Art, Porn, and the Post-Pandemic Museum

Pornhub’s new venture Classic Nudes challenges art’s hierarchies by focusing on and recreating its most erotic moments through pornography. “Porn may not be considered art,” the site asserts, “but some art can definitely be considered porn.” Images of artworks from six leading institutions are accompanied by witty and pun-filled text and audio commentary as well as, most arrestingly, pornographic “video guides” performed by amateur porn star couple MySweetApple. Meditating on the erotic charge of “high art,” these short films bring to life imagined moments before and after a painting is completed. In recreating Boucher’s The Brunette Odalisque (1745), for example, the performers portray an escalating encounter, perhaps between artist and sitter. In their version of Goya’s The Naked Maja (1797-1800), the woman’s reclined position is interpreted as distinctly postcoital, with the performer assuming the iconic pose of the painting following the culmination of the pair’s entanglement.

Classic Nudes has received mixed responses from the art world. Among the institutions from whose collections it borrows, the Louvre Museum and the Uffizi Gallery are suing its creator Pornhub—already the subject of sustained criticism for its platforming of revenge and child pornography—for rights infringements. Several of the videos made for Classic Nudes have been subsequently removed from its website, with a spokesperson for the Uffizi telling reporters: “No one has granted authorisations for the operation or use of the art.” While the Metropolitan Museum of Art, another of the institutions whose works are reproduced, is not suing, its communications team have stated they “will not be taking any action that directly or indirectly raises awareness of this project.”

Although the institutions whose collections featured in Classic Nudes may not have consented to the project, collaboration on exhibitions with corporate partners represents an increasingly routine avenue for museums, raising important questions about how collections are used and by whom. The Met’s forthcoming show Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts, for example, aligns the animated fantasies of the Disney studio with the “figments of the colorful salons of Rococo Paris” and will feature Boulle clocks and Sèvres porcelain alongside production artworks from the Disney archives.

Of course, numerous artists and musicians have turned a more critical, as well as playful, gaze towards globally-renowned collections, creatively challenging the visual languages and political coding of canonical works held in museums and galleries. In 2018, Beyoncé and Jay-Z filmed the video for their joint track “APESHIT” at the Louvre, placing the bodies of Black performers in the foreground of the gallery space where they appeared in front of largely European art works, including those depicting enslaved people of color. A curated page on the Louvre website now documents the museum’s involvement in the project and offers a tour of the art works highlighted by the pair. In 2020, Atelier Rococo (fine art photographer Drucilla Burrell and designer Magdalene Celeste) created fifteen new works inspired by paintings at the National Gallery that “explore themes of power in portraiture and create alternative narratives to the traditional expressions of wealth and domesticity,” in particular drawing out questions of gender and sexuality. While some have labelled Classic Nudes nothing more than a publicity stunt, its centering of the erotic potentiality of famous art works is worthy of closer attention, while its reception underscores questions around consent and the politics of looking that have shaped art history for centuries.

Bringing together two distinct visual domains, Classic Nudes subverts traditional hierarchies by aligning art and porn. As the project confirms, these worlds are intimately intertwined. Introducing Classic Nudes is porn star and politician Cicciolina (Ilona Staller), the former wife of the artist Jeff Koons. Together, Staller and Koons appeared in his 1989 series Made In Heaven, which featured sculpted and photographic works depicting the couple engaging in various sexual acts. Staller’s presence in the project’s trailer accordingly suggests that Pornhub may well know its stuff when it comes to art. Indeed, the site brings together an illustrious assortment of famous works of art, including everything from neoclassical paintings such as Jean Léon Gérome’s Pygmalion and Galatea (1890), to Goya’s intimate depiction of The Naked Maja. As performed by MySweetApple, these explicit clips are labelled “Video Guides” in a playful reference to the rarefied space of the museum in which the works are displayed.

The erotic potential of art as both a representative and affective medium has always captivated audiences. Pliny’s Natural History recorded an infamous incident in which a young man besotted with the sculptor Praxiteles’ Venus of Knidos “became enamoured of this statue, and, concealing himself in the temple during the night, gratified his lustful passion upon it, traces of which are to be seen in a stain left upon the marble.” Discrete, curated collections of erotica like Classic Nudes have a long-established history. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the pornographic art of the ancient world began, literally, to resurface during excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum. In Naples in 1821, objects deemed unsuitable for public display were discretely put into the Secret Cabinet (Gabinetto Segreto), forming a collection now held by the National Archaeological Museum in Italy and which includes a sculpture of the god Pan copulating with a goat. In 1850s Britain, the British Library segregated over four thousand volumes containing erotic drawings, prints and texts from the main holdings into what became known as the Private Case.

