By ALICE WANG
Performance art is the Jan Brady of the art world — consistently misunderstood. Understandably, it’s an art form that comes under fire even more frequently than it is legitimized, and Lady Gaga and her egg-sleeping, meat-dress wearing antics ain’t helping matters. Nor is either of James Franco’s or Shia LaBeouf’s performance art lifestyles, curating a portfolio of career choices as art objects. But when a 19-year-old London art school punk claims to create art through the public penetration of his virgin butthole, performance art’s reputation of shock-for-shock-value seems regrettably accurate.
Worse than the dude who planted a fake bomb at the Boston Marathon this year in the name of art, Clayton Pettet has been hyping his live performance piece, “Art School Stole My Virginity,” for over a year. What can be a more unpleasant experience than watching some skinny brat take it up the butt for the first time in a borderline pornographic exhibition? Well, the actual show’s execution was much, much worse. After months of scandal and media backlash, of peers claiming to have recently smashed Pettet, of peers claiming to have their ideas ripped off by Pettet, the show finally premiered earlier this month.
Ten thousand hopeful audience members rallied through a careful selection process for one of 120 available tickets to make it to a show that has been rescheduled time and time again … only to witness the penetration of zero buttholes. In an ending so predictable it became unpredictable, Pettet did not partake in anal sex. What the observers received instead was a juvenile collection of art school clichés, of piled bananas and half-nude women in sheaths. These nude characters held up signs that read, “ANAL VIRGIN” and “LIVE FUCK BUTT VIRGIN SEX SHOW” as a disturbed Pettet stumbled to the ground in all his painted glory. Marked with phrases like “NSFW” and “TEEN WHORE,” Pettet furiously scrubbed away these words as his skin turned ruddy from abrasion. Because, get it? Scrubbing away society’s hateful labels and stuff!
Later, audience members were shuffled into a basement where more graffiti bedecked the walls, reading, “Performance art is shit” and “#trending.” Wow, it looks like Pettet has opened this thing called the Internet once or twice to read his own coverage. Pettet is, like, so self-aware of what the media and society has to say. After this, observers followed one-by-one into a “penetration booth” where they are instructed to penetrate Pettet’s mouth eight times with any of the scattered bananas nearby. “I am your anal virgin,” he says, “and you are my partner.” Oooh, because all of us have been mouth-fucked by society. Because blah media is toxic and blah no real virgins exist and blah metaphors. Finally, the gallery emptied out into a room where erotic, hyper-colored prints of girls being fingered (and other nonsensical raunchiness) line the walls. They’re for sale on Instagram because of course they would be.
“How clever that the artist displayed the controversy surrounding his performance as the performance itself,” said no one, ever, since this tired art gimmick started over a century ago. Next up, Pettet will shit in a pizza box and sell it to you because it’s raw and visceral and may possibly be misconstrued as social commentary. It is so outrageous and shocking, maybe it will distract viewers from the conspicuous lack of meaning in any of my art!
Did no one boink in the show because our virginity is a social construct that doesn’t really exist? Did the vulnerability and anticipation of the act say more about sex than sex itself? Did anyone buy any of this hack’s navel-gazing clichés? Not to completely vilify Pettet, who is after all, only 19 and dumb and horny like the rest of us, but for such a sexual virgin, he does a lot of whoring himself out to the press. His current portfolio is probably full of canvases covered in mutilated Barbie parts and black and white films of floating plastic bags. In the end, this wasn’t some lazily cut documentary of a wannabe auteur that Pettet chose to complete for his school assignment, but it wasn’t really art either. Though Pettet’s intentions may not have been inherently bad, his work serves as a perfect representation for why the public so quickly maligns contemporary art. Either it’s abstract expressionist paintings, which garners a chorus of, “My kid could draw that,” or it’s performance art, bemoaned for its supposed lack of substance.
But in its truest form, performance art doesn’t lack substance — it’s merely reductionist. And therein lies a huge difference. Performance art strips away the trappings of social convention in an attempt to reach the truer meanings of humanity underneath, which is why so much performance art happens in the literal nude. And really, we should love performance art for its absolute purity. It’s art for art’s sake because nothing can be sold, and even any ephemera from the performance — videos, t-shirts, props — are strictly defined as false idols of the art. As Marina Ambramovic has said: “It’s not a painting you can hang on the wall and look at it tomorrow. If you talk about immaterial art, it’s about energy.”
Abramovic, her ex-partner Ulay and others have defined this field with their intense, superhuman commitment to their craft. Alas, there is a way for performance art to be deeply disturbing and provocative without jumping the shark into Pettet’s derivative drivel. Chris Burden got shot in the arm in his exhibition, “Shoot, 1971” and Vito Acconci publicly masturbated under a stairwell for “Seedbed.” Carolee Schneeman actually pulled a paper scroll out of her vajay to comment on the synthesis of logos and mythos in the feminine form. These performances were all legendary, creating lasting meaning from a temporary act, and they miraculously involved zero publicity ploys (or bananas). So, the next time I ask you to penetrate my mouth eight times with a burrito in the name of performance, ask yourself, “Is this art or is this just delicious?” My money’s on the latter.