‘De-sexing porn: An account of the non-porn porn at the Musee D’Orsay’. A guest post by Dr Erin Sanders-McDonagh (@erinsandersmcd) about her visit to the the Splendeurs & Miseres Exposition


Image from: http://www.hotels-paris-rive-gauche.com/blog/2015/08/27/exposition-splendeurs-et-miseres-au-musee-dorsay-du-22-septembre-2015-au-17-janvier-2016/

De-sexing porn: An account of the non-porn porn at the Musee D’Orsay

Opening at the Musee D’Orsay in Paris last Saturday the 22nd of September 2015, the Splendeurs & Miseres Exposition traces images of prostitution from 1850-1910. Having read Sciolino’s piece in the New York Times) the day before, I have some idea what to expect – paintings from artists such as Manet, Picasso, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec – and an exhibit that shows us images of prostitutes through the artist’s eye. There is another queue for the exhibit once inside, and the docent at the ticket desk tells me they are expecting higher than average numbers for this particular exhibition. Walking into first room, the mauve-painted walls and soft lighting invoke an almost hushed atmosphere. There are no written guides to the exhibit, only audio guides – and I am forbidden from taking pictures of the textual descriptions (written in both French and English) on the walls. The introduction to the exposition sets out not its purpose, but rather a rationale – making clear why the exposition includes the images we are about to see:

‘Its [prostitution] ever changing nature, which defied easy definition, was an enduring obsession among novelists, poets, playwrights, composers, painters and sculptors. Most artists in the 19th and first half of the 20th century addressed the splendor and misery of prostitution’

This idea of splendor and misery is borrowed from Balzac’s Splendeurs et miseres des courtisanes (published in the 1830s), also known as Harlot of High and Low – which describes the rise and pitiful fall of the courtesan Esther Van Gobsecka, and frames prostitution as both a class issue and a moral question. The current exhibit at the Musee D’Orsay tries, to some extent, to engage with similar issues and questions, but the exhibit itself poses some moral questions of its own.

The first few rooms of the exhibit feature a variety of painted images, mostly rendered in oils, of women working as sex workers. A potted history of sex work in Paris is essentially recounted here – and the paintings feature well-dressed prostitutes promenading streets; shop girls, some who were known to sell sex to gentleman customers; and ballet dancers and actresses interacting with ‘patrons’ in the back stages of the Paris Opera. The descriptive text on the wall, and some of the specific text under key paintings, refers to class and position in relation to sexual exchanges, but there is little moralizing discourse written into the guiding text.

All of the prostitutes pictured are of course women – and the clients are gentlemen of rank and class. As the exhibit continues, there are dozens of rooms displaying the bodies of sex working women – from a range of different sex working hierarchies.

Mid-way through the exhibit, visitors over the age of 18 are invited to sweep through a red velvet curtain. What lies behind this curtain is clearly more provocative than what was being displayed in the main rooms. Entering into the dimly-lit space, spectators are invited to peer through binocular-like devices, ‘stereoscopes’, to see images of couples having sex, or engaging in sexual activity. Still photographs adorn the opposite wall, and around the corner a black and white pornographic film plays on a loop. These photographic and celluloid images signal an important shift – evidenced not only by the red curtain partitioning the obscene from the beautiful, but also by the accompanying text. The writing on the wall (literally), tells us that ‘by consuming the [photographic] image, viewers became virtual clients’. What then, of the museum spectators who have paid 12 euro each to consume the same images? Are we, the museum spectators, not also virtual clients?

While there are a great many questions that the exposition raises in relation to prostitution and sex work, I would like to focus here on how it is that we, viewers of pornography, have managed to avoid any aspersions cast on our character? How can a male spectator viewing this film in the early 1900s be seen as voyeuristic, described as a ‘virtual’ client, while we, the contemporary spectators in 2015, are freed from any moral dilemmas?

I stood for some time looking at the faces of people watching the film, and listening to the conversations. Reactions ranged from disinterest, to laughter – it was clear that we as the audience were not meant to be sexually aroused by this in any way – but rather, bemused and analytical, and we followed the rules.

The politics of looking, and the importance of visual consumption of sexual images are central to debates on pornography. The extent to which looking at bodies engaging in sexual activity renders them object/abject, and the impact that this type of viewing has on the visual consumer is key in framing pornography as morally dubious. However, as I have recently argued (Sanders-McDonagh, in press), understanding the impact and importance of pornography requires not just an analysis of content, but a contextual account. We do not watch pornography in a vacuum – we watch naked bodies in particular spaces and places, and the space and place where we are located fundamentally shapes our experiences.

For me this is the most problematic element of the show – not so much that women’s naked or splayed bodies are on display (yet again), or that the prostitute features as both hapless victim and conniving temptress (yet again), although these of course warrant further debate and discussion – but rather that the way the images are presented and described, and the assumptions that are in play about who is looking and how, are fundamentally relevant to any analysis of the exposition.

