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It's Not Porn, It's Art

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"I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ['hard-core pornography']; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that."
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, concurring in Jacobellis v. Ohio, commenting on Les Amants. note 

Sure, it's got lots of naked people in suggestive poses on full display. But it's thoroughly artistic — I swear! Therefore it can't be considered pornography, and it doesn't matter that it's hidden under my bed.

Pornographic works carry a considerable stigma in the U.S. and (to a lesser extent) in other Western countries. As a result, the opposite trope is Corrupting Pornography. However, a lot of classic works of art contain nudity (and, occasionally, sex acts). For this reason, legally a work of art is not considered pornographic under U.S. obscenity laws; what constitutes "artistic merit" is left somewhat vague.

One result is that fictional characters (and occasionally real people) will try to get away with reading, watching, or creating something that most people would consider pornographic by claiming that the item in question is really a "work of art". For teenage boys (the usual claimant) this never works. Occasionally it's the "artist" making the claim, in which case he or she may or may not get away with it. Bonus points if he insists that the fault is in the viewer, who has a dirty mind.

In either case, the item in question will be something very few people would consider "artistic", unless the trope is being played with, particularly if the item in question genuinely does possess artistic merit even if it is porn — i.e., they're defending themselves from the belief that True Art is Clean. After all, who said that porn can't be art? This trope is something of an inversion of the standard idea of Moral Guardians, who are typically presumed wrongnote  — hence why Moral Guardians themselves often use this trope in works made by them (or works parodying them). National Geographic Nudity follows on the same "these naked people are depicted solely for educational purposes" line, not just in the trope-naming magazine, but in other venues too (including an entire genre of magazine dedicated to nudism which was presumably educational to those interested in that subject matter ... but as with National Geographic served other purposes for other readers).

This trope ends up the subject of debate whenever a so-called mainstream film with unsimulated sexual acts is released (such films have turned up in cinemas since the 1960s but have become higher profile in the years since), or in the case of an increasing number of TV series and films, increased explicitness that stops just short of unsimulated. For some, the simple fact the film is being released in a venue other than an adult video store defines it as "not porn", or if a "notable director" or actors are involved. Porn Without Plot is not a delineator as there are many porn films with storylines that go beyond "seducing the pizza delivery boy."

Compare I Read It for the Articles. No relation to It's Not Porn, It's an Index.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Hana-Kimi: Inverted when Mizuki buys an illustrated book that contains some nude photos. She doesn't want to show it to Sano, claiming she doesn't want him to look at porn, though in this case it really is art.
  • Boku no Pico and Maid Boy Kuro: One of the biggest disclaimer regarding these infamous shotacon series. At the beginning of each OVA, a disclaimer appears, saying that they don't condone child pornography.
  • The hentai works of famed artist & mangaka Okama really blur the dichotomy between pornography and art, particularly his full-colour, impeccably drawn H manga Hanafuda. Is it jerk-off material, or worthy of being included in a modern art museum? It doesn't help that there's actually a plot.
  • Don't Toy with Me, Miss Nagatoro: Inverted with the Art Club's President, who often paints nude self-portraits, and Senpai insists that it is art. Nagatoro and her friends don't buy it, though.

