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Art or Porn? Seattle Erotic Arts Festival 2011

May 23, 2011

My girls and I all dressed up and ready to party at the Seattle Erotic Art Festival

Having recovered from the all-night debauchery that is The Seattle Erotic Art Festival, I’m doing some Monday Morning Art-Curating. I am trying to remember how many times I said, “that’s not art, that’s boring porn.” Too many to look back at SEAF and consider it an Art Festival. But damn, it was a really fun party.

This bothers me more than it should, because it hits so close to home. SEAF is sponsored by the Foundation for Sex Positive Culture in Seattle, an organization whose mission statement I support with every bone, fiber and pore of my body. By extension, SEAF is an idea that I whole-heartedly support. I think that SEAF has the potential to serve as a sort of ambassador to the artistic world of free sexual-expression. An event that bridges the “kink” world and the “vanilla” world (both terms that I don’t care for). A unique event that reminds us that the human body, in all of it’s naked and erotic wonder, has been muse for millennia.

But it isn’t. It is, as I heard it referred to by another attendee, “the kinksters prom.” Arguably, that’s why I had so much fun. But it does little to promote Erotic Art, or the artists who create it. And that disappoints me.

All of which begs the question, “what is art?” Or, I suppose, “what is porn?” And that, sadly, gets us back to that famous quote from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, “I know it when I see it.” SEAF presents an added layer of complexity, as it begs the question, “what is the difference between porn and erotica?”

Let’s start there.

In my mind, erotica stirs the sexual and sensual sensibilities of the observer. It triggers a sexual feeling that is quite personal. It’s like an invitation to explore something, but does not tell you exactly what, why or how. It doesn’t cast you in a part or a position, it propositions you and let’s you direct the action.

Erotica is not inherently sexual, does not necessarily involve sexual organs or identifiable sex acts. It provides a trigger, and what you do with it is up to you. In the case of art, I think it is an artist saying, “look at yourself,” by offering an image and not telling you that it is “hot” or “sexy” or “kinky.” It can, for sure, but it doesn’t have to.

Erotica opens the door to a sexual world, creates room for you and invites you to have your own experience.

Porn, which I am a big fan of, is something altogether different. I think that porn is a direct depiction of an overtly sexual act that is limited in scope and is about the “artist” rather than the observer. While it is inherently designed to push the buttons of people with particular pernicious proclivities, it is a means to an end, not the beginning of an exploration. It doesn’t allow for much in the way of emotional interpretation in the observer.

Porn either gets you hot or it doesn’t, but it is always vulgar and rarely open for interpretation.

When selecting visual arts for a festival, I can see how it would be tough to tell the difference. When the stated mission of the Center For Sex positive Culture is to create an environment that is inclusive of all sexual proclivities, I can see how it gets even harder. It’s like the push for inclusiveness precludes the quest for quality. As a result, the art seems to be getting worse and worse, while the party is getting better and better.

So, the art at SEAF. Unfortunately, they don’t post any images of the art on their site, and I’m not going to sit and do google searches for images. (This is one of the things that makes me think SEAF is not about art and artists. If they were, we’d see thumbnails of the art and links to the artist’s sites.) But I will do my best to offer visual examples, using words.

First, some truly amazing work. Seattle photographer David Peterman presented a photograph that was worthy of it’s own wall in any “real” art museum. His piece, entitled Common Thread, was about 5 inches  tall and 15 feet long. It presented 70 nude models in a wide variety of positions, all connected by a single red rope. The poses ranged from playful to demure to brazen to restrained, offering us a full range of human bodies and expression. It invited examination, exploration, and a way to find ourselves in it. I don’t know if he intended to call up the Japanese folklore idea of the Red String, in which people who are destined to be together are bound with an invisible red string that is identified by your soulmate, who has the same string. Regardless, this piece was stunning. It was an inviting artistic and erotic image.

David Peterman's Common Thread


There were many boundary-pushing “comic” style pieces that used live models to reproduce iconic ad images such as the Coppertone girl having her bathing suit bitten off by a dog – though both the girl and the dog were live people. This was playful, original and truly the work of an artist who was asking you to think about something.

There were some great “sculptural” pieces as well. A variety of, essentially, hand crafted corsets made from metal, leather and some unconventional materials. Each of these was stunningly crafted, with exceptional attention to detail, and in the form of a human body, one couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like to wear one, or see one on the body of someone you desired. These things were great, and you wouldn’t be likely to see them anywhere other than SEAF.

