Can Un-Licensed Therapy Be Performance Art? Can Prostitution?

A fascinating little art world tizzy today: an artist/model/performer named Sarah White was recently booted from the West Chelsea Open Studios Show that opens this weekend (May 11-13). White’s project had been accepted by organizers, until she was abruptly uninvited by the organizers when she submitted the publicity images for the piece–namely, the image above.

As DNA Info describes the project:

White’s proposed a four-day performance art piece, which was initially accepted by the festival’s organizers in April before being rejected May 1, would have invited gallery-goers into a room in the Hotel Americano decorated with portraits of scantily-clad White, 24, alongside pics of nearly-nude dudes.

Visitors were invited to watch White on a live webcam while talking to them about art and arousal in society.

In fact, “Naked Therapy” is an ongoing project of White’s–you can visit the website here, and read a variety of her essays and writings on the topic. Not as art, per se, but as actual therapy (she is, however, a practicing visual artist as well). A standard webcam session, in which White will lead you through a therapy session while removing most if not all (given the name, I have to assume) her clothes, costs $200 an hour. The price for an in-person session isn’t listed; however, in the interests of properly serving her clients’ needs, White offers such in-person services as “A Night on the Town,” on the grounds that “some men feel most comfortable in the places they know best – their favorite restaurant, a quiet bar, an exclusive club – and when you’re comfortable, you can really open up. If you’re that kind of man, I’d love to spend a night on the town with you, and we can talk about whatever’s on your mind.” Or there’s a “Walk in the Park,” to help you open up. “We can grab lunch, stroll through the green, and talk about you while sitting on some intimate, out-of-the-way bench,” as the site puts it.

The gallery rejected the show on the grounds that the images made it seem like “advertising” for a “commercial venture.” Oh, and White is not a licensed therapist, so your insurance will not likely be covering her treatments anytime soon.

Anyway, the gallery’s rather gross dismissal of the project as a “commercial venture” certainly carries the stigma that White is really nothing but a prostitute, of either the literal (see above) or figurative (why is it now “art”?) variety. (And just to be clear, I don’t think White is a prostitute in either capacity.) Either way, it was deemed not art, using former Supreme Court Justine Stewart Potter’s infamous and thorough, “I know it when I see it” test.

It would be all too easy to make jokes at White’s expense, and it’s quite possible that it’ll feature in some late night talk show monologue soon enough. But really, this ignores the actually challenging questions raised by White’s practice: Does it qualify as art? Without regard to whether it constitutes good or valuable art–a judgment I’m not qualified to make–the answer, from my perspective, is that it most definitely does qualify as art.

Artist/therapist Sarah White

In fact, the debate touches on one of the central critiques of performance in the visual art world that we’ve been exploring since Andy published his essay on the topic last year, and through the various events–a pair of “White Cube & Black Box” discussions, “Ephemeral Evidence” at Exit Art–we’ve produced since then. Namely, the visual art world, whether commercial galleries or non-profit museums, is essentially object-, and therefore commodity-, oriented. And the hyper-capitalism of the visual art market these days, with record-breaking sales that led New York‘s Jerry Saltz to recently proclaim it a “nasty” “disgusting” “freak-show,” exacerbates the problem; how, given the crass commercialism of the entire field, can a curator credibly claim that one practice is commercial in an acceptable way, while another is not?

The answer leads us to a much deeper discussion of the critical discourse which surrounds and contextualizes visual art. One of the weaknesses Andy was pointing to in his essay is the degree to which “visual art performance” (VAP) rejects the complex dramaturgical discourse developed by performance practices over the past half-century. VAP emerged in the 1970s as a blunt instrument to critique the object/commodity nature of the art world. Chris Burden allowing himself to be shot in a gallery; Marina Abramovic allowing herself to be violated with diverse implements by her audience. While these occasionally touched on explorations of what today we would call “social practice,” at the time this was essentially coincidental.