  • Sadly somewhat Truth in Television:
    • Many famous antique statues during the late Renaissance / Victorian age in Italy were altered to have leaves covering their genitals. The cast of David at the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum), had a detachable plaster fig leaf, added for visits by Queen Victoria and other important ladies when it was hung on the figure using two strategically placed hooks; it is now displayed nearby.
    • In 2023, a middle school principal in Florida was fired after a parent complained that an art teacher's use of David in a sixth grade class constituted child endangerment due to its depiction of male nudity.
    • It gets a lot worse with classical depictions of fertility goddesses. Pretty much all of them are shown naked. Some were shown naked and masturbating. Some of the more noteworthy ones were depicted naked, masturbating, and staring directly at the viewer.
  • In his book Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, Roger Scruton points out a key difference between pornography and art: the objectification of the human body. About Titian's Venus of Urbino—the painting Mark Twain called "the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses"—he writes thusly:
    "As Kenneth Clark pointed out, in his celebrated study of the nude, the reclining Venus marks a break with antiquity, when the goddess was never shown in a horizontal position. The reclining nude shows the body not as a statue to be worshipped but as a woman to be desired. Even in the Venus of Urbino—that most provocative of Titian's female nudes—the lady draws our eyes to her face, which tells us that this body is on offer only in the way that the woman herself is on offer, to the lover who can honestly meet her gaze. To all others the body is out of bounds, being the intimate property of the face that looks out from it [...]. The face individualizes the body, possesses it in the name of freedom, and condemns every covetous glance as a violation. The Titian nude neither provokes nor excites, but retains a detached serenity—the serenity of a person, whose thoughts and desires are not ours but hers."
  • Being made by Romans doesn't mean it can't be porn. Archaeologists have discovered obscene wall-paintings in the ruins of Pompeii, on the walls of brothels. There also exists Greek vases which were decorated with pictures of people having sex. Since Greek vases often had pictures which demonstrated their contents on them, it's maybe best not to think too closely about that one...Greek "vases" were actually drinking vessels so yeah...
  • The Hays Code did not consider ancient, naked statues to be indecent, possibly for the reason of this very trope. The next time you're watching Citizen Kane (made during the height of the Code's power, in about 1940), look very closely (which is not hard to do, thanks to cinematographer Gregg Toland's deep-focus photography) at the scene in which Kane's lackeys are in a warehouse, sorting all his artistic treasures. The genitalia and pubic hair are not covered.
  • The live shows of performance artist Ann Liv Young feature a lot of nudity and live sex. They are also very very strange.
  • This is a common topic of discussion of DeviantArt. The webpage allows frontal nudity (since it is considered art) but nothing that seems porn/hentai (example: someone grabbing a naked woman's boob). This leads to some conflict, because some "artists" upload pictures or their model/girlfriend/themselves with their legs opened in a less-than-subtle way, note  whereas more artistic drawings/photos are rejected because they show person-to-person contact.
    • This also gets discussed in cyclical fashion quite often on Furaffinity, where those who believe porn or anything designed to titillate/arouse has no artistic merit by its very nature, so that those who create porn or merely sexually-themed pictures and stories have to resort to this trope as a defense, unless they simply don't care what the Moral Guardians think of their work (and the argument that it is art never convinces them anyway).
  • By simply being old, pornography can lapse into art. Ancient pornographic material such as illustrated Kama Sutras and Japanese booklets are now on display in museums as historical artifacts.
  • Around the start of the Impressionist movement Edouard Manet's two paintings "Luncheon In The Grass" and "Olympia" were met with outrage from critics for placing nude women in an everyday setting. Apparently, nudity was okay as long as they were goddesses, nymphs, sprites, etc but real women nude in paintings was a big no-no (with the possible exception of paintings depicting nude models posing).
    • Quite a few artists from around the 19th century ran into this problem, it's possible that Thomas Eakins got into trouble for this(and a variety of other indiscretions). Sort of what happens when you get the right combination of prudery, the dawn of public art exhibitions, and artist not being dead enough to get away with nudes.
