Can Porn Be Art?

Two new books look at hardcore as high art.
Samuel Anderson
&
April 15, 2021
February 27, 2024
8
min. read
Can Porn Be Art?
Photo by Kenneth Gruenholtz
Table of Contents

In respective new releases, two authors apply journalistic rigor to what most of us consume with a one-track mind, furiously skipping Semenax ads. Indeed, writer-lecturer Jeffrey Escoffier’s Sex, Society, and the Making of Pornography and photographer Kenneth Gruenholtz’s Uncensored are all about gay porn.      

Jeffrey Escoffier - Cover.jpg

Though they come from relatively SFW fields, both Escoffier and Gruenholtz uphold porn’s prurient essence. Throughout his research, Escoffier emphasizes hardcore – footage of “oral, vaginal, or anal” insertion – as being of particular epistemological value. (“Only with the advent of gay hardcore movies...were gay audiences able to see gay men as active agents of homosexual desire,” he writes.) Gruenholtz's B&W portraits, though fashioned after the idealized glamour shots of early Hollywood, incur Instagram censure so often that he’s decamped to OnlyFans.  

Gruenholtz’s photo book – also the basis of a recent ClampArt solo show – never shies from...insertion. But the catalyst for the series – a year embedded with globetrotting gay porn studio Lucas Entertainment – was something of a fluke. “I met [founder] Michael [Lucas] when he messaged me out of the blue, asking if I’d shoot him at the Belvedere on Fire Island,” Gruenholtz recalls. “[Afterwards] he asked if I’d [do] some work for his company, Lucas Entertainment. I said no [Laughs] – not because I look down on pornography...I just said, ‘I’m not interested in doing that.’ On the way home, I thought, Ken, why’d you say no so quickly?

Having initially turned down the opportunity, Gruenholtz agreed on the condition of creative privileges and access to talent. “We all know what the models do on camera,” says Gruenholtz, who concentrates in environmental photography – capturing real people at home or work. “The primary purpose was not to titillate but to create something beautiful...What appealed to me was [the question of], what do they do when it stops?”

Photo by Kenneth Gruenholtz
Photo by Kenneth Gruenholtz

On a string of destination porn sets, from Puerto Vallarta to Barcelona, the answer could come as a surprise. “I would’ve thought that when cameras stop, you pull out, relax, chat, whatever...But sometimes that didn’t happen,” he says. “Sometimes the cameras stop, but the actors decide they want to continue having sex. [Albeit] in a different, more relaxed kind of way. The sex during breaks was very different from the sex during the video shoot, which I found interesting.”

To know Lucas Entertainment is to know its production value. Shadowing Lucas (who directs and acts in his films) and a semi-rotating cast of porn stars, Gruenholtz saw the insides of Spanish villas and five-star suites. But chemistry proved a key ingredient in his level of access. “I learned a tremendous amount,” he recalls, “in terms of interacting with models, what people do and don’t respond to...Those things take experience, and I was able to get a very heavy dose of experience.”

Of course, Lucas’s sets may reflect an above-average mise en scène – both in terms of location and on-set hedonism. So much so that several months into the project Gruenholtz had real doubts about finding a publisher or gallery willing to market the photos. Ironically, one decidedly pre-coital snapshot whelmed him to continue.

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Photo by Kenneth Gruenholtz
Photo by Kenneth Gruenholtz

“After a shoot in this really luxurious condominium overlooking the water – all white and glass, like a James Bond film – Michael and the model [Jackson Radiz] went into the bathroom,” he says. “There was definitely a connection between them...Michael was in the bathtub, and [Radiz] was leaning over him, and Michael had an erection pointing straight up. When I looked at it later, I didn’t see pornography. [I saw] an interaction between two people that...just so happened to include an erection.”

In some strange way, Gruenholtz’s time on set reflects Escoffier’s porno-social theory in overdrive. The luxury condo, for instance, exemplifies what the author calls the “erotic gestalt,” or the mise-en-scène: the “the physical setup (the set), decor, costumes, props, lighting, positions of the camera. Arousal...‘is stimulated by the scenario of presentation, by the mise-en-scene and the implied narrative.’” Escoffier also examines intangible dynamics, like sociological scripts, and how porn uses these to construct fantasy and fulfillment.

One episode Gruenholtz recalls – a regrettable misstep in which he inquired after one model’s sexual identity – indirectly evokes such scripts. “I could tell it made him turn inward, which is the last thing I wanted...But his reply was really smart – he said, ‘I mean different things to different people, so why spoil an illusion for anyone?’ That was the last time I asked anyone that question.”

