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Russell Smith: Porn’s search for respectability through art

The music in porn is terrible. It is made by programs, if it is made at all. Nobody watches porn for the music. It should not be a terrible surprise then that the very rich corporate purveyors of pornography have an inkling that if they want to expand their already massive empires beyond the purely masturbatory, they may have to give a thought to music. And possibly other forms of entertainment. If porn occupies a central – if secret – place in culture, then it should profit from that fact. It could take on culture itself.

It has already begun to do so. The vast Pornhub Internet network is branching out, aiming for a general-interest audience, and perhaps for respectability. There is a channel of the network called Pornhub Casino, offering online gambling. There is also – and this may surprise you – a philanthropic arm of Pornhub, called Pornhub Cares, that aims to raise money for breast-cancer research and scholarships for women in technology and whale conservation (yes, old-fashioned save-the-whales). And then there is Pornhub Records, with mainstream pop-music videos produced or sponsored by Pornhub.

Up until recently, the music the company has promoted has been of a predictable girls-in-the-hot-tub hip-hop kind of style. Artists on the site include Coolio, Hi-Rez and Mihannah Zhang; their songs usually include references to watching porn (on Pornhub specifically); they are a kind of advertising for dully conventional representations of sex. The videos are soft-core, as many pop videos are (Madonna and Lady Gaga and all the other superdivas have been criticized, at one point or another, for overly explicit imagery).

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But a new addition to the Pornhub artists' stable shows a new and interesting direction. Mykki Blanco, the rapper, comes from a prestigious art-school background; he began his creative career as a poet and performance artist. He is of fluid gender identity, often identifying as trans, and explores multiple genders in his breathtakingly elaborate and subversive videos. His lyrics are violent and troubling; the lush images he tumbles together frequently contain unabashed drug use. He is an underground kind of guy, a hipster hero.

Where he and his directors excel, visually, is in exploring unusual bodies.

In his 2012 video for Wavvy, directed by Francesco Carrozzini, a fantasy about a strange new drug, scenes unfold in a harem-like opium den where half-naked bodies writhe among flower petals and on divans; one of these bodies is obese – and silkily sensual – and others are of utterly undetermined gender. Muscularity and softness are freely distributed characteristics. The pleasures are unexpected.

Blanco's new video, Loner, is an expensive co-production with Pornhub and the fashion house Nicopanda. It begins with a melancholy monologue about looking for love: "I want to be in love … a monogamous love, a really sweet, special love. It isn't even sexual. It's love." This declaration is in itself a challenge to a site devoted to no-strings-attached pleasure. The rest of the video is an exploration of exhibitionism and masturbation and fashion, with a nod to the isolations of new technology: The characters pleasure themselves while wearing virtual-reality headsets, each lost in their interior world. Men raise their skirts in a teasing manner, giving tiny, fleeting glimpses of genitalia. It is beautiful, emotional, complex and no more pornographic than any other hip-hop video.

Someone like Mykki Blanco would voluntarily choose Pornhub to premiere a video because he is fundamentally mischievous; it is a punk gesture of anti-societal defiance. This is paradoxical, though, as there is a school of leftist thought that regards pornography as the most sexist and oppressive of conservative propaganda. Blanco sees mainstream porn as a place of celebrated deviance – as it unquestionably is, with its multiple niche categories – and that suits his idea of pansexual liberation.

It is amusing that while we have been worried for so long about the pornification of music videos, we have hardly noticed the artsification of pornography. As explicit videos become widely if grudgingly accepted as an inevitable facet of our media landscape, it is inevitable that their purveyors should grow more interested in gaining social respect. It is natural that they should begin to grow bored, too, with the endless unvaried repetition of the same tropes, the same aesthetic.

If you are looking for another example of explicit visual erotica with underground artistic pedigree, investigate the crowdfunded British production house A Four Chambered Heart. Its short films, available online, are moody art-school fare. Its music is industrial electronica.

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Its female director/star, Vex Ashley, talks easily of Roland Barthes and Sylvia Plath. Her website says the films are "exploring themes of technology, symbolism, mythology and alchemy and their intrinsic intersection with sex." An anti-capitalist venture, it is co-owned by all of its performers – who are of course multigendered, including trans people.

Porn and art will no doubt continue to lean toward each other to such a degree that those labels will cease to have clear meanings. And as explicit video sex becomes increasingly associated with progressive causes and art schools, it will be more difficult to denounce it as intrinsically regressive and harmful.

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