The explosive news on the front page of today’s New York Times, and inside, with pictures, in the New York Post, that professional models participating in the Marina Abramovic exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art are being routinely groped by lascivious patrons invites all sorts of questions about performance art and pornography.
Many strip clubs in the 50 states of America prohibit touching the dancers. At the MoMA exhibition, one is compelled, in running the gauntlet between two naked people, to touch them. For example, my colleague Jerry Saltz, in his recent review of the show, talked about passively feeling a penis. Yet, in today’s Times, one model in particular mentions feeling dozens of erections against his naked body. It would take a modern-day Comstock, the blue-nose who ushered in a series of Puritan laws in 20th-century New York City, to figure out just what kind of touch is transgressive or illegal in this process.
So much of the appeal of performance art lies in the breakage of boundaries between vulnerable artists and aggressive audience. For example, Yoko Ono’s famous 1960s cut pieces, in which spectators are invited to scissor off her garments, presume that her audience will have its way with her, with her permission.
The ambivalence of this performance context is reflected in the published reactions of Abramovic’s cadre of naked warriors. They talk about being “tough,” elevated by the intimate contact with their spectators, but they are also troubled by their ever-present physical vulnerability. MoMA has made a big deal in the press about the vigilance of its security guards at this exhibition. The naked performers have even protested that the guards are over-vigilant, to the point where one wonders whether the guards themselves are inadvertently partaking in the groping.
There’s only one solution to the conundrum of nude museotouching: Let MoMA conscript Performa baroness RoseLee Goldberg and her staff to act as instant “American Idol”-style judges of the appropriateness of patrons’ feelies. This would relieve both the museum guards and the New York City police department of a difficult responsibility, while essentially making just about everything in attending the show permissible as performance art. In the words of Madison Avenue, MoMA patrons, let your fingers do the walking.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).