The idea that art involves sacrifice is common. We generally accept that to create masterpieces artists must be entirely dedicated to their work – that they must give away something of themselves. However, this is rarely taken to the literal extremes that Clayton Pettet, a 19 year old art student of Central Saint-Martins, is planning. In January Pettet will be giving away his virginity to his artistic cause, in front of 100 people.
Perhaps surprisingly for a time when images of more-than-half-naked teens performing sex acts on inanimate objects are commonplace, Pettet’s announcement has provoked a media storm. Pettet has been widely criticised, with religious figures denouncing his piece as cheapening sex and many less than liberal platforms choosing to focus on his homosexuality. Apparently even as the once renegade Damien Hirst is accepted into the establishment, the art world is still able to be shocked – our sexed up culture seems to be thrown by actual sex. Pettet is posing his piece as a debate stimulator, rather than merely a stimulating act, playing on culturally held stigmas around virginity. In staging “the ultimate once-in-a-lifetime performance” Pettet appears to be aligning himself to performance artists such as Marina Abramovic, who specialise in intensely personal presentations where the body is the traditional canvas. But is this really a radical new artistic idea? Is this even art? Or is it just a teenager, desiring more attention than he can get on Tumblr, surfing our social shockwaves?
Pettet’s performance has been announced at an interesting and apt time. The column inches that are stroking their media beards over Pettet’s de-flowering are the same that jumped at the news that Damien Hirst is turning children’s author, and those currently dissecting Grayson Perry’s recent BBC Reith Lectures. Artists are leaving their neat gallery-based boxes for unexpected ventures – and it seems to be concerning us. This is precisely Perry’s topic – since Duchamp put a toilet in a gallery, is everyone an artist and can anything be called art?
We are arguably living through ‘the end of art’, as seemingly everything and anything can be classed as an exhibit, from film to performance to an unmade bed. Perry describes the state of the art world as resembling a “permeable, translucent, fuzzy bag”. So rather than an unwelcome, attention-seeking addition, Pettet’s stunt could be seen as merely the latest piece of debris to spill out. Perhaps ‘Art School Stole My Virginity’ is going to act as the last straw that tears the bag apart.
Yet, it is all too easy to pin the end of art on Clayton Pettet and his public sexual awakening. Targeting a gay teenager who, while he may appear irritatingly ‘hip’ and achingly eager to strip off and stir controversy, is still a student, somehow seems obvious and even a bit distasteful. Raising inexperienced Clayton to the level of national artistic bogeyman says more about our cultural fears than about the artistic merit of his piece. Pettet is young and wants to produce art that shocks; in a society that plasters naked bodies over all surfaces, while still fiercely guarding ideas of taboo, is it any wonder that Pettet has chosen his virginity as his subject? In the media storm that surrounds him, Pettet’s questions regarding the lingering stigma around youthful sexuality, male virginity and the reality of sex acts emerge as even more pertinent. This work, while striking some as the ultimate form of teenage narcissism, in fact engages with current issues in a new, thought-provoking way. Pettet’s piece plays directly to Perry’s desire to tighten the art-bags strings; it is exactly Perry’s notion of a “theme park plus Sudoku” – an outrageous exploit that leaves the spectator puzzling over its implications. If art has any function, surely it is this.