Today though, VAP has been co-opted by the very field it originally sought to critique. The radical departures of conceptual art from the 1980s on expanded the boundaries of what constituted art in such a way that performance could be introduced into the larger frame of visual art commodity. There’s a relationship between, say, Damien Hirst’s presentations of banal scenarios–a doctor’s office, a cubicle–within a vitrine, and Abramovic’s ability to, as she put it the other day, become a marketable “brand.” Namely, the conceptual artists helped shift the discourse around art in such a way as to insist that almost any sort of exploration could be framed as art. Most of them remained committed to creating objects, of course, but whereas their predecessors, like Marcel Duchamp with his urinal, provoked outrage through their provocative acts, artists like Hirst, the other YBA’s, and others in Europe and America were savvy enough to attach themselves to broader socio-political trends (in Britain, Thatcherism) that promoted a gross sorts of class identity and differentiation. They provided cultural products for new money, and part of their art’s critique was in opposition to the art that served as signifiers of the old money (I’m speaking of the YBA’s here) aristocratic class. New money repaid the favor by lapping it up.

Now, the provocation of VAP has given way to its embrace–witness Abramovic herself. Money has found a way to support ephemerality (and make it pay for the institutions that present it, as The Artist is Present demonstrated). Which is unsurprising, because VAP was predicated from the beginning on the existence of the commodity art world; it defined itself in opposition to one form of discourse, but remained wholly dependent upon it for its very definition. Which means that all of this relies on a critical framework to support the very idea that something constitutes a valuable form of art, which sooner or later proved capable of canonizing and commodifying the work. Far from surprising, it’s a wholly predictable outcome.

But a further consequence of this relationship is the dependency of the work for even its most basic meaning on the discourse of the visual arts. As the critiques of Performa 11–including Andy’s as well as newspaper reviews and the likes of Claire Bishop–showed, VAP has become overly reliant on its framing for even basic engagement, with little or no regard paid to the actual relationship between the work and the viewer. Most of it is reductive, glib, or just plain bad. By and large, such work insists upon an understanding or interpretation of its intent in order to place it in discourse with art or society. In order to talk about it, we need to name it, to define it, since it often (though by no means never–there is good VAP) has a reduced capacity to speak through the very vocabularies it engages. Contemporary performance, in contrast, as we’ve argued previously, is not predicated upon its framing so much as its experiential qualities: what is, and how can we talk about–if at all–the shared experience created between spectacle and spectator through live performance? This is achieved through various skilled practices on the part of the artists, skilled practices many VAP practitioners reject as “inauthentic” even as they do not fully understand them.

From this perspective, then, there’s at least a reasonable critique one could make of work like White’s, or, say, Marni Kotak, who presented her own pregnancy and birth as a spectacle within an art gallery: Such work only has discursive value if it’s framed as art by being presented as art within an art space. Otherwise, it’s just a therapy session (or a call girl date, I guess), or, you know, giving birth. The only critique or exploration such presentations are capable of is dependent in the first place upon it being accepted as art. Which of course gives curators a massive amount of power over such practices, and, when understood from this perspective, makes the artists’ critiques rather glib and predicated upon the ideological assumptions of the broader visual arts field. But seriously, if Damien Hirst can put a cubicle desk inside a vitrine and call it art, surely an un-licensed therapist whose defining approach violates pretty much any health profession’s code of ethics can practice her trade in a gallery and it be seen as art. In a sense, it’s a purely logical progression from recontextualizing objects not traditionally seen as art to recontextualizing entire practices. We’ve already started doing it through comic art, art brut, and other forms, which are appropriated by the art world in their original product form, and then serve as an aesthetic for further investigation by artists working from a more traditional art-world mindset.

Which makes the visual art discourse so odd. There’s always cantankerous art critics (Hilton Kramer comes to mind) who complain that such-and-such a piece doesn’t constitute art, doesn’t rise to the level of a work which is valid to be seen as a work of substantial creative endeavor. But this, too, is of a piece with the nature of the broader political discourse; just as the Bush Administration managed to make a valid question of whether or not such-and-such a practice constituted torture, so too has the art world’s willingness to embrace essentially anything as an art practice co-opted the very question of whether or not something is art into the discussion of art. Our cantankerous art critic validates the work even as he or she decries it. Which ironically means that if White’s Naked Therapy-as-art turns out to be a lark, a sort attempt at an art world Sokal Affair, the joke would be on her: If her work is accepted, even controversially, into the visual arts discourse, that is surely validating enough to contextualize it as art, whether it was intended that way or no.

