How to Disguise Pornography as Performance Art

Zefrey Throwell is exhibiting work that is surprisingly different from what he’s done in the past, which often included elements of nudity and public display. Never mind that his piece scheduled for February 15th titled “Entropy Symphony” is a car-horn honking piece originally conceived of by Allan Kaprow long ago, or that his current exhibition at Gasser and Grunert doesn’t even involve a performative element. I’m interested in why this sudden change in style is occurring. And I’m guessing it has something to do with reinstating his reputation as a serious artist after a few unforgettable transgressions.

The mainstream art world hasn’t overtly critiqued Throwell’s work. But of course I know why this is. Profit-seeking art publications and galleries establish their own ethical codes and can benefit from artworks that draw a lot of attention. Popularity means blogs will see an increase in ad revenue because their sites will get lots of hits, print magazines will also see a bump in ad revenue because more people will read, and struggling galleries will see an increase in sales and foot traffic. Healthy sales keep these institutions afloat, so they’ll pretty much do anything, including compromise whatever ethics they’ve set forth, to sell.

Keep in mind that the art world is one of this country’s last unregulated industries, meaning shady commercial practices can take place in the open without fear of legal retribution. This problem has been widely written about by many critics and art news junkies, but apparently these people are unfamiliar with how non-profits are different and how they champion citizen-driven, bottom-up regulation. If any non-profit institutions transgress their self-imposed regulations the masses have ultimate power in deciding what consequences they face and what work gets shown, not the people who’d be making money from popularity.

These differences have been on my mind for a while, and I had planned to write a scathing polemic after walking downtown, on a rainy day, to Art in General for Throwell’s “I’ll Raise You One,” which, in case you haven’t heard, was a week-long strip poker game held in the gallery’s storefront window. I assumed I’d be accused of the right-wing conservatism that’s launched attacks on the art world in the past, but then I realized the fact that the organization is a non-profit negates my personal differentiations between right and wrong. Because non-profits agree to government regulations they also vicariously agree to state ideals, meaning that which breaks state law is outside of their proper operational standards. A wave of relief came over me. I realized it was up to the citizens of Tribeca, the people who were supposedly benefiting from public-private cooperation, to determine what’s art, not me.

I first became interested in art related non-profits when my own experiences in the commercial photography world led me to seek a more ideal environment. Corporate greed was irking me years before protestors started gathering in Zuccotti Park because my voice was being heavily edited by publishers: a dictatorship rooted in capitalism. I wanted to get out of a hierarchical system, and non-profits gave me answers. In September of last year, I co-founded Sovereign Nation, and all the while I’ve been on a crash course of how these companies and the ethics behind them operate. And for some reason I felt like calling foul on that rainy day.

“Foul” might be when an ambiguous definition of art combines with tepid legal enforcement to create a regulatory loophole. Because the term “art” means so many different things to people, an intentionally vaguely drafted mission statement by an art related non-profit might allow for programming protected under the first amendment to go beyond the boundaries of what a state considers good for the community. The fact that people may argue that “art can be anything” holds the government hostage. No politician wants to be accused of an Andres Serrano, Richard Prince, or David Wojnarowicz-type scandal. This means the non-profit sector of the art world is ostensibly getting a perpetual, consequence-free go-ahead from both state and federal governments.

Artists are overwhelmingly liberal-minded yet adamant about preserving self-expression. The big-government platform of the Democratic Party conflicts with many artists’ view that centralized control of the art world inhibits free speech. This means if artists want to make and exhibit work that might be considered illegal by the state they should seek commercial outlets. Non-profits would be the last organizations they’d want to be affiliated with because certain regulations may inhibit their ideas. One specific example is, in order to do business, art related non-profits in New York State must first agree to the rigidly defined idea that art is educational. Theoretically, this qualitative pledge towards education may stand in the way of discussing or exhibiting certain artworks promoting free speech. Would this then qualify such works as illegal? Somehow, the state needs to determine a standard for artworks without censoring them—or is it partly the non-profit’s responsibility to assist in differentiating right from wrong?

On their site, Art in General’s mission statement is vague. Instead of a clear public purpose or defined code of ethics, it reads, “It [the mission] changes in response to the needs of artists and informs and engages the public about their work.” I realize “I’ll Raise You One” is protected under the first amendment, but doesn’t the organization also have to explain how its programming is educational? Doesn’t the fact that they’re a non-profit require Art in General’s figureheads to explain how “I’ll Raise You One,” benefits Tribeca?

The press release attempts to cast the element of semi-public display through a transparent window as what’s benefiting the community. It claims the piece brings up issues surrounding economic inequality in this country, that taking off clothes acts as a metaphor for the possibility of having no money and that indiscriminate viewing of it educates all. I don’t disagree with the claim that the act of playing strip poker represents these ideas, but I believe conveying them would be capable without displaying the act in a private space that’s viewable to the public.

