But was it art?

"Is it art or is it pornography? I don't think it matters what you call it," said Annie Sprinkle at the close of her sold-out Friday-night performance of The Herstory of Porn: Reel to Real. Given that art, broadly speaking, isn't illegal, and that the vice cops in attendance at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, checking photo IDs of all ticketbuyers, can label something pornographic if they're in a harassing mood, I couldn't help but wonder whether semantics weren't more important to porn veteran Sprinkle's transformation into a performance artist than she was letting on.

Kudos to the buxom, sweet-faced Ms. Sprinkle for displaying the kind of self-deprecation about her career that public figures not in pornography should pony up. Laughing at the animal limits of her badly photographed, cheaply dubbed '70s dirty movies during the first half of Reel to Real made us understand that she'd overcome them. But the question lingered, especially during the somber, more metaphysical second act, when she showed hallucinatory video erotica (whose production standards, truth be told, weren't a whole lot glossier than her early efforts). With all the press talk Ms. Sprinkle did about personal "journeys" and "evolutions," how far did this woman actually travel to make the realization that bad porn is fodder for giggles? And although it's true that Sprinkle, now a self-professed lesbian with a taste for transsexuals, currently is in control of her erotic images, marketing the products she chooses with an intent to educate as much as titillate, her "journey" seemed to be best summed up by my companion at the theater that night: "From teenage porn star to middle-aged porn star."

As someone who in no way uses the politically charged word "pornography" with scorn, Ms. Sprinkle had my sympathy from the start. People often roll their eyes at its slippery legal definition -- to incite prurient interest -- but I can't think of a better motive to make dirty movies, which can be done imaginatively or dully, distastefully or respectfully. If you turn people on and tune them in to something more universal, more particular to the surrounding time and culture, than, say, masturbation, the way Lawrence did with his poetry and Miller with his novels, then you've transcended pornography. I'm glad Ms. Sprinkle was able to wriggle out of the misogynistic chokehold that women who enjoy sex are sluts. I just wish she'd acknowledge her place as a pornographer.

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