Andrea Fraser, June 10-July 9, 2004, at Friedrich Petzel Gallery, 535 West 22nd Street, and June 10-July 10, 2004, at American Fine Arts, 530 West 22nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
I have been to Scarborough Country. On the night of June 16, 2004, I was a guest on the MSNBC talk show featuring the strangely likable, peculiarly white-under-the-eyes Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Florida and rabid right-winger (appointed by President Bush to be a member of the Presidents Council on the 21st Century Workforce, whatever that is) who passes himself off as moderate but who regularly excoriates anyone who questions anything to do with his beloved president, the war in Iraq, or who dares to think Michael Moore is anything other than pond scum.
Seven hours before the 10 p.m. show I got a call from Greg, one of the shows bookers, who said Were looking for someone to come on with Joe tonight and explain why Andrea Fraser is not leading this country into moral decline. Joe will be broadcasting from Florida. Therell also be someone from -- I think he said the Christian Majority for Morality or Decency, or something like that -- who will say Fraser is filthy and disgusting and should be banned.
You can rest assured that no one in Scarborough Country had ever heard of Andrea Fraser until the previous Sunday, when the New York Times Magazine ran Sex, Art, and Videotape, a thoughtful article by Guy Trebay about the Frederich Petzel portion of Frasers current two-gallery exhibition in Chelsea.
In the art world, especially over the last few years, Fraser has been known for flaunting her body. This time she went all the way. The Petzel show consists of an institutional-looking TV monitor resting atop a white waist-high pedestal in the otherwise empty gallery. By now, almost everyone in the art world (and a half million viewers, probably not in the art world, as a Scarborough staffer informed me) knows whats on this monitor: Frasers unedited one-hour videotape, called Untitled, of her having what she calls just regular sex with an art collector who paid $20,000, not for sex, according to the artist, but to make an artwork.
Im no sexpert but to me the sex looked far from regular. More accurately, it felt stilted and rote and detached and strained (although I must say it looks as if she gives an attentive blow job). Shes in excellent shape for a 39 year old (various resumes have her older, but no matter). The collector, co-artist, commissioner, John or whatever you want to call him is a sturdy-looking if hirsute, 30-or-40-something-year-old white man. They sit on a bed in what looks like a hotel room. They talk, and talk some more. He awkwardly touches her thigh. She kisses him. She then removes his trousers, then her dress. She pleasures him, he her. They have intercourse in a number of positions. There is no visible money shot. He apparently ejaculates inside her (which seems pretty intimate to me). Afterwards, the couple lays in bed, talks, cuddles, talks some more, then each partner leaves from either side of the frame. The camera, which is where the overhead light fixture might be, never moves. There is no sound, no gynecological detail, or anything especially hardcore. People who love porn wont get off on Untitled; those who abhor it may find the video improbably neutral.
This sex and that collector are what got Scarborough & company so worked up. I didnt have the nerve to tell them that Untitled was also available in an edition of five and that Fraser says the price of the piece has gone up, or that she reportedly screened and approved the collector before the encounter (what would have happened if someone not her type wanted to buy the piece?).
But back to my rendezvous in Scarborough Country. As a longtime follower of maniac right-wing talk-show hosts, I accepted the invitation and spent the rest of the afternoon preparing for my 10 minute encounter with Scarborough. At 9:30 that night I walked into the 12th floor office of a nondescript looking building on Fifth Avenue at 45th St. (where years earlier I met with lawyers who were trying to evict me from an East Village apartment). I had some makeup applied by a girl who talked to me about what dogs men were. I was then ushered into a teeny room that had a cheesy mural of midtown at night behind a boomerang-shaped desk, some fake flowers, and a bunch of taped marks on the floor.
