Lit

Review: Private Arts, The People’s Porn: A History of Handmade Pornography in America, by Lisa Z Sigel

The People’s Porn: A History of Handmade Pornography in America
By Lisa Z Sigel
Reaktion Books

Masturbation is the only sex act that’s both universal and forbidden. Universal in that everyone does it—unless they exercise peculiar restraint or are lying—but forbidden in that it’s taboo to practice in public and an untouchable topic in polite conversation. Still more verboten is revealing or even referring to the material one uses to pleasure oneself, whether by photo, book, magazine, or website. Nevertheless, it’s clear many folks carry pictures in their minds for later use, images to which the rest us will never be privy. Until we figure out how to hook up printers to our grey matter, most private fantasies will remain undepicted.

Then you have the subjects of DePaul Professor of History Lisa Z. Sigel’s latest book, The Peoples’ Porn: A History of Handmade Pornography in America. With a few semi-famous exceptions, Sigel studies the work of anonymous individuals who crafted their own…well, there isn’t quite a term for it. Handmade pornography is the closest approximation, in that most of the book’s contents were crafted by individuals and intended for seduction, personal playtime, or a dirty giggle. Sigel analyzes a plethora of artistic doodles, craft-works, and naughty alterations of innocuous objects into salacious and/or onanistic media. But however nose-wrinkling they may be to the prudish, these works are a form of invisible art and literature long unexplored if not literally buried. Such is the crux of Sigel’s subject and approach. Having reviewed hundreds of examples of handmade depictions of sex, nudity, and their every combination, she traces the hidden history of self-produced porn in America.

The DIY porn Sigel explores is diverse. Her earliest examples are erotic scrimshaws, hand-tooled into bones and ivory by bored and lonely sailors. Where one would expect etchings of ships, whales, and portraits, Sigel reveals naked ladies and sexual congress. The motif continues with articulated figurines—puppets and other kinetic sculptures—and curiously popular coffin figures, laid to rest in their little caskets but equipped to spring to priapic life at the flip of a switch. (“Not Dead Yet”. Get it?)

Some works are barely pornography in the sense of titillation. Sigel shows a puerile trend among 19th century wags who altered Liberty head pennies from stating ONE CENT to ONE CUNT on the reverse. To what end? Shocking the squares of a time when only squares walked the earth? An extended middle finger to the Era of Good Feelings? Who’s to say? Sigel is, proposing that the coin’s “transformation suggests the extent of people’s desires for an explicit articulation of sexuality,” though she also propounds the likelihood it’s a testimony to more “widespread metalworking abilities” back in the day. Moving on to the 20th century, with the improvement of printing technology and retouching techniques, we encounter more raw and profane approaches, relying on pre-Photoshop détournement of magazine and newspaper photos and illustrations with scrawled breasts, genitalia, and S&M accoutrement. Art skills improved over the years, inspired by comic books and cartoons, providing sequential narratives that lack plot but not action. As mentioned, the artworks’ creators are generally unidentified, leaving us to guess at their reasons for creation, beyond a cheap laugh or easily sparked libido, but Sigel ably addresses and grapples with the subject. All in all, it’s a refreshing take on a ignored and understudied subject, and she lays the groundwork for an historically impeded field.

Dr. Sigel has explored the history of pornography before with her previous books Governing Pleasures: Pornography and Social Change in England, 1815–1914; International Exposure: Perspectives on Modern European Pornography, 1800–2000; and Making Modern Love: Sexual Narratives and Identities in Interwar Britain. If the titles aren’t a tip-off, they are academic works. A soberness and scholarship The People’s Porn carries on. No sniggering or nudge-nudge, say no more winking here, but with an anthropologist’s nonjudgmental approach.