But the question that remains is, what makes White’s work so far outside the norm? Kotak at least was credited as an artist, regardless of whether critics or audiences thought it was good. Is it somehow offensive for White to present and objectify herself as a beautiful woman having erotically charged encounters with her clients/audience? (And please, I don’t mean to imply she has sex with them; arousal and eroticism is part of what she claims to be exploring.) Laurel Nakadate similarly objectified herself, and was given a solo exhibition at PS1.

Indeed, one could make the argument that White’s central provocation was in how radically democratic–in a very neoliberal fashion–her project is. The converse side of the visual art world’s hyper-capitalism is the degree to which it sees this as a creating the democratic framework for presenting the art. Galleries are open to the public; museums charge only what is necessary (apparently) to support themselves. The relationship between art and money permits for art to be a part of the broader social discourse, to be accessible.

Whether or not this is little more than a self-justifying lie the community tells itself, or a horribly naive view of exactly how much this relationship allows for the art to be co-opted, this permits for the rather gauche and disgusting things that come up, such as Abramovic turning her re-performers into table ornaments at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s gala this past year. It’s the game, curators and administrators argue, that they have to play. MoCA, I’m sure, sees itself as a defender and supporter of cutting-edge art, supporting the arts community and its broader mission to make such work available to the general audience.But  MoCA also does things like this, with apparently no notable cognitive dissonance. Perhaps White’s therapy services could be of use in helping them work through their suppressed conflicts; MoCA’s certainly interested in nude women, as penises apparently make “average businessmen” uncomfortable.

But White’s project, by creating a transaction between her spectator and the artist directly, circumvents the strange and porous relationship between money and art that the visual art world is reliant upon, wherein commodification of the work permits it to be both owned and valued, even as it’s made available to the public in a manner not dependent on its perceived (market) or actual (labor, material or otherwise) value. White’s project disintermediates the financial side entirely by offering itself up as an albeit expensive ($200 an hour over the Internet) transactional experience for general audiences, while at the same time making it far more affordable to the average person than, say, one of Hirst’s ridiculous dot-paintings.

The only validation she requires, unfortunately, is for the establishment to contextualize the piece within its framework, to declare it “art,” rather than un-licensed, un-trained, and potentially un-ethical therapy, which that establishment has no interest in doing, since of course the entire house of cards is predicated on the art worlds’ institutional framework navigating that interaction, and managing the relationship of art audience and art money.

White’s pay-to-play approach may seem reprehensible from some perspectives, but surely we have to give her credit. Abramovic herself recently expressed nostalgia for back when artists were kept by wealthy patrons, as a high culture bauble (and, you know, sex partner; that happened a lot too). White’s approach is very much so in keeping with contemporary standards–it certainly proposes a way to pay artists a practical and economic wage for the labor. Which I suppose means we should support her when she presents her piece in opposition to her banishment, at the Hotel Americano on May 13, from 4-8 p.m.

Two final points in terms of closing notes: First, the fact that this is a discussion that we can have reveals many of the weaknesses of a part–a big and wealthy part–of the visual art world, but only one part. I don’t mean to imply that all visual art–performative or otherwise–is nothing but a weird facet of our hyper-capitalist moment. Indeed, the sheer ridiculousness of the self-referential navel gazing such discourse produces points to reasons why those engaged in other inquiries well-removed from the gallery scene are so important, whether the broad range of social practices that are being explored, or just well-intentioned efforts like Grace Space. And for the world of contemporary performance, as artists like Richard Maxwell and Sarah Michelson find themselves entering these spaces and drawn into these critical frameworks, it’s important that as artists they continue exploring and challenging that discourse, which was part of Marten Spangberg’s recent talk, and his book/blog Spangbergianism.

And second, I want to defend myself from anyone too offended by the title of this piece; I give White a fair bit of qualified credit here, but reading her site, she’s clearly playing with both ideas of “therapy” and call-girl-style prostitution (read the in-person session descriptions I link to and apply the Piss Christ Test); both of which, I might add, are dangerous territories to toy with on numerous levels, and I sincerely hope she knows what she’s doing.

Whatever the case, sadly, for White, both therapy as performance art has already been done (by Lisa Lively), as has prostitution (by Andrea Fraser). But hey, at least she’s got proof of concept.

5 thoughts on “Can Un-Licensed Therapy Be Performance Art? Can Prostitution?”

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