  • Likewise, photos of nude women were considered art during photography's heyday as a serious art form, as photography was a recent invention at the time and widely considered a luxury few could afford to maintain. In particular, posing prepubescent girls for nude photos was in vogue when a certain well-known mathematician and writer of nonsense children's literature decided to get in on the photography craze. Unfortunately, Values Dissonance and a lack of cultural context led some independent biographers to believe he had an unhealthy interest in young girls.
  • An interesting case of this in action is the photographer David Hamilton (1933-2016). Because of his impeccable artiste pedigree (and perhaps also because he did most of his work in France in the Sixties and Seventies, where they are more forgiving of this sort of thing), his photographs of nude pubescent girls in erotic poses are considered art and not soft-core child pornography (the UK have tried, and failed, to convict owners of the book for possession of child pornography). Although the revelation after his suicide that he also raped many of his models have turned public opinion (if not the law) against him.
  • A peculiar inversion occurred in the case of the "Coppertone Girl" print ad for suntan lotion. The ad's painter, Joyce Ballantyne Brand, was trained as a professional artist and thought of the Coppertone scene as just another commission she had to do. She never expected it to become the most famous image she ever created (and, for that matter, was aware of the painting's possible Unfortunate Implications), and so would quickly become annoyed whenever anyone interviewing her would bring up "Coppertone Girl" as if it was her masterpiece. (The same was true of Brand's daughter, the original model for the girl, who got sick and tired of people wanting to see if her butt really was that pasty white.)
  • Hex signs that include sexual images, such as O. Henrietta and Hunter Yoder's hex series "Between The Sheets", which was criticized by the traditional Hex Art community as being "overly Liberal", especially the pieces with pro-feminism themes.
  • Grande Odalisque drew up a lot of controversy in the fact that the nude figure is looking straight at the viewer, giving the nudity a lack of the sacred detachment foreign and mythological nudes had.
  • The Nude Maja: Much of its controversy stems from how sexualized it was. She is a nude human woman without the pretense of mythology who stares right at the viewer, the presence of pubic hair commonly associated with prostitutes.
  • The Return of Spring was considered too much even by French-art standards, two attempts at the painting's destruction in 1890 and 1976 by Moral Guardians for how sexual it was.
  • Sleeping Venus (Giorgione): The pose depicts Venus in a sensual nature, however, the fact that she appears to be sleeping suggests she is not overtly sexual, as she is not arranging herself for the Male Gaze.

    Comic Books 
  • The DCU: When Green Lantern Kyle Rayner and Wonder Girl Donna Troy broke up, it was for a variety of different reasons. But the thing that kicked it off was Donna Troy walking in on Kyle sketching a topless woman in his apartment and not appreciating his defense of, "But I'm an artist! It's what I do!" Donna came off especially hypocritical because she works as a photographer who often took pictures of the very scantily-clad Starfire for her portfolio. Apparently, if it's a photograph it's art and is all well and good, but if it's drawn it's just smut.
  • The issue is discussed in Guarding the Globe, where the Guardians of the Globe attend teammate (and professional photographer) Bulletproof's gallery opening. The pictures are all of a naked woman, and Bulletproof is having sex with her in some of them. Outrun, who is established in later issues to be a sex maniac, ends up buying one of them for her personal enjoyment at home
  • In Strangers in Paradise, Francine discovers that some of Katchoo's art are nudes calls them obscene. At that, Katchoo blows up herself, roaring "Don't you ever call my art obscene!"
  • Alan Moore's Lost Girls. A graphic novel series done in watercolours about Alice, Wendy, and Dorothy meeting each other as grown women... and the copious amounts of raunchy sex they have, with each other, with many people in their youth (the framing device is all the "fairy tales" are actually the girl's first/continuing encounters with sex, with references as to how sex acts became story points) and various other guests at the hotel they happen to find themselves at. It is rigorously defended as "high art" by almost all critics, has fairly good standing amongst the literature circles, despite the vast amounts of sexual depravity and indulgence; and Moore will swear up and down they are all idiots and Lost Girls is nothing but porn. Well-drawn and well-written porn, maybe, but still porn.
  • In the Spider-Man Noir Edge of Spider-Verse story, Aunt May is not impressed by Salvador Dalí.
    May: Mr. Dali may put a lobster on a naked woman's head and call it art, but he doesn't fool me. The man is running a burlesque show.

    Comic Strips 
  • A one-panel-strip by Quino showed a woman being disgusted by her husband nailing an enormous poster of La Maja Desnuda in their bedroom.
    Man: But darling... Goya!

