Clayton Pettet. Image: Willow Garms.
Clayton Pettet. Image: Willow Garms.

I recall once that in a lecture for my 20th century art module, a frustrated American muttered, on the subject of modern art: “I’m sick of this stuff, it’s just getting stupider and stupider.”

Modern art polarises the public, particularly exhibitions such as the controversial and much hyped Art School Stole My Virginity which I wrote about in the last edition of The Saint. The artist behind the story is 19-year-old Central Saint Martins art student Clayton Pettet, who promised to lose his virginity in ‘the name of art’ on stage in front of a large audience. In the build-up to the big day, a worldwide media frenzy ensued, with Christian groups slating the artist, commentators offering Pettet sex tips, claims that Pettet is lying about his virginity, and an alleged 10,000 people vying for tickets. The ‘performance’ took place last week, but in a shocking twist no sexual acts were performed.

Instead, the young artist performed a series of strange actions, aided by three assistants, who poured paint over him and cut chunks out of his hair. He appeared on stage, topless with his body painted with phrases such as ‘teen whore’ and ‘anal virgin’, and proceeded to scrub these off his torso. The audience of 120 was ushered to a ‘penetration booth’ where they could meet Pettet and were told to penetrate his mouth with a banana before leaving.

It all seems rather vulgar, but perhaps this is the point. Art is all about holding up a mirror up to society, and showing it for all it’s vulgarity, and in many ways, Pettet has succeeded in this. After the show ended, many annoyed attendees expressed their disappointment over social media, which I find both highly ironic and disturbing. It seemed that many people cared more about watching a teenager have sex, than the art side of the matter, which is rather perverse. Furthermore, a crucial aspect of effective art is forcing audience reflection, and this is particularly important in performance art, where the audience must consider their role in relation to the piece. Here, the reflection is created through disappointment, in that the attendees are told to ask themselves why they chose to watch a teenager lose his virginity in the first place.

By throwing his promise back in the audience’s face, I probably admire Pettet more as an artist. He never defined how he would lose his virginity, or rather what exactly that means; this exhibition is the artist’s debut, so perhaps he utilised the word in a metaphorical sense. Whether Pettet was actually a virgin, in the sexual sense, or not, does not truly bear any consequence; the artist himself even claimed that he still is one, as ‘art is his sexuality’.

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