Sunday, March 08, 2015

The Dubious Ethics of Performance Art

Hello and welcome to "The Gods Are Bored!" My name is Anne Johnson, it's on my birth certificate (with an appropriate middle name), and I'm the chief loudmouth on this site.

Today's sermon is about a piece of performance art. You be the judge. Is it appropriate? Is it ethical?

My daughter The Heir is an artist. Over the weekend she agreed to photograph a series of performance artworks in the pedestrian tunnels under City Hall in Philadelphia. These tunnels are part of Philadelphia's subway system.

Heir was particularly perturbed by one of the pieces.

It was a younger woman, slightly older than Heir. This woman had cut a slit in her tight skirt where her butt was. And she wore no underwear. Basically she was strolling around the subway pedestrian tunnels with her derriere on display. She also had a paper bag which contained hard core pornography pictures. Occasionally she would drop the contents of the bag and let passers by help her to pick them up, or just see them.

When Heir caught up to this artist, the artist was not in the main pedestrian tunnel, but instead in a side tunnel that is popular with the city's homeless population. It was a cold day, so there were homeless men in the tunnel.

One of the men noticed the woman's butt and began to comment on it. He took out a sweater and tried to wrap it around the woman. Then he tried to get a feel. At that point, Heir stopped photographing and intervened, telling the woman they ought to move elsewhere. As they started off, the man followed them. When they started walking faster, he yelled at them. Then he got into an argument with another homeless man who also accosted Heir and artist. A policeman appeared and began to argue with the loud homeless man. The last thing Heir heard was the homeless man shout, "I DIDN'T DO ANYTHING!"

I think this performance is unethical and inappropriate. My daughter The Spare says I'm victim-shaming, and that this brave artist was bringing attention to the plight of objectified women.

My ethical dilemma with this piece is not that it was being performed, but that it was being performed in a remote place, and its viewers could face police prosecution for their response to the art. I think the woman did not do the right thing by choosing a tunnel where the homeless congregate for her performance. I wonder, however, if she might have faced charges herself if she chose to perform this piece in a more crowded concourse.

Then there's the bag filled with pornography. I think this is also inappropriate.

Personally, I have to be really careful what I look at, because pictures of starving children and gory violence make me physically ill. I think that some people have the same reaction to pornography, especially people who have been raped or sexually abused as children. And again I'm wondering what sort of charges might occur if this artist dropped her bagful of pictures and a policeman saw them.

What do you think of this piece of performance art? Spare would have me know that performance art is supposed to make the viewer uncomfortable. Heir and I feel that people who view performance art by appointment at an advertised event would indeed be prepared for such a piece, but that people just walking, or basically living, in a pedestrian tunnel under a city are not, nor should they be, prepared to see this artwork. It is, in fact, intrusive beyond appropriate bounds.

I anxiously await your take on this.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you and the Heir. That type of performance art was not appropriate in a public venue.

Desert Freyja said...

Ew. The man crossed the line by trying to touch her, but what reaction was she hoping for? If I stopped to help someone who dropped something and exposed to hard core porn in the name of "art," I'd feel victimized. Is it part of "performance" if I became upset?

Debra She Who Seeks said...

Any performance art I've ever seen (and some was much more risqué than this) has been in a venue to which I have either paid an entrance fee or agreed to attend to view the performance. I don't think public space should be used to subject random people to controversial or potentially triggering subject matter without their consent. The issue of consent is as relevant to art as it is to any other matter.

Anne Johnson said...

Desert F, Heir said that many people did get upset when they saw the pornography. This is Philadelphia, after all. A few people (women all) cursed the woman out for doing it. On the other hand, the ticket-takers enjoyed the spectacle immensely and laughed. How does this promote the artistic endeavor?

hekates said...

I don't see how walking around with your naked butt out is supposed to show how women are objectified. I wouldn't like it if it weren't art so why should calling it art make it so? It is just being an as whole (ha ha!) As for the hardcore pornography, no no no. That is just vile. I used to.ride a bus with a person who would read Hustled on the bus (no one I knew) and it simply is something one should be opt in or out of viewing. Saying it is art doesn't make it inoffensive.


other than a lot of people have opinions about it..she gained many more ways to make a point then degrading herself and putting her self in could have been worse..does the word provoked ring a bell? your dealing with a lot of mentally ill people on the street..just very scary.

Anne Johnson said...

Spare and Mr. J say that the homeless man was in the wrong because he touched her. And of course that is wrong. But he might have been mentally ill, certainly didn't know it was performance art, and ultimately he had to explain himself to a police officer, which I feel is unfair. The woman didn't have to explain her naked butt to the police officer. It would have been interesting, don't you think?

Lucretia said...

While it certainly appeared to be a "performance", I don't feel that it was any kind of "art". And I agree with you, Anne, it was NOT appropriate in a public place where some people were, in essence, almost forced to interact with this woman.

BTW, there are laws in California against nudity and porn being displayed in public; I assume they have those laws in your state as well. She's lucky no one called the police on HER.

Sweeney J. said...

First off, I wish there was more performance art in my hometown (Houston). That said, I agree with Debra's comments about consent--just as the artist shouldn't have been touched without consent, neither should any hapless civilians have been exposed to explicit materials without their consent.

On the other hand, I'm concerned about the artist walking into a situation with so many variables and unknown quotients. Maybe it's because I read The Mole People at an impressionable age, but a lot can go awry in an abandoned subway tunnel frequented by unpredictable people who (and I say this with love) are most likely not regular patrons of the Whitney Biennial. I’m glad a cop appeared when he did, but that’s pretty providential and not likely to happen every time the artist puts on a guerrilla performance.

Maybe the piece itself was supposed to have a sacrificial element--that is, the artist offered herself to be actively victimized in order to draw attention to the victimization of women—which, actually, I can understand. The problem is that if this was the plan, then there were way more potential sacrifices than just the artist: Specifically the unwitting audience members/participants and the photographer.

Oh, and PS: This is Evn, who used to write the now-defunct “Lover of Strife,” currently authoring “The Second Coming of Bacchus” under the digital pen name Sweeney J. Just wanted to take this opportunity to let the blogosphere know I’m still alive.

Monty's Era said...

I was simply amazed at the architecture of this absolutely beautiful venue!! The environment was unbelievable. I was fortunate enough to visit party halls in Boston MA like this, we found awesome things one after another after another.