    Fan Works 
  • Empath: The Luckiest Smurf:
    • In the story "I Dream Of Smurfette", Painter does so many pictures of Smurfette after experiencing "the Smurfette dream", which leads to this conversation with Poet.
      Painter: With all these pictures, I don't know if I'm truly being an artist or just smurfing in pornographia, Poet.
      Poet: I don't even know what pornographia is, but I'd be very careful smurfing these pictures to any Smurf if I were you, Painter.
    • In the story "Smurfed Behind: The Other Side Of The Mirror", the Mirror Universe versions of Poet and Painter are both arguing about their equally lurid works of art, with Poet telling Painter, "What I smurf is true art. What you smurf all day is what I call por-no-gra-phi-a."
  • In the Hero: The Guardian Smurf mini-story "Smurfette's Artistry", Smurfette creates a nude painting of Hero while Hero was at the time married to Wonder. Both Hero and Wonder consider it a work of art, but when Smurfette is alone with her painting, she takes it with her into her bedroom and stays there for a while with it.
  • The Frozen (2013) fanfic Frozen Wight has a peddler who tries to use this to justify some illicit paintings of Anna and Elsa.
  • Rise of the Minisukas: Kyoko has taken to writing fantasy novels while being stuck in Unit-02. Somewhat erotic fantasy novels. She defends her writing choices to Enigma in this manner.
    Kyoko: "They are not porn! They just contain tasteful depictions of lovemaking between characters in love! Is that so wrong?!"
    Enigma: "Right or wrong doesn't matter when the first twenty pages of a book contains two dragons doing the horizontal limbo!"
  • The Adam Adamant Lives! fic "All in the Best Possible Taste" has Georgie modelling for a photography book (an Actor Allusion to Juliet Harmer appearing in such a book). Simms composes one of his limericks on the subject:
    "It's the latest must-have for the smart,
    "Girlie pictures that show every part.
    "The righteous tut,
    "And say that it's smut,
    "But at that price — it's got to be art."
  • In Your Father And Mine, three of America's daughters are visiting an European museum and are horrified by all the pornography there. France and Spain are thoroughly nonplussed in front of their insistence to call paintings of nudes sexual.

    Films — Live Action 
  • The film in Jacobellis is The Lovers, a French film about a bored wife, her workaholic newspaperman husband, her ennui-laden friends, a dinner party, a sensitive young archaeologist, can see how Stewart might have concluded that this movie isn't hardcore porn. Seriously, the sex is hardly there.
  • A number of old "white-coaters" such as Man and Wife (1969) cross this trope with National Geographic Nudity in an "It's not porn, it's a marital manual!" way. Indeed, this particular example has nothing but some screen-crawls at the beginning explaining the alleged educational necessity of the movie, an alleged doctor giving a long lecture on the need for husbands and wives to educate themselves in how to satisfy each other, and then a long series of shots of allegedly married couples having sex in various positions with a voice-over explaining some of the alleged benefits and drawbacks of each position. Considering how vanilla this all is, you might just end up taking the movie's claim to be strictly educational at face value after all.
  • High school students in the third Porky's attempt this on the Principal when caught misusing the Audio-Visual Club's equipment to view a stag film. They insist the film cannot be judged without viewing it in its entirety. While the gym teacher isn't buying it one bit, the principal is more than eager to screen it.
  • Spielen wir Liebe, possibly the most controversial film of all time, features full frontal nudity and simulated sex between underage participants. The boy and the two girls featured were fourteen and twelve respectively when they made this film. Its defenders have tried—unsuccessfully—to make this argument with the courts in Germany and the Netherlands, where it is now banned as child pornography and the company that released it on DVD has been forced to recall every copy it could. (This has not stopped rips of it—for better or for worse—from remaining available on the Internet.)
  • In Throw Momma from the Train, Billy Crystal plays a creative writing professor whose students have the barest concept of stringing a sentence together in the first place. During class, they critique a man's work entitled "100 Girls I'd Like to Pork" (literally just a list with accompanying pictures and no story at all) which the "author" declares to be a coffee table book. "This isn't literature!" argues Billy Crystal, to which the guy says something like "Well, it's a fantasy, like Melville, and this is my white whale." Another classmate declares it "very brave." Humorously, in the second-to-last scene when Billy Crystal's character is just about to finish his novel, you can see that same student's book in printed form on the desk. The title was changed and sounds very artistic, and has a colorful, almost mythological in tone cover illustration. You might not even notice it without the passing remark DeVito's character makes, which just makes it even funnier.
  • The Big Lebowski: "I deal in publishing. Entertainment."
    • "So which one is Logjammin'?"
  • Mark is an art dealer in Love Actually, whose gallery showcased a series of Christmas themed nudes. He said the trope name to a bunch of school girls giggling at the photograph of nude carolers. What was funnier is that a deleted scene showed Mark’s first comment when he opened the pictures:
    Mark: Oh God. Oh God, it's porn. It's just porn! We'll be raided by the porn squad. I'm going to porn prison.
  • Nightwatching is allegedly about Rembrandt's angst whilst painting his most famous work. Being a painter, this manifests as an awful lot of sex, drinking, sex, swearing, and sex. And sitting around naked.
  • Happened a lot in Bravo's Reality Show Work of Art, about finding the next great artist. Taken to new heights when one contestant actually came on his artwork (the piece was about the time when he came at a Disney movie).
  • In the 1970s, there was a deliberate movement to create 'Art Porn' films, the most famous of which was The Story of O.
  • During one of the bar scenes in Killing Spree, a man can be heard telling a woman, "No, no, no, no, baby. Like I told you, it's not a porno movie, it's an art film!"
  • My Life as a Dog: At the glassworks factory, an artist makes glass vases with breasts on them, prompting some complaints from his fellow workers. The artist also makes nude statues of women; others still raise their eyebrows at him because despite having artistic merit, the statues are twenty-foot tall structures. Ingemar gets caught peeping on the nude model being sketched by the artist when the glass window he's spying through shatters.
  • Played for Laughs in The Nice Guys, set during The '70s. The adult film industry has a prominent role in the movie, but Amelia keeps insisting that the film she has done is not porn, even though there's nudity in it. Even the film reel central to the plot is stated as being just a means to show the corruption in Detroit. So what if it features a well-known porn star (excuse me, porn young lady) getting naked and having sex?
  • In Mrs Henderson Presents, Mrs. Henderson takes advantage of a loophole in the British law which meant that it was legal to have nudes on stage so long as they did not move, by posing naked ladies on the stage in 'artistic tableaux'.
  • Surprisingly averted in The People vs. Larry Flynt, which is all about pornographer Larry Flynt's legal struggles over Hustler magazine and the various pornographic, scatological and generally obscene content it produced. At no point does anyone even try to pretend that what Flynt does is in any way artistic; the central debate is basically whether the First Amendment and the rights to freedom of speech it guarantees should allow him to continue to publish it.
  • It qualifies as art almost by definition if it ran on ARTE, the German/French cultural TV station. Random exhibit A, running the day before this entry was made: Mexican indie film "La región salvaje". Won any Fantasy award from here to Mars...and showed about any sexual pairing, hetero, homo, and also stuff rarely seen outside Japan.
  • Peter Ustinov's character in Topkapi lost his British citizenship for smuggling obscene materials, but he tells everyone that he was just transporting literature that had originally been banned for obscenity, like Ulysses and Lady Chatterley's Lover.
  • In City Lights, the Tramp sees a nude statue in a storefront window. To avoid looking like he is ogling it on the street, the Tramp takes the pose of an art connoisseur examining it for purely its aesthetic value.
  • The American film distribution company Vinegar Syndrome argued that while they were indeed established to restore and distribute X-rated media, they emphasized that they are not a part of the pornographic industry, stating: "We are film archivists who happen to focus on preserving sex films" and that they curate and restore those they deem to "provide value" rather than the run-of-the-mill DVD one can find off a sex shop.
  • In Eyes of Laura Mars, the protagonist is a successful photographer whose work focuses on scenes of sexualized violence, often including nude women. Her detractors accuse her of degrading women, but she says that this kind of violence is everywhere, and she just wants people to see it.
  • Parodied in Casino Royale (1967). The art collection that Le Chiffre is auctioning actually consists of blackmail photographs of VIP's in compromising positions.