Sigel set up a formidable task for herself. Never enjoying the limited protection afforded other works of art and literature, the homemade porn she discusses only exists in the hands of erotica collectors and the Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, IN. In The People’s Porn we view an extant sliver of a fragment of a much larger collection of works. One imagines billions of similar materials and matériel created, used, and discarded by generations of shame-filled wankers. The septic tanks and landfills groan, buckle, and seep with it. Sigel’s subjects are mostly typical fantasies (at least to my jaded eye), and one can only imagine what other subject matter briefly existed and was more quickly destroyed. Perhaps one would rather not, but Sigel reviews and assesses what does exist, and according to different criteria: environment and occupation, commerce and capitalism, and psychology and folkways. Re: that last one, The People’s Porn is a major accomplishment in that Sigel takes seemingly unrelated elements—prisoners’ sex cartoons, Polaroids of naked dolls, phallic aprons, and amateur photographs and videos shot in the boudoir—and shows what strings them together. They are indeed art, and most closely affiliated with folk art.

To his regret, US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart has been stuck with his ever-mutating quote about the nature of pornography, “I know it when I see it,” His statement was a bit longer, specific to the case of Jacobellis v. Ohio, and more geared toward dealing with how the Constitution addressed obscenity, but here there is no question that these works are porn, and perhaps even obscene. But time and tastes have a funny way of changing perceptions, chiefly when dollar signs appear.

Sigel refuses to overlook the sexual element of the work of untrained creators dubbed artists by the art world. She ruminates about Chicago’s own Henry Darger, as well as Steven Ashby, Mose Tolliver, and other so-called outsider artists, and presents new ideas on the nature of outsider art and how its practitioners are presented. I suspect this is the first work of criticism I’ve read that doesn’t reduce Darger to an holy idiot savant, glossing over what are clearly torture fantasies, likely reflecting abuse Darger suffered in his childhood. To say that Darger’s work—however accomplished and brilliant in color and composition—wasn’t intended as inspiration for his own “sessions” seems obfuscatory. As the post-mortem price of his work rose, Darger acquired an innocent status—the “protector of children”, a title he claimed and which appears on his gravestone—as if his murals of throttled prepubescent hermaphrodites were as neutral as his obsessive notes on the weather. In order to sustain a definition of outsider art as the province of naïfs, Darger, et alia have become infantilized and desexualized, their more explicit imagery downplayed. As Sigel determines, “In some sense, folk and outsider artists’ naiveté as artists suggests a sort of sexual naiveté as well.” furthermore, “…as they grew more accepted, their status as erotic became subsumed to their place as art.”

Art aficionados will appreciate Sigel’s nuanced take on the nature of “authenticity”, asking at what point handmade porn achieves the folk/outsider art label or becomes commercially lucrative. She also observes the transformations the term folk art experienced through the years. Once ascribed to arts, crafts, music, and motifs created by “the people” (usually rural, consanguine groups, free from urban “decadence” and “degeneracy”) and lauded by nationalists, folk art was later extended to primitivism, naïve art, outsider art, trench art (art made by soldiers during wartime), tramp/hobo art, indigenous and tribal art, and so forth and suchlike.

The book’s acknowledgments section provides a compelling back story on Sigel’s research. She outlines the irritations and obstacles she faces as a pornography scholar—that’s scholar, not seller or producer—by simply researching and discussing porn in an historical context, never mind receiving grants to do so.

“There is no money to work on pornography or erotica. If one condemns pornography, one can get funding. But there are no big grants or prizes for the study of pornography. Foundations, ever since the year of the Mapplethorpe (1990), do not fund general scholarship on pornography or erotica and most institutions will be penalized with cuts in federal funding if they inadvertently discuss erotic objects. We know very little about the history of pornography because no one can afford to do the research.”

The Peoples’ Porn reveals one of America’s bigger hypocrisies, simultaneously producing and consuming scads of soft- to hardcore filth while demonizing and concealing it. As Sigel, among others, points out, porn has the strange power to unite the puritanical right, anti-porn feminists, and vanilla-sex moderates against its supposed society-destroying effects. However, when self-produced, imaginary, and created of one’s own free will for one’s own use, those arguments become as ephemeral and insubstantial as the homemade pornography they critique. A masturbatory activity, to be sure.

The People’s Porn: A History of Handmade Pornography in America is available at most bookstores and through the University of Chicago Press and Reaktion Books sites.

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