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Is Sex Just a Substitute for Talent?

April 24, 2013

Published in Daily Life 

David Choe is more interested in making good art than he is in feeling good. In a recent interview with The Daily Beast’s Lizzy Crocker, the 36-year-old LA street artist whose frenetic, erotically charged murals read like a kind of unchecked outpouring of the id, says that when he’s in a happy place, his art gets worse. “I need therapy, and I do believe in helping yourself,” he says, also revealing that he used to see four shrinks a week. “It may have been all in my head, but I was like f—k this. My mental health comes second to my art.”

Lately, Choe has been pouring all that self-destructive energy into a different type of project. Co-hosted with Japanese-American porn star Asa Akira, DVDASA (short for Double Vag, Double Anal, Sensitive Artist) is a free podcast featuring 90-minute episodes which explore a spectrum of sex, relationship and race issues – everything from the challenges of reconciling the vocational thrills of double penetration with the logistics of maintaining a brand-new marriage (Akira’s) to the heartbreak that ensues when the object of your masturbation fantasy is already attached (Choe’s).

DVDASA swiftly ascended the iTunes charts – the podcast received a top twenty overall ranking and reached first place in the Health category in early February. Unsurprisingly, there’s something of an inversely proportional relationship between the adventurousness of the podcast and the explicitness of its content. Choe, who claims that he created DVDASA as a forum for his personal transgressions, spends most of his time trying to outmatch his guest with the sheer outrageousness of his exploits – a kind of locker room banter for the sexually deranged – while Akira supplies the narrative soundtrack, complete with XXX-rated highlights.

lthough Choe might sound like the poster-boy for the sort of demographic that would get off on Ashton Kutcher’s Punk’d, the truth is he’s anything but. He’s managed to carve out a successful career as a commercial illustrator, regularly contributing to Vice and Giant Robot – in between a gambling addiction and stints in jail. He sold a $250 million painting to the princess of Azerbaijan, thanks to the hype sparked by 2010 documentary Dirty Hands: The Art & Crimes of David Choe and a decision to be paid for a mural in Facebook stocks has seen him reap the spoils of last year’s IPO.

“We almost got Bill Murray to stop by,” Choe deadpans. “These guys just come for my work, but I don’t think it would be that hard to get them on the show if I painted their portraits for free. And Asa has offered to blow anyone who comes on.”

Luckily for Choe, transgressive sexual behaviour, manufactured or otherwise, is a recurring factor in an age-old art world equation. If you’re a man who’s good at maths, it’s one that almost always adds up to infamy, cultural currency and sales.

In her New York magazine feature “Chasing Dash Snow”, Ariel Levy traces the careers of the late artist Dash Snow and photographer Ryan McGinley, who are best-known for immortalising a brand of sex-fuelled hedonism in art.  In doing so, she