The Musee D’Orsay, as is true with most art galleries across the world, appeals to a middle-class demographic and welcomes over 2 million visitors every year. There is an expectation that these visitors here have not only the requisite economic capital, but also a great deal of cultural capital to make sense of what they are seeing, and to recognize and evaluate the artistic merit of some representations, and the debased nature of others. Indeed, a few metro stops away in Clichy or Pigalle, one could easily buy a pornographic film or magazine at one of the many sex shops in the area, but there is clear demarcation between the high and the low here, and their symbolic separation.

Tellingly, the gift shop that you enter after leaving the final room of the exhibit has a range of book and DVDs for sale. If you have 45 euro, you can buy the official book for the exposition. A hefty price (and a weighty tome), but a material reminder of your visit, and full of the images of naked women you have just consumed in the exposition. If you have less money but would still like a book, you could buy a copy of Emile Zola’s Nana, or perhaps a biography of a Parisian courtesan. You could also buy a DVD – maybe an art house movie that won a prize at Cannes and almost coincidentally features a prostitute (obviously displayed naked on the cover, but tastefully arranged), or else a glossy art/fashion publication that features a range of intelligent analyses of prostitution, as well as stylish images of red-lit women. Purchasing any of these items – which would be placed gently into the well-designed Musee D’Orsay bag – would be far different from purchasing a similar item from a shop in Pigalle. Here, you could not be so sure that this is a tasteful purchase; it would be placed in a black plastic bag, to hide the grubby item lurking inside, and, even more problematically, you would have to venture into and out of such a shop, in such an area, to purchase such an item. The naked women in display in your expensive Musee D’Orsay book are guaranteed to meet certain standards of taste – whereas the women in display on anything in such a shop in such an area come with no guarantees.

While the exhibit works hard to make clear where the acceptable boundaries of high and low are situated, and implicitly assumes that the visual consumers, the museum-goers, will be able to position the sex on display behind their red curtain (as not sexual, as artefact) vis-à-vis Other pornographic images or movies (that are intrinsically sexual, because they are not displayed in the appropriate context), there is the possibility of confusion. For that reason, the velvet curtain is introduced, because even within an exhibit that features almost exclusively depictures of prostitutes and images of naked women, there is an internal hierarchy between the higher oil-based naked women, and the lower silver-gelatin naked women. Everything has a place and an order – there is highest-high-low-lowest – and this order must be made clear.

And indeed, I would imagine that many visitors, the ones I watch as they watch the black-and-white movie on the wall, walk away bemused. Perhaps their conversations over that evening’s apero, or tomorrow night’s dinner party, will include witty analyses of the images, and perhaps their friends will decide to go because it sounds so intriguing. I would doubt that many of these dinner party conversations would include suggestions about which production company features the most realistic lesbian porn, or if anyone has accidentally stumbled onto an excellent chem-porn site while browsing through Tumblr…. and as I imagine these dinner parties conversations, I remember what Stallybrass and White have to say about the high and the low:

The ‘top’ includes the ‘low’ symbolically as a primary eroticized constituent of its own fantasy life. The result is a mobile, conflictual fusion of power, fear, and desire in the construction of subjectivity’ (Stallybrass and White in Walkowitz, 1992: 20).

Watching the pornographic movie on display in the Musee D’Orsay is no different to watching the same pornographic movie at home – the images and the representations are the same and the content of what is being consumed is identitical. However, watching this in the hallowed chamber of a well-known museum is vastly different to watching the same movie on your smartphone on your sofa. The fundamental question is not what you watch, but where. The top includes the low – it requires the low for the sustenance of fantasy, but our views on what kinds of naked images are tasteful, and which are obscene require constant attention to the context, and to place, to ensure that the images can be read appropriately, and that it is clear when nakedness and sexual representations should offend us, or enthrall us.

Feona Attwood (2005) reminds us that the cultural practices of looking and seeing are critical to a meaningful analysis of pornography. While debates rage in the UK on the harms of pornography, middle-class visitors can quietly consume images of naked woman rendered on canvas, or watch a naked man and woman fucking on-screen – shocking perhaps, or maybe funny, but not sexually stimulating, and nothing to be offended by – but only deep in the heart of the Musee D’Orsay.

By Dr Erin Sanders-McDonagh (@erinsandersmcd)


Attwood, F. 2005. “What to do with porn? Qualitative research into the consumption, use and experience of pornography and other sexually explicit media.” Sexuality and Culture 9(2): 65-86.

Sanders-McDonagh, E. (in press) ‘Porn by any other name: Women’s consumption of public sex performances in Amsterdam’ In Porn Studies. DOI: 10.1080/23268743.2015.1100092.

Walkowitz, J. 1992. City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London. London: Virago.