A little over a week ago art student Clayton Pettet finally presented his piece “Art School Stole My Virginity” to a crowd of 120-150 people. The public and the media were certainly divided last year when Pettet announced his piece (a controversy that only grew when Pettet indicated he would be having sex with another man). The reaction now that he has performed his piece (spoiler: there wasn’t any sex involved) seems to be a mixture of confusion and outright viciousness with many accusing Pettet of narcissism, mental illness and desperately seeking attention among other observations. However the piece and the reactions to it might say a lot about society’s perceptions of virginity and sexuality in our society. In this sense Pettet might have done an excellent job and the joke may be on all of us.
The piece was presented in two parts. Part one was what Pettet referred to as “being purified and the fetishisation of the young virgin.” This involved Pettet’s body (which was covered with words relating to the sex act) being scrubbed clean and his hair being cut by his assistants (two men and one woman wearing only underwear and sheets over their heads. Following this Petett made his way to the basement while two of his assistants selected groups of twenty from the audience to follow. Those that remained watched a video of Pettet eating bananas while Serge Gainsbourg’s “Les Sucettes” played in the background alternating with media commentary regarding the piece. As Dan Wilkinson, a friend of Pettet’s, pointed out this could symbolize the waiting and anticipation experienced before people lose their virginity. Pettet said as much himself stating on his blog that the piece came to him when he was sixteen and his peers were losing their virginity and that this made him question why he was still a virgin and why virginity or (losing it) meant so much to the people around him (Pettet, Tumblr).
In the second part of the piece, the groups made their way down to the basement which was covered in graffiti that represented the public’s perceptions of the show. They were then shown one by one into a pink box where Pettet asked them to insert a banana into his mouth to take his “virginity”. Dan Wilkinson’s remarks are reprinted here as they seem to convey most the awkwardness but also the vulnerability and poignancy of the situation (feelings which could be very much ascribed to the loss of virginity).
“One by one, we’re then taken away to a large pink box. I get down onto my knees and enter the rabbit hole, to find Clayton alone, in his pants, surrounded by bananas. “You’re going to take my oral virginity,” he says, with the manic, cranked-out look of someone who hasn’t slept for a fortnight. “Put the banana in my mouth eight times.”
I want to make a joke or smile at him or, really, do anything to detract from the awkwardness of a guy you’ve known for quite a while telling you to mouth-fuck him with fruit. But I’m frozen by how vulnerable he looks, and how focused he is on me. So I oblige, not really knowing how else to handle the situation.
“Go now,” he says after. I leave feeling like I’ve done a bad thing. I’d wanted to see him lose his virginity, and it was me who ended up penetrating him. We as an audience have kind of half got what we wanted, but I don’t feel any better for it.”
Is Pettet’s piece art? Well the first thought that comes to mind is one of the key scenes in the film Mona Lisa Smile.
Betty: Art isn’t art unless someone says it is.
Katherine: It’s Art!
Betty: The right people.
Katherine: Who are they?
Whether or not Pettet’s piece qualifies as a work of art obviously comes down to the individual’s definition since (as I’ve discussed on this blog before art is subjective). However I think Pettet is brilliant in the way that he incorporated the public response and media frenzy into his work and how, in a sense, the responses to his piece became a part of the work. Pettet’s piece also brings to my mind some intriguing questions. What was it about this piece that caught the public’s attention (the sex, the artist’s sexual orientation, etc.)? What does it say that, according to Wilkinson, over 10,000 people were willing to (potentially) watch this young man have sex? What does it then say when they are faced with the discomfort of actually engaging him in his little box? Whether you love him or hate him Pettet’s piece has created an intriguing intersection of art and society where it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.
Mona Lisa Smile. Dir. Mike Newell. Perf. Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, & Maggie Gyllenhaal. Revolution Studios/Columbia Pictures, 2003. DVD.
Nichols, James. “Clayton Pettet Finally Performs ‘Art School Stole My Virginity’ (NSFW).” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 04 Apr. 2014. Web. 10 Apr. 2014. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/04/art-school-virginity_n_5084148.html>.
Petett, Clayton. Tumblr. N.p., 29 Sept. 2013. Web. 10 Apr. 2014. <http://thankyouartschoolstole.tumblr.com/>.
Tsjeng, Zing. “What Actually Happened at Art School Stole My Virginity.” Dazed. N.p., 03 Apr. 2014. Web. 10 Apr. 2014. <http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/19437/1/clayton-pettet-art-school-stole-my-virginity-what-actually-happened-interview>.
Weinstein, Adam. “Dumb Art-School Project About Live Anal Sex and Lost Virginity Is Dumb.” Gawker. N.p., 04 Apr. 2014. Web. 10 Apr. 2014. <http://gawker.com/dumb-art-school-project-about-live-anal-sex-and-lost-vi-1558404755>.
Wilkinson, Dan. “I Went to See My Friend Lose His Virginity in Public.” VICE. N.p., 04 Apr. 2014. Web. 10 Apr. 2014. <http://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/i-watched-art-school-steal-my-friends-virginity>.