Editor's note: We have been awash in letters since publishing our Feb. 23 cover story, "Public Enema No. 2," recounting the furor over a performance art piece by student Jonathan Yegge at the San Francisco Art Institute. What follows is a sampling of the response. We were also delighted that the story inspired several other art students to produce yet another piece of art, which is reprinted below.
Well, well, well, so Tony Labat et al. are being made to sleep in the bed they made. How appropriate that it be made of shit. About time! You can wrap your "art" in any popular "isms" that you want. It's still bullshit! How you could expect a rational discourse from the parties involved is beyond me. Hey, Tony, wanna do something bold? Something fringe? Try creating beauty! Create something of substance, that doesn't require a 10-page explanation. I hope the Institute fries for this one!
I am an alumnus of the San Francisco Art Institute, and I was appalled at Tony Labat's irresponsibility. In a city filled with information about AIDS, he knowingly exposed two students to possible infection of that or any number of diseases. I think it's time to discipline the instructor for his negligent behavior. This appeared to be a school-sanctioned activity, since it was part of his class. The instructor's ignorance could be fatal.
I am writing in response to the story entitled "Public Enema No. 2." As an artist (one who actually considered the SFAI several years ago for grad school, but opted for a school not full of postmodern hacks), I am offended that this type of activity was permitted to happen in an educational institution meant to teach art.
One thing that Jonathan Yegge, his professor, and perhaps the entire SFAI misses is the purpose of art. Art is the creation of things that have form or beauty. One great thing about much of performance art is that it creates a response in the mind of the viewer that the viewer can then use to enrich their lives. Mr. Yegge did none of this. What Mr. Yegge did was to take an innocent victim, and remove that person's freedom, destroy his dignity, and even endanger that person's life. He destroyed a piece of that person's humanity. Destruction is not art. Art is creating.
Anyone can take their actions and use the defense of "it's for art" to justify themselves. Timothy McVeigh could have claimed that his bomb was art meant to make Americans rethink their view on international relationships. Jeffrey Dahmer could have claimed he was using humans as sculptural elements. The Nazis' could have claimed that exterminating Jews was an art form, and so on, and so on.
In America, we have laws that are meant to protect people's individual freedom to exist as humans. Mr. Yegge overstepped those laws. Any other individual in any other circumstance would have to pay the consequences. Perhaps it is time for the SFAI to rethink its position as an educational institution meant to teach art to young, impressionable minds before the consequences of their actions overwhelm them.
Jonathan Yegge's piece had nothing to do with art, Heidegger, or Derrida. At the very most, it had nothing more to do with those things than any action performed by any person at any time. Its contrived nature, however, suggests to me that it had even less to do with any of the things he claimed to be interested in than the countless, mundane actions I allude to.
At the very least, his idiocy should earn him a failing grade on this assignment. As for his volunteer, I'm curious about the extent to which he was aware of what awaited him in this "piece." Though my suspicions on that matter could be wrong, it seems that if you don't want to eat shit, you shouldn't sign up to do it. Was he paid? That would open some other issues.
And this professor is a boob. His position assigns him the responsibility to imbue his students with an understanding of the medium he claims to teach as well as to be acutely aware of the high potential for ridiculous situations such as this. Had I the authority, I would can him.
The background research informing Matt Smith's "Public Enema" reads like it was limited to some sophomoric performer's private 1965 Happenings art manifesto.
First, stating that in "the world of performance art, a work may leave no physical artifact on the earth" ignores the countless performance art pieces over the past 30 years in which the physical products of performance -- objects, messes, blood, or even poo -- have been left behind for minutes, weeks, or years as sculptural artifacts for audiences' consideration.
Similarly, Smith's feigned horror over descriptives of Yegge's performance ("... well, maybe it's best to let Yegge explain") falls prey to the same crime that Yegge is most guilty of: ignorance of performance art's amazing history.
