Part 1: The Aesthetics of Acceptable Sexy

I recently read through my old dissertation again, and was inspired to apply some of the research onto pole dancing. Having studied History of Art at university there are so many theories and ideas that can be applied to dance as a result of some of their shared qualities – creativity, aesthetics, the creator-audience connection and how meaning is communicated. Many of my studies focused on issues around gender, sexuality, and obscenity, with my dissertation examining the discursive boundaries between Fine Art and Pornography, so there is a great deal of overlap to take advantage of.

My dissertation focused on Jeff Koons’s Made in Heaven series, which included various canvases that depicted himself and his then wife (who was a porn star) engaging in different explicit acts. I asked: “Why is this considered Fine Art, but other erotic material is seen as Pornography?” and “Why is one considered high culture and the other ‘kitsch’ or low culture? And why do we then make moral judgments based on this?” This is a simplistic synopsis, but my point is that reading this essay made me realise how similar this discussion was to the ones I am seeing in the pole world around me. I realised that many of the arguments and frameworks I examined in this work could equally be applied to Stripper Style pole and the validation / legitimisation agenda that some in the pole world have been pushing.

In fact, I have used some of these arguments in past pole blogs, including my piece on the Panopticon Theory.

However, for this Part 1 I am going to focus primarily on the Fine Art vs Pornography divide, but future posts will explore the following topics:

  • High Culture vs Kitsch: Cults of cultural superiority
  • Nude vs Naked
  • Semiotics and the meaning making process
  • Institutional frameworks and civilising rituals

What is Fine Art? What is Pornography?

The current state of the pole scene mirrors this discussion of Fine Art vs Pornography. But firstly here are a couple of definitions for us to get started:

Fine Art: Creative art whose products are to be appreciated primarily or solely for their imaginative, aesthetic, or intellectual content.

Botticelli, Birth of Venus, c. 1485

Erotic Art: Works that depict the nude body or people participating in sexual activity, but that differ from pornography by virtue of its creativity, originality and critical thought. 

Katsushika Hokusai, The Adonis Plant (Fukujusô), 1815

Pornography: Depictions of sexual activity in books, pictures, films etc, designed to be sexually arousing, often offensive due to their explicit nature.

Aesthetics: A set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty, or, the branch of philosophy which deals with questions of beauty and artistic taste.

The majority of people have their understanding of what is Art taught to them through the various educational institutions that they encounter as they grow up. These institutions are often informed by long-standing philosophical and critical thought that has sought to come up with a concrete way of defining what ‘Fine Art’ is, or more importantly, what it isn’t. Of course, Art itself is subjective, which is why there is so much confusion and contention among theorists about what they believe counts as Fine Art.

For example, the Koons work I mentioned above was argued to be Fine Art / Erotic Art by some theorists and Pornography by others, of course both sides asserted why they felt it could only be one or the other, whilst simultaneously asserting the dichotomous relationship between the two states. Personally, I like to ask why can’t something be Art AND Pornography at the same time? This is a concept that is integral to my attitude as a whole, but I will discuss it in more depth as this series progresses.

Despite these in-fighting factions and intellectual one-upmanship, for the general public who aren’t really concerned about this type of posturing, there are some prevailing attitudes that are most popular. These attitudes are implicit in the definitions I provided above, which I copied from various sources around the web.

Fine Art is understood to be contemplative in nature. After all, most galleries are silent spaces where people wander around quietly observing the work, even when that work depicts nudity, or sexual subject matter (such as in Japanese woodblock prints). In opposition to that, Pornography is designed to incite action or reaction from the viewer, either through arousal or offense, and commercially provided to aid masturbation or sexual relief. However, these aren’t some innate qualities of Fine Art or Pornography, but a philosophical concept that has been used to shape our definitions of these mediums, that has permeated through popular thought.

So, what is the philosophy behind it?

The philosophy of Kant has had an enduring impact on how we understand art objects, including Erotic Art. His aesthetic principle of ‘disinterestedness‘, developed during the late 18th Century, asserts ‘cognitive / intellectual appreciation’ and  ‘controlled cultivation of pure taste’, as the correct modes of art appreciation. Kant argues that creative arts should be an enlightening, elevating experience, rather than a sensory, physical experience that may ‘urge them to action’. Objects which arouse or emotionally excite are not art by this standard, as the viewer is not capable of transcending unsophisticated corporeal reactions to the material.

When it comes to art objects, particularly Erotic Art, these objects are permitted Fine Art status as long as their potentially sexual content is mitigated by qualities that render the sexual content ‘safe’ for viewing.