However, these sorts of thing were few and far between. And, frankly, as great as they were, they all but disappeared amongst the walls and walls of “boring porn.”

For instance, there was a large photo that was simply a naked man with an erection standing in front of a window, with the blinds drawn. To be fair, he had a spectacular cock, that thing could have been entered as a work of art in and of itself. As part of a photo, however, it was uninspired and looked no different than something any of us could have snapped before beginning a wonderful interlude. (Presumably, not after.)  The lighting and the pose were equally uninspired, and there was nothing at all original about it. Why was it there? Why was it art?

Likewise, there was a fairly predictable selection of “chicks sticking it in” photos. The one that most quickly comes leaping to mind was a close up of a woman’s labia pressed open by a glass dildo that was presumably about to slide in. Whatever. By now, we’re all pretty clear that vaginas like to have things slid into them, there is nothing “artistic” about it. There was no statement being made, no question asked, no particularly interesting lighting or composition. (The glass dildo was gorgeous, it should have been on display, alone, and let us imagine sliding it in!)

Photos like these are fine, but they aren’t erotic and they aren’t art. They are porn. I like porn. But it’s not art. And presenting porn as art does little to advance the idea that naked bodies – even naked bodies doing sexual things – are a legitimate art form.  Or even that exploring unconventional sexuality is a great thing to do, seeing as there was nothing at all unconventional about either of these images.

When people like David Peterman create these amazing, well-thought out and immaculately crafted art, and it is shown in the same venue as a snapshot of an erection or a vibe entering a vagina, I have to question the thinking of the jury that selected them.

Are you an Art Festival or are you simply trying to show lots and lots of sexualized things? Why? Are you trying to create a vibrant market for “real” art or just create a place where people’s kinks and fetishes are validated?

I’m not trying to be snarky, but I think it’s something that SEAF needs to think long and hard about. You are only as good as your weakest piece, and there were some very weak pieces there.

Are you about art or inclusiveness?

Which brings us to the event, and why it’s so much fun. The crowd on Saturday night was just a blast. They were far better than the art. The energy that went into outfits for the night filled the room. From pony fetishists to PVC fetishists to coquettish women in corsets and hoop skirts. It is, indeed, the kinkster prom, and at that, it’s the best.

However, that doesn’t invite “others” in any more than there’s room for me in a photo of a woman probing her pussy with a Pyrex paddle. Rather than expanding boundaries and truly inviting inclusiveness, it creates a very “us vs. them” vibe, this is a place for kinksters, not for the uninitiated. Rather than throwing open doors, it clearly defined boundaries. I would not bring any of my art-collector friends to this event, unless they were already accomplished kinksters.

And that gets me to the same conclusion I kept coming to all night long. This isn’t about the art, at all. This is about a bunch of people who feel marginalized in the default world wanting to create a world in which they are celebrated. It’s their world, and they want to be told that they are sexy as they are. And they are sexy. I love that they are all there, going all out and getting down. Being around so many sexually empowered people makes for a truly magical night, that, for many of us, went well into the morning.

That inclusive and wild diversity is great for people. But it isn’t great for art. It’s why you get a lot of boring porn obstructing the view of a few really great artistic gems.

If SEAF were my child, I’d give it the same advice that was given to me when I was discovering my own sexuality: Keep a wide open mind, but be discerning. Don’t choose everyone who wants you, choose people who actually serve what you really want. Quality matters more than quantity. You deserve nothing but the best, and the clearer you are about who you are and what you want, the easier it will be to get what you want, and be the best that you can be. And use condoms.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. Alyssa Royse permalink*
    May 23, 2011 3:47 pm

    I should have mentioned images from years past that still tickle me when I think of them, some of which I purchased and now hang on my walls.

    Several years ago, there was a black and white photo of a very large naked woman lounging on some very large boulders. I am not attracted to large people, typically, but this photo was so natural and powerful and beautiful! It invited me to look at a body that I otherwise wouldn’t have looked at, and find it beautiful.

    A few years ago there was a photo that was simply a close up of a woman’s face, in a state of sheer bliss, surrounded by a bunch of different feet. Though clearly a nod to foot-fetishists, it was a glimpse into a moment of sexual joy that wasn’t something i could relate to directly, but indirectly I knew exactly what she was feeling. It made an otherwise foreign fetish make sense.

