Carolee Schneemann, "Eyebody #24 and #5" (1963) silver print, collection Debra and Dennis Scholl (photo by libby rosof courtesy Flickr)

As the country opines on “the slap heard ’round the world,” my mind harkens back to an earlier controversy. Last November, Sophia Urista, lead singer of cover band Brass Against, needed to urinate mid-performance. Knowing she couldn’t leave the stage, she felt she had two options: pee on herself or turn it into a stunt. So, she invited an audience member onstage, squatted over his face while peeling off her skin-tight white pants, and enveloped him in a golden shower with the urgency of a firehose.

As with Will Smith and Chris Rock, seemingly everyone had something to say on the matter, running the gamut from hilarity to horror, although clickbait headlines comprising words like “repulsive” and “disgusting” popped up on my feed the most.

I felt a multitude of responses upon watching it: excitement, nausea, a strange sense of pride, disbelief, and genuine shock. What has stayed with me over the months though — what has left me ill at ease — is this inescapable, meta-critical lens through which Urista’s provocative act, particularly as a woman, has been framed and understood.

For comparison’s sake think of Ozzy Osbourne gnawing the head off a bat onstage in 1982. Mauling an animal alive further affirmed his legendary status, an act of irreverence and macho behavior, the stuff of pure rock and roll. When explaining his actions, he had a casual, cavalier attitude, speaking with a certain detachment implying that the act was somehow separate from him and merely part of the show.

Ozzy Osbourne in concert (1982) (photo by Ted Van Pelt via Flickr)

Urista’s provocation, on the other hand, felt inexorably tied to her character. The next day on their social media accounts, Brass Against emphatically declared, “Not who we are as a band.” Urista promised her fans: “I am not a shock artist.” It not only felt tied to her character but shackled to a certain attachment to how we characterize women. Had she become a kinky sex symbol? Was she grotesque? Was her act a third-wave feminist ‘fuck you’ to the chaste and polite behavior that — even in 2022 — is still expected of us?

I am less concerned with the answers to those questions and more that they’re still being asked. Urista’s provocative act carries the kind of weight that is perpetually framed through the filter of womanhood. Ozzy can just decapitate a bat; Urista’s pee always stands for something else. Ozzy shrugs it off as rock and roll; Urista grovels and apologizes within days. Ozzy is just a man; Urista is just a signifier.

Of course, this same meta-critical framework has haunted women throughout art history as it has with entertainment. My mind immediately reverts to the emergence of body and performance art of the 1960s and ’70s — particularly the work of Carolee Schneemann and Valie Export. Now, of course their work has feminist elements to it, particularly Schneemann’s “Interior Scroll” (1975) and Export’s “Touch Cinema” (1968). However, their work has been solidified as “feminist art” in the art historical canon to the point of caricature.

While, yes, their work was seminal in feminist performance art, they’ve also been relentlessly painted into a corner. And while we can all recognize that their work is multivalent, their art is nevertheless characterized primarily through their identity as women rather than what their bodies of work are actually doing and the various ways they function.

A glaring comparison can be made to their contemporary, Vito Acconci. While we’ve likely heard this criticism before — that Acconci was regarded with a degree of seriousness and legitimacy not awarded to his female counterparts — my interest lies more with how his work has been framed over the course of time versus theirs. Critically, we approach Acconci’s work at face value, thinking through ideas of the male body, and about boundaries between public and private spheres. In addition to seriousness, he’s awarded multitudinous critical analyses while his female counterparts are often relegated to one-dimensional characterization, more specifically, a characterization that revolves around being women.

I think specifically of Acconci’s “Seedbed” (1972), in which he built a ramp at Sonnabend Gallery, creating a crawl space underneath which he masturbated for the entire course of the exhibition, audibly moaning and fantasizing about audience members walking overhead. While of course controversial, we understand “Seedbed” primarily as an evisceration of the distinction between public and private spaces and as an exploration of how the body can meld with architecture.

But if a woman had made “Seedbed,” if a woman had furiously masturbated under a floor for eight hours a day, can we honestly say it would have held the same critical weight as Acconi’s piece? Given even an iota of the same critical analysis? Would we be understand her work through the lens of architecture and the separation of public and private? Or would we have critically prioritized her femininity — *ahem* her sexuality — as the primary signifier of the work? If that woman had made “Seedbed” in 2022 instead of 1972, would the critical framework around her piece be any different?

In a 2019 article from Artsy entitled “Why Contemporary Women Artists Are Obsessed With the Grotesque,” writer Tess Thackara, referring to Frances S. Connelly’s book The Grotesque in Western Art and Culture (2012), claimed that “the grotesque is inherently associated with the feminine … That thinking has long shaped depictions of the female body …” While Thackara’s (vis-à-vis Connelly’s) assertion could very well be true, I can’t help but wonder: Does making this connection inevitably reduce this contemporary work to caricature? Is it reductive and unhelpful to critically center womanhood in women’s work, grotesque or otherwise? Or is it critically unethical to not center it?

Regardless of the answer, I cannot shake the nagging feeling that cisgender men have the privilege of being provocative without their identity being dragged into it. For them, eating a bat can just be eating a bat, and taking a piss can just be taking a piss.

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Betsy Huete

Betsy Huete is a writer and artist based in Houston, TX. Her writing has appeared in ARTnews and Glasstire.

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