The Needs of Artists
December 17, 2013
As an artist, of course I do seek attention – I want to express and communicate ideas, and refuse to feel compunction for that. Even in the face of criticism, I will make no apologies for my art.
So roars Ms Casey Jenkins, the “performance artist, craftivist and rabble rouser” whose vaginal knitting video thrilled us recently. And who now seeks to widen the minds of Guardian readers:
Over the past two weeks, over 3.5m people have watched the YouTube clip… documenting my 28 day performance piece, Casting Off My Womb… The short clip… gives an overview of the work in which I used skeins of wool lodged in my vaginal tunnel to knit a long passage, marking one full menstrual cycle.
Yes, a mighty work. Colossal in its scope and profundity.
My image and work have been consumed, contemplated and commented on by millions across the globe. It’s interesting then, that all of this electronic crackle and buzz has not altered my identification with it at all… The response to the clip was immediate, massive and, for the most part, negative, marked with fear and repulsion. The word “ick” features heavily, as do “eww,” “gross” and “whyyyy?”
Well, pulling wool out of whatever bodily orifice it’s been crammed into, especially wool that’s smeared with menstrual blood, isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, or idea of a rich aesthetic experience. In much the same way that the audience for viewing used tampons and used toilet paper is somewhat niche and limited. But then I’m sure Ms Jenkins knew that before she began, and indeed was counting on it. For the talentless, transgression is the only card to play. It’s therefore unsurprising that mockery, bewilderment and mild repulsion are insufficient to prompt Ms Jenkins to rethink her artistic medium and life choices more generally. Clearly, she is impervious to mere public feedback and is happy to construe disdain as in fact an affirmation:
Commentators seem to be genuinely outraged that I would dare to do something that they view as strange and repulsive with my body without displaying shame. Women putting themselves forward in any capacity in the world is frowned upon, and for a woman to put herself forward in a way that is not designed to be attractive or pleasing is downright seditious. People are incensed!
Yes, incensed, outraged and afraid. The patriarchy trembles. Proof, if proof were needed, of just how radical and daring Ms Jenkins really is.
Over the course of the month I sat with the steady rhythm of the knitting needles and of my body and created a work that I have complete confidence in, a confidence that thousands of internet opinions have not dinted.
If an artist gauges their own success by something other than, say, aesthetic accomplishment and audience appreciation, that’s easy enough to do. And clearly it’s quite liberating for a certain type of person. And so, despite an audience reaction that was in the artist’s words, “for the most part, negative,” Ms Jenkins feels that her art has been somehow validated. Indeed, she has been validated. Her feminism has been validated. Everything about her is incredibly important and immensely validated. And she tells us this while insisting,
What I am not seeking through this work is external validation of myself – in fact, the work is primarily about casting off the need for validation from external sources.
And yet she makes a point of letting us know just how validated she is, because of “the deafening response” to her video, which is “downright seditious” and has been “consumed, contemplated and commented on by millions across the globe.” You see, people are afraid of what she does. Because it’s so daring and politically radical. Because of her womanliness and vaginal secretions. And now she’s telling us all about her triumph in a Guardian article. Not that she’s looking for validation, you understand.
As regular readers will know, this is a standard conceit of incompetent performance artists - and of incorrigible narcissists, a group with which the former has considerable overlap. Whatever the public reaction, it has to be construed as an affirmation, even while affecting an air of indifference. If people ignore you, it’s because they’re scared or disturbed by your daring and radicalism. If people mock your pretension and lack of discernible talent, they’re scared or disturbed by your daring and radicalism. However people respond, and even if they don’t, this is all because of how scary your work is and by extension how daring and radical you are. And so, when we sniggered at the performance artist Stefanie Elrick, who made grandiose claims while having her body scratched with needles, she rushed over to tell us in no uncertain terms that those who doubt her artistic potency must be squeamish, “uneasy” and “frightened of losing their co-ordinates.”
And heavens, why else might people be laughing? What other explanation could there possibly be?
Amid general derision, some Guardian readers are attempting to champion Ms Jenkins’ art and defend her reputation. Despite some imaginative, indeed baffling, approaches, they’ve not been entirely successful. One reader insists that, in terms of aesthetics, Ms Jenkins’ critics are “unnecessarily confining themselves to very rigid rules” – say, by preferring things that are beautiful and require uncommon expertise. “Vaginal knitting,” we’re told, somewhat cryptically, “can also be viewed as an organic process.” Which is apparently something intrinsically deserving of applause.
Another reader offers an even more high-minded defence: “I haven’t evaluated your work closely enough to say it’s a great piece, but I want to express my sympathy: what horrifyingly ignorant responses you’ve received! The nature of these responses itself is reason enough to believe the work is certainly important.” So an absurd and pretentious thing, subsequently rationalised in absurd and pretentious ways, is “certainly important” - artistically important - if enough people notice that it’s absurd and pretentious. Interesting theory.
Despite her rush to self-congratulation, and despite being quizzed on this point, Ms Jenkins doesn’t say exactly why her vaginal storage stunt is supposed to be beautiful or significant. She just tells us, repeatedly, that it is. Like she tells us, modestly, how brave and seditious she is. The nearest thing to an explanation I can find is this:
I have created a performance piece that I believe is beautiful and valid and I know that this belief can withstand all the negativity in the world. I had hoped to create a work that was about forging a path of self-determination in the face of society’s expectations, but until it was tested in such a public forum that was something I could only dream of.
In other words, Ms Jenkins has managed to do something she imagines other people – sorry, “society” - will not find attractive, and this is somehow a great achievement. Personal growth. But performance artists have been producing things from their vaginas, stomachs and arses for decades while making all manner of grand political claims – Carolee Schneemann comes to mind. Bodily orifices and their various secretions have been a routine feature of performance art for half a century. From mayonnaise enemas and vomited milk to self-induced miscarriages and crapping onstage. Though offhand, I can’t think of an example that was remotely aesthetic or deserving of applause. There was, I suppose, some novelty, at least that, the first time. Decades ago. But now it seems we have to make do with a minor variation on something unattractive that was once considered novel, albeit briefly. Apparently, this will do. How far we’ve come.
And for someone who affects great political intent, Ms Jenkins doesn’t seem at all sure what her performance is about or what it’s supposed to evoke and signify. At first she blathered aimlessly about “social activism” and our “very gendered” society, and about “raising awareness,” though of what she didn’t say. Then there was some confused and ignorant waffle about craft. Now, when the audience reaction has been overwhelmingly negative and mocking, she’s claiming it’s about “forging a path of self-determination” and “withstanding all the negativity in the world.” Why, it’s almost as if she were an opportunist, fishing for an excuse. Any excuse.
Luckily, the more credulous Guardian readers are happy to provide them. One reader says,
Fantastic, thought provoking and obviously challenging to many people. Menstruation is still very much taboo for many people… It was an interesting concept especially seeing the change [in the wool] when it was her time of the month… Men can’t handle what comes out of [the vagina].
So if you don’t think much of Ms Jenkins or her “work” – say, because it’s vacuous, pretentious and fails to meet any aesthetic standard - this apparently proves some patriarchal such-and-such and therefore confirms how incredibly brave and important the “work” is. Our not being impressed is what makes it so impressive. Apparently.
Tickling the tip jar will only encourage me.