The Huffington Post reports that Clayton Pettet, a 19-year old, gay art student in London, will perform an art piece in which he loses his virginity. The show is to be called “Art School Stole My Virginity”:
“I’ve held on to my virginity for 19 years, and I’m not throwing it away lightly. Basically it’s like I am losing the stigma around virginity,” he said, per the Daily Star. “I want the audience to see if anything has changed between me and my partner. Since culturally we do hold quite a lot of value to the idea of virginity I have decided to use mine and the loss of it to create a piece that I think will stimulate interesting debate and questions regarding the subject.”
This is, first of all, incredibly sad. Throwing his virginity “away lightly” is exactly what he is doing. The morality of homosexual acts aside, using sex for any purpose other than binding two individuals in an intimate, exclusive relationship is wrong, and it is a decision that I think this young man will regret later in life.
Why would he do such a thing? An unsympathetic explanation is that he is opportunistic. He knows this will get a lot of press, which will help launch his art career. But a more sympathetic one (and he is young, so I’m going with this) is that he has been deluded by the Marxist mumbo-jumbo of performance art theory.
When performance art emerged in the 1940s and 1950s, it was supposed to be humanizing. In Japan, artists like Kazuo Shiraga responded to the destruction of WWII by creating works with almost no tools with his hands and feet or by simply rolling around in the mud.
In America and Europe, the art market had destroyed, according to various artists and critics, the communal element of art, transforming works into mere commodities. Performance pieces, “Happenings,” and other non-traditional performances would supposedly thwart the art market by creating works that could not be sold, and they would bring people into contact with each other to boot.
There are exceptions, but performance art has had mostly the opposite effect. Rather than humanize, it has often dehumanized. Why is this?
According to post-WWII Marxist theory, not only is the work-of-art-as-commodity a construct of capitalism, gender and sexual morals are too, and we, the bourgeois audience, must be “freed” from our imprisonment to these “myths” by being confronted with “reality.”
In “On the Necessity of Violation” (1968) for example, Jean-Jacques Lebel argued that the goals of “Happenings” are to celebrate the “free functioning creative abilities, without regard for what please or what sells, or for the moral judgments pronounced against certain collective aspects of these activities” and to question “the aberrant subject-object relationship (looker/looked at, exploiter/exploited, spectator/actor, colonialist/colonized…).” In “The Lamb Manifesto” (1964) Hermann Nitsch wrote that “The orgies-mysteries-theatre carries on the redemption-idea of humanity in a scientific manner. Man will shake off the mythical…The orgy is a sacrament of existence.” Of course, this new “regenerated humanity” will need priests, and it’s no surprise that Nitsch nominates artists.
Most performance pieces involve either sex or violence. Rudolf Schwarzkogler’s “Action” pieces, for example, were centered on the bandaged, bloodied body. At the performance event “Cut Pieces,” Yoko Ono invited members of the audience to cut away parts of her clothes. Carolee Schneemann’s “Meat Joy” featured semi-nude male and female participants rolling on the floor with raw fish, chicken, paint and ropes. And in a later piece (“Interior Scroll”) Schneemann, standing in the nude, removed a red “scroll” from her body. More recent performances by various individuals have included giving birth on a canvas, cutting off parts of the body, and destroying other works of art.
But, of course, in rejecting morality (except, of course, the morality of revolt), the spiritual element of life, and all other “boundaries,” and in viewing society as governed by power relations alone, performance art, more often than not, brings us into contact with what is most animalistic in us or transforms moments of great humanity (such as giving birth or making love) into mere tools of “liberation.”
And instead of freeing kids like Clayton Pettet, it sells them on a rather impoverished, mechanistic view of sex and life.