When I spoke to Throwell and the curator Courtenay Finn, (which I admit were two very uncomfortable conversations, maybe because Throwell was in his underwear the whole time and Finn seemed to find my demeanor insulting) I explained to them that the ideas of economic inequality they intended were actually being misinterpreted to create a sexualized context possibly conflicting with what the Tribeca community considers educational or generally good. My point was that players could enact clothes-capitalism in private to get the ideas from the piece, and that the display of the game through a transparent window, allowing all to see, was an arbitrary element that would create a context that shouldn’t be tolerated by the non-profit community or an art world biennial. (Did you know the piece was part of Performa ’11?) When I asked a few on-lookers gathering in front of the storefront window if they thought the piece reflected capitalism, I got little more than answers like, “There should be more girls,” and “We don’t have art like this in Texas!”

On the surface, playing strip poker fits perfectly into Throwell’s oeuvre because it involves both elements generally characteristic of his work: nudity and public display. He recently received critical acclaim for his choreographed mass disrobing in front of the stock exchange called “Ocularpation,” which infused nudity with public display as a form of protest against laws that facilitate greedy business practices. An independent performance that resembled a flashmob of business people suddenly taking off their clothes and proceeding with phone conversations and morning commute activities as usual, it was an attention grabber that objectified naked humans toward an allegory for a consequence-free environment. But unlike “I’ll Raise You One,” the public element of “Ocularpation” was arguably necessary for the piece because nudity is legal only in private spaces, and when it’s juxtaposed outside an institution that signifies corporate greed the resulting idea points to protestation.

A sexualized context differentiates the ultimate meaning of “I’ll Raise You One” from “Ocularpation.” The press release actually helped create a sexualized context by using the words “tease” and “guilt-free,” and describing the game of strip poker as “flirtatious.” Also, the fact that the gallery is a private space doesn’t accord with Throwell’s affinity for public display, making the nude people standing in the downtown storefront window seem less like professional performers and more like red-light-district prostitutes. This of course isn’t an issue for Art in General though, because a sexualized context doesn’t conflict with its lackadaisical mission statement, nor does it go against state laws that prevent public nudity on the streets.

A few days after closing I Googled the piece and found a lengthy YouTube video of it embedded on a foreign porn site called Orgasmatrix. It’s an awkward video with few edits that darts laterally every time one of the players, who apparently were mostly women that day, takes off an item of clothing. What may be most illuminating about the video is the audio that captures the crowd discussing everything but capitalism. While watching, it’s difficult to wonder if there will be a hidden scandal years down the road. A jealous argument between the performers and their significant others about the motivations surrounding why they chose to be involved and what happened that night after being sexually teased all day. It’s actually one of two videos featuring the piece on the site, but it seems the second has been censored by YouTube. The black box with white text where the second embedded video should be reads, “This video has been removed as a violation of YouTube’s policy on nudity or sexual content.”

I’m sure there have been artworks that ended up on porn sites because of someone’s sick art-world fetish, but did Throwell and Finn go too far and almost guarantee such a result? Why isn’t the porn site linked in the press sections of both Throwell’s and Art in General’s sites? Would the non-profit’s long list of funders, including the National Endowment for the Arts, appreciate being a Google search and a click away from a hardcore porn site? And if so, should Art in General be doing business with funders who hypothetically can justify anything?

It is my opinion that non-profit art organizations shouldn’t have much room for interpretation when it comes to whether or not their missions enable sexual abuse. I had never been to Art in General before “I’ll Raise You One,” so if exhibiting it was meant to draw attention to a gallery that’s stranded in the neighborhood most galleries have moved away from, the spectacle worked. But if the non-profit were operating properly under the laws that allow for its existence, which includes clearly defining a public purpose, its figureheads would have clearly stated how the piece benefits the downtown community; and on this platform, I think it did more harm than good.

Like I mentioned, a sigh of relief fell over me when I realized the power of deciding what’s good for the community is held by the citizens who live in the area. Because politicians are elected and non-profits agree to regulation, if the people who live in Tribeca were disgusted by having horny art-goers loiter outside Art in General for a week, they can take matters into their own hands—they don’t need me or the government to tell them what’s right and what’s wrong. Instead, maybe they need me to remind them that they can’t legally tell art related profit-seeking companies like Gagosian, David Zwirner, Pace, Matthew Marks, Sikkema Jenkins, ArtforumArt in America or Art Review to change how they do business, but they can at Art in General, White Columns, The Brooklyn RailBOMB, and now Sovereign Nation. Unfortunately though, I can only speak for one. But at least I’m listening.