    Last year I bought a photo that was simply a woman’s hand cupped and holding two egg yolks in her hand with the whites dripping through her fingers. That one hangs in my kitchen…. And is an erotic moment that I know well. Interpret at will, but I am not an egg fetishist. I am someone who loves texture, and the raw, wet, moist and slippery pleasure of working with food and preparing it for people I love. That makes me feel fully alive, sensual and like sharing all of life’s joy.

  2. Susan permalink
    May 23, 2011 8:38 pm

    I haven’t been to SEAF in 5 years-I moved to Vegas. I volunteered during the first years and I saw some quality art, some good porn and a lot of stuff that made me go, hun…but in a bad way. That said, the piece I remember best was a re-interuptation of impressionalist painting. Mone, I think-brunch on a porch. The artist had replaced all the stade stiff lunchers with every alt person his could image. It was am amazing painting…one I still wish I had found the $$ to buy.

  3. Leopold permalink
    May 23, 2011 9:48 pm

    These are interesting comments and well worth considering. I was a volunteer art guide, so privy to a few details behind the art. There were over 2,000 submissions this year, of which 247 were selected by the jury. A serious effort was made to admit only quality work. You may criticize the quality of the art without resorting to calling it porn. We had a discussion about art vs. porn during our orientation. No one has an unambiguous definition of porn, so why not leave that part out? I agree that the quality of the work varied. Some I would not have chosen, and I’m sure some pieces I would love were not accepted. I think a discussion about the quality of the art, as art, is sufficient for assessing SEAF. Some of the art was much better than others. I agree that the man with erection peering through his blinds was not very inspiring, his endowment not withstanding. Most of the work will never see the inside of SAM, but is that what matters most? You alluded to the goals of bringing together a community of people who feel marginalized. I’m part of that community, and for me, SEAF succeeded in raising our awareness and pride in our diverse sexuality, raising our aesthetic sensibilities way beyond the porn we might enjoy consuming at other times, and enlivened us all. I hope the quality of submitted work improves every year for years to come. Sexuality is always marginalized to some degree, and humans have been striving to express their sexual lives in art for millennia. The results may not always be great, but as long as the effort is genuine, that’s enough for me. I love discussing art, but criticism is ultimately a subjective endeavor. Bring it on, look at it, react, thumbs up or down – it beats the hell out of the alternative of everyone staying home in their closets. I give SEAF 2011 two thumbs up, even if all the art wasn’t inspired. I don’t think that’s what it’s about. I think some of the work in SAM is marginal too, but it’s better than if it wasn’t there at all.

  4. Alyssa Royse permalink*
    May 24, 2011 6:40 am

    Leopold – Thanks for your thoughtful comments. A few clarifications:

    1. I do NOT consider “porn” to be a pejorative term, just a descriptive one. As such, I don’t see the need to refrain from using it. Frankly, I’d like to see a day when more people just thought of porn as another totally valid means of expression and it was not marginalized either. I think that would both improve the quality of the art and the industry. But that’s an aside.

    2. I agree that the “alt sex” community needs to be validated and celebrated, and it warms me to my soul when I see otherwise marginalized people feeling proud and accepted. However, that’s not the stated mission of SEAF. It IS the stated mission of CSPC, and I think that confuses the issue of art selection for SEAF.

    Having been asked in years past to help out with SEAF, I also sat in on those meetings and have heard the discussion. I had hoped to help connect SEAF artists, and hte event itself, with my friends in the art world – as was the mission. But nothing I see there makes that seem reasonable. And I think that’s a shame. There are typically a few really remarkable pieces, and then a lot of porn.

    3. I agree that sexuality is marginalized far too often, and it saddens me for all of us. We are all sexual creatures, though we express it different ways and are taught to be uncomfortable with it. Erotic art has a unique opportunity to expose people to things they might not otherwise see, in a way that opens minds and hearts rather than the “shock and awe” that shuts people down. I have a feeling that SEAF is more about “we’re here and we’re proud and you can fucking well deal with it” than “let me show you, teach you, expose you.” One is not better than the other, but they have a very different impact on the world around the event. Both are totally valid.

    At the end of the day, I just don’t think that SEAF is about art or artists. I think it’s about acceptance and show and tell. They don’t promote the art or the artists, but the web site does say “dress up.” They don’t show the work on the site, but they do show the audience and the festival organizers.

