By Tanya Silverman
Delectable pink layers amass on the small, flat screen. The shot zooms into the smooth, rosy surface to intimately examine its fine texture, the subtle creases, and dainty bumps. Unexpectedly, a viscous stream of white liquid drips onto the delicate pink surface. As the white goo begins to slowly trickle down the pinkness, a dark, slick spoon eases onscreen and penetrates.
Zooming out, the rotund utensil is graciously entering into a sensual bowl of raspberry gelato and white chocolate syrup. Watching this video segment while I wait for my dessert order at a dimly lit gelaterie stimulates my sight and stomach, where I realize, to my dismay, that I have just been seduced by food porn.
After picking up my prepared mango-boysenberry selection, I sit down (with my back to that screen) and penetrate a real-life spoon into the physical entity of my order. I taste the tart gelato and ponder whether the real thing is actually as enjoyable as what my imagination just cultivated when watching the enticing video. Food porn… is that an appropriate term for the subject? The tantalizing pictures of the delicately tossed salads, the overtly plump sausages, the peeled bananas, the slit strawberries – are they really pornography?
Former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once admitted that he was unable to accurately define pornography, subsequent to stating his famous line: “But I know it when I see it…”
If the Honorable Potter Stewart couldn’t define the limits of pornography when contending its First Amendment legality at the nation’s top court, let’s turn to a tried and true source, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Their first definition of “pornography” is “the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement.” Also according to this source, pornography is defined as “the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction,” i.e. the pornography of violence.
Judges and dictionary technicalities aside, when we hear the word “porn” (or “pornography”) solo, we probably all think of sex – not food. Nevertheless, food porn has certainly burgeoned in our contemporary culture, not only in highly-produced professional videos of erotic gelato, but throughout the commercial and amateur realm. Professional chefs have long had outlets like Food Network and various magazines – but, thanks to the progressions in accessible photography and media resources, home cooks and restaurant patrons have started to stylistically document the subjects they masticate.
Porn (the sex kind) has long prevailed all throughout the World Wide Web, and food porn has, more recently, proliferated online as well. There are blogs like Food Porn Daily, as well as “Food Porn” categories on Tumblr, and Reddit – not to mention the Instagram hashtag, “#foodporn”.
Food porn watchers who are into the really dirty stuff may appease their kinks by watching the gluttonous concoctions of Epic Meal Time. Amateur food porn (like its XXX sibling) has even faced censorship in the public sphere; snapping shots of your carefully curated plate and posting them online has become so popular that a number of NYC restaurants have banned photography outright.
Photo courtesy of William Murphy.
The “porn” descriptor also relates to lifestyle products; for instance, shoes. Yes, there are some sexual fetishes that fixate on feet and shoes (and porn performers commonly wear high heels), but shoe porn itself has developed as a specific shopping fetish where the displayed footwear selections are manipulated to be aesthetically arousing. The Shoeporn tumblr is quite frisky, with sparkles and spikes and studs all around, while Shoeporn.com welcomes more vanilla tastes, like ordinary Uggs and comfy canvas sneakers.
Away from consumables and into the more conceptual side of porn, there’s the creative niche known as “ruin porn”, which involves capturing photographs and videos of urban blight, industrial decay, and neglected materials. American rustbelt cities like Detroit are often associated with this genre. Businessman Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loan Inc., even denounced a recent 60 Minutes episode as exploiting the city for cliched ruin porn, rather than highlighting the persistence or resiliency of Detroit’s culture.
Photographer Matthew Christopher, who documents hundreds of abandoned apartments, schools, factories, machinery, and gymnasiums, is commonly cited as a ruin pornographer. He, however, does not find the porn connotation respectful of his practice, as it implies that he is doing something wrong, and suggests his work “bears the sleazy stigma of comparison to that of such esteemed photographers as those found in Hustler or Penthouse,” implying he is “less an artist than a pornographer.”
Dedicating his time and skills to portray the aesthetics of formerly frequented church pews or defunct industrial piping systems, Christopher has certainly cultivated his opinion of “ruin porn” with much thought, describing it as dismissive, “cheap”, and “tawdry”, thereby pronouncing himself more properly as a “photographer of ruins.”
In terms of screened naked people and sexual acts, the debate about what is pornography and what is art is a topic often approached in the legal and philosophical spheres. Hans Maes, in “Drawing the line: Art versus Pornography”, writes out a popular distinction: “Pornography is explicit and represents people as objects, while art invites us into the subjectivity of the represented person and relies on suggestion.”
Photo courtesy of David Barrie.
As for the ruin porn case, we can see that since residents and artists find that having their respective cities and work affiliated with porn as exploitative and objectifying, people take the fine line between pornography and artwork quite seriously – even without of any form of nudity or fornication.
What can be porn is infinite. The sexual kind has expanded throughout all sorts of prude and kinky spheres – from sado-masochistic orgies to lonely housewives to balloon poppers – and with them the porn descriptor is also developing into new frontiers. Food porn has become huge, while car porn, pussy (I mean cat) porn, and house porn are making their way. But as much as these may tickle our personal fancies, who knows what the next porn craze will be…