The Work of Porn in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: 25,000 Years of Erotic Freedom

Posted by on January 27th, 2010 at 10:00 AM

Alan Moore; Abrams; 95 pp., $22.50; Color, Hardcover, ISBN: 9780810948464

Alan Moore’s 25,000 Years of Erotic Freedom is not really a history book, and it is not mainly an art book.  What it is is a kind of manifesto: “Sexually progressive cultures gave us mathematics, literature, philosophy, civilization, and the rest, while sexually restrictive cultures gave us the Dark Ages and the Holocaust.”

That Moore sees a connection here — between sexual and political freedom, and between sexual frustration and violent release — will hardly be surprising to those familiar with his work.  It is the unstated thesis of Lost Girls, The Mirror of Love, and V for Vendetta.  It is suggested, less directly, by his work in Promethea and From Hell.  And it has certainly informed his superhero stories, most prominently Watchmen.  (“Why are so few of us left active, healthy, and without personality disorders?” Rorschach wonders.)

In 25,000 Years,  Moore takes the direct approach, spelling out his sexual political theory in prose, rather than weaving it in as one strand of an intricate comic book narrative.  His writing is conversational — fun, easy, full of little jokes and clever turns of phrase.  And the history is breezy, skipping along from the Ancients to the Renaissance to the fin de siècle, to Playboy, R. Crumb, and the Internet.  There is not much detail or depth, but that is likely as it must be, if the aim is to cover the entire period of Western civilization — from the Venus of Willendorf to Barely Legal — in under a hundred pages, with room left over for full-page, full-color artwork.  But still, I found myself wishing for footnotes, or at least a selected bibliography.  Instead, the closest we get is a list of the images used and a not-to-scale timeline that ends more than a century early, with the 1895 trial of Oscar Wilde.

Yet if the historiography is thin, it is because Moore only needs it to set up the central question of the book:  How did twenty-first century Anglo-American civilization end up with this confused mess of a culture, with its bizarre blend of prurience and prudery?

Sex — or rather, its representation (not at all the same thing) — is everywhere.  We see sex in advertising, in movies, in magazines, on the internet.  And somehow, we persist in our moralizing attitudes and our censorious impulses.  We retain our sense of shame, indignation, and loathing.  We like to be titillated, we love to be offended, we long to be shocked.  We savor the details of scandal, the better to mock, and decry, and denounce those so unfortunate as to be exposed.  How does such hypocrisy sustain itself?

Moore finds his answer, rather brilliantly, by refusing to treat the two sides of our puritanical-pornographic complex as conflicting forces, seeing them instead as mutually productive elements of a system that is at once repressive and exploitative.  Larry Flynt and Jerry Falwell, it turns out, deeply need each other.  Neither Flynt’s brand of smut, nor Falwell’s brand of moralism, would be half so profitable otherwise:

[So] long as pornographic culture could be kept indoors, a private, addictive, and increasingly expensive vice, it remained a very lucrative commodity. . . .  This, in the eyes of the authorities, must be the perfect situation for pornography: make it available, so that those massive revenues and taxes can start rolling it, but keep it frowned upon and shameful so that you don’t get an Allen Ginsberg turning up and claiming that it’s art, it’s civil liberties, a movement, politics — anything that sounds dangerous.

Commercialization, in other words, is itself a form of repression.  Commercial porn — “reduced to a mass market without any standards or criteria, rapidly accumulating an attendant atmosphere of sordidness and shame” actually serves the values of our repressive moralism.  And that moralism, by denying our right to sexual expression, produces a need for the market to fill.  Our desires are profitably channeled, commodified, and re-presented to us in an alien form.  Moral prohibition creates the conditions for an immoral black market.  Is it any wonder, then, that so much pornography is degrading, shoddy, and dull — that it commonly reflects the very alienation it offers to relieve?

Moore’s solution — or rather his challenge — lies with art.  Perhaps, he reasons, the problem is not so much that pornography is bad, but that bad pornography is bad.  The answer, then, is to make good pornography.  And good porn is something more than the opposite of bad porn.  Good pornography is art.

As a sample of what he has in mind, 25,000 Years contains almost 40 illustrations, few of which have direct bearing on the surrounding text.  It features vintage daguerreotypes, Hellenic pottery, works by artists like Durer, Michelangelo, and Beardsley, film stills from The Story of O, and much else besides.

The book ends with Moore’s eloquent description (which is to say, interpretation) of Félicien Rops pastel image, Pornokrates:

Behind her blindfold, unaware of how she looks and rightly unconcerned by the controversy she’s causing, utterly unworried by the precipice she steps along, the voluptuous essence of pornography is calm, serene. . . .  The goddess walks along her wall, proud and unmindful of the drop to either side, secure in her conviction that she is a thing of loveliness, safe in the knowledge that by following her noble and yet much-despised animal urge she will be led unerringly toward her rightful queenly destiny. . .  toward the hoped-for glow of a more human and enlightened future.

Photo credit Erich Lessing/ Art Resource, NY.

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