    It’s not about art. It’s about dirty pictures and the people who like them. Luckily for me, I like them. And I LOVE being around a wide variety of people letting their sexy freak-flags fly. But when you get right down to it, making it a freak show does nothing to promote acceptance – it does far more to keep things segregated.

  5. May 24, 2011 7:25 am

    Alyssa,

    Thank you for the kind words about the Common Thread piece. This project was an absolute joy to put together, primarily due to all the creative energy the participants brought with them. They were absolutely amazing.

    -dp

  6. Alyssa Royse permalink*
    May 24, 2011 10:26 am

    David – It is an incredible work. I would gladly hang it in any room of my home, and would simply call it “art.” It does not need the qualifier of “erotic art.” Truly compelling. (And yes, so fun to see so many of my friends in it!)

  7. Leopold permalink
    May 24, 2011 8:11 pm

    Thanks Alyssa,

    I think your statement, “At the end of the day, I just don’t think that SEAF is about art or artists. I think it’s about acceptance and show and tell. They don’t promote the art or the artists, but the web site does say “dress up.” They don’t show the work on the site, but they do show the audience and the festival organizers.” represents a very valid criticism of SEAF, and one that I’ll be sharing with at least one of the organizers.

    I still have a problem with your use of “porn” and “dirty pictures” to characterize work you don’t think qualifies as art. It doesn’t matter how you feel personally about porn, the fact that you enjoy it. These are pejorative terms that sound, in my ear, like back-handed slights against the whole enterprise. You can’t use “porn” and “dirty pictures” in our society without suggesting that you really have no respect for that of which you speak-and that annoys me greatly. You buy the pieces you happen to like and call them art, while relegating that which you don’t like, but which five well-intelligent jurors did, to the the waste bin of smut.

    It would be far more productive to use your chosen words for certain pieces that might well fit most people’s definition of dirty pictures and porn, and just say you think something is bad art, or is more a technical exercise. “Bad art” and “illustration” are much more value-neutral terms. I’d save ‘dirty pictures’ for Penthouse and ‘porn’ for Debbie Does Dallas.

    Interestingly, if you have a catalog from this year, you might be interested to know that Zerazinni Studio entered “Knocking at Your Door” with the concern that it might be too explicit for SEAF. Also, princeHerman, working in Tiffany method stained glass, insisted that his piece was pornographic, and not ‘art,’ because it depicted an explicit sex act. I don’t know quite what porn is. Going by the “I know it when I see it” (and presumably react to it) criterion, Paris Vogue, Bazaar, and Zink magazines are porn – to me – while Playboy is boring and Hustler is sadly unimaginative.

    Like you, I like SEAF as an event, a celebration, an experiment. Is it a great art show? Not yet. I hope someday it will be that too. Maybe at that point we’ll see more hands holding raw eggs and fewer bare cocks and pussy’s, more eros and less ‘porn.’ There’s plenty of room for improvement, but we are where we are. Maybe we can’t expect ‘museum quality’ work yet, but we can ask for it and give artists space to grow, and grow ourselves in terms of what we’re willing to call art.

  8. May 24, 2011 11:44 pm

    At the end of the day, we are still left with the observation that one person’s Erotica is another person’s Prurient Interest, and try though we may, I don’t know that we will ever surmount that distinction.

    FWIW, I do believe that SEAF is an entity in search of its identity. I hope that it finds it soon.

  9. Trixie permalink
    May 25, 2011 12:23 am

    Thank you so much for such a well thought out description of SEAF. It was my first time attending and although there were a few pieces of art that stood out in my mind as erotica, I have to agree that most of the works displayed were “boring porn”. I loved David Peterman’s piece and the work of Tiberio Simone and Matt Freedman, LaFiga Project. Beyond that there may have been one or two pieces that spoke to me. Is this because the definition erotica is misunderstood? Is this because the alt sex culture is marginalized in this country? Whatever the reason, it is a shame erotica was hard to come by at SEAF simply because there is so much potential for greatness. SEAF has the potential to really push boundaries and create a space embracing true art and sexual expression. With the unbridled potential in mind, I think it is important to reflect on your definition of erotica. You said, “Erotica is not inherently sexual, does not necessarily involve sexual organs or identifiable sex acts. It provides a trigger, and what you do with it is up to you. In the case of art, I think it is an artist saying, “look at yourself,” by offering an image and not telling you that it is “hot” or “sexy” or “kinky.” It can, for sure, but it doesn’t have to.” Perhaps the organizers of SEAF will keep this in mind when choosing art for next year.

