Thank you for your comments! This is quite a touchy and interesting subject, with much nuance, to be sure. You raise interesting questions, so let’s go!
To your points: The material or subject matter is exactly what’s NOT at question. What is at question is the societal norms extant at the time the material or subject matter is viewed. And to which society does one hew, is the logical follow-on question. Is it the norms of the puritanical minority or is it those of the more numerous, yet much less vocal (perhaps hidden), “counter culture” group by which we judge the piece?
Remember, it was not long ago that showing a kiss between people of different races on screen was against the Motion Picture Code of Decency. Now, you can’t turn to a music video channel without some man of African or Latin descent tonguing down or nearly fucking Becky next door.
My (perhaps crassly made) point is that the criteria we use to judge is highly temporal in nature, and is so mutable as to nearly irrelevant.
The image of a well-oiled, buxom blonde reaching orgasm with her device might be seen as high-art, if that dildo is painted to resemble an American flag, and she has the words “THE WORLD” scrawled on her fetching midriff. It’s all in the context of the image, including the irony, the composition of, and the point behind, the piece. It’s just as sexual, just as overt, just as explicit, but now, somehow, it’s “different.”
What we really know when we see it, is that a work was produced. What we then apply as a litmus test, based in large part on a celebration of (the appearance of) virginity, chaste and celibacy (even if the reality were completely different) rooted in the western religious thought that sex was “the original sin,” because the dominant attitude of the western church from the Middle Ages to today (in some places) was that sexual love, and therefore the act itself, was evil and never ceased to be so.
The artist could have every reason to press his view that the work was not pornographic but against such a stacked deck he’d lose, even if his work were lit by six or more lights! ;^) J/K