Did I see art or porn? Help me decide.

I heard a story on CPR last week about a movie showing at a gay art moviehouse in chicago that really made me want to go.  The movie is called Tea Room  and the basis of the movie is (as was described in the Chicago Public Radio story) 16 mm footage taken in Mansfield, OH in 1962 in a public men’s bathroom where gay men meet to have sex. 

If you know my research, you know it has everything that interests me:  We’ve got interactions between strangers in public; communicating sexual desires in public; criminality — indeed the production of criminality — and policing.  I was dying to see how they communicated with each other and negotiated being unsure if the dude int he next stall wants to have sex or is just going potty, etc.

To my dismay, the movie was silent (thanks for not mentioning that NPR!!) so the speech part of it was missing, and I really do take the point that this is cruel and heartless criminality of people for beign who they are in a place and time where it was not acceptable at all.

At the same time, the director did NOTHING to the footage.  He said it should be played straight through (no pun intended) to preserve the integrity of the footage and of the horrible thing done to these men.  So it was a bunch of 2 minute clips of men having sex in the bathroom.  Lots of repeat players and sometimes money exchanged hands.  Lots in the stalls so you see feet and hands, but no actual sex, but then plenty of fully visible sex. 

The director was there and took questions including mine which I will get to in a second, but if you show footage of men having having sex that is not altered at all, how is this art?  It is more like  a viewing of something from an archive with someone there to take questions.

So I asked, “Do you think you are revictimizing these men by showing this footage over and over again?”  The director got a little uncomfortable but basically said “no, they are dead and in all the time showing it no one has told me they recognized their father, grandfather, etc.” 

No one asked if this was porn or art.  56 minutes of 16 mm footage of men meeting up and having sex.  No blurry parts.  No analysis.  The director made the point that it is interestingly shot in porn-ish ways by the police officer behind the 2 way mirror.  The director was implying that the policeman photographer enjoyed it (I am agnostic on this point), but the reason for the up and down sweep (from face to crotch) was evidentiary, I would think.  This is the person (for purposes of identification) and this is what was going on crotch-wise.

Anyway — art or porn?  I wish I knew how to make a poll so all 4 of you could vote.

 

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4 Responses to Did I see art or porn? Help me decide.

  1. lbsmom says:

    I guess I’d have to see it to decide, but it sounds like porn to me. With art, I feel something should be gained by viewing it. One person on the link said it contributes to gay history, & that resonates with me when it’s used in that context. So by my own admission, then, I suppose it could be art. I’d like to ask the director this question: what is his goal for making it so public; what’s in it for him?

  2. lankdangle says:

    if you have to ask………… porn is in the eye of the beholder.

  3. jeffaregularworkinglawyer says:

    LD is right, of course — the line between pornography and art moves depending on the viewer. Think of the Cincinnati prosecution of the Contemporary Arts Center and its director in 1990 for showing an exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe photos that had been partially financed by the National Endowment for the Arts. But there are certain markers, I suppose, and one might be the intent of the creator or exhibitor, while another might be whether the material is exhibited in a way that tends to maximize its prurient effect. As for the definition of art, I’ll stay out of that one.

    In any event, any opinion formed without actually seeing the work is necessarily tentative, but I would posit that you saw neither art nor pornography, but journalism.

  4. laurabethnielsen says:

    I thought the same thing, Jeff — I saw archival materials — not even journalism which implies some analysis or commentary 9though he gave some verbally).

    The interesting point to add is that this plays in the Whitney Museum!

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