  • C. S. Lewis' allegory "The Pilgrim's Regress". The singer in question is Mr. Phally, who is squeezed in between Victoriana and Glugly.
  • Discworld:
    • Discussed in the novel Thud! — it's noted that the Stripperiffic clothing of exotic dancers is logically more obscene than "great art" showing completely naked women, on the account of (according to Sergeant Colon) the dancers having "No urns", or Plinths, or cupids in their presence.
    • And again in Wintersmith, although when Nanny Ogg says the presence of cupids shows it's Art, and not just women with no clothes on, Granny Weatherwax sniffs, "Well, they're not foolin' me."
    • When Commander Vimes visits his wife's estate in Snuff, he finds that her ancestors bought nude statuary. He reflexively checks that the statues are holding fruit, as "holding fruit" makes it art. Later on, he regrets that the master bathroom has been decorated in... meticulously detailed scenes of nude frolicking with no fruit or urns to be seen.
    • The Ankh-Morpork Fine Art Society -hem, hem-, in Guards! Guards! is, in a similar manner to the page image, dedicated to the painting of the female form, or at least to having an easel in front of you while you look at it.
  • Guy Blod, a sculptor in Left Behind, decides an appropriate memorial for the late Antichrist would be an enormous, highly-detailed metal nude. He reacts this way to "Tribulation Saints" who find the statue unsettling. (No one else cares — by this point in the series, all television is either porn or Gorn. Even the news.)
  • Used as an excuse by the Anti-Hero in Eric Ambler's novel The Light of Day. At one point in his life, he published illegal pornography of no literary value in several European countries and got prosecuted for it. When questioned about this by the Turkish police, he engages in sophistry and references the previous banning of works like Lady Chatterley's Lover (which had just been allowed to be published in England at the time Ambler's novel was written).
  • Gate: Princess Piña Colada and her subordinate Bozes become very enthusiastic about acquiring Japanese "Fine Art" after encountering Yaoi Genre manga.
  • In Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You Mr Rosewater, conservative Senator Rosewater is quite proud that he created a law that defines what is obscene and not art. If you can see pubic hair, it's pornography. (Note that this was before the modern custom of porn stars shaving off their pubic hair).
    • Also, one annoying character in his Slaughterhouse-Five was showing to his squadmate what was described as "a print of the first dirty photograph in history". Allegedly, the author of the original photograph (an assistant to Louis Daguerre), when confronted by the authorities, resorted to the "It's art" defence.
    "Le Fèvre argued that the picture was fine art, and that his intention was to make Greek mythology come alive. He said that columns and the potted palm proved that. When asked which myth he meant to represent Le Fèvre replied that there were thousands of myths like that, with the woman a mortal and the pony a god. He was sentenced to six months in prison. He died there of pneumonia. So it goes."
  • In Haganai, Sena is caught playing an Bland-Name Product eroge called The Sacred Blackstar. She insists that the game's H-scenes are beautiful and artful, so Yozora makes her read the dialogue of the last scene, some Glad-to-Be-Alive Sex, out loud. Naturally, it turns out to be extremely raunchy, much to Sena's embarrassment.
  • Mocked in Dave Barry's column "Well Endowed":
    Prosecutor: So, Professor Weemer, you're saying that this video depicts an ecology theme?
    Witness: Yes. The woman displays a LOT of affection for the zucchini.
  • Henry Miller was irritated by both the people who hated his books as porn, and the people who loved them as porn. His own argument was that sex is an important part of life and he didn't want to leave it out any more than he'd leave out anything else important.
  • William S. Burroughs makes a sly nod to this trope in his book Naked Lunch (which was itself on trial for being pornographic, but later found to have redeeming merit) with the character of The Great Slashtubitch, an "impresario of blue movies and short-wave TV" who takes pornography very seriously as an art form. Disgusted by "counterfeit orgasm", he thinks it takes "sincerity and art, and devotion" for actors to work in his films in lieu of "shoddy trickery" like "dubbed gasps, rubber turds and vials of milk concealed in the ear and shots of yohimbine [an aphrodisiac] sneaked in the wings". Slashtubitch appears again in Burroughs' later book The Wild Boys, spelled Slastobitch and elaborates upon his position.
    Slastobitch: The new look in blue movies stresses story and character. This is the space age and sex movies must express the longing to escape from flesh through sex. The way in is the way through . . . The scene where Johnny has crabs and mark makes him undress . . . Who are these boys? Where will they go? They will become astronauts playing the part of the American married idiots until the moment they take off on a Gemini expedition bound for Mars disconnect and lave the earth behind forever . . .
  • Umberto Eco wrote an essay in the '80s about how to tell films with artistic value from porn. He argued that porn movies always contain a lot of padding before sex scenes to titillate the audience.
  • Played for Laughs in Spike Milligan's Rommel, Gunner Who Imagine Spot:
    'I lit the oil lamp. Now! Where were me old pornographic photographs...("It's all lies officer! I bought them as art studies, I am a keen art student of twenty-one" etc.)'
  • Along the lines of the Discworld ruminations, in Best Served Cold, there is a passage in which the Anti-Hero Monza (who lives in a Renaissance Italian Fantasy Counterpart Culture) sees a piece of art that makes her question the distinction: "There was a huge canvas in a gleaming frame on one wall-a woman with an improbable bosom bathing in a stream, and seeming to enjoy it a lot more than was likely. Monza never had understood why getting out a tit or two made for a better painting. But painters seemed to think it did, so tits is what you got."
  • Inverted in one of A.P. Herbert's Misleading Cases In The Common Law, the Classics master of an exclusive Boarding School is charged with not only possession of lewd books (i.e. all those stories about pagan gods lying with maidens in the form of animals), but sharing them with minors.
  • Invoked in-universe in H. Beam Piper's novel Uller Uprising. The Terrans realize that some of the native rebels had an opportunity to learn about nuclear weapons while employed as laborers on a Death World where nukes were used in mining. They start desperately searching for the detailed information they need to build their own nukes first to put down the rebellion. They find it in some appendices attached to a trashy novel set during World War II, where they were included by an author who wanted her work to be seen as serious historical fiction rather than smut.
  • 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die contains a list of 1001 movies the author considers must-see movies, with each entry accompanied by a short essay explaining why. The introduction notes that the book aims to include the entire panorama of film history, with films from all eras, regions, and genres. However, pornographic films are conspicuously absent (even though there are some pornographic films that could be argued to be important in film history i.e. Andy Warhol's Blue Movie), and the entry for In the Realm of the Senses (an erotic arthouse film with unsimulated sex scenes including a man pushes an egg into a woman's vulva, forcing her to push it out before eating it) explicitly refers to it as a non-pornographic film.
  • Oreimo: Kirino insists that a bishoujo figurine of her favorite series is high art, but Kuroneko replies that art does not need a clothes-off feature.
  • In the first novel British agent Quiller goes on a long rant on the subject while tied up with nothing to look at but a painting of a nude woman that happens to be in the room.
    It was no good thinking in terms of taste. She was there for raping. They might as well have hung a whore on the wall. There was no signature, but the painter had been a German, a true-blue Prussian-born hypocritical bloody Aryan. You portray the face as symbolising purity—the flawless skin, the innocent gaze, the little girl look—and then you go to town on the tits and pussy, symbolising carnality until it moans. Result: you have a picture you can give to your own mother-in-law for hanging in the needle-room, and she'll always think you've come to admire her petit-point.
  • The Mermaid: Amelia, the titular mermaid, doesn't understand how humans can think their bodies are obscene when so much of their art depicts naked people, but Levi tells her, "They were Greek and Roman and that was all right for them."

