NSFW: Art School Stole My Virginity

 I know the title is a pretty big clue, but just thought I should warn you that this post does contain sexual images.

As we ‘come of age’ there are particular milestones we’re expected to meet. None receives as much societal attention as having sex for the first time. This act of union with another person causes more stress and overthought than probably any other aspect of one’s teenage years, when we’re first made aware that it’s a big deal. How old you are, where you are and who you’re with when you first ‘do it’ is, for various reasons, important.

Fellow UAL-er, Central Saint Martins art student, Clayton Pettet, is preparing a piece of performance art that has generated an international response because of this societal interest. On 25th January 2014, presenting in front of one-hundred people in a gallery in Hackney, nineteen-year-old Pettet will lose his virginity.

The idea of “Art School Stole My Virginity” formed when Pettet was sixteen; “My peers were losing their virginity. It was incredibly hard for me to ask why I was still a virgin and why it meant so much to people. My piece isn’t a statement as much as it is a question.”

Art School Stole My Virginity preparation by Clayton Pettet, 2013.

Out of curiosity, I signed up for a ticket. However, I think I’ll be relieved if I’m not one of the few selected. I’m incredibly liberal in regards to nudity and sex, neither of which offend or shock me, but something about this performance makes me feel uncomfortable. As this will be his first time it just seems incredibly personal, and I’d worry if he was regretting his decision, or if he was embarrassed or in pain.

In preparation for this presentation, Pettet has questioned the idea of the loss of virginity, and why it’s considered ‘a loss’. Virginity does still have a value within society, particularly a woman’s virginity, with individuals attempting to sell their ‘first time’ on Ebay, as captured in the documentary Virgins Wanted.

Performing with a male partner, Pettet wants people to question the importance of virginity and the traditional values that we place upon it, including issues that surround gender and sexuality. I’ve told a couple of people about this project and the first question I’m always asked is, ‘Is he topping or bottoming’. I hadn’t thought to ask, but when it comes to a homosexual relationship this seems to be important for people.

“Virginity has almost become heteronormative in its definition,” he says. “Is virginity even real? Or is it just an ignorant word that was used to dictate the value of a woman’s worth pre-marriage?” Pettet argues that virginity is an abstract idea up until the moment the hymen is broken. “For women that is. The loss of male virginity is still more abstract; an undetectable moment in time. Does male virginity really exist? If so, can a male ever lose his virginity?”

Various websites, blogs and newspapers have challenged Pettet’s performance piece, questioning whether it can be considered art. Had Petter previously had sex this particular presentation wouldn’t be authentic, it would just be an act of voyeurism. You can pay to watch live sex shows in Amsterdam (and I’m sure elsewhere) and I’m pretty certain no one would ever call those ‘performances’ art. However, Pettet’s display is a commentary on the milestone of virginity loss. Therefore, how do we define the thin line between pornography and artistic expression?

Those who reject Pettet’s work as nothing but a ‘shock-tactic’ that ‘cheapens sex’ reject the idea that art can be shocking and that sex can be art. The British Museum is currently displaying a brilliant exhibition, Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art, which highlights erotic images that are perfectly acceptable in mainstream Japan. While a Katsushika Hokusai picture of an ecstatic woman having cunnilingus administered by an octopus is shocking to the Western eye, these images were not minor works contrived for the secret pleasure of a few individuals but were highly-regarded prints enjoyed by both genders across all classes.

Back in 1990 Jeff Koons caused similar controversy with his project Made in Heaven. The series of explicit paintings, sculptures and photographs displayed Koons in various sexual positions with Italian porn star and politician, Ilona Staller (also called La Cicciolina), who he married a year later.

tate-jeff-koons-made-in-heaven-suite-pop-life-tate-modern-london

Made in Heaven by Jeff Koons at Luxembourg & Dayan, 2010-2011, and Tate Modern, 2012.

These provocative pieces (some of which are entitled “Fingers Between Legs”, “Dirty Ejaculation”, and “Ilona’s Asshole”) reference paintings by artists such as Edouard Manet, to examine the place of sexuality in visual culture. However, Koons also used Stallar’s backdrops and general aesthetic to create the distinctive look of the ‘glamour’ (or porn) industry. The exhibition was hugely controversial as it challenged the conventions of artistic taste by blurring the boundaries between art and pornography. What I find particularly interesting is how Cicciolina has become something of a fashion icon, perhaps, in part, due to this exhibition. Earlier this year V magazine commissioned a fashion film with Miranda Kerr in the role of Cicciolina:

A recent photography series by Leigh Ledare called Pretend You’re Actually Alive received similar media outrage. Ledare’s images depict his mother in various stages of undress and having sex with numerous, usually much younger, men. While photographers such as Larry Clark and Nan Goldin have famously photographed raw depictions of their personal lives, it was the oedipal nature of Ledare’s series that received so much criticism.

CumFaces, by London-based photographer Stuart Sandford, explores the idea of affection and sexuality in his work. Using the intimate nature of sex, the project consisted of a number of crowd-sourced male models being photographed at the moment of orgasm.

CumFace by Stuart Sandford, 2007.

Similarly, Art School Stole my Virginity is not Pettet’s first artistic exploration into sexuality. One of his university projects, called Whoregasm, scrutinised the female orgasm. He stated it was, ‘about the labelling of a girl who enjoys having sex, who enjoys having an orgasm, and enjoys doing whatever she wants in a way that would be acceptable from a man.’ He said, ‘It’s always about male masturbation, and men watching porn and how it’s weird if girls watch porn or masturbate, and that’s unfair, and unjust. It’s a dreadful label girls carry because they have a vagina’.

Now focussing on his own sexuality, Pettet’s Art School Stole My Virginity presentation, which challenges societal expectations, in context isn’t so outrageous. Instead it continues in line with existing ground-breaking artistic pieces.‘Sex has been used in art for hundreds of years,” he reflects. “The only reason why my piece is getting all this attention now is because it has the word “gay” near it’.