Values of Art and Pornography

22.5.2009 Carl-Dag Lige

An object or phenomenon is valued intrinsically if it is valued for its own sake, that is, for its intrinsic properties and qualities. For example a particular painting can be valued for its composition, regularity, harmony, balance, tension, diversity, unity and complexity of its compositional elements and depicted subject matter. If an artwork is considered intrinsically valuable, it is not valued for the pleasure or other benefits it provides for the onlooker but for the way it functions as a complex structure and a unique aesthetic object. On the other hand, an object or phenomena is valued instrumentally if it is valued for the benefits (e.g. pleasure) it provides for the perceiver. Accordingly, a painting is valued instrumentally if it is valued for the visual pleasure or other kind of direct benefits it provides for the perceiver. If a person appreciates the complexity of a work of art but also gains direct benefits (pleasure) from its singular properties, then he/she appreciates the work intrinsically as well as instrumentally.


Many theorists support the view that art has mainly instrumental value. They usually believe that a perceiver of an artwork cannot fully separate between an artwork and the experience it provides. According to this view, our evaluative acts are fundamentally supported and informed by the positive/negative aspect of our experience and we cannot evaluate an artwork objectively. I agree with the latter but would like to argue that even if we cannot adequately separate between our experience and an artwork, we still maintain that artworks have objective intrinsic value: they have their unique characteristics and properties in spite of us. A particular painting has its unique aesthetic features despite our inability to visit the gallery or museum.

There are two fundamental things that are related to the value of artworks. First, artworks provide us direct experiences. Second, a particular artwork is a complex set of specific properties, which form a unique integrity (aesthetic object) irrespective of the fact whether we have a direct experience of them or not. The second point indicates that the appropriate appreciation of artworks requires us to value them intrinsically. We appreciate artworks not only for the direct experience that their singular properties provide; rather we value them in terms of their properties functioning as a complex integrity: that is, we appreciate artworks as unique aesthetic objects.

In addition to appreciating artworks intrinsically, it is certainly possible to value artworks instrumentally. We can find pleasure from a specific rhythm or use of colors, from use of materials or overall composition of a painting. But if we value a particular artwork only for some singular feature it has and for the pleasure that this feature provides us, then we leave aside the complexity and integrity of this particular aesthetic object. The latter means that we do not appreciate that artwork as art and do not actualize the full potential of it as an aesthetic object. Let us consider an example of contemporary video-art.

Jaan Toomik’s short video (“Untitled”, 1999, 1.15 min) depicts sexual intercourse between a man and a woman. The camera is placed so that sharp sunlight and a piece of clear sky repeatedly appear between the rhythmically copulating bodies. The shot is poorly focused due to the blinding force of sun, which forays into the camera every time when the bodies back away from each other. In spite of the explicit subject matter of a sexual content, the video is rather abstract. The genitals and pubic hair of the couple are visible but rather dark and shaded due to the strong contrast with the constantly appearing sunlight. The abstract character of the video is further increased by slow motion and mute sound.

Sexual content is undeniably evident in Toomik’s video. A sensitive perceiver might find the depicted intercourse sexually stimulating because of the closeness of bodies and their genitals. The rhythm of copulation might also be a stimulating factor. Supposing that Toomik’s video is primarily intended to be a work of art, we can say that it arouses the onlooker sexually as an artwork. A person who appreciates Toomik’s video for its sexual stimulation, values the work instrumentally. Yet, an experience of a work of art with explicit sexual content is in my view to be classified misguided if the experience does not consider the evaluation of the particular artwork for its intrinsic qualities and is valued only for the potential sexual pleasure it provides.

Toomik’s video is an outstanding work of art. The video has got a simple form but it has a complex structure of connotations and therefore it provides material for multiple interpretations. The shot is well balanced and the fused focus provides a romantic and timeless atmosphere. The repeatedly appearing sun might make the perceiver become aware of the cyclic character of the biology of nature. Toomik’s video is like a universal cosmogony of the birth of life in general and the birth of human species in particular. If we miss the video’s potential for those interpretations, we will have a considerably poor experience of it.


When art is primarily valued intrinsically, pornography is in most cases valued instrumentally. Pornography is usually considered to be a depiction of explicit sexual subject matter meant to arouse and sexually excite the viewer. Pornography makes no claims to artistic merits and is usually meant for providing direct sexual stimulation. Pornography is valued instrumentally.

