Many times the decision to exhibit or permit a public exhibit of photographs featuring the nude (aesthetic or erotic) art is not an easy decision since the delineation between legitimate art and pornography may appear to be blurred. Examples of this paradox exist when one considers the sculptures at the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple in Khajurâho, India, 19th century Japanese Shunga art, and the jury finding that a collection of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) featured in The Perfect Moment, a 1990 exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) in Cincinnati were not “obscene” even though five of them consisted of “explicit images of sadomasochistic sex.”[1]

At the same time reasonable moderation is needed since a public photo-sharing site with unlimited, unfettered freedom of expression is doomed to fail based on the example of BayImg, a Swedish photo-sharing site that is now offline due to adverse legal judgements against it. At its inception in 2007, BayImg had prided itself on free expression:

We do not censor. We believe in freedom of speech, it’s of utter importance to us. As long as your pictures are legal they will be hosted here… [W]e really think it is a big deal [to host uncensored images]. Freedom of speech is our foundation.[2]

However, even though the boundary between nude (aesthetic and erotic) art and pornography may appear blurred, a clear delineation is apparent when a pragmatic, balanced approach is taken based on the below paradigm such that an optimal level of moderation can be exercised so that artistic freedom is not stifled and the interests of all stakeholders (photographers, site management, group administrators and the public with its diversity of opinions) are protected.

Pornographic representations are sexually explicit and rich in anatomical detail… whereas works of erotic art rely on suggestion and, instead of focusing on certain body parts, will try to capture the individuality, personality, and subjectivity of the represented person. In Titian's (1488-1576) Venus of Urbino (1538), for instance, it is not the sexual organs but the face, as “window to the soul,” that provides the focus of attention. A pornographic image, by contrast… “turns subjects into objects, people into things – and thereby disenchants them, destroying the source of their beauty.” The aims of true pornography and the aims of art, erotic art included, are not compatible… One induces you, in the name of arousal and release, to ignore the representation so as to get at the represented, the other induces you, in the name of aesthetic delight, to dwell on the representation.[3]

In short, nude and erotic art, both of which are acceptable to be displayed in a public forum based on precedent established by respected museums all around the world, may consist of imagery depicting the nude human form, anatomical parts including sexual organs that are part of a broader picture (with the key being they are not the sole nor main focus of the photograph) within an aesthetic or sensual setting. On the other hand, pornographic works, which are not acceptable to be displayed in a public forum generally, consist of sexual organs that may be oversized and/or stimulated that are the main and only focus of the image.

It is precisely for this reason the sculptures at Kandariya Mahadeva Temple and Japanese Shunga art (displayed above) though erotic in nature are provocative and perhaps masterful works of art instead of pornography. When they are viewed, the sole focus is not the erotic sexual activity, which nevertheless is a key component; one can see the stunning details and beauty of the human body, distinct facial features. One can also see intricate jewellery in the former and beautiful scenery that consists of colourful clothing, detailed patterns and exquisite outdoor plant life in the latter.

The fact that there is a lot more going on in the Mapplethorpe photos than mere sadomasochistic sex may also be the reason a Cincinnati jury found in favor of CAC. However, their prohibition from public display on a photo-sharing site or in mainstream groups is not unreasonable because of the extreme graphic realism exhibited in them and the fact that works like them are generally displayed in specialized, temporary shows. With that said, there is no reason the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple sculptures and Japanese Shunga art cannot be displayed on photo sharing sites since one is a critical artistic component of historical architecture and the other and examples like it are prominent works of art included in permanent exhibits at respected, mainstream museums – both visible to the public without age restriction. Consequently images of both are included in this article.

From a historical perspective, the rejection of nude art dates back to the 16th century when religious clergy denounced sensual and aesthetic works featuring nudity as “irresponsible proponents of the immoral or unholy.”[4] In fact Michaelangelo’s (1475-1564) Sistine Chapel masterpiece originally came under scathing criticism when it was unveiled – “Not even in the brothel are there such scenes as yours…”[5] -- to which he countered, “What spirit is so empty and blind, that it cannot recognize the fact that the foot is more noble than the shoe, and skin more beautiful tha[n] the garment which it is clothed?”[6] Nevertheless, the stigmatisation of nude (aesthetic and erotic) art was reinforced by Puritan, Victorian, and Freudian logic.

Add the “inherent realism” of photography and the stigmatisation worsens. In fact the 21st century public has turned so hostile towards nude (aesthetic and erotic) photographic works of art they broadly and incorrectly classify everything as “non-artistic” pornography,[7] which has a significant chilling effect: Photographers and supporters of this genre may be heavily censored and even face criminal prosecution. As a result, many times renowned museums are the only bulwark against this insanity.

In defense of this genre, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art staged a photographic show Naked before the Camera in 2012 stating, “Depicting the human body has been among the greatest challenges, preoccupations, and supreme achievements of artists for centuries. The nude – even in generalized or idealized renderings – has triggered impassioned discussions about sin, sexuality, cultural identity, and canons of beauty, especially when the chosen medium is photography… In every culture and across time, artists have been captivated by the human figure… [P]hotographers have used their medium to… created compelling… images.”[8]

When proactive moderation is considered, it must be kept to the optimal minimum since “freedom of expression is intrinsic to art (of which photography is a branch) [and] without it art withers.”[9] After all, the purpose of art, including photography is not only to provide mere aesthetic pleasure through beautiful scenery but to express a message, to provoke (as well as to comfort), expand the boundaries, push the limits and even break conventional rules, among other things.

This is especially important that nude (aesthetic and erotic) art including photographs remain accessible to the public and visible on photo-sharing sites based on the above-mentioned paradigm since there is no evidence they promote sexual violence or exploitation nor cause psychological harm to impressionable children. At the same time, contrary to the opinion of some, there are no theological prohibitions (consider every human being since genesis up to the end of time has been, is and will be born naked!) against creating and/or viewing nude (aesthetic and erotic) works of art.

In conclusion while proactive moderation is necessary to protect site viability, the key is to exercise balance such that legitimate nude (aesthetic and erotic) photographic works of art based on the above-mentioned paradigm are not relegated to obscurity (they should be “visible to everyone” and permitted in mainstream groups when administrators permit such works per group rules) and their photographers are not subjected to medieval ostracism nor undeserved punishment such as account suspension or even banishment. After all, proponents of this niche have a right to view such works of photographic art without deprivation; likewise opponents may freely choose not to view these works or if they do, to express their disgust.


[1] John Faherty and Carol Motsinger. Pornography or art? Cincinnati decided. 2016.

[2] BayImg. Wikipedia. 30 November 2015.

[3] Erotic Art. Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy. 20 August 2014.

[4] The naked truth: A history of art censorship. Art Media Agency (AMA). Paris. 26 September 2013.

[5] The naked truth: A history of art censorship. Art Media Agency (AMA). Paris. 26 September 2013.

[6] Brian K. Yoder. Nudity in Art: A Virtue or Vice? Art Renewal Center. 2012.

[7] Nude photography (art). Wikipedia. 9 April 2016.

[8] History of the Nude in Photography in Naked before the Camera at the Metropolitan Museum of Art March 27-September 9, 2012. Metropolitan Museum of Art. 22 March 2012.

[9] Julia Farrington. Conference Report: Taking the offensive – defending artistic freedom of expression in the UK. X index. May 2013.