The sequential art of R. M. Rhodes
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Porno for Pirates

That the human eye is drawn towards attractive or well-composed visual images is self-evident. I find it interesting that human beings have adopted this penchant for, say, stopping to notice a nice sunset, into their mating rituals. This is self-evident, too; we are sexually attracted to well-composed faces and elegant curves (male or female) and points are given (quite literally) for overall presentation.

Wrapped in Armani or tied up in Japanese rope bondage knots, the external accoutrements (should) only ever serve to enhance the natural curves of the individual (concealment is a close cousin in purpose, admittedly). At the same time, this dual role of clothing spotlights the underlying reality: everyone on the street, on the bus and in your office is naked under their clothes.

This is hardly a profound revelation, but the amount of avoidance, distraction and cultural morality that is directed towards nudity and its implied sexuality would suggest otherwise. In fact, there is a great deal of social stigma associated with nudity, enough that the mere act of being naked is considered shameful. By extension, the act of observing nudity has been shackled with similar shameful connotations. For all their power, though, these connotations are externally applied and do not necessarily reflect the power that nudity provides to our lives (through reproduction, to name but a single circumstance).

I believe that there is an inherent artistic component to the basic composition of the human body. I do not believe that I am alone in this; various attempts have been made to take the sexual implication out of the nude figure through artistic representation, with varying degrees of success. In recent years, however, there has been a backlash against this, with so-called Erotic Art, a term that signifies that the artist has (consciously or unconsciously) captured the sexuality implicit within the context of the nude and, in doing so, not apologized away the relationship between the two.

I’m all for this. It makes sense, really. So what do I do about it?

First of all, I am unashamed of the fact that I look at pictures of naked people (or whatever you want to call it; pornography, erotic art or clinical photos) wherever and whenever I can. There is an undeniable sexual thrill that comes with this, but that’s not my primary purpose; I’m looking for interesting or well-composed pictures. While I do take note of what the specific image is, I tend to pay attention to and find myself commenting on good textures or colors and good curves instead.

It sounds strange, but that’s where my attention is drawn. A poorly focused full-beaver shot is not necessarily more seductive than the curve of a hip in good lighting and a well-composed picture of a body in fishnets can be more erotic than either. By now, my friends are used to comments from me disparaging the quality of pornography in certain venues and the fact that I appreciate the artistic photo shoots in Playboy more than the centerfolds.

What I am forced to apologize for is my really dirty secret: I am the modern age equivalent of a pirate. Entire books have been written on the subject of how different cultures have dealt with the rise of technology and its effects on this kind of subject matter. (Go read the Christy Report, for example.) Instead of lingering over the history of the format, we’ll take the fact of Internet pornography as read and move on to the specific issues associated with nudity on the Internet and how they apply to this specific instance. Anyone with a decent computer, basic applications, basic skills and an Internet connection can acquire an extensive home pornography collection for their hard drive in only a few hours. I have all of these and an active interest.

But, like I said, I don’t just acquire Internet porn for the purposes of sexual gratification. And, while I don’t doubt that there is a deluge of redistribution piracy in nudity and other content being offered on the Internet (among other media platforms), that is not the only other use such images can be put to. Using commercial graphics programs (Photoshop being the best example), any image can be manipulated to such an extent that the final product bears little or no resemblance to the source image.

Such is an unforeseen and – frankly – ungovernable aspect of the degree of technological and cultural overlap in our lives, especially in the United States. Arguably, it is also a valid art form, one that comments on and mirrors contemporary imagery, similar to the Readymade art of the Dadaists. The art of collage has become subtler, but the fact that is has begun to reach the shores of painting drives and entrances me.

I mix images together using layer effects and filters, combining the colors, textures and shapes of the various pictures until something new and different is created. Often, there are two or three source images and as many as nine or ten different layers in a given image. These images can take as much as an hour or two to create and a lot of thought and patience goes into each one. Often, there are various versions of the same picture, due to the fact that each version is too good to throw away.

The fact remains, though, that they are photographs – they come from snapshots of reality and remain snapshots of reality. The reality that each source image references is still visible and evident in the final product, even if the image is no longer immediately recognizable as a photograph. At the same time, the captured reality has been altered and reshaped until it no longer describes a reality that we inhabit. Instead, the reality that these remixed images describe is of an abstracted sensuality.

The curves of pornography remain, but removed from their context to such a degree that they are barely recognizable as such. For some images, aspects of the color, texture and composition of these otherworldly images capture the eye, only to reveal specific details upon further inspection. In other instances, the images are mere enhancements that do nothing to mask the tribute they pay to the source image. Both are valid art forms, in my opinion.

What’s more, they are separate and distinct from their roots, enough so that they could be called originals. In the end, though, beauty (and its attendant implications of sexuality, originality and morality) is in the eye of the beholder. But the beholder is not the only person whose opinions seem to matter.

The primary concern among distributors of any kind of content is anonymous viewers stealing images and redistributing them as their own, which (rightly) falls under copyright laws. But what about private collectors? And what about collage or works that contain a portion of, but are significantly different than, original pieces, a noted exception under copyright laws, very similar to what is done with sampling in music? Where is the line between Negativland and Andy Warhol?

Does fair use apply to images found on amateur erotica sites? These images are not offered for reasons of profit, but instead for the purposes of sexual fulfillment, by the people and for the people. In such cases, should it matter if these kinds of pictures are used for something besides purely pornographic pictures? Is it a noble endeavor to want to add artistic meaning to an image that was not created with artistry as the primary purpose?

More interesting is the idea that only blatant plagiarism could ever be considered as a reasonable use for these images. Whatever the original intent of the creator of the source image, the concerns about their ongoing distribution and intent of that distributor are identical. Given the relentless strip-mining of popular culture that has served up entire pastiche and nostalgia platters without any pretense at originality combined with oversaturated cross-media tie-ins, the reaction is understandable.

I have shared some of the images that I have manipulated with the authors of the source images and the responses have been varied. While I have been complimented on the artistic elements of the new images, the more common response has been outright accusations of theft. One photographer said “I will say that you seem to be interested in artistic expression and I would encourage you to push yourself toward an original creation…inspiration from others is always evident but you must make your art your own,” which somewhat misses the point.

The purpose of art should be to inspire. That the person being inspired is another artist, who uses the inspiration directly or indirectly, seems to be rarely considered when the works are being created and should not cause detriment to those artists who are inspired. That another artist has drawn something from the works presented to such an extent that they wish to tell the creator of their inspiration about it should not be discouraged.

Furthermore, the reaction of these artists begs the question, Why does it make them uncomfortable that their art causes me to want to create instead of masturbate? If I had written to them describing how wonderfully aroused their images made me feel, would the reaction be different? Is the role of the viewer merely passive? Or is the viewer somehow instructed to create a reaction to the static image presented, no matter what the subject matter?

When people view pornographic images for the purposes of sexual gratification, do they masturbate to the images alone? Or do they create a scenario in their head based on the images that are presented? I wonder.

Posted 12 years, 8 months ago at 3:25 pm.

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