Though the model’s rejoinder sufficed, he might just as well have pointed Gruenholtz to these lines in Escoffier’s text, had there been a copy on set:  

The actor’s porn persona consists of a hodgepodge of beliefs about gender, sexuality, identity, acceptable sexual scripts that he may engage in, and his repertoire of acceptable sexual acts...Thus the actor’s porn persona is a “situational sexual identity” that is constructed to be used within the confines of a porn career and the gay porno business.

Published as a collection in February, Sex, Society, and the Making of Pornography reflects some 25 years’ worth of interviewing on-and behind-camera talent. “I’m more interested in the ‘making of’ [aspect], because frankly I personally can’t imagine making a porn movie myself,” Escoffier, 78, says on a call to discuss the book. “I can’t imagine being in one, for sure. So [my question was], How does it get made? And a lot of my themes emerge from there.”

The “Making of...” in the title refers to behind-the-scenes insights (“As one porn actor after another iterates...making porn is hard work”) as well as a post-Boys in the Sand historiography of hardcore. Just as the former (see: on-camera sexual performance being hard work) may serve to challenge porn’s low rank in the pop-cultural hierarchy, so may the latter. For instance, Escoffier describes a brief “porn-chic” era, in which standard movie houses would show gay as well as straight porn, and Variety would publish reviews of both. As to why, then, the industry has largely evolved in the margins, he says that after 1973 – when porno hits like Deep Throat out-earned mainstream cinema – Hollywood changed the MPAA ratings in order to hobble the competition.  

It’s a shame, too, when one considers gay porn’s early potential as a sort of backchannel PSA. “For gay men, the transition from beefcake to hardcore was extremely important,” Escoffier writes – referring to the late-60s, early-70s paradigm shift from male-order physique magazines to triple-X film. “Not only because homosexuality had been a stigmatized form of behavior but also because historically there were so few homoerotic representations of any kind.”

Basic representation aside, early hardcore productions, such as Wakefield Poole’s beachside phantasmagoria Boys in the Sand (1971), “[often] adopted some sort of high-concept, psychological angle or plot.” Escoffier also cites true-to-life narratives, à la Jack Deveau’s Fire Island Fever (1979), as formative to the burgeoning queer hive-mind. “All [Deveau’s] films had narratives,” he says. “[Fever] is about a couple who try to be open and go to Fire Island to test their policy. And, of course, they can’t do it...So [narrative] was another way in which porn could disseminate knowledge.”      

50-plus years on, are we due for a “porn-chic” renaissance? The sudden OnlyFans boom, not to mention the micro-trend of self-styled influencers recasting sex work in their own outré image, suggests as much. But in Escoffier’s view, perceived chicness is no substitute for what he calls “reality effects.”

“Porn is a very weird cultural form [in that] it requires proof of actual sex, [via] erections, ejaculations, and so on,” he explains. “We don’t hold any other medium to the same standard as porn; in true crime, we don’t need to see a murder to believe the story...I don’t know if that makes [porn] ‘high brow,’ but I do think it should be taken seriously.”      

Our perceptions of porn – as being “fake,” i.e. false, or that its hardcore-ness imparts some lesser net value – are deep-seated. As a kind of corrective contrast, Escoffier and Gruenholtz focus on the real – not so as to dilute our fantasy, but rather to illuminate its subsurface. For his next book Gruenholtz plans to focus on that central “reality effect” – the erection. “It’s not about sex, per se,” he says of the forthcoming book – inspired in part by Rudolf Nureyev’s indelible hard-on as seen by Avedon. “Avedon describes it as one of the most beautiful things he’d ever seen in his life: [Nuryev] took off his clothes, and as he raised his arms, so did his dick go straight up...What I find fascinating is [capturing] the excitement in getting naked.”  

Photo by Kenneth Gruenholtz
Photo by Kenneth Gruenholtz

They also, however, agree on a balance between connoisseurship with temperance. “Porn may be becoming more a part of our everyday discourse about sex,” observes Escoffier. “[But] do I really want people to know that I love Broke Straight Boys? I don’t know.”

“I don’t see anything wrong with pornography,” Gruenholtz reiterates – asked if life with Lucas Entertainment altered his at-home viewing habits. “But I will say there was a period when I didn’t want to look at [it]...For a while, I did take a break.”

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