It’s an art ‘exhibition’ that couldn’t be more exhibitionist, and one that gives people an excuse to grumble about the state of contemporary art. A 19-year-old English art student has caused an international sensation by announcing he will loose his virginity in a gallery in front of an audience of 150 people. Clayton David Pettet, a student at Central Saint Martins College of Art in London will forfeit his purity for the sake of art in a project entitled Art School Stole My Virginity.
Pettet first began planning the event three years ago, when he was 16 and his peers began to lose their virginities. Having sex for the first time is a once in a lifetime experience, so therefore it warrants the most extreme form of performance art, according to the artist. “The key thing about performance art is that it should only be performed once, and this is the ultimate once in a lifetime experience.”
Unsurprisingly, Pettet has faced a barrage of scrutiny following his announcement, with critics accusing him of favouring notoriety over artistic integrity. However, the artist has claimed that fame is of no concern to him; he is not attempting to cause controversy in his art as it “isn’t a statement as much as it is a question”.
Yet what question does this performance piece ask us? Perhaps he is offering a consideration of sexuality in the 21st century; as a society we are increasingly obsessed with, and increasingly voyeurs of, sex. Has sex reached the stage where it is cheap, meaningless and empty of romance? We may shudder at the though of watching others have sex in front of us, but it’s a disturbing reality in this day and age through pornography and sex theatres.
On the topic of virginity itself, it is a concept we fetishise, despite its questionable importance and ostensive existence. Humans are the only species to attach worth to virginity, and Pettet describes the idea as “just an ignorant word that was used to dictate the value of woman’s worth pre-marriage”.
You may have noticed that I have ignored mentioning the artist’s sexuality, and perhaps this is a crucial point. Pettet identifies as gay, and his public performance is his way of challenging society’s idea of sexuality. He argues that the importance of virginity is a social construct which is linked to heteronormality and is therefore of less importance to gay people.
I suppose this display exemplifies the stage that modern art has reached; is it a point of no return? Can art truly still shock us? Given, this exhibit fits the criteria of a combination of shock and concept, but it is hardly a fresh concept. Indeed, is there anything new anymore? Sexual voyeurism in an artwork has been discussed from 19th century orientalist ‘Odalisques’ to Andy Warhol’s provocative films of the 1960s.
I am heavily conflicted with regard to this performance art; on one hand, I appreciate Pettet’s statement, but I have concerns for the artist’s personal life. Will this public display adversely affect his future relationships and sex life? He is still a teenager; how will his future self feel about the actions of his youth? I also wonder how his parents or family feel about Pettet’s decision to not only perform sexual acts in a public setting, but to sacrifice his virginity for art’s sake.
Pettet does embrace the judgement he has received with regard to his project and asserts that discussion is essential to art. Unlike many performance works, there will not be a question and answer session following the deed, but rather Pettet wishes spectators to think deeply about the concept of virginity and the status it holds.
Art School Stole my Virginity will occur on 2 April in the Orange Dot Gallery in Bloombury, and will be followed by three days of a free exhibition of the artist’s other works. Let’s just say that I won’t be in the front row; that might be a bit messy.