As any veteran performance art audience member will tell you, taking a whiz or a crap on a volunteer (or the audience, for that matter) is old art hat, jaded as that may sound. Yawn. Shoving stuff up one's rear end (or taking things out of same and/or eating them) is also cliché to the max. Yegge's professor, Tony Labat, should have made this clear to Yegge, challenging him instead to come up with new variations on old themes, rather than settling for mere mimesis. In the same vein, he should have impressed upon Yegge that justifying performance with statements like "It's about Heidegger and Derrida -- all this stuff" does nothing to foster rigorous critical thinking, much less convince art critics that the artist knows anything about art theory or hard philosophy.
If pushing the paradoxically edgeless envelope of the avant-garde is really so important, then performance artists seeking the edge -- along with their mentors and the reporters who try to follow along -- must never stop trying to understand where advancing art is traveling in relation to the art that has gone before it. In order to truly push the envelope, you must first know who has pushed it before you, to say nothing of who's tied it up, sucked it, or crapped on it.
Regardless of some makeshift contract he had the other student sign, what he did was a form of rape. Rape is not art.
Regarding your "Public Enema" story: Granted Jonathan Yegge's performance piece may have been bad art -- however that's defined; granted it may have been unhygienic; granted what happened was more than any volunteer member of the audience might have wanted to endure. But was this little incident earth-shaking enough to rate cover story treatment? In this town? Must have been a real slow news week.
Come on, guys. Matt Smith's self-righteous article read like a cross between a Jesse Helms diatribe against the National Endowment for the Arts and a National Enquirer "exposé." Get a grip! First, this is San Francisco we're talking about. Second, it's art school, where sex and shock are par for the course. And this wasn't even a finished, public performance -- it was a classroom exercise, conceived on the fly. Does this one-time bit of classroom foolishness really qualify as a public scandal? So they played with poop. Disgusting, yes -- but for this heads should roll? The whole city needed to read about it? Get real.
And the article raises more questions than it answers. For instance: How did the volunteer, who was gagged, perform oral sex on Mr. Yegge? How DO you get shit that comes out of one person into another person? Granted he was tied up, but was there no way at all for the volunteer to indicate his displeasure with the proceedings? And finally, when will we see the video at the Roxie?
Michael L. Kinney
So, a homeless guy down on Market Street defecates on himself and he's still homeless. A student defecates on campus, and he's an artist? This was an irresponsible article on SF Weekly's part and the S.F. "Art" Institute: Reduction of the issues and intent of art to an exhibition of bodily functions is not only trite, it's been done a thousand times before and, in this day and age, does nothing to "push the envelope" of meaningful, critical art. Seems like tuition might be a little high based upon the caliber of education witnessed here.
Your account of the history of performance art sounds like it was pulled from a Jesse Helms re-election pamphlet. Where exactly are these acts of violence and sex onstage that you claim are performed in the name of art, other than in your dreams? You got so many facts wrong, especially about the histories of the distinguished careers of Tony Labat and Karen Finley, that you seem to want to create your own little censorship crisis in an election year. And this from an "alternative" newspaper in what used to be called "San Francisco."
You, sir, are no art historian. Don't quit your night courses. The real story is the Art Institute's lame response to the calamity. Less than eight years ago, Finley was given an honorary doctorate from the Art Institute for a career in which she has performed similar acts (but not identical, as you would claim) as the young artist in question. They got it right the first time. I'd call this ironic except it's now par for the course in this whole present process your paper claims to abhor -- the grandfathering of San Francisco. Whether it's the after-hours clubs closing down, or people pretending to be artists to qualify for "live-work" spaces.
As an alum, and an occasional instructor at the Art Institute I am very disappointed in the administration's hyperbolic response. As an art teacher for over 20 years, I know firsthand you cannot expel a student for making bad art (Lord knows I've tried). And if there WAS an illegal act performed, call the cops, sue the kid, but DON'T PUT HIM ON PROBATION. That's insulting to all concerned.
Don't throw the baby out with the bath water, or even spank it -- just change this goddamn kid's diaper and get on with your lives and our culture.