Each society, having attained an indeterminate, though critical degree of sophistication, develops and elaborates characteristic modes of aesthetic expression. In healthy, integral societies, these modes are disseminated throughout; though there may be higher and lower expressions of these forms - as with the relationship of classical music to various folk traditions. Seen under another aspect, these aesthetic forms are not separate from life; they do not confront members of a healthy civilization as an otherness to which one repairs in order to escape from a discontinuous and ostensibly hideous and impoverished reality. Art may express the sense of the transcendent - indeed, it cannot but do this on some level - but it is not regarded as salvific.
Hence, each society develops an implicit iconography, a series of images, tropes, and forms which constitute a sort of natural sacred, which disclose in sensory forms the religious ethos of that society. Without words, these may direct even the unlettered as to what, and to whom, reverence is owed. Communist societies, such as the Soviet Union of my wife's youth, for example, merely substituted for icons of Christ, the Mother of God, and the saints images of communist personages; and one might even suggest that socialist realism developed a sort of cycle of images, an obvious analogue and replacement for cycles of sacred images. Constructivism added further grotesqueries to the iconography of communist society, and socialist realism itself easily descended from the heights of hagiographic excess to the bathos of simple propaganda. And this is not to slight the monumental sculpture of communism, which, in its brutal modernism, perfectly embodied the essential inhumanity and violence of communism, theory and practice.
Liberalism, or better, late liberalism, since liberalism's now-characteristic iconography manifestly portends the very nadir of decadence and degeneration, has settled upon an aesthetic mode eminently suited to its sensibilities, to the cultural atmosphere it so assiduously cultivates: pornography. Transgressive artist John Currin, whose works combine the subjects of pornography with the stylistic modes of Renaissance masters, says, in a New Yorker profile (sadly, on dead tree only), that he views his art as part of the struggle against Islam in Europe. His 'elegant smut' is a weapon in what he regards as a war for the tolerant and permissive values of Europe. But that does not exhaust its significance. When pressed by author Calvin Tomkins to elaborate, Currin
...talked about low birth rates in Europe, and people having sex without having babies, and pornography as a kind of elegy to liberal culture, at which point I lost the thread. “I know how right wing this sounds,” I recall him saying, “but I was thinking how pornography could be a superstitious offering to the gods of a dying race.”
A superstitious offering to the gods of a dying race, indeed: the infecund, uncreative, negational gods who first whispered to man, "You shall be as God, knowing for yourselves good and evil."A pornographic culture is a culture experiencing death, a culture which almost literally worships death, abhorring the giving of life and favouring those acts which alienate the subject from the perpetuation of life.
But what more can be said? On empirical grounds alone, pornography has become the iconography of self-conscious liberalism, as liberalism attains to that perfection only in its contemplation of the impending abyss.