Peeledbanana

What Fucking Clayton Pettet Teaches Us About Cultural Rhetorics

“The Biggest Fuck You”: Locating Clayton Pettet’s Art School Stole My Virginity as Queer Cultural Rhetorics within the Hetero-Economy of Desire

by Becca Hayes

When I first learned of Pettet’s planned performance I was struck by the reactions by various communities—from mainstream media to LGBT Christian groups to the art world—and by the counter-reactions by Pettet. What struck me in particular about the announcement of Pettet’s performance and the surrounding media frenzy was the way in which the rhetoric constellated around economics, monetization, and commodification: the word “stole” in his title,  “Art School Stole My Virginity,” Pettet’s discussion of his “virginity” as a culturally-valued commodity with potential to “stimulate” both the London Art Scene and sociocultural discourse about virginity, the accusation of “cheapening” sex and art, and so on.

On his tumblr page, Pettet wrote of his performance: “My piece isn’t a statement as much as it is a question” (cited in Daily Mail Reporter “Gay Student”). So, here, following his inquisitive lead, I ask you to consider with me how Pettet’s performance both disrupts and complies with hetero-economies of desire. Through our consideration, I hope we might think our way to cultural queer rhetorics as a meaning-making practice.

In her book, Reclaiming Queer, Erin J. Rand, develops the idea of a hetero-economy of desire, arguing that: “Heterosexuality is the dominant economy that shapes and governs the kinds of discourses of desire that are allowed to circulate publicly and that are involved in the actual constitution of the ‘public’ itself” (108). “This is not just a matter of heterosexual desire or marginalized identities circulating in public,” Rand asserts, “but it is a matter of the circulation of heterosexual desire actually producing the public and becoming the very ‘marketplace’ within which products may acquire value and be made available for consumption” (108-109).

In examining the place of “Art School Stole My Virginity” within the hetero-economy of desire through a cultural rhetorics framework, I want to note, in the words of Malea Powell, et al. in their Enculturation piece, “Our Story Begins Here: Constellating Cultural Rhetorics” that within cultural rhetorics it is a

persistent focus on the how—the practices of meaning-making that create, negotiate and maintain those structures—that equals a focus on rhetorics. In other words, rhetoric is not so much about “things” as it is about “actions.” This orientation towards actions, then, teaches us how particular practices—ways of thinking, ways of problem solving, ways of being in the world—are valued (or not) within specific cultural systems and/or communities. (Act 1, Scene 2)

In the case of “Art School Stole My Virginity,” the actions came in the form of interviews, media responses, and the performance.

Thinking through a cultural queer rhetorics framework and hetero-economy of desire as meaning-making system, I start with an interview in which Pettet himself seems to allude to his work’s place within the hetero-economy of desire. In an interview published on Dazed following the performance, the interviewer asked Pettet, “Would the piece have even existed in its current state if there hadn’t been such a media storm around it?” Pettet responded, “It exists 90 per cent because of the reaction the word ‘virgin’ got. The idea developed even more so because of the reaction: it was crazier than I could understand. It just goes to show our obsession with virginity and gay sex” (Tsjeng “What actually happened”). Pettet points to the value of the false construct of virginity within heterosexuality as one force behind the large public response. Further, I would argue that Pettet is noting the spectacle of the Other, “gay sex,” within the economy of heterosexuality. As Rand argues, “Heterosexual desire manages resources by motivating and shaping the consumption of popular culture products and humans and identities value directly in relation to the standards of this economy” (109). While queer sexuality is not—indeed cannot be—valued within the hetero-economy of desire, only as spectacle.

