I admire authors and artists who are able to convey the full, gritty gamut of human experience without falling prey to either gross moralism or gratuitousness. Tolstoy, Greene, Chekov, Leonard Cohen (sans some of his erotic poetry), Andrew Wyeth, John Steinbeck, Flannery O’Connor, etc possessed an incredible talent for maximum expressiveness with the minimum of means. Hemingway, when describing a sexual encounter under the stars between a man and a woman in “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, simply wrote, “and they were both there, time having stopped; and he felt the earth move out and away from under them.” You understand what he’s saying, here. Your mind takes that information in, appreciates the lyricism and frankness of it, and appreciates the role of sex in human experience. There is no need for obscene imagery to convey the weightiness of the encounter; in fact, Hemingway’s self-control and economy of language imply a sense of respect and reverence toward the intellect and imagination of his reader; as well as a true mastery of his craft.
(CRUCIALLY IMPORTANT DEVIATION/RELEVANT ASIDE: This is also part of the reason why Alien is such a freakin great movie: it’s what you don’t see that utterly devastates your nerves and draws you into the story. The subterranean terror of a hidden presence speaks volumes within the viewer without needing much help from gimmicks.)
The human mind flourishes when it is challenged by subtlety, nuance, hiddenness, implication, and suggestion. It deteriorates when it is exposed to sheer vulgarity. Those who say that the explicit sex scenes in GoT serve to tell the story (or are easy to overlook and forgive) are apparently forgetting that the creators of the show are surely shrewd enough to know what kind of culture we live in. This is a culture where having the wrapping violently torn off is celebrated; a culture with a voracious appetite for porn; a culture unfriendly to women. A culture with a palate so over-salted by sex and sensation that it no longer knows how to distinguish true artistry from a peep-show. Shrewd, yes; imaginative, no.
Explicit sex scenes – many of which display disorder – are not necessary to carry a narrative; nor are they neutral. They have an intention – and I doubt that intention is to plunge the viewer into a heightened state of awareness. Though I’m not a fan of Nietzsche’s philosophy, I hear wisdom in his line, “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” You become what you ingest. No one is invincible to that. The very volume and vehemence of the protestations of those who staunchly defend the “artistry” of pornography – wherever it may show up – belies a myopic attachment that in and of itself might need some attention.
To quote Roger Scruton: “The camera lets the world in. The temptation is to encourage a kind of ‘reality addiction’ in the viewer, to focus on aspects of real life that grip or excite us, regardless of their dramatic meaning. Genuine art also entertains us; but it does so by creating a distance between us and the scenes it portrays: a distance sufficient to engender disinterested sympathy for the characters, rather than the vicarious emotions of our own.”
In Greek tragedies, famous sculptures throughout Europe (think the Rape of Proserpina), and countless paintings and tales, actions are not real but rather represented, and however realistic and unsettling they may be, they avoid becoming the stuff of fantasy. The purpose isn’t to make death, rape, murder, etc less weighty than it is, but to keep it within the realm of our own imaginations. With torture porn and every other sub-genre of porn, the interest shifts from interest in the embodied person to interest in the body itself. Pornography obsesses over a fantasy interest, whereas erotic art addresses an interest of the imagination. Pornographic sex is explicit and depersonalized, while eroticism invites us into the subjectivity of another person, relying on implication and suggestion rather than explicit display.
Now, George R. R. Martin treated these subjects with greater sensitivity in his books, and it goes without saying that the man has created a rich story-line that’s unique and enduring. I’m not out to ridicule anyone or cast aspersions on him as an author. The purpose of this post is to examine the visual medium of television and how it depicts sex and all things related, and why it’s worth examining who we become as consumers of the show.
Erotic art – art that uses veiled terms, creating a distance so as to allow rumination on the person who is the subject of the piece – is a triumph that frustrates the voyeur’s intention to objectify, consume, and dominate the object of his or her fantasy. And honey, we all got that creepy old Peepin’ Tom inside of us, to some degree or another; and caring about other persons as persons is a life-long work that doesn’t come instinctually. Our daily diet either gives that interior Peeping Tom a leg-up to glance through windows that are better left alone, or else it starves him and weakens him.
Before you get your underwear in a twist, let me say that this isn’t about religion or how such-and-such might “tarnish your soul” – that’s not the conversation I’m looking to start, here, cause that’s just a turn-off. I’m as sick as the rest of you with the snarky, sanctimonious blog-posts about how people who watch GoT are spineless tools with no moral compass, or geeks who ought to be shoved into lockers. This is, rather, about what’s art and what’s not: and from where I stand, porn isn’t art. It lacks value and sneers at our innate need to be challenged and confronted by that which isn’t readily apparent; to be vexed by the possibility of significance beyond nerve-endings.
Sex and sexuality are hugely valuable: I’m a big fan. They ought to be expressed artistically because they play an enormous role in who we are as persons. But I doubt anyone will look back fondly on all the explicit sex scenes they saw during their lifetime as they lay dying (which could be any day) and say, “Gee, that really helped me figure myself out as a person.”