BY Charlene K. Lau in Opinion | 17 AUG 21

Pornhub's Failed Attempt to Enter the Art World

With museums pulling the plug on the controversial company's unauthorized erotic art guide, Charlene K. Lau asks: is this feminist allyship or another example of art-history puritanism?

BY Charlene K. Lau in Opinion | 17 AUG 21

It comes as no surprise that Pornhub, a well-recognized site for the dissemination of lawful (and unlawful) carnal knowledge – replete with glaring ethical blind spots – desires to align itself with Western art institutions that also display the pleasures of the flesh. In unofficial partnership with the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Musée d’Orsay, London’s National Gallery, the Prado Museum and the Uffizi Galleries, Pornhub has generated the on/offline interactive art guide Classic Nudes. Replete with image reproductions and institutional maps, the website contains descriptions of more than 100 historical artworks from the usual suspects (Gustave Courbet, Jacques-Louis David, Jean Honoré Fragonard, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Peter Paul Rubens, etc.), a third of which are available in audio-guide format, with a further six re-enacted in video by the amateur porn couple MySweetApple, overlaid with a ‘cracked oil painting’ filter and set to classical music.  

The star-studded affair begins with politician and porn star Cicciolina in the trailer touting ‘because porn may not be considered art, but some art can definitely be considered porn’, while Asa Akira – spirited porn actress, Pornhub brand ambassador and best-selling author – narrates the audio guides. Impressive in its scope, the Pornhub guide unveils many interesting tidbits about classical Greek and Roman artworks. But inconsistencies in style and formatting abound: the art historian in me can’t help but nitpick. Full names do not appear on each page for the more famous artists, artistic media are nowhere to be seen and Akira’s pronunciations of names leaves much to be desired. 

Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, 1485–86, recreated by Pornhub with adult entertainer Cicciolina. COURTESY PORNHUB
Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, 1485–86, recreated by Pornhub with adult entertainer Cicciolina. Courtesy: Pornhub

Classic Nudes injects life into fusty art history – a discipline famously resistant to change, which could frankly benefit from Pornhub’s irreverent and surprisingly insightful take on the dominant narrative. The guide brings these artworks right into the present with some memorable quotes, effectively uncloaking so-called objective art-historical language. (About Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, 1485, for instance, Akira notes: ‘And if you thought that shell was a symbol for some WAP, well then you were absolutely right.’) 

However, the guide also repeats the inordinate issues that museums, galleries and art history face as a whole. Looking at this grouping of work through the filter of feminism and institutional critique, it’s not difficult to see these depictions of the nude female form as the result of male artists venting their sexual frustration through paint or stone. Further, Classic Nudes highlights the longstanding problems in art production and art history regarding gender parity and the (white) male gaze. Art has always been an old boys’ club; the Pornhub guides are no different.

Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Portrait of Madeleine, 1800, oil on canvas, 81 × 65 cm. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons 

Historically and in contemporaneity, women artists have made erotic art, although they have often been excluded from art’s narratives. Living artists including Judith Bernstein, Betty Tompkins and Joan Zemmel have produced raunchy imagery that has, until recently, been left out of feminist art narratives. In the guides, only three works by women artists appear: Artemisia Gentileschi’s Bathsheba at Her Bath (c.1640s); Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s oil on canvas Portrait of Madeline (1800); and Sarah Goodridge’s transgressive Beauty Revealed (1828), a miniature watercolour on ivory of her bared breasts apparently made for a lover. And, while the description of Benoist’s Portrait of Madeline reaches for wokeness in terms of the exoticization of Black female bodies, it then regresses to the objectification of the sitter’s breasts. 

With the words ‘no single museum can house all the diversity found in the art world’, Pornhub attempts to compensate for directing its attention primarily at Western artists and institutions with the section ‘Another Perspective’, in which representations of the Other are ghettoized in a category of their own. In fact, some of these works were created by male artists already identified in the guides; they just happen to portray non-White bodies. An Edo period shunga netsuke (a Japanese miniature erotic sculpture) and an undated Native American hopi carving are thrown into the mix with Orientalist paintings by Jean-Léon Gérôme and Edvard Munch. An afterthought, the grouping re-hashes the systemic inequalities of race and its complicated interactions with desire, where the cis-gendered and colonial male gaze persists. In art and porn, racialized bodies are exoticized under capital, where everyone can be reduced to a skin tone, a sexual fetish, anything that might be considered a perversion to the white, Western man. 

Pornhub, Classic Nudes, 2021. Courtesy: Pornhub

Despite this initial big bang, the Louvre and the Uffizi Galleries have sued Pornhub over Classic Nudes which, along with the Prado Museum, have had their guides unlinked and, in some cases, entirely removed. At the time of writing, all video re-enactments have since been deleted from the Pornhub website. It’s a sad fact that institutional art history continues to dissociate itself from unsanitized depictions of sex, sexuality and their relations, unwilling to delve into conversations regarding the complicated power dynamics between artist and sitter, creator and subject, all made more complex by race and gender. For a fleeting moment, I thought that art history might now be prepared to acknowledge such issues but, alas, plus ça change. 

Thumbnail: Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, 1485, tempera on canvas, 1.7 × 2.8 m. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Main image: Pornhub, Classic Nudes, 2021. Courtesy: Pornhub

Charlene K. Lau is an art historian, critic, and curator who has held fellowships at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, Parsons School of Design, The New School and Performa Biennial. Her writing has been published in Artforum,, the Brooklyn Rail, Canadian Art, Frieze, Fashion Theory and Journal of Curatorial Studies, among others.