I’m at REDACTED for free, thanks to doorlist cronyism. As my comrade and I carry the beers we didn’t pay for through REDACTED and into REDACTED, she says, you probably won’t like this exhibition. It’s very happy. I’m not offended, or even surprised really, by her suspicion – my persona as an art critic is articulated through the language of militant cynicism – but I do have to stop and ask myself why someone close to me, a friend, considers me to be anti-happiness. I’ve been orgasming regularly since I accidentally discovered over-the-clothes masturbation as an eight-year-old. What’ve I got to be sad about?
I mean, maybe there are a few things I should feel weird about – as an adult I definitely worry about how my preteen and adolescent fantasies might be both representative and constitutive of my psyche. For about a week, thirteen-year-old me spent every night rubbing one out to the thought of Kendra, Holly and Bridget (the eponymous Girls of the Playboy Mansion I watched on E!) preparing a twelve-year-old girl (who wasn’t me but who looked and acted like a ‘better’ version of me), to be deflowered by Hugh Hefner. While it’s pretty wild to think that anyone could sincerely climax to that scenario, as a teen I routinely used the narrative of a beautiful, naïve, and virginal babysitter/step-daughter/teen being inducted into male pleasure (often with the aid of an older, more experienced female tutor) to get off. Many people would (and do) have mixed feelings about coming of age with the pornhub tropes I’ve just described but it’s also pretty easy to dismiss my problematic libido as indicative of my growing up in the midst of an en masse pornification of desire. But if what I’ve read online is true, then when it comes to the myth of female sexuality there’s more than meets the eye. And so I wonder: could there be more to my decade-long hard-on for objectification than just an embarrassingly cliché internalisation of the hetero-patriarchal lust machine?
A common idea in scholarship and think pieces is that erotica written for women is more about wish fulfilment than sex. Reading almost any X-rated e-book going for 90 cents on Amazon will probably make you agree with this theory; most authors seem to spend much less time writing about actual sex than they do describing the banalities of being an unbelievably attractive, competent and chill able-bodied white girl, who is endearingly maternal and oblivious to her own het-cis gorgeousness, and, funnily enough, has bumbled her way into being courted by a sexually and chivalrously aggressive, monogamous male billionaire. But as someone who’s read through a lot of eye-rolling to engage with this phenomenon, I see something in the formula most discount-bin and bestseller erotic novels follow that I also see in young me’s wet dreams: not a fantasy in which a woman conforms to society’s most toxic, male-gaze produced notions of aspirational femininity but a fantasy in which a woman momentarily dumps the baggage that comes with the social failure of being the ‘wrong’ kind of woman, in order to come. While I read erotica writers like Sylvia Day as indefensibly fucked up in their pornographic regurgitation of oppressive politics, I also wonder if they’re not trying to construct problematic pornotopias as much as they’re trying to erase all of the things – fatness, abrasiveness, oldness, gayness, nymphomania, any kind of ‘Otherness’ – that complicate the singular pursuit of feeling and releasing sexual desire. Maybe the erotic tragedy of life under the systems of power that orientate us, is that many of us need to fabricate a very precise set of fantastical circumstances in order to escape into sexual desire that feels, even if it isn’t actually, depoliticised and whole.
We’re about halfway through the REDACTED exhibition when I admit to my friend, yeah, you were right. This work doesn’t really move me, after which we move on to see REDACTED. We then make our way to the bar, where I stand awkwardly next to my friend while she speaks to a famous artist I know of but don’t actually know at all. They hadn’t made it to REDACTED and it’s soon disclosed that they had never intended on going because one of the participating artists has a known history of REDACTED.
When something like that is revealed you feel very aware of your face. You feel all the things you should and in the right order but you also wonder if other people think you are performing outrage, shock, concern and sympathy appropriately. That’s not to degrade how genuinely disturbing this particular revelation is but you don’t hear things while not also being aware of the fact that you’re being heard; you don’t see things without being conscious of how people are looking at you looking. The knowledge of being in a body and being a self complicates everything. Which is part of what makes the walk home that night difficult. Understanding that a couple of hours ago I applauded a REDACTED, and that other people in the room may have been knowingly condoning his behaviour, makes me feel angry, shocked, uncomfortable, disconcerted – I want to say something. I don’t want to be someone who acts offended and then texts an invigilator to see what time they finish work and if they want to get a drink.
I think about posting an Instagram story – maybe a pedestrian image of the bitumen in front of me with a caption like, ‘it’s not a Sydney art scene event unless you find out that the guy at REDACTED who just critiqued the art world for being too exclusive is REDACTED REDACTED’. But that just feels attention seeking and I don’t want to turn something serious and delicate and not my own and loaded with ethical questions of disclosure and autonomy and intervention into a spectacle of edgy feminist whistleblower girl seeks cultural capital on her barely followed instagram account without any real consequences.
As my beer-fog fades a bit more, I realise that I used to feel a rotten erotics towards the act of whistleblowing– one unalienable from the fetishisation of individualism and the wealthy promise of being a leader or ‘pioneer’. Now, political action doesn’t pump my ‘nads as much as it furrows my brow; I don’t know how you can perform institutional (or individual) critique as a singularly political act, when the meat of your argument will always be wrapped in the problematic prosciutto of cultural capital. I know that the idea that institutional critique has been co-opted by capitalism isn’t new but can’t we spitball a bit more about how our political discourse can emancipate itself from our names and identities, which are – not be reductive – reduced to currency in this industry? Can we discuss how we might keep the critical, political gears of our industry grinding fine, now that the act of blowing a whistle or calling something out has been complicated, and maybe even partially compromised, by the formal and informal economies of profit that shape an industry currently focused on personas, cults of ego, identities and self-branding?
Making art and talking about art within the context of an international pyramid scheme of capitalised bodies is always more revolting than it is revolutionary. But there have to be workarounds, maybe even reacharounds, which can help us come into contact with each other as singularly political agents. Could anonymity, the strategic effacing of the self, be an anti-capitalist tactic for the Sydney art scene? Anonymity and the implied politics of erasure that come with it are complex and they play out differently on different historically energised bodies and identities – I’m not saying this is an idea that would work in practice, or at least it’s not a tactic that everyone should or would or could use. But I’d love to see what would be written if we had a community platform for blind items, for anonymous PSAs, for circulating warnings and feelings and dissonance in a way that could reach more than just the two people I end up drinking wine with after an opening. I want to know what people would or could give if they were temporarily released from the anxieties of being a subject, able to disappear into the possibilities of being a faceless avatar. I want to know who would start writing and who would stop writing if we published things – good, bad and ugly – without our names attached. Or maybe I just want someone to start an anonymous industry tumblr so I can semi-ethically publish shitty love poetry about the artists who give me a semi.
Just another art girl with a museum-gallery complex has been an ongoing series of sexy art scene confessionals published the first Thursday of each Summer month of 2017/18 on Conversations. #3 anonymous submission marks the end of this trilogy. Em Size will return for another trilogy of columns in the winter months of 2018. Don’t be so vain to think this column is about you.
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