IS THIS ART SEXIST? Join the debate - FREE!
From Dottie Lux, Founder and Producer of SF's Only Weekly Burlesque Show: Red Hots Burlesque.
On November 17, 2010 Red Hots Burlesque produced a burlesque show and art opening at the newly opened Berkeley chain of The Saturn Café, a vegetarian eatery based out of Santa Cruz. I was approached by the venue to bring our unique brand of sardonic humor, bump and grind and rebellious performance art as well as celebrate the hanging of a show from an artist I hand-picked. I went to Spy “Girlfriday” Emerson knowing that her work is multi-layered, thought provoking and often colorful and joyous. I wanted Spy on those walls. We see through the same filter.
The first time I saw Spy she was performing with CycleCide, a group of dumpster diving artists that create functional bicycle monsters, rides and other inventions. I only saw her in the crowd. She has distinct train cars on a track tattooed predominantly on her arm and chest. But it was her strong effervescence pouring out of her, the same joy and light of a 6 year old on the monkey bars that I have, and that I am drawn to. I knew she would end up a playmate of mine.
It wasn’t until several years later, after my relocation to San Francisco from Brooklyn and quite literally in a circus tent, that I was able to exchange salutations with this misfit. Hired to entertain at the Outside Lands Festival as walk around talent, we were clowns with a bunch of other clowns. For the most part I walked around the field choking a rubber chicken full of glitter. The adults got the joke and the kids saw shiny things. Everyone was happy. Spy was part of the marching band and she blew into a mangled and twisted bugle creating the most excruciating honks, blubs and heehaws. My curiosity and propensity for the absurd drew me to her and that wretched instrument. I soon learned Spy and this instrument led a group of art boats known as the “Swimming Cities of Serenissima” something I would read about in Juxtapoz Magazine and Artnet, two highly respected publications. These boats were hand-crafted from found objects and something you need to see to believe. Once again, Spy reminded me that art means creating your own reality and convincing others it’s possible.
Each and every time I work with Spy I am impressed. Her work is a showcase for her gusto, charm and textural design aesthetic that reaches, I believe, into her core. I am someone who has had a proper art education. I graduated with top scores from Pratt Institute, have taken the art history classes, have spent time at Rhode Island School of Design and I have heard the lectures. I have had the conversations about art and fully understand, respect and admire that successful art is about creating conversation. And it is for that reason that I am disappointed, but not surprised that after only 4 days of hanging on the Saturn Café’s walls Spy was asked to take her work down.
The pieces that I proudly described into a microphone as dialogues about women, food and sex are now being taken down for these very reasons. Every time I get the opportunity to publicly introduce Spy I declare her a luminary and one of the great artistic minds of our time. Any art worth seeing comes with a price; what is art without the artists’ struggle? So in a sense Spy needs this adversity to be properly appreciated, but she also needs us to not be okay with this censorship. She also needs to show and sell her work. She also needs us to continue having these conversations.
The Saturn Café is located spitting distance from a predominant University. In my mind’s eye I saw Professors of Art Theory bringing their classes to this showing, singing its praises and using Spy as the example of which young artists should learn by. Why must I constantly be reminded that California is not this idealized place of liberalism and forward thinking? I know the bay area was a breeding ground for progressive thought, where did that go? Because it was a not a hetero-normative family with 2.5 children that complained about the offensiveness of the sexual innuendo, it was not a PETA member offended by the possible depiction of meat. It was a UC Berkeley Student complaining about the pieces’ sexism. Spy is a woman, a woman with a four year old child. Spy is an artist (struggling implied) with a four year old child living in Berkeley. She is a Berkeley resident, supporter, tax payer and artist trying to survive. Her work is about sexism; it’s not sexist. It is about women and men being reduced to body parts, being consumed the same as a cherry, root vegetable or hamburger.
For evidence’s sake alone, it must be said that the seminal (etymological meaning implied) burlesque/art show that took place at the Saturn Café a month before Red Hots Burlesque, was a show produced by a man showcasing women performers and the exhibit was of photographs of women performing burlesque taken by a man. Both of these men are well respected in the community of burlesque and I am not stating anything other than facts. I work closely with Johnny Crash, who was exhibiting his work, and appreciate his contribution to the community. Now as much as I personally do not see Johnny’s photography as sexist, he is creating and capturing sexually charged images of women and displaying them for public consumption. Spy used found photos and collaged them together to create a dialog about this very thing.
