How to Make a Bridge Between Preference and Value

My agenda as an art educator is to help people understand what personal expression can be.  One of the ways I do that is by exploring what personal expression means to other people. Too often we look at a work of art and quickly dismiss it as being one of two things:

1. Beautiful, amazing, something we could never do ourselves

2. Something stupid that even a child could make

Both of these are thoughtless dismissals that don’t have too much to do with the art itself.

One of the greatest lessons I’ve taken away from my time in grad school is how to figure out why I do or don’t like a work of art and to start to understand why something that I don’t like is valued differently by others.  There has to be merit to something that was chosen by an educated curator to take up expensive gallery space. There has to be some sort of reason that this piece has notoriety. Trying to figure out that reasoning is usually the first step for me to begin to expand my interpretations.

Vito Acconci is the first artist that made me say “that is not art.” My reaction to his work both intrigued and excited me.

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My first introduction to Vito Acconci was through learning of his performance piece Seed Bed, which took place in January of 1972 at Sonnabend Gallery in New York. There was a low wooden ramp which extended across the width of the room merging with the floor. Acconci lay hidden underneath the ramp, masturbating. He fantasized about the visitors walking above him and his sounds under the floor were heard through loudspeakers installed in the gallery.

Over the course of three weeks, he masturbated eight hours a day while murmuring things like “You’re pushing your cunt down on my mouth,” or “You’re ramming your cock down into my ass.”

The piece showed no sexual content; it was all merely suggested, yet – at least to me – still extremely disturbing.

Why is this considered art? I hate it so much!

I always first try to consider how any work I don’t like ties into an artistic tradition.

This work, though not minimalism, echoes some of the tenets of the movement.

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Minimalism deals with how the viewer interacts with the piece. Can you see yourself in the boxes? Can you see the entire box? Can you almost see the entire box? These interactions depend on a few different factors:  the height of the viewer, how close they stand to the work, from which direction they approach the work, how closely they pay attention to the work, etc. At this point in history art has gotten very cerebral. Theoretically, every single person who walks into the gallery has an experience tailored to their own physiology, mindset, and path through the gallery.

A similar interaction exists with Seed Bed. In fact it seems that the only, ahem, product is the interaction and the impression left in the gallery visitor’s mind. Does walking into this gallery confuse you, make you feel violated? If so why? Does it make a difference that the artist wants you to know what he’s doing? Does the concept behind Seed Bed make a difference?

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It’s accepted that Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes in a gallery environment are supposed to be art, while Brillo Boxes in a store are not art. Does Vito Acconci accomplish the same difference? Is he any different from some pervert masturbating in public just because he’s doing it in a gallery with a concept attached to it? Is this conceptual atmosphere something you can accept even if you don’t like it?

One of my issues with body art such as this is that it feels less like art and more like we are witnessing the artist’s dysfunction. But there is so much art that is considered beautiful that we also know to be a way the artist expressed various dysfunctions. Does expressing a dysfunction through art lift the taboo associated with it? Does that art HAVE to be considered beautiful? And, of course, can a concept make a work beautiful even if the art is not something you consider beautiful?

So when I hear about a strange work of art in which a man lies under the floor masturbating and projects it to the gallery visitors, I ask myself these questions and see if I can come up with answers to any of them, and whether that changes anything.

In doing some fact checking I learned that Marina Abramović re-created Seed Bed in 2005 and my first reaction was, “what did she do that for? Oh come on!” So I clearly have not come to terms with this work.  http://pastexhibitions.guggenheim.org/abramovic/

Though Seed Bed is one of the most problematic works I’ve encountered, somehow it has become one of my favorite pieces to talk about; I’ve brought it up during many conversations with people about art. Often people are shocked and disturbed by this work, which makes me defend it to them, as I worry that they are dismissing it without trying to understand anything about it. This has complicated my feelings towards Seed Bed even more.  Somehow it has grown into one of my go-to pieces to open a dialogue about controversial art, and that is something that makes it worthwhile to me.

One thought on “How to Make a Bridge Between Preference and Value

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  1. Honestly, the fact that he did it 8 hours a day for 3 weeks helps me to accept it as art, even if it’s icky art. It’s hard to imagine a level of dysfunction such that 8 hours of masturbation each day for 3 weeks is pleasant.

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