Image: Courtesy of Pornhub
Image: Courtesy of Pornhub

Pornhub removes works from erotic art guide after museum complaints

In one of the less-likely stories in the news at the moment, a series of art institutions went to war with Pornhub over its depictions of classical artwork. The platform has been forced to remove a range of material from its recently-launched Classic Nudes series after complaints from galleries about the use of their works. At first sight, it seems like a fun story, but I think the way Pornhub has explored the art world is genuinely really interesting.

In July, the adult entertainment platform launched its interactive guide to erotic art from major art institutions around the world, featuring Pornhub’s own recreations of the more than 100 classic images. Pornhub said that the justification for Classic Nudes was to help museums recover from the financial toll of the pandemic – by enticing audiences with a guide to erotic art, it hoped more people would visit these institutions and support them. Each image also featured a rather tongue-in-cheek description – of Botticelli’s Spring, Pornhub wrote that the artist “painted this for a dude called Lorenzo de Medici to give to his new bridge – presumably as a medieval mood starter”.

Pornhub said that the justification for Classic Nudes was to help museums recover from the financial toll of the pandemic – by enticing audiences with a guide to erotic art, it hoped more people would visit these institutions and support them

It’s clear that the website is catering to its audience. The description of the online exhibition reads: “Some people think of museums as boring, stuffy or dull. But what if we told you they housed a collection of priceless porn? Welcome to Classic Nudes, Pornhub’s interactive guide to some of the sexiest scenes in history at the world’s most famous museums. Join us as we tour the most respected institutions in western art, guiding you past all the prude paintings and going to directly to the good stuff: representations of the naked body in all its artistic glory. Because porn may not be considered art, but some art can definitely be considered porn.”

This is not the first time that Pornhub has launched a campaign to highlight the link between pornography and the arts. In May, it launched the Remastered project, in which it worked with AI experts to restore erotic films from 100 years ago. But this time around, the reaction has been significant. Italy’s Uffizi Gallery and the Louvre both launched legal action against Pornhub for what has been termed the “totally illegal” use of the artwork that was “done without any permission”.

These extracts are really interesting, and unlike anything I’ve seen in an art gallery before – they’re fun and funny, and still informative

In response, Pornhub took down all the images from these museums (and the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, which also raised complaints). The artwork from other museums, and online guided tours, remains online, offering closer looks at paintings such as Courbet’s L’Origine du monde and Artemisia Gentileschi’s Bathsheba at Her Bath. Kenneth Weine, chief communications officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, explained his institution’s rationale: “The museum’s Open Access program provides public access to hundreds of thousands of images of works in our collection, and we generally do not seek to regulate the wide range of uses of these images.”

I’m not a fan of art nor pornography (I can barely watch kissing in films), so I had no idea what to expect when checking out Classic Nudes. It’s… certainly something. Trying to avoid any visuals, my eyes were instead drawn to the descriptions of the artwork – a piece’s conception, and a little about the artist themselves. These extracts are really interesting, and unlike anything I’ve seen in an art gallery before – they’re fun and funny, and still informative. The art world has a (not unearned) reputation for being stuffy and pretentious, and Classic Nudes is a wonderful counterbalance, bringing this history into the present and making it accessible. I really didn’t expect to be as engaged as I was, a really pleasant surprise.

‘It’s a sad fact that institutional art history continues to dissociate itself from unsanitised 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

– Charlene K. Lau

Charlene K. Lau analysed this news in a piece for Frieze: “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 unsanitised 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.”

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