It is highly unlikely that there are persons, who value works of pornography for their intrinsic properties, which are present in a unique aesthetic object. The reason for this is the lack of or low level of intrinsic aesthetic qualities of those works. A work of pornography could, of course, be valued intrinsically (similarly to artworks) but their intrinsic aesthetic value is probably inferior to the majority of artworks. One of the reasons for the latter is the fact that pornographic works are usually not made with the aim to create artworks, that is, intrinsically valuable aesthetic objects. Most of the directors of pornographic movies do not consider it important that the actors, scenario, photography and musical score would provide a complex, dynamic and integral unity, which is characteristic to artworks. Pornographic works tend to use stereotypical plotlines and characters, which best serve the main focus of the works – explicit sexual content.

Ethics or pleasure

In terms of conditions we can state the following. First, that intrinsic value is a necessary condition for a work to be art; intrinsic and instrumental value conjointly is a sufficient condition for a work to be art. Mere instrumental value does not make a particular work an artwork. Second, instrumental value is a necessary condition for a work to be pornographic; instrumental and intrinsic value conjointly are a sufficient condition for a work to be pornographic. Mere intrinsic value is not sufficient for a work to be pornographic.

From this discussion follows that the phenomena of ‘pornographic art’ and ‘artistic pornography’ would be, respectively, a work of art with sexually explicit content and a work of pornography with artistic ambitions. The question remains whether there are proper ways of appreciating artworks and pornographic works. Even if artworks are usually appreciated intrinsically and pornographic works instrumentally, is it wrong to appreciate art merely instrumentally? What kind of problems might occur if we appreciate pornography merely intrinsically?


Toomik’s short-film “Armulaud” (“Communion”, 2007, 12 min) is a fictional documentary of a middle-aged man who seems to be severely depressed. The speechless protagonist visits the church, a dark forest, and his own home. In one of the scenes a middle-aged woman visits the protagonist at his home. Initially, the lady heals the man’s festering legs, but then the situation develops into sexual intercourse. Man’s home is messy and the video emphasizes the rotten, decayed atmosphere by occasionally showing insects and garbage. The scene is distressing for the viewer because it is unclear whether the event is actually taking place or if it is staged. Second, it is also unclear whether the lady is a prostitute or not. After the intercourse the confusion is further increased when the lady takes the used condom and squeezes the sperm against her genitals.

“Armulaud” is a skilful and professionally realized short-film. Its content is loaded with symbolism and it can easily be interpreted as a metaphorical depiction of such existential topics as birth, death, religion and morality. If we treated “Armulaud” merely instrumentally (e.g. for the sexual content), we would miss Toomik’s artistic intentions and ideas. We would probably miss the ethical, social, political, religious, and environmental aspects of that work. We would also miss the intricate play and complexity of constitutive ideas and elements of the work, and we would miss the experience of originality and the possibility to enhance our inner world and personality through this experience.

In comparison, we would not lose much if we valued pornographic works merely intrinsically. If we treated pornography only in terms of its intrinsic artistic value, we just would not be able to gain pleasure from the explicit sexual content. In comparison of the two “in-appropriate” ways of appreciation we can clearly indicate that a person loses much more if he/she does not appreciate art appropriately (intrinsically) than in a situation where he/she does not appreciate pornography appropriately (instrumentally).

Considering the ethical dimension, we can say that artworks that deal with sexuality (at least in most cases) tend to raise questions concerned with sexuality as socio-cultural phenomena and might possibly draw our attention to gender-issues, sexual misbehavior or other problematic issues in society. The works of pornography on the other hand, leave the ethical dimension aside: child-abuse, zoo-philia and sexual slavery are only some of the several morally questionable phenomena, which are present in pornographic works meant to provide pleasure for the obsessed viewer. Pornography seldom provides socially, politically, environmentally or religiously relevant insights or statements; pornography rather tends to provoke questions about the morally dubious background and functioning of the porn-industry itself.

To conclude, pornographic works are valued instrumentally as objects of simple pleasure and provide us with a shallow way of self-realization. Artworks on the other hand are valued primarily intrinsically and are to be conceived as complex and rich aesthetic objects, which have the potential to provide us enlightening insights to social, psychological, religious, and political dimensions of life.