And I think it has a lot to do with the question of "is this art?"
Normally I just shoot what I want without caring if it's "art" or not. After all, I like photographing pretty trees and landscapes. Some of that work might be considered to be "art" by some people. But other people wouldn't say so. They'd say, "at most, this is just a decent snapshot of a wall or a tree. It's pretty, but it ain't art." And I'm fine with that. Because even if it isn't art, it's still a pretty picture of a tree or something.
But the perception (I suspect) might be a little bit different if the subject matter is NOT a tree, but is instead a dude getting sucked off. THAT subject matter seems a little bit more polarizing. It's either "this is art", or "this is just a well shot picture of a dude getting sucked off." At least with the tree, there's sort of a middle ground. My tree pictures might not be art, and hopefully they aren't merely snapshots. But people can appreciate them as occupying some middle ground. And even if they get dismissed as mere snapshots, at least they aren't PORN.
Meanwhile, Robert Mapplethorpe can get away with showing pictures of a dude getting sucked off. Me? i just plain don't have the balls to do so. The actual CONTENT is seen as pornographic. So there's a lot less wiggle room. I might photograph the exact same CONTENT, and it certainly wouldn't be as good as that of someone like Robert Mapplethorpe. My pictures might not actually be accepted as ART. The thing is this...unlike the tree, the CONTENT here is a lot less forgiving. If it ain't art, then the content pretty much sticks it straight in the realm of PORN. It might be well-shot and well composed porn. But there are tree pictures that fit between the categories of "art" and "snapshot". I'm fine with that, and I take plenty of tree pictures that fit into that in-between area. But if you are shooting highly explicit sexual content, and it fails to be "art", then what else is it other than just "well-shot pornography"?
And I'm really beating myself up over that right now. Not that I'm doing sexual pictures. If anything, I'm finding that I'm leaning towards a more Diane Arbus/ Joel-Peter Witkin/Marilyn Manson type of thing. A profound interest in freakishness, abnormality, and defying norms. Right now my thing is really bugs and death and decomposition. But there's a really fine line here. Mainly due to the content, I think. You can show a tree, and it might not be art. But at least it isn't necessarily just a snapshot. But if you show a man getting sucked off, then it's either art or it's porn. Unlike the tree, there doesn't seem to be any middle ground. Similarly, if you show animal carcasses being devoured by maggots and beetles, if you really focus on things like roaches and maggots and dead flesh, then it seems like you're walking a really fine line. Unlike the pretty tree, this seems like the kind of stuff that HAS to be "art", otherwise by elimination it's just juvenile shock tactics that you'd find in an MTV music video. That the content itself dictates a sort of dichotomy. Either it's art, or it's porn (be that due to sexuality or mere childish and primal fetishistic urges towards blood and scum and feces).
I'm usually pretty comfortable residing in that middle ground. "This landscape photograph may not be 'art', but it's pretty darn cool and it's more than a snapshot, and I can live with that." But I'm increasingly getting interested in stuff that pushes people's (most importantly, MY) buttons, yet I absolutely DON'T want to get labelled as a pornographer or a gorehound.
Content-wise, I've been looking over my past work and wondering where I'm going. And I'm noticing that even when I was doing pretty nature landscapes and such, that I was likely doing it to be different. That I was reading the syllabus and finding technicalities that allowed me to do the stuff that I knew no one else would be doing, because I thrived on being the ONLY one in the class doing that. When I was taking a commercial course revolving around standard portraiture and still life photography, I chose to do still life photographs of dead animal carcasses. Why? I don't know entirely. I think it partly had to do with the fact that, like all of the other photo courses I'd been in, I knew that no one else would be doing remotely the same thing as me. And on some level, I just plain think that I thrive on being the outcast. I think it factors into my recent fascination with bugs and dead things. Most of my peers AREN'T interested in that kind of thing. I've always felt left out and ugly and insignificant, and on that level I think I just have a natural attraction to focusing on things that most people don't care to see. Blood. Bugs. Death. I feel like I can relate. If I had to reason it forth in words, I think that I'm trying to cope with feelings of inadequacy and alienation by focusing on content which is either deemed to be insignificant or inherently ugly.
What I can't get a handle on, is if revelling in that is artistically valid. Make no mistake...nothing's shocking. Eceryone's seen hardcore porn and everyone has seen deliberately dark and gruesome content. I'm never going to go extreme enough to push boundaries and go beyond what anyone else has gotten away with. That's not what I'm about. Yet I do seem to revel in content which is a LITTLE bit different. If I continue to focus on taboos, and fail to push beyond the extremes set by artists a whole lot better than I'll ever be, does that make me just a pale imitation? Does that make me a pornographer who just happens to be a little bit better-than-average at lighting and composition? Photographing freaks has been done to death. If I do it and fail to add anything new, am I merely being exploitative? If I don't go beyond what's been done before, am I just the equivalent of a 13-year old pimple-faced kid trying to get his friends to join his Marilyn Manson cover band?
I have no problem taking pictures of a tree or a stream and not caring the least bit about theoretical questions such as "is this art"? But more and more I'm noticing that that question is having a LOT more significance to me in regards to the kinds of stuff that I'm noticing myself becoming increasingly attracted to. At some point, i just can't help beating myself up over the question of whether or not my work is art. Because given the content...if it isn't art, then what else could it be?