While Pettet’s work attempts to disrupt, rather than stimulate, the hetero-economy of desire, Pettet himself occasionally plays into the very system he aims to disrupt. For example, Pettet vetted audience members for the performance:

People have emailed and I’m checking if they are fake names or just into gay porn or whatever—I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with porn but that’s not what this is. My piece is not porn. So, I don’t want perverts or people who just want to come and see a boy lose their virginity. I have a mix of people, I just want people who show a genuine interest. (Hines)

Pettet seeks to separate what he deems appropriate desire, the desire to view performance art, from inappropriate desire, a desire to view live porn or “a boy losing their virginity.” While I hardly fault Pettet for his wish to protect himself from people who might compromise his boundaries of safety and comfort or jeopardize the integrity he sought to create through his art, his policing of what constitutes appropriate desire, including what intentions and motivations are valid in the context of the exhibition, participates in heterosexuality as an economy, “an economy because it is the general system within which desire circulates; by way of the organizing functions of this system, desire become intelligible” (Rand 109).

The disruption Pettet aims for comes, at least in part, in the discrepancy between the announced description of the event and the event as it actually occurred. As Sol Lewitt says in his “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”: “The work of art can be perceived only after it is completed” (79). That is, Pettet’s piece must be taken as a whole that includes its announcement and performance, as well as myriad responses. When Pettet first gave interviews following the initial announcement of the performance he indicated he’d be losing his virginity to an unnamed partner in front of an audience. He said “My partner and I will both have a light smattering of paint on our bodies while we’re having sex on an unstretched piece of canvas to create a permanent piece of the performance” that would be displayed immediately following the performance. He explicitly stated that the performance would “be aesthetically pleasing and not presented like a peep show or something dark and seedy” (Wilkinson).

Of course, we can’t be sure about Pettet’s intentions, motivations, or plans for his performance, and, those elements may not matter; however, I say that in some ways, he queers the expectations of representations of virginity, and even of sex. Though he titled his work “Art School Stole My Virginity” and described the event in ways that conform to hetero-normative notions of what constitutes sex, the performance as it occurred or/and as attendees and Pettet reported it became unintelligible and illogical as sex within the hetero-economy of desire. As Tsjeng of Dazed wrote, “So yeah, in case that wasn’t obvious: “Art School Stole My Virginity” didn’t actually have any sex in it.” Pettet seemed to undo everything he initially announced he would do. For example, he initially said it would “not presented like a peep show,” (Wilkinson) yet attendees/participants crawled into a “booth [that] was very, very small,” reminiscent of a peep show booth (Tsjeng “What actually happened”). The performance was not read or experienced as containing gay sex, or any kind of sex, for that matter, nor the loss of virginity. Even Pettet has said his art is his sexuality and he’ll never lose his virginity.

However, what happened at the event queerly calls into question the very constitution, the logic, of the idea of “sex.” As Lewitt argued in his foundational piece on conceptual art: it is “not necessarily logical. The logic of a piece or series of pieces is a device that is used at a time, only to be ruined” (79). In “Queer Rhetoric and the Pleasures of the Archive,” Jacqueline Rhodes and Jonathan Alexander ask “whose logic is operating here? Whose rationality?,” asserting that “Queers often find that the logics of the larger culture are aligned to discredit queers, disavow the legitimacy of their interests, and discombobulate their attempts to find social justice.” They argue that a queer rhetoric can intervene in: “the conceptualization of the public sphere itself that relies on limited logical discourse, with pathos dutifully under control and ethos heteronormatively established.”

The seemingly illogical and unintelligible nature of his exhibit prompts people to interpret him as deceptive, a charge not unfamiliar to many LGBTQ+ people. As one media pundit said: “He lied to us.” Pettet said people called him a teenage narcissist (Edwardes). However, maybe this is a case of, to borrow from Sara Ahmed’s twitterfeed, becoming “what you are judged to be in order to survive that judgment” (@feministkilljoy). Pettet and his “gay sex” performance was read as narcissistic spectacle and, thus, he sought to make it so. As Nik Thakkar, one of the attendees, noted on his blog: “It was the biggest fuck you and rebellion against the world’s expectations, played out artistically and maturely.” Here, I understand “the world’s expectations” as synonymous with the hetero-economy of desire.

How might cultural rhetorics and queer rhetorics, as both a meaning-making practice and a methodology for understanding meaning-making practices, interrupt hetero-economies of desire?