Are My Watercolors Art or Pornography?

“Reprise” Graphite and Watercolor on Handmade Paper by Randy Elrod

Look at this painting. Is it of a nude person, or would you label it a naked person? Is it a woman, a female, a girl, or a lady? Which word is precisely the right one? From my perspective, as the artist, none of the gender words are correct. But the painting remains the same, no matter from my viewpoint or yours, or if you look and assume it is a female.

Still, I can change your perspective by telling you she is an actress, a prostitute, a farmer’s daughter, neighbor, unmarried, married, divorced, American, or Italian. Age eighteen or fifty-eight? A country girl, a city girl, five feet two with eyes of blue, six foot two with a size twelve shoe? Are the breasts natural, fake, or “augmented.” She is your sister, your daughter, wife, mother. She is married to the President of the United States, of Wal-Mart, of a university, the Chamber of Commerce. She is a student in your Bible class, a cheerleader, an airline stewardess who posed for Playboy, a UFC fighter, a school teacher, a nun. She is lesbian, straight, bisexual, oversexed, frigid.

However, none of those are true. The face is hidden not to provide anonymity, but because the subject matter represents my anima—an inner feminine part of my personality

And who are you that is looking at this painting? Male, female, boy, girl, man, woman, straight, gay, transexual, psychologist, pornographer, minister, born-again, Muslim?

Suppose instead of this view, she was nude (naked) but wearing high heels; a rear view, a side view, walking, sitting on the toilet: (masturbating, defecating, reading, a golden shower), in her underwear—silk or cotton, sheer or opaque?

Is she too curvy, too skinny, are her breasts (boobs, boobies, tits) too small or too big, should her pubic hair be natural, shaped, or waxed?

Aesthetics all.

What, you may ask, is aesthetics? The Merriam Webster dictionary says it is a particular theory or conception of beauty or art: a particular taste for or approach to what is pleasing to the senses and especially sight. Of, relating to, or dealing with the beautiful. Artistic.

The dictionary links aesthetics to the beautiful, but also to art, which certainly includes more than beauty—whatever that is. In his classic text, The Principles of Art, R.G. Collingwood disagrees with Merriam Webster and argues that “Aesthetic theory is a theory not of beauty but of art.”

I could talk about this for days, but let me cut to the chase, get to the point, make a long story short—too late!

Does the painting make you hard, wet, ambivalent, does it turn you off, turn you on, repulse you, make you curious, or inspire you? Does it excite you sexually or not? Do you feel unadorned pleasure, sadness, boredom, anger, disgust, questions?

Well, experts say, it is a matter of aesthetics—a matter of opinion, of biases, of styles, form, neuroses, interpretations, fantasies, meanings, and taste.

A personal story. I first glimpsed the inspiration for this painting in a vacation rental in Noosa, Australia. It was a substantial format above the bed in a beautifully appointed room where my former wife and I stayed. You could not miss it. We were there for several days, and there was never a comment of disgust or repulsion (it was a nude photograph of the face and body of a woman and very realistic). I marveled aloud at the beauty of the lighting and subject matter of the photo.

A few years later, during a very tumultuous time in our marriage, I came across a photograph I had taken of the picture. Again I was taken by the beauty of it, and I began to sketch and paint the watercolor. For some reason, in the context of our contentious relationship, her family history, and religious convictions, she immediately labeled it pornography and hated the finished work. Her disgust was so intense that I burned the painting in our fireplace. For years afterward, I regretted that impulsive decision.

One evening over cocktails, for some unknown reason, I told my wife Gina the story. She asked if I could recreate the painting. I was inspired and the artwork above is the result. Delighted to rediscover it, I called the watercolor Reprise. Because of psychologist Carl Jung’s archetypal influence and my study of symbols, I decided to paint the nude without a face. It is far better for it.

I did not intend this piece of art to be pornographic—on the contrary, it is a penetrating and naked look inward. It raises multiple questions I have about my feminine self. I did not intend for it to arouse sexually, but to function as a symbol of the cohesiveness of my existence—to raise questions about my feminine side and non-duality.

Am I genuinely headless? Pardon the pun, but this work of art is “heady” stuff. Philosophy, psychology, religion, Jung, Freud, Sartre, and Nietzsche all layered into a few simple strokes of a graphite pencil and a wash of sienna watercolor. I expressed what I felt, concealing nothing, and altering nothing.

But we all know that it depends on who is looking. Aesthetics is a matter of opinion. In other words, styles and tastes are made, not born.

As I write my latest book, The Quest, I posit in great detail that our development as a child, our institutional influences, and our establishment in first life all combine to trigger specific affects. Affects are biological emotions. A work of art that triggers interest and excitement in me may trigger shame or disgust in you. And vice-versa.

What I consider art, you may label pornography. What arouses me sexually may bore you. What I call ugly, you may think, is beautiful. We are all different. And isn’t that the way it should be? Instead of condemning each other, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we celebrated our differences?

I, therefore, appoint myself “Chief Aesthetician.” And thereby—as self-assured as an art critic can be—pronounce as truth my conviction that the construction of erotic excitement is every bit as subtle, sophisticated, inspired, unconscious-soaked, and genius-haunted as the creation of dreams or art.

Perhaps one day, I shall aspire to create a pornographic watercolor, and it will be my intention as the artist to arouse you sexually. But I am well aware that, in most instances, I will fail miserably. I fear I will be like the poor exhibitionist who, on exposing his genitals to a woman, is greeted with amusement, not horror.

Ah, yes, that is the plight of being an artist.

*Credit: Much of this post is drawn from the writing of the highly regarded psychiatrist Dr. Robert J. Stoller in his book The Erotic Imagination.