confuse the fuck out of everything because this made me get a bit hyper and engaged.

    Sorry!

    So I really like the idea of esthetic vs kinetic art as applied to smut.

    Because I think what I’m trying to do is actually esthetic, in that I want people just to look, as it were, and not necessarily be moved or join in.

    I think. In that there’s no imperative, like in advertising, and in that they don’t need to act, they just need to watch it unfold. I think that’s all I’m asking from readers. As opposed to, say, more social commentary or political fiction that wants you to fix injustice and such.

    So I wonder if that connects somehow to erotic vs porn, in that porn seems, to me at least, to almost require engagement. Like you have to be turned on, or there’s no point in watching, whereas erotica can hopefully be read either as smut, or as a story about some people and what they do.

    I’m not sure if I’m talking waffly shit or not, but that’s the thought I just had.

    And yep, I know there’s a whole body of theory that says what I think I’m writing about doesn’t actually matter, but um… yeah, I can’t really answer that.

    And I am now very taken by the idea of art that moves you with loathing, and it’s completely your fault when I start doing horror-erotica, because I’m allowed to be repelled by what I write myself. Fucking excellent.

    And everything I said the other time, um, ignore that. I’ll email why in a sec.

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    • Tess – Not waffly shit. At least, no more so than all of it is waffly shit.

      Yeah: I think that experience that Joyce (and Campbell) are talking about aren’t so much about about stasis as about bringing the reader to a sense of transport, of being outside of time.

      Which kind of ties in with the conversation we were having about how to write being on the receiving end of oral sex. 😉

      And Maria – Yeah. For me (though I recognize not for everyone) there’s got to be some sort of a sense of a human being in the story; whether I can identify with them or not, at least I can empathize. Then it’s erotic and not just about getting the hormones elevated.

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