    Live Action TV 
  • In a 3rd Rock from the Sun episode, Dick struggled to differentiate art and smut:
    Dick: She's nakeder than they are; why is this for aesthetic appreciation and this for arousal?
    Mrs. Dubcek: Well, this is Michelangelo, while this is... Michael and Angelo.
  • 30 Rock: in the episode "Cougars", Frank's poorly rendered painting of a mermaid had to have the breasts covered for Standards, yet the outside of 30 Rockefeller Center is covered with carvings of topless women which are shown every week in the title sequence.
  • Blackadder
    • In the final season three episode, Edmund mentions (among a few other things he's extorting out of the Prince) the "highly artistic but also highly illegal set of French lithographs". He describes them as a "sack of French porn" about thirty seconds later, so whether they're porn, artistic or they fall into that grey area in the middle is left up to the viewer.
    • From the second series episode "Money", the compromising paintings of The Bishop of Bath & Wells could potentially form the basis of an exhibition of challenging young artists.
    • Also from season three, the actors Kendrick and Mossop claim that The Bloody Murder of the Foul Prince Romero and his Enormously-Bosomed Wife is a philosophical work, and the vastness of the bosom is justified by the text, as is the bloodiness of the murder.
  • Boston Legal has a university professor accused of soliciting prostitution under the guise of "research". He had made a video of himself with the prostitute that the prosecution is going to use as evidence. But, taking advantage of the odd American legal rule, his own lawyers argue that he actually was creating pornography and was therefore protected under the First Amendment. If it's porn, it's not prostitution and therefore not a crime!
  • Coupling: "Inferno". While the video in question was undoubtedly pornographic (its full name was Lesbian Spank Inferno), Steve tries to present it as a feminist art movie with underlying social critique. An inversion occurs immediately afterward. When he fails to convince the others of this angle, he starts to rant that it doesn't matter, since every invention and scientific progress (including fire, the printing press, and the Internet) had only one purpose: to enable men to see naked female bottoms.
  • Played for laughs in Chappelle's Show, when Dave becomes Oprah Winfrey's "baby's daddy." Oprah doesn't bat an eye when she sees him painting a portrait with a gorgeous nude model, but after she leaves we see that he's just painting a big-boobed stick figure on the canvas.
  • Doctor Who. In "Deep Breath", Madame Vastra is supposedly painting her girlfriend Jenny, who's in a low-cut dress and in a pose that displays a fair amount of cleavage. It's then revealed that Vastra is actually working on a pinboard charting the recent cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion. Jenny is not amused and demands to know why she's posing. Vastra lamely tries to excuse it as "art".
  • House of the Dragon: In the third episode scene where Alicent Hightower and her father Otto have a conversation, the walls of the Red Keep behind them show art depicting orgies.
  • In The Office (US), Ryan attempts to pass off his amateur black-and-white photos as "artistic"; one is a topless photo of his ex(?)-girlfriend Kelly, which Ryan says is about "exposure in the workplace". In a deleted scene, Stanley says this when his coworkers catch him looking at Hentai.
  • Inverted out-of-universe in the DVD commentary of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Once More With Feeling," an episode nominated for an Emmy. The Writer/Director's Commentary literally stated "This is basically... porn," when discussing the lyrics to a certain song.
    "You make me com...plete."
    • And this happens while the singer is floating in the air on her back and her girlfriend has just disappeared out of frame.
  • On Three's Company, Jack answers an ad for a modeling job, only to find out that the photographer wants him to pose naked for a Playboy-esque magazine. But he insists on calling it "nude."
    Jack: What's the difference?
    Photographer: "Naked" is dirty. "Nude" is art.
  • From an episode of Bottom, as Eddie tries to defend his purchase of an old porn magazine as an 'investment' by comparing it to the Sistine Chapel.
    Richie: It doesn't matter how you art it up, Eddie, it's still a... "jazz mag".
    Eddie: That's what they said to Michelangelo about the Sistine Chapel!
    Richie: No it's not! The Sistine Chapel is art. If they said anything they would have said "Blimey! Nice painting Mr. Angelo. Now that's what I call art, and it's not porny at all!"
    Eddie: It bloody well is dirty you know. There's those three birds on the top of the third pillar from the left with the blue ribbon. Corr — some of the things they're doing would make your nose bleed!
    • It's later revealed that porn or art, Richie uses both for the same purpose.
  • Happened a lot in Bravo's Reality Show Work of Art, about finding the next great artist. Taken to new heights when one contestant actually came on his artwork (the piece was about the time when he came to a Disney movie).
  • This is basically the entire plot of the Parks and Recreation episode, "Jerry's Painting." The Justice Stewart quote is cited in this scene.
  • In Party Down, actor Steve Guttenberg owns a painting of an erect nude man holding a porcupine. The profound artistic value of the artwork is summed up by the following statement: "He wants to have sex with the porcupine. But he can't."
  • In How I Met Your Mother episode "Home Wreckers", Ted's new stepfather Clint gives Ted a graphic painting of Ted's mother hugging Clint (who is holding a guitar) while both are naked. Narrator!Ted comments, "There was no guitar."
  • The "Marie's Sculpture" episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, in which Marie Barone's energies are diverted into an art and sculpture class. Everyone relaxes. Until she comes home with an abstract statue full of pleasing curves and visual symmetries which looks, at first glance, like an unfolding flower. But at second glance it looks like the female genitals. Once this association is made, the wider Barone family find it hard not to see... note 
  • Inverted in a Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode, where Fin utterly shuts down this defense to a book describing the show's version of Fifty Shades of Grey, claiming that, no matter how many degrees the author might have, "porn is porn". Most characters disagree, however, and treat the book as a legitimate work of literature.
  • In a flashback, Community's Jeff Winger used this trope to get his client, a stripper, acquitted of tax evasion by calling her work "non-profit performance art".
  • The Partridge Family: In "My Heart Belongs to a Two-Car Garage," a traveling Russian handyman who claims to be a celebrated artist paints a huge, mostly-naked woman on the family's garage, causing an uproar in the neighborhood. In the end, a man from the local art museum sees the painting, declares it a masterpiece, and has the front of the garage transported to the museum.
    Chris: Mom, how come I can look at the garage here and I couldn't at home?
    Shirley: Well, because now it's a work of art.
    Tracy: Why wasn't it a work of art at home?
    Shirley: Well, then we didn't know it was a work of art.
    Laurie: And sometimes we don't know if something's good until someone tells us.
  • In Seinfeld, George tries unconvincingly to explain to Susan that the movie "Rochelle, Rochelle", which is about a girl's "erotic journey from Milan to Minsk", is actually a work of art, really more a "film" than a movie. (Susan's expression says it all.)

