Sexting as Art

STORY BY Emily Kirkpatrick

Published: July 7, 2013

Artist Karen Finley recently placed herself in the lobby of the New Museum, in full-view of visitors, as part of a limited time only, interactive performance installation. No, this isn’t The Artist is Present: Part II, but rather Finley’s tongue-in-cheek take on sexuality in a digital age, called Sext Me if You Can.

Finley’s artistic work has always been a fiercely debated topic, consistently evoking controversial and thought-provoking responses. She’s best known for her work dealing with heavy issues like rape, abortion, AIDS and her father’s suicide. But this time, the new installation encourages her audience participants to be the ones in charge of sparking all the scandal. The premise is simple: during Finley’s allotted time at the museum, visitors (eighteen and over only) could make appointments for a ten-minute, on site sitting. Registered patrons were then escorted to a room where they were left alone with only their cell phones and a private number that could be used to sext Finley any erotic image or phrase of their choosing. These sexts served as material for the artist as she created a one-of-a-kind painting for the sexter. Her sext works were then put on display for the duration of the installation, and taken home by their muses at the end of the show.

The artist first began this experiment as part of the Miami Project Art Fair, and quickly realized some of the gendered tendencies of her sexters. She said, “Women were more playful than men. Women had masks. They were sending pictures of, like, a chicken…It was much more subtle and imaginative,” mentioning that one of her favorites was, “A picture of a woman’s toenails. Blue toenails. Just sitting in the museum.” Finley wants to use Sext Me if You Can as a way of encouraging a pride and sexual assurity in its participants, taking their “shameful” act of texting and allowing it to exist in the realm of art where nudity is generally accepted and considered to be beautiful. That doesn’t mean, however, that she’s seeking to completely divorce these images from their libidinal origins. Rather, the art is representative of a power and appeal already inherent in the human form and heightened through its sexual expression.

Finley has grown tired with the typically American, prudish response to sex. It’s been a theme prominently featured in the news as of late, and can range from shaming a teenage rape victim to exposing the promiscuous tendencies of high profile celebrities and politicians, much to the world’s great disgust and delight. Citing teenage suicides and rape cases, like the one in Steubenville where sexual images were used to destroy young people’s lives, Finley told NYMag, “If we didn’t feel so shamed about the body and sexuality, people could not feel sexually and emotionally blackmailed in this culture." Finley’s art serves as a perfect jumping of point for the sort of real sexual liberation American’s love to pay lip service to, but remain too entangled in their own shame to ever actually implement. 

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