Classic Nudes is not the first artistic project to reimagine the works included on its website. In 1772, Queen Charlotte commissioned Johan Joseph Zoffany to paint the treasures held in the Uffizi’s collection. The resulting image, TheTribuna of the Uffizi, features Titian’s Venus of Urbino, displayed prominently for the delectation of several male antiquaries gathered around it. The eroticism of Titian’s painting was evoked by Zoffany again in his 1779 Self-Portrait with a Friar’s Habit, in which a fragment of a sketched reproduction is pinned to the wall behind, along with two condoms.

In reimagining the gallery space online, Classic Nudes follows moves by museums to make collections accessible in a post-pandemic world. But this project is not merely an exercise in digitising existing works and, indeed, calls from institutions for the removal of copyrighted material have limited any efforts in this area. Instead, Classic Nudes transforms the museum into a digital fantasy to consider the ways we consume and enjoy art. In adopting typical museum language, Pornhub playfully reminds us not to “touch” the precious works on display, evoking a distance between visual and corporeal experience as present in porn as it is in the public gallery. Eventually, it dissolves this distance. While the dialogue between form and imagination is enabled by Classic Nudes via twenty-first century technology, it is one with distinctly eighteenth-century roots. As Kathleen Lubey has written of Hogarth’s writing on art in her book Excitable Imaginations, the eighteenth-century connection drawn between aesthetics and form located “beauty not in the specific attribute of an art object but in the way their composition invites a viewer’s pleasure and curiosity.” Embracing this approach to locate erotic experience derived from visual beauty in the digital gallery, Classic Nudes promises a more fulfilling museum experience, one that transcends the ordinary restrictions of institutional display and instead offers direct, intimate, and imaginative lines of connection between the paintings themselves and their newly autonomous viewers. “Time to ditch those boring self-tour recordings,” the campaign trailer instructs, “and enjoy every single brushstroke of these erotic masterpieces with me.”

Among the artworks presented by Classic Nudes are several paintings that display disarticulated body parts. The visual bodyscapes of pornography inevitably privilege its erogenous zones. Cropped around and zoomed in on, breasts, bottoms, and genitalia all find themselves the focus of its scopophilic modes. It is perhaps in this bodily emphasis that the visual languages of pornography find their clearest echo in some of the works displayed on the site. For example, in Gustave Courbet’s infamous painting L’Origine du Monde (1866), we are invited to gaze upon and into the body of a reclining woman, who sits legs spread wide, and whose arms, face, and head are covered with a white sheet. The clear erotic potential of the work is reinforced by tracing its ownership. The painting belonged to the Turkish diplomat Halil Şerif Pasha (1831-1879), who reportedly commissioned the work upon arrival in Paris. Just as it appears in Classic Nudes—as one of many sexually suggestive images displayed together—so too was L’Origine du Monde one of several erotic works in Halil Şerif Pasha’s collection, which also included Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ Le Bain turc (1862).

Like the painting, the pornographic film inspired by it is similarly cropped tightly around the genitalia of one of MySweetApple’s performers, who sports a merkin in order to more fully ape the characteristics of the original painting. Showing an extended scene of cunnilingus, the “Video Guide” accordingly fulfils the promise of the painting’s eroticism, filling the imagined space left by the viewer’s potential engagement with the body in front of them through a sustained represented interaction. Here we see the transformational interactivity of painting turned into porn; one that not only returns but more explicitly rewards the gaze through eroticized display.

While the fixation on isolated body parts is part of porn’s established visual languages, there is a sense in which these choices might also be somewhat more radical. The accompanying film for Courbet’s painting represents a sustained celebration of female pleasure, while Classic Nudes also includes other works that explicitly reference women’s sexual agency. For example, the history behind Sarah Goodridge’s celebrated 1828 self-portrait of her own naked breasts, known as Beauty Revealed, tells the story of a miniature produced by a woman artist as a gift for her lover, and as such certainly evokes porn’s diverse audiences and viewership, which includes a high proportion of women viewers.