  10. Alyssa Royse permalink*
    May 25, 2011 7:12 am

    I agree, unfortunately, that “porn” still carries the taint of a pejorative, but I think less so than ever, and I’d like to see that go away. You are right that we are not there.

    However, as I said in a heated comment thread on this post on Facebook, I think the difference between art and porn is the artistry. The story telling, the composition, the execution. Porn, to me, is pretty much just a quick means to an end. While there is nothing wrong with it, it serves no larger purpose. It questions nothing, it exposes nothing new, it…. In the case of the photo I called out in the piece – the naked man (with an awesome cock) standing in front of a window, it was simply porn to me. Nothing wrong with it, but not art. It was not an interesting photo in any way, anyone could have taken it and it looked like something you would see in a porn mag.

    I can imagine pieces that are far more graphic, but make some sort of statement, have some intent, have execution that would be art.

    I wish I had a catalog. Or that they showed works online and I could have a much more intelligent discussion, but as it is, I’m going on memory.

    I agree with what your saying about the value of the word porn, though I think it’s changing. But that is also why I’m using it. I think a lot of the art there was simply bad porn or dirty pictures and belonged more clearly in Penthouse than at an event hoping to be an Art show. That’s all it was, bad porn and dirty pictures. It’s clear intent on my part, because I think it communicates very clearly what I – and many other people – see when looking at many of the pieces that were selected.

    And yes, I will ALWAYS support this event and the CSPC because the world needs both. But I hope that SEAF finds it’s identity and commits to it. And we will fill in the around it with other events until we have a world that is truly accepting of the beautiful and intimate artistry that is human sexuality.

  11. Anna permalink
    June 15, 2011 8:19 pm

    I’m still disappointed that my submission didn’t get in a couple years ago. I definitely don’t think it’s porn. I hope it’s art.
    http://tinyurl.com/annaswindow

  12. June 28, 2011 10:16 pm

    I’ve never heard of the SEAF before–I’m from Toronto, across both border and continent–but I was vaguely disappointed to read these reviews. I left the (public) local scene some time ago for similar reasons: it lost it’s appeal when I finally realised that you got higher quality (read: open, non-judgemental, fun-loving people) in the smaller venues, and the last show I frequented, the Fetish Masquerade, had outgrown it’s old venue, the Reverb. There was a fairly tight-knit group of regulars, but they were usually rather acceptive of outsiders and onlookers in the smaller setting, if they seemed genuinely curious; once it moved to a bigger scene, it was diluted too much, and lost it’s character. The bigger shows here were more devoted to the counter-culture exclusivity, and the fact that people paid more to feel like they were different, and exclusive. It’s still fun to hit the bigger shows once in a while, but in my opinion, and to the best of my knowledge, the only ‘risque’ thing still worth attending here in Toronto is the annual Pride parade–which really isn’t risque at all, it’s just fun–though, unfortunately, it’s also not *quite* mainstream yet – our new mayor isn’t even attending this year!

    I don’t know if Toronto really has an equivalent, but I’d guess the “Everything to do with Sex Show” is the best analogue to the SEAF. I’ll have to make it out to Seattle next year and see for myself, though! Thanks again for sharing.

  13. Leopold permalink
    July 4, 2011 7:33 pm

    It occurred to me to ask, if it’s hard to agree on what porn is and on what art is, how about working on the other important term here, “erotic?” What does that mean to people? I don’t recall if it came up in the above conversation. Although culturally we tend to mean things with a sexual charge, things that might make our minds turn to sex, it can also be used to refer to the broader category of *all* the things that make life juicy, that inspire us to move, breathe, cook food and eat it, listen to poetry and music, or feel a rush from a particular sunset – things that make us glad, or acutely aware, that we’re alive (locally, the enterprise known as Little Red Studio had building that kind of erotic awareness as its mission or raison d’etre). Applied to SEAF, this meaning of erotic would help pull away from focusing on the “merely” sexual and might make it a different experience.

  14. Leopold permalink
    July 4, 2011 7:35 pm

    As you said in your last paragraph above, Alyssa. My apologies for being lazy and not reading it first. ‘What you said.’

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