There, I faced a little camera on a tripod, and watched the Yankee game on a monitor while I waited. The Christian guy was in a cubicle down the hall. I started getting panicky when I switched back to Scarborough, who was in the process of ripping some poor Democratic woman to shreds (about Fahrenheit 9/11). At exactly 10:35, a woman who identified herself as Catherine in the Secaucus control room chimed in on my earpiece and said, Youre on right after this commercial. Have energy! Dont be afraid to interrupt. I asked if I could swear, to which she said, Yes, but well have to bleep it out.
I went in well prepared, ready to talk about women taking control, Baudelaires old idea of the artist as prostitute, how Frasier is like Reality TV, that art is meant be experimental, and the idea that being illegal doesnt preclude something from being art (I was going to mention that Leonardo would have been jailed and excommunicated for dissecting cadavers, that Fred Tomaselli uses illegal substances in his paintings, and that everything made in the Eastern bloc in the 1980s was prohibited).
The first ten-minute segment is a blur to me and seemed to last two seconds. All I remember is Scarborough coming on and asking, Wheres the outrage? Then I think he talked about Fraser being a prostitute and breaking the law and asked me, If I snuck up from behind you and smashed you over the head with a brick and then poured salt in the open wound, would you call that art? All I could think to answer was That would be bad art, Joe.
My Christian counterpart, meanwhile, talked about sleaze and porn and for some reason, New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who apparently is a bugaboo to right-wingers. I did pointedly ask if either of them had actually seen Frasers videotape. Unsurprisingly, neither had, to which I said something like, Oh, so youre like those people who ban books without reading them. I also snuck in the nasty catchphrase moral posturing.
Then it was over. Out in the hallway I joked with my Christian opponent, saying, We really hate each other dont we? He laughed and said, It was unfair; you got more time than I did. I said, We should do this again. I was home in time to watch the rest of the Yankee game. Since then, Ive also thought about what Untitled did and why it did it.
First, Ive never been a big fan of Fraser or her brand of institutional critique art. To me, she was all mind and message and self- consciousness. Very generic, very dogmatic. Then, a few years ago her work took a turn toward the better and the sexy. She started getting naked in her work; not just sensationalistically -- although its that too -- but smartly and peculiarly so. Above the shoulders Fraser is this nerdy looking girl with glasses and a pinched face; below the shoulders shes this worked-out Super Theory Woman. Some of her recent work is merely exhibitionist, like her incessant almost-naked salsa dancing. Then, in 2000 she made Official Welcome, a version of which is on view across the street (at American Fine Arts, one of the homes of instructional-critique-art). In this piece Fraser delivers a kind of lecture/acceptance speech in the personas of artist, critic, museum director and fawning fan. All the words are taken from critics (like me) or other writers. As Fraser delivers these lines she slips off her dress, lace bra and G-string (this artist is G-string and thong addicted) and continues to speak as she stands bare for all to see. In another work, she rubs herself against one of the columns of the Guggenheim Bilao and pretends to get all hot and bothered while listening to an Acoustaguide extol the museums splendor.
Regardless, this phase of her work suggests Fraser is aware that there had been a mind-body split in her art and that she was now trying to have fun, be vulnerable and put herself at risk at the same time. As a result her work has become more accessible, not as doctrinaire, and more plucky. Untitled is probably the inevitable endgame of this branch of her work (also, Annie Sprinkle has been in this territory for years). To me its a nervy but nevertheless utterly mannered gesture.
However, whether you like it or not, Fraser should be commended for doing something brave, and in the middle of a minefield. Outside the art world she will be labeled a slut and a nut. The art world will likely call her a narcissistic showoff. But the art world is a place that says that you should be free. But ask Jeff Koons if the art world is free. He acted free with his ex-wife in the early 1990s and it all but got him kicked out of the art world. He was excluded from the 1992 Documenta and hasnt been in a Whitney Biennial since. Apparently, the art world patrols its borders as diligently and as insidiously as those it says it hates. Frasers Untitled is no big deal (although no doubt certain types will make much of it in theory classes). Even so, she doesnt deserve the bitch-slapping shes getting in some quarters.