The inclusion of Beauty Revealed in the project also raises important questions about the politics of looking—specifically the power balance between the audience and those who are looked at—which are increasingly urgent within the porn industry. At 2.6 x 3 inches, this work is, Pornhub’s writer notes, “about the same size as the nudes on your phone,” a statement that draws a provocative dialogue between the erotic visual practices of past and present, and between older art forms and the technologies that we carry in our pockets today. Originally produced by Goodridge as a private gift, the work is now part of a publicly accessible collection: a transformation in bodily display from the intimate to the communal. As such, its inclusion also calls to mind issues around consent, intimacy, and our own culpability in the display of sexual content. This, of course, is an issue that Pornhub is currently having to grapple with as it faces accusations of immoral practices around its hosting of content that features revenge porn and other forms of sexual violence. Unlike the carefully curated Classic Nudes project, there is no regulatory body that monitors the content put up on Pornhub proper, meaning that the site regularly hosts videos that fall short of the highest standards in the production and platforming of ethical pornography. This has led to vocal criticism of the site, and Classic Nudes has accordingly been accused of “art washing,” a deliberate cultural strategy designed to distract from Pornhub’s role in enabling the dissemination of a portion of material that is damaging and, in many cases, illegal.

Classic Nudes has also received criticism for its overwhelming whiteness, with the majority of works selected drawn from a Western, predominantly European canon. As journalist Matt Wille put it after he took Pornhub’s tour of the Met in real time, “there are only so many white women’s butts you can see before they all start to look the same.” No doubt conscious of broader conversations around representation in porn as well as art history, Pornhub has in fact included in the Classic Nudes site a section it titles “Another Perspective.” Presented here are works such as Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro’s depiction of a woman washing, an eleventh-century carving of an orgy, and Jules Robert Auguste’s colonialist portrayal of an interracial friendship in his 1835 painting Friends. Tellingly, however, there is none of the audio or video content that appears across the rest of the project, and while works that explore a range of sexualities are presented here, there is little effort to explore beyond the overwhelming heteronormativity foregrounded across Classic Nudes. The text that accompanies the works in this section promises a “wider perspective” on “cultures, subjects and viewpoints not widely represented in Western art.” But in a project so overtly invested in visibility, this feels like a missed opportunity to disrupt the hegemonic notions of beauty typically on display in the modern museum.

This lack is undoubtedly perpetuated and reinforced by the choice of performers who comprise MySweetApple—the couple who depict the artworks in each and every one of the pornographic reimaginings on the site. Both individuals are conventionally attractive, able-bodied and white. The woman of the couple is notably thinner than some of the works she portrays, a choice that both reinforces changing beauty standards over history, and Pornhub’s adherence to a by-now standard view on what makes a body sexually attractive. While it is crucial to avoid fetishization of diverse ages, body types, and races when pushing for more inclusive pornographies, the current configuration on the website flattens everything in the “Another Perspective” section into a homogenised category of otherness, while the overall lack of diversity in the rest of the project ultimately serves to reinforce that this is anything but a truly radical intervention in the intertwined visual registers of art and pornography.

Despite these issues and omissions, Classic Nudes nevertheless presents a visceral take on art works that have hung, unloved, in the world’s museums during the global pandemic. While you won’t see the site advertised by museums, it’s sure to keep visitors coming again and again.

Freya Gowrley is Lecturer in History of Art & Liberal Arts at the University of Bristol. Her research examines visual and material culture in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain and North America, focusing on the sites of the home, the collaged object, and the body. Her monograph Domestic Space in Britain, 1750-1840: Materiality, Sociability and Emotion is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in 2022. Her work appears in Word & Image, British Art Studies, the Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Journal 18, and Eighteenth-Century Fiction, among other venues.

Madeleine Pelling is a historian of eighteenth-century Britain. Her work appears in Journal for Eighteenth Century Studies, The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Women’s History Review and other journals. She is co-editor of A Cultural History of Historiography, 1650-1800 (under contract with Bloomsbury for 2023) and Pop Enlightenments: The Eighteenth Century Now (in preparation), and is currently preparing her monograph, The Duchess’ Museum: Collecting, Craft and Conversation, 1715-1786, for publication.

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