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“Envision an art world utopia in which every artist, irrespective of gender or race, is valued for their work!” It was (and still is) a lovely sentiment, shouted by 14 female artists decked in flowers and gowns and leotards, and standing in the second-floor galleries of the Whitney Museum. The group of artists, who called themselves the “cliterati,” were winding down their performance-protest over “the tokenistic approach to diversity on display at the [Whitney] Biennial” with a rallying cry, followed by a photo op.
What preceded the cry was equally well-intentioned, if not entirely successful. The cliterati, along with more than a dozen others, showed up at the Whitney during pay-what-you-wish Friday night hours to stage the Clitney Perennial (rhymes with “Whitney Biennial”). Beginning around 6pm, they congregated in the lobby, dressed in various degrees of cliterateness: colorfully elaborate headdresses here, sheer slips and makeup like face paint there; others wore plainclothes with hand-drawn patches pinned on, and always, everywhere flowers (channeling Frida Kahlo). Twenty or so minutes later, the group made its way up the stairs to the central galleries of the museum’s second floor, where a few of the women began with a performance of sorts — gyrating and hissing and dancing — followed by a quiet welcoming of viewers to the Perennial.
From there it became more like a happening, a kind of freeform event with diffuse surges of energy. (Although the event was unsanctioned by the museum, the guards did not intervene.) Some of the artists continued dancing and moving through the space. Others struck up conversations with bystanders, inviting women to discuss the biases and discrimination they’d experienced in the art world. Artist Asha Man sat down on the ground with strangers and, blindfolded, led them in a word-association exercise. Artist Rebecca Goyette continued to touch, and encourage others to touch, the plush, inviting clitoris she’d mounted to her leggings. Artist Sophia Wallace handed out handmade, freshly painted CLIT-Glasses that said “CLITERACY,” as well as clitoris cutouts. People mulled about and looked at the art and looked at the interlopers; some of them asked questions and engaged in conversations. The mood was low-key but festive — the makings of a clit carnival.
I asked visitors and guards if they knew what the intervention was about and what they thought of it. “What are they protesting — this floor?” asked one. “I think it’s really interesting for a Friday night. I don’t know what the message is really, but it’s interesting,” said another. “Something about the movie that was taken down.” “I’m kind of wondering what they’re supposed to be doing.” “I’m not sure — I thought it might have been a legitimate performance, part of something on this floor.” “Something about the number of female artists … but you’ll have to ask them.” I found myself explaining the gist of the event to the majority of people I approached. “I think that’s a fair criticism, but I don’t know how this gets it across,” one woman responded, pointing to the slow, gestural dances happening in front of Gary Indiana’s oversize LED curtain.
There were moments of (admittedly comical) enlightenment, as when a boy, maybe 11 years old, asked his mother, “What’s a clit?” And she responded, “It’s a part of the vagina that’s very sensitive,” whereupon she turned to her daughter (13?) and asked, “Do you know what phallocentric means?” (The family later took a group photo wearing Wallace’s CLIT-Glasses.) But for the most part the Clitney Perennial was vague, and far too often wrong, as when numerous artists attempting to incite discussion about art world discrimination cited the incorrect percentage of women included in the biennial. (If you’re going to protest something, know what you’re protesting.) Not to mention the near-complete omission of race from the conversation, save for two artists handing out small rectangles of paper with an appropriately provocative statement. (The Yams Collective withdrew from the Biennial this week over gender and race issues.) Or when one of the artists tossed out, “We weren’t invited, and we just feel that we belong here.” (The personal is political, but for it to have any meaning it must remain in the least bit political.)
At one point, Kay Turner, the folk arts director at the Brooklyn Arts Council, led a congregated group in the recitation of a pair of lines written by Virginia Woolf and later channeled into feminist art writing by Arlene Raven. “Light up the windows of the new house, daughters! Let them blaze!” we all cried. And for a moment, I felt the heat. But soon it was gone, and the Clitney Perennial, while considerably fun, left me cold. The cliterati walked away with their photos, and the Whitney got a chance to prove it tolerates dissent. Where does that leave the rest of us?
The Clitney Perennial took place at the Whitney Museum (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) on May 16, from roughly 6 to 8:30pm.
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