  • The Dead Kennedys included a print of H. R. Giger's painting "Penis Landscape" (which depicted a wall of penises entering a wall of vaginas) with their landmark album Frankenchrist. Members of the band were charged with Distributing Harmful Matter to Minors based on this, and though the case did not result in a conviction (the painting was, finally, ruled "art" and not "porn"), the band's Alternative Tentacles record label was driven almost to bankruptcy because of trial costs.
  • G Idle: "Nxde" is about cultural attitudes around nudity. It argues for the artistic value of nudity and that it should not be seen as obscene, pointing out the Double Standard in attitudes toward "obscene" nudity and "natural" or "artistic" nudity.
    Why you think that 'bout nude
    'Cause your view's so rude
    Think outside the box
    까고 말해 (Speak out)
    아리따운 나의 누드 (My beautiful self) (x2)
    I'm born nude
    변태는 너야 (You've got a dirty mind)
  • In George Michael's "I Want Your Sex (Part 1)", George asks, "What's your definition of dirty, baby? What do you consider pornography?"

  • In The Goon Show, Major Bloodnok would regularly be involved in the illegal distribution of "photographs for Art Lovers" which would, at the very least be concealed within a brown paper bag.

  • This is how the nude revues at the Windmill Theatre in London came about. The Lord Chamberlain, at that time the national censor, was forced to rule that since naked statues were allowed on public display, naked women could appear on stage as long as they didn't move. If they moved, they were obviously not statues, and therefore, "rude".
  • Anything more than a hundred years old is art, despite the fact Restoration and Regency plays were quite risqué. A parody from around the same time as the Windmill ends with the cast singing:
    Sing "la!" for the classical play!
    With plenty of smut,
    And not a line cut,
    And no entertainment tax to pay.

    Video Games 
  • Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. This is mentioned in the cutscene for the first porn studio mission. After walking onto the set and before revealing he's the new boss, Tommy starts yelling at director Steve Scott about the various props on the set.
    Tommy: Why'd you get into this business, ya prick? Huh? For the pussy, that's why. What is this?
    Scott: This is my art.
    • Then as it cuts back into the gameplay, Tommy says "What's that guy think this is? Some free art crap? Jeez, like anyone ever watched movies about fish."
    • Played with in Grand Theft Auto IV: The Ballad of Gay Tony. When Luis teases Gay Tony about the phallic statues in his apartment, he quotes the trope title verbatim.
  • Turgor (known to English-speakers as The Void). Even though you spend a large amount of the game watching nude women seductively posing for you, the majority of critics thought saw it as a serious piece of art, and thought the Fanservice actually served a thematic purpose. It could be that the nudity is just as prominent, or that the gameplay requires patience and careful planning, or just the fact that true art is offensive, incomprehensible, and foreign, but few have accused it of being purely a vehicle for Fanservice.
  • The Soft Dorothy Software logo seen in Glider and Pararena, an 1889 engraving of a topless fairy, caused problems with shareware distributors (including a ban from Compuserve that was later rescinded). The developer even got "all of two pieces of hate mail" and muses that that's still more eyebrows than the original art probably ever raised in Europe.
  • Averted matter-of-factly in Fate/Grand Order. Katsuhika Hokusai and his daughter/assistant Ou'i will freely admit that their most famous pieces, such as "The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife", are explicitly pornographic. They'll even offer you personalized works as their current patron (Master).
  • Dragon Age II has a silly example appear (so to speak) in the Black Emporium — a sculpture of the Chantry's prophet and Bride of The Maker, Andraste, in the nude. This was obviously blasphemous even if no one could articulate why, but it was such a beautiful representation of Her that no one could bring themselves to destroy it, so they got a mage to render it invisible. Now the only way anyone can experience this version of the Maker's Holy Bride is through physical exploration...
  • Comes up in a data log in Horizon Zero Dawn. Travis Tate, a scientist with Project Zero Dawn who is shown to have been a Misfit Lab Rat with a love of Heavy Metal and horror movies, attempted to have 265 "acknowledged classics of extreme exploitation cinema" included in the culture archive to be preserved for posterity. Samina Ebadji, the head of the archive project whose tastes leaned far more towards "good taste", permitted only the Pier Paolo Pasolini films on the grounds that, while they were extreme, they were also art — and not coincidentally, they had already been archived for this reason. She very bluntly and angrily rebuffed him on the rest, telling him in no uncertain terms that it'll be a good thing if nobody in the future remembers the Making a Millipede movies or all the Eastern European torture flicks he asked to have included. Funnily enough, she also thanked him for finally providing an objective criteria for obscenity, namely "If Travis Tate submitted it, it's obscene." She even referenced Judge Potter's famous quote "I know it when I see it."

    Web Comics 
  • In The Anime Club, Mort tries to defend a Hentai anime (involving bestiality, no less) with this. It doesn't work well.
  • Highlighted in this Candi strip.
  • Parodied in Sluggy Freelance. The character Bert is a misunderstood, crotchety old artist.
    My world is a crotch!
  • Homestuck's Equius Zahhak owns a collection of NUDE MUSCLEBEAST PORTRAITS. His opinion on the matter:
    These striking depictions of the EXQUISITE FAUNA native to Alternia remind you of the PUREST PHYSICAL IDEAL that must be sought by anyone who professes a LOVE OF STRENGTH. When those of lesser bloodlines turn up their uncultured noses at such stunning material, it MAKES YOU FURIOUS.
    • The other trolls seem to consider the portraits to be fine art as well, possibly because trolls don't reproduce that way. To them, it's about as pornographic as a flower.
  • Lampshaded in Brawl in the Family in a Waluigi strip. Daisy sees a picture of a butt on the wall and is disgusted, but Luigi tells her it's a painting of a butt, which makes all the difference, apparently. Doubles as a reference to the painting The Treachery Of Images.
  • In a non-canon El Goonish Shive comic, Susan catches Sarah looking at nude photos, but Sarah assures her that it's only for art reference. It actually is.
  • Sticky Dilly Buns: The repressed Ruby frequently insists that the yaoi she loves has artistic value. A Print Bonus strip that appeared after the end of the comic’s run shows her recognising that her tastes (and new sideline in calendar publishing) take her very close to porn, but she comes to terms with this.
  • In Dumbing of Age, Joyce insists that the explicit Slash Fic she's reading is not porn, but Literature!

