is an erotic overture. It’s a come-on, this column, as they
all are—all of mine, all those written by others. They’re
invitations. They may sometimes seem more lectures or pranks.
They may serve overtly as windy lead-ins to glib moral pronouncements
or punchlines, but beneath it all they’re sweet nothings whispered
in your ear. We’re wooing you, you know.
Are you flattered? Are you turned on? Are you pleased with
the gift? Because that’s what it is, a gift. Nothing so corny
as roses or Whitman’s samplers, but the intent is the same.
If we had easy access to your pillow, we might drop it there;
but these publications are the safer and more societally sanctioned
routes to your heart—we’ll stop short of prying open your
window. We’ll hang out on your stoop only in our smudgy newsprint
incarnations. We’re lovers, not stalkers. No need to call
the authorities. (For the most part anyway; if you start feeling
like Bob Novak’s getting a little too familiar, however, worry.)
We’re not going to push you into anything you’re not comfortable
with. Set us down for a while; we’ll wait for you. Because,
frankly . . . [cue the Barry White] . . . we know you want
All right, this is getting a little creepy, isn’t it? I’ll
scale it back a bit. I’ll take my hand off your thigh. But
there’s truth to this. The artist—and, yes, even us lowly
journalist-types allow ourselves the thought from time to
time that there’s some art to what we do—is attempting a sort
of erotic connection with his or her audience. In his book
The Gift, writer-anthropologist Lewis Hyde identifies
artistic exchanges as rooted in eros, “the principle
of attraction, union, involvement which binds together”; this
is opposed to logos, which is “reason and logic in
general, the principle of differentiation in particular.”
In Hyde’s analysis, a logocentric economy encourages hoarding
and a tight control over supply with the intent of inflating
the worth of property, whether material or emotional/spiritual.
The logocentric economy is a free-market economy. Conversely,
in an erotic economy, a gift-based economy, value is increased
by the constant circulation of that property. The gain is
in relationship solidity.
Cynics might carp that this model is still based on differentiation,
the differentiation of one individual from another, and that
the giver certainly gives with an ulterior motive of specific
gain by—for example—giving to a more powerful or prominent
individual in hopes of securing favor. They might cite historical
artist-patron precedents. But Hyde has handy anthropological
evidence to refute—or at least challenge—the cynicism: He
calls attention to the gift-giving rituals of the Trobriand
islanders of the Western Pacific, in which shell necklaces
are passed from person to person, island to island, over the
course of years. An islander keeps the gift for a year or
so, but is socially obliged to pass it on. Hyde notes that
the obligation is not a reciprocal obligation to the most-recent
giver, but to the very process of giving. (Yes, just like
a tropical Pay It Forward, but without out that kid
who sees dead people.) Gifts hoarded, the traditions maintain,
are spiritually dead. Therefore, to experience any gain a
participant must be open to the process in its entirety, in
its macrocosmic and ongoing importance. To give with the intent
of accumulating gain is to rob all gifts of their value, thereby
destroying the very possibility of gain.
So, according to Hyde, we’re giving it away, we writers, painters,
sculptors, musicians—we, pardon me, artists. We’re giving
forward, with a kind of blind faith in resultant union.
you’re getting paid,” you observe. “How’s that ‘giving it
away?’ ” Fair point; one I’ll dodge for the moment by bringing
up the artist Andrea Fraser, whose latest work, the film Untitled,
is currently on display at the Friedrich Petzel Gallery in
New York City. The 60-minute work depicts Fraser screwing—in
“every conceivable position,” according to a source cited
by The New York Times’ Guy Trebay—an anonymous
man in a hotel room. Yes, it’s really Fraser and, yes, it’s
really sex. What’s more, the man is an art collector who agreed
to underwrite the entire project—to the tune of $20,000—for
the privilege of being so involved. (Those mini-bar macadamias
will kill you every time.) Discussing the work, Fraser has
said, “All of my work is about what we want from art, what
collectors want, what artists want from collectors, what museum
audiences want. By that, I mean what we want not only economically,
but in more personal, psychological and affective terms.”
No, I don’t really know what she’s talking about either. And,
yes, it does seem to me that the filmic Fraser—described by
Trebay as “a fit 38-year-old brunette in a sexy red V-necked
dress”—is, in strict legal definition, a prostitute.
But aren’t we all, Fraser seems to be suggesting.
Aren’t we all trading on our inborn gifts, as a means of collecting
other non-native gifts? Isn’t that the way of the world? And
even in Hyde’s erotic economy, don’t we artists promise union
of a sort—to those we can seduce—for reward? The reward of
attention, fame, the validation of an audience, a weekly paycheck?
Is there any but a quantative difference between the $20,000
exchanged for sex with a well-respected—ahem—installation
artist and the $20 for a blowjob in the alley behind the hardware
store? By extension, then, metaphorically, isn’t the artist
always a whore?
As Fraser has said, “If I’m going to have to sell it, I might
as well sell it.”
So, yeah, I’m getting paid for this, my attempted seduction
of you, my token of affection, my gift. But, I hope you’ll
agree, comparatively, I’m priced to move.