Sometimes, there’s just a lot of penises

One of the things I like about my job is I get to see all the new books that get ordered. Sometimes they’re not particularly interesting to me, but quite often they’re beautiful or thought provoking or…sometimes they’re filled with naked genitalia. The nature of working in an Art Library is there’s a lot of nudity in art.

Warning: this blog post may not be safe for everyone’s workplace or appropriate for children.

There’s something about Westerners though. We need to quantify and qualify and categorize our nudity and sexuality. We sequester it into either the category of “Art” and therefore “Good and Valuable” or “Porn/Sex work” and therefore “Bad and Deviant”. Even when the line between the two is merely a matter of interpretation. And that interpretation changes with time and audience, leading to large controversies and legal battles, such as the Maplethorpe Obscenity Trial.

Recently I was made aware of the photography of Ren Hang, a Chinese photographer who specialized in nude portraits of his friends which explore gender and homosexuality. They are certainly interesting and thought provoking, but many of the pictures are focused close-ups of genitalia, sometimes in states of semi-arousal. Which is all well and good, but the line between that and what would be considered “porn” in another context is…microscopic let’s say.

I want to make it clear, I do not have a problem with the photos existing, or even with them being categorized as Art. My problem is all the other beautiful photography or detailed drawings/paintings/digital arts that are relegated to “mere porn” because they offend someone. We need to stop treating depictions of sex in media as necessarily pornographic, but more importantly we need as a society to recognize that porn can be Art and therefore inherently Good and Valuable. I’m no porn scholar, this is just a pet peeve of mine from floating around the internet and various fandom spaces.

This is not to say that the internet is totally ready to embrace the likes of Ren Hang’s work.

Google image search results for Ren Hang, retrieved May 4th 2022

Google image searching his name brings up plenty of nude photos, but not much in the way of the truly erotic, shocking, or homoerotic ones. In fact, the ones on the first page of Google results are practically tame in comparison to what was published in his books. Nor did his own culture always embrace his work, many calling it pornography. So in a way, Hang’s work is emblematic of both sides of the issue. His art is both celebrated by high profile artistic venues such as Aperature Magazine, and denigrated as “mere pornography” in other spheres. It also shows that, despite America’s reputation for being a nation of sex-panicked Puritans, this is not a uniquely American problem. This is a global problem of epic proportions, relegating sexuality, especially and particularly “deviant” sexuality as “Not Art” while allowing other forms of nudity to be celebrated as “Art”.

I guess my point is that the line between Art and Porn is not only not clear, but shouldn’t even exist in the first place. Porn is Art, and sexuality should be able to be celebrated in art without causing mass hysteria.

Inside back cover of Hanson, Dian, and Hang Ren. Ren Hang = Ren Hang. Köln: Taschen, 2017. Print.

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