San Francisco, and the bay area, is a man’s town. All the leading nightlife producers are men, men make more money, outnumber the women and there is an increasing population concentrated in the bay area not only from biological men, but with transmen that come to this area because it is a safe space. It should be a safe space; I'm glad it's a safe space. I want it to be. I am not saying this critically, I am just pulling out facts. Sometimes the facts slap me in the face like a cold wet wind. For example, at the International Miss Leather Competition where the “all women play room” was empty and the “boys slumber party” was wall to wall. I use this to exemplify privilege. My personal opinion of men is not a negative one; I have always considered myself a humanist and wanting every person to be renowned and distinguished for their individual strengths not their body parts or gender identity. This opinion has even gotten me ostracized from feminist organizations. I am just not that hard on people, but as a burlesque performer, producer and performance artist it is my personal statement to bring women to power.
The burlesque revival is about women being in charge of their sexuality not about reliving the past where it was not safe to be a lesbian burlesque performer, you worked for a man and often did it solely to make money. Modern day burlesque is about taking that control. It’s another step past bra burning not browbeating. It is feminist for me to choose to inhabit a stage nearly naked and paint my body calling it art. It is not sexist or oppressive to women for me to celebrate their bodies with language as I host my shows. I have been doing this for the better part of a decade and have really honed my skills of oration.
The show that I brought to the Space Lounge at the Saturn Café was called “Twisted Tradition” and each act asked the audience to think about what breaking tradition meant. Was I breaking tradition as a 50’s housewife having a love affair my her cat, Spy Girilfriday? How about two Diamond Daggers, bearded women dancing cheek-to-cheek? Most certainly La Chica Boom with her comment on the modern day Mexican American woman complete with panty-tacos. I am proud of each person who was involved in making that show possible. It is important to me that at every single one of the events I produce women feel supported, safe, celebrated and sexy! Now I understand that when I say “our next performer is blessed with the biggest set of knockers this side of Dollywood” it means something completely different if it were coming from a male producer or MC. It is in this one small area that I am privileged. And Spy’s work may be challenging in many ways but it is not sexist, not when she is taking her power! Her work is feminist.
We are living in what is left of 2010, not 1950 - these conversations are old! Our society is pornography. Burlesque is the reminder of that we must protest against it! The same way that Spy’s work demonstrates disapproval. It’s art. It’s not supposed to be comfortable.
I am seeking out critical thinkers, scholars, writers, feminists, humanists, artists, journalists and anyone who is simply curious , to look into Spy’s body of work. If you can, get to the Saturn Café in the next 4 days to see her pieces printed big and beautifully. This needs to be talked about, because I am certain I am not the only person writhing around in my chair uncomfortable from this problematic oppression. The Bay Area is a place where the world looks to for progressive thinking. Please think progressively.
After only 4 days of display, The Saturn Lounge has asked me to remove my exhibition of large-scale prints due to a complaint from a UC student who felt the work was “sexist”. The images are a collage medium that combines discarded pornography images, with pictures of food. This body of work, named “EAT IT”, does explore sex… and together with food, creates a visual comparison and ultimately illustrates how both are consumed.
For a viewer who applies thought into the works, it is plainly obvious the women are in positions of power. In one image, a woman holds a cherry over her previously exposed genitals, showing nothing but legs. In another image, a woman gluttonously devours mayonnaise from the jar, exposing her own body in the process. Both women are projecting beacons of sexuality, each relates a different feeling about consumption with both women being equally in control.
The specific image that was cited as “sexist” was “Hamburger Girl”, an image of a woman lying on top of a burger. This particular image is iconic, and has been used by a variety of respected artists spanning back 40 years including Mel Ramos and Robert Williams.
Dottie Lux, a talented producer/performer, offered me the opportunity to display my work in conjunction with her Red Hots Burlesque show happening at the Saturn Lounge. To display this series in a restaurant that also hosts burlesque shows was a relevant and clever context for the work, but the reason I agreed to show somewhere other than a gallery at this point in my career, was to sell prints. I saw a very good opportunity to make money.
I was forth coming with my intentions, and all the work was reviewed and approved by the manager of the Saturn Lounge a month before the installation. The Saturn Lounge is breaching an agreement, with a great cost to me, based on an uninformed opinion. I can’t help but see the humor in this awful situation, where ignorance stunts the progress of men and women, alike, again. Dr. HAL Robins, The Church of the SubGenius says...
Spy Emerson is an accomplished practicioner of the graphic and plastic arts. For years her metier has been what can be best described by her slogan, "Making Something from Nothing."
Though in a sense this could be said of all art, Spy's specialty is synthesis. As she achieves effects essentially more profound than simple satire and social criticism, the "nothing" she employs as raw material is really our unnoticed trash, the cast-off leavings of a civilization undergoing enforced technological mutation.
The resulting work serves the lyric and decorative functions of art as it adds to the didactic voice of the art of our times. It insists, as Dr. Nicole Archer has written, "...that we recognize the ethics implied in our relationships with such detritus... [and] see the beauty inherent in these items..."
A contributor to JUXTAPOZ magazine and a boldly inventive Performance Artist, Spy's numerous and playful works include stage shows of dance and drama, collage, and assemblage of found materials, photography, painting, film and video.