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"Show and Tell, Tell, Tell: Moral Tales at the Sex Workers' Art Show" by Emily Hall

Below is an excerpt from Emily Hall's review of the 5th Annual Sex Workers' Art Show that took place in January 2002. Her review is mostly negative toward the show ("art is not social therapy... don't claim for art what belongs to therapy"), but somehow found Emi's work worthwhile (Carol Queen and Emi were the only artists mentioned by name). For the complete article, visit the web site of The Stranger, a Seattle alternative weekly.


The work, mostly performance and some visual, that I saw at the Fifth Annual Sex Workers' Art Show at Olympia's Capitol Theatre was didactic, stunningly literal-minded, and absolutely stripped of nuance. Many pieces were prefaced or ended with "I made this because..."--usually the wish to start a dialogue or heal some pain. These claims work in opposition to art: They close the mind of the viewer rather than open it, with a plangent and stubborn refusal to be interpreted; "I am wounded. Don't criticize me."

While work made by a stripper or prostitute or dancer does not have an a priori claim to greatness, neither does it necessarily have to be dull. There is still an interesting contradiction at the heart of this whole enterprise, the one that pits a positive spin on sex work against the desire for recognition that (I'm quoting the event's program) "most people do it cause they need to, not cause of art/curiosity/ nymphomania/to become a better radical activist," as well as the attendant labor issues. The desire to have it both ways is pure ambivalence, as understood by Emi Koyama, who read a piece about why she started turning tricks again after she was raped. Not because she needed money (she didn't), but because the act of selling herself also entailed a kind of perverse control, and a kind of cleansing.

Now that's interesting. So was Carol Queen's all-too-short monologue about a fetishist. Up-close photographs of vulvas are not. A lip-synch--acting out the tensions between prostitutes and pimps--to "We Love Dem Ho's" is not. Not because pain and struggle don't happen, not because those involved aren't damaged, not because people don't have the right to express themselves however they want. It does, they are, they do. But art is not social therapy. Art is bigger, weirder, more questioning; its unmistakable fingerprints are investigation, complexity, context. It is about using our imaginative faculties, not about receiving information through a single channel.

At the very least, don't claim for art what belongs to therapy. Bringing up your howling pain is brave, but it is not art. It is not elitist to ask artists to treat us like grownups with interpretive abilities. It is not fascist, when presented with a press release claiming that this evening of art will "dispel the myth that [sex workers] are anything short of artists, innovators, and geniuses," to wonder whether or not it's true. (A self-righteous and classist dare, if ever I heard one.) You can't ask to be taken seriously as artists, but then claim exemption to criticism on emotional or political grounds.