    Web Original 
  • This very NSFW sketch plays the trope — and HBO's infamous penchant for it — for laughs. A handful of actors describe to their friends and family the very sexual roles they were just hired for, the friends and family naturally assume that their loved ones have unknowingly signed on to a porn film, and the actors cheerfully explain that this is, like, completely different from porn. It's HBO, you see.
  • Discussed in this page of Asexuality Archive.
Narrator: "Possession of nudity in all forms makes you a pervy loser worthy of mocking and ridicule. (Unless it's an oil painting, a sculpture, or soft-focus photograph, then that's art and therefore perfectly acceptable. But you're not permitted to be aroused by that in any way.)''

    Western Animation 
  • Bender and the Ship's computer have an argument concerning this subject in an episode of Futurama.
    Bender: If you need me, I'll be in my room appreciating "controversial art!"
  • An episode of The Simpsons played with this; the "pornographic" work in question was Michelangelo's David. It goes something like this: Marge has successfully crusaded to get cartoon violence off the air. When her fellow Moral Guardians come to her to complain about David, she says she's okay with it because it's art. A bit later, Dr. Marvin Monroe (a psychiatrist who was a guest in an earlier interview with Marge) confronts her on a news interview show and asks her how she can be for one form of expression and against another. She isn't able to give a satisfactory answer, so society declares her protest invalid and hypocritical and lets animated violence return (to the delight of Springfield's children).
  • Family Guy gives us this joke in the first season:
    Peter: What's the difference between pornography and art? ... A government grant!
  • The Beavis and Butt-Head episode "Figure Drawing" had the pair join an art class just so they could stare at the nude model, and try to hit her up. During a break, the model leaves and is replaced by a male model, which instantly turns them off.

    Real Life 
  • In US law, one of the few ways that a work can be banned is if it's declared "obscene".note  One of the requirements of being declared obscene is that it has no artistic or other redeeming value. For instance, a picture of a naked person, or of people having sex, cannot be banned if it's proven that the picture has artistic merit or if it has educational or scientific merit (e.g. a picture in a book on anatomy, medicine, biology, or sexual education). This distinction has never been made clear; the basic thrust of the rule, famously articulated in Potter Stewart's opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio, is "I know it when I see it." This has earned the nickname "the limp dick test" in some legal circles. Because of how vague the definition of pornography was, the justices of the Supreme Court had to watch every film accused of obscenity (and had its case appealed up to the Supreme Court) and judge them on an individual basis. Yes, during the 1950s to 1970s, one of the jobs of a Supreme Court justice and clerk is to gather one-day-per-year in the darkened basement of the Supreme Court building (Room 22-B) and watch the year's crop of "art" films. Because of Justice John Marshall Harlan II's failing eyesight, Justices Thurgood Marshall and Potter Stewart took great pleasure in narrating the action on screen ("By George, extraordinary!" was the oft-heard sarcastic reply from Harlan; incidentally, all three Justices were advocates of free speech).
    • The more detailed rule, articulated in 1973's Miller v. California, is three-pronged:
      1. Would a reasonable person, applying community standards, think the material appeals primarily to the prurient interest (i.e. is it primarily intended to get one sexually aroused)?
      2. Does the material depict some sexual act, predefined by state statute, in a patently offensive way?
      3. Does the work, taken as a whole, lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value?
      • If the answer to all three is "yes," then it can be banned (not that it necessarily will be banned). This is still ultimately a "know it when I see it" doctrine since it depends on the subjective determinations of "community standards" regarding "prurient interest" and "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value". The latter element is what Stewart was talking about (the work in Jacobellis was The Lovers, a pretentious French art film that certainly had artistic value, albeit extremely French artistic value).
  • One of the most prominent ways pornography can be legalized. Lawyers claimed it's just art where actors simply played people who acted as promiscuous, therefore, it's not de facto prostitution. This argument is way more effective if it really is just art on a paper or some other non-living medium, with no real breathing people involved. (e.g. Ancient Greek vase gay pornography, the demonstration drawings on The Other Wiki, hentai, etc.)
  • A strip club owner in New York argued that his dancers were artists and thus not subject to anti-nudity laws. A judge agreed, although it's still under dispute.
  • Inverted in European LARP: If a game is set in a medieval European fantasy setting, some people will act as if they're shocked by an amount of nakedness that would be considered unremarkable nowadays. The "porn" that is sold by shady people is mostly just pencil drawings of ladies and gentleman without their shirts on, and maybe some strategically placed objects to hide the naughty bits. Some people even commission such drawings of their own player characters.
  • In early 2001, the Saatchi Gallery in London ran an exhibition of artistic photos by American artist Tierney Gearon under the title I Am A Camera. This became subject to police raids and a possible prosecution under both indecency and child protection laws, as a significant number of photos involved Ms Gearon's son and daughter, both under seven, photographed naked. The subsequent public and legal debate then revolved around where art ended and indecent photographs/possible child abuse began. British Newspapers split along predictable lines: the Daily Mail bemoaned the erosion of wholesome family values note . The Sun, predictably, launched a Pædo Hunt and advocated the photographer, the gallery owners and anyone remotely connected to them should be dragged out into the street and lynched. Just as predictably, the Guardian/Observer, newspapers with cultural and artistic pretentions, insisted the artist's right to make art trumped everything else and should never be censored. The arguments dragged on through the spring of 2001, until the Crown Prosecution Service conceded that no realistic case could be brought against the gallery or the photographer, nor could it invoke the Obscene Publications Act against the publishers of books reproducing the images. note 
  • Word—for—word shout out to the trope in the headline of this article regarding a naturist rock climber.


Video Example(s):


Stanley's hentai stash

In a notorious deleted scene from the US version of The Office, Michael accidentally uncovers Stanley's (heavily pixelated) stash of hentai printouts. Stanley responds in one of the faux interview segments by defensively, yet proudly stating that "it's called hentai, and it's art."

How well does it match the trope?

5 (18 votes)

Example of:

Main / ItsNotPornItsArt

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