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The Pick-Up Artist

This 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 it.

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.

“But 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.

—John Rodat 

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