The Renaissance origin of porn

Inside “I Modi,” the 16th-century sex manual masterpiece

Raphael’s official printmaker had a naughty side — he created the first mass-produced book of sexual titillation

“I know it when I see,” said Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, referring to pornography in the landmark 1964 case of Jacobellis v. Ohio. The film in question, “The Lovers” by Louis Malle (1958), did not qualify as hardcore porn in the judge’s eyes, and the obscenity conviction of an Ohio theater manager, indicted for screening the art film, was reversed. But this case, with its famous statement, raises a good question: Where is the line drawn between erotic art and pornography?

The dictionary definition is not particularly helpful: “printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate sexual excitement.” There must be explicit display with intent to stimulate sexual excitement. Nudity, even explicit, without intent to stimulate, passes the “is it art?” test. That means that Courbet’s 1866 “Origin of the World,” is art, not porn (though it was certainly accused of obscenity by its contemporaries). A close-up of a lady’s hoo-ha was too realistic for Victorian society, even though it is decidedly un-sexy. It was intended to stimulate, of course  — discussion, not sexual excitement.

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