For example:

  • The use of traditional mediums such as painting or sculpture can turn a naked body into an artistic exercise, distracting focus away from the sexual content of the work and shifting it onto the creative ingenuity or skill of the artist.
  • A nude body or sexual subject matter may be presented within a mythical or allegorical framework, meaning the nude is no longer the subject of sexual arousal, but instead performing as a literary, moral or political device.
  • Artists, critics or viewers may discuss a work by using historical or social narratives, such as specific creative movements or contextual information.

People do this all the time with art, they label the Birth of Venus Fine Art because of its medium, history and mythological subject matter, but would label a photograph of a naked woman in a similar pose as pornography if it showed nipples and was published in an adult magazine.

Likewise, a woodblock print such as Hokusai’s above is legitimised as Erotic Art because of the medium in which it has been created, along with the fact that many works such as this become ‘hallowed by time’ – meaning that although their original function may have been to arouse and act as a masturbatory or sexual aid, their historical context now mitigates their original function.

Is this making sense? Leave any questions in the comments below!

What has this got to do with pole dancing, Peach?!

I know, I’m jawing on royally here. So, this relates to pole dancing because often people fall into the same philosophical and discursive patterns as they would when discussing Fine Art, Erotic Art and Pornography. But, instead you have Pole Art, Classique / Exotic, and Stripper Style.

As I said in a post earlier this year on different pole styles, Classique and Exotic pole dance are the most competition friendly styles of sexy pole dancing, and it is precisely because they have gone through the same philosophical process as Erotic Art.

Pole Art (and variations): Pole dancing that has been removed of anything that may connect it to its strip club origins. These dancers are bare foot, and there’s a distinct lack of sensual or sexual movement. This style fits most closely to the Kantian concept of ‘disinterestedness’ because it doesn’t arouse sexually, and instead is meant to engage the audience on an intellectual or cultural level.

Classique & Exotic Pole Dance: These styles of pole incorporate the core elements of stripper style dancing, such as high heel shoes and body waves, but makes them ‘safe’ in the same way that Erotic Art is made ‘safe’. Just like Erotic Art uses traditional mediums such as painting or sculpture, these styles of pole incorporate other dance styles, and mimic the refined technique of professional dancers, with clean lines and extensions.

The proponents of these styles who seek to distance them from their strip club roots, will refer to historical and social narratives to legitimise the dance form. Talking about the amount of skill required, or the contextual ways that Classique or Exotic pole differs from Stripper Style. This may be through referring to the lack of full nudity, or explaining about the set up of competitions or how the majority of those who view this style are female.

Stripper Style Pole Dance: The primary purpose of Stripper Style is to excite, emotionally and through arousal. This is why it can be compared to pornography, in that it too originates within the sex industry. Stripper Style does not fit with Kantian philosophy and therefore cannot be considered a valid art form if judged by those same standards. This is why people denigrate it, or want to remove it from its association with mainstream pole dancing, because the style does not fit with what they have been taught about what is culturally and artistically acceptable.

This also explains why those who seek to divide pole into what is ‘acceptable’ and what is not, do so by distancing pole away from its stripper history. They are doing the same thing that art critics and museum visitors do whenever they discuss Erotic Art.

When campaigners for pole fitness sought to gain  mainstream approval by stripping pole of its sexuality, they were trying to make it fit into a philosophical and cultural definition of what is considered ‘Fine Art’. Classique and Exotic pole are part of this same process, in that they are the cleaner, more filtered version of Stripper Style, which means they are favoured on a cultural level more because of their ‘elevation’ (I hate that word!) above what is deemed a style of dance that is crass and unoriginal by virtue of its association with the sex industry.

The amount of times I have heard people make the distinction between Classique / Exotic and Stripper by referencing how sexually provocative and arousing Stripper Style is, whilst Classique and Exotic are ‘Wow, so impressive! Not the same kind of sexy as Stripper, but amazing to watch!’, just proves this even more.

💖💖💖

This isn’t to say that Pole Art dancers are a big, bad evil, or that Classique and Exotic dancers are somehow spearheading an evil underground plan to ‘clean up’ pole – quite the contrary. I love watching lyrical, contemporary and experimental pole routines such as Oona’s above, and many Classique and Exotic dancers are the loudest supporters of strippers and Stripper Style pole. What I’m NOT a fan of is people who buy into this dichotomous philosophy that somehow if something is sexual or pornographic that it is incapable of operating or being appreciated as a valid art form.

I will be delving further into these points in future posts, examining how these attitudes are enhanced by their association with a perceived moral hierarchy, and how we all operate within a system that reinforces the frameworks that seek to divide up art forms into distinct cultural categories.

Again, if you have any thoughts, questions or your own ideas, leave them in the comments below. And keep your eye out for part 2!

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  1. Pingback: “The Aesthetics of Acceptable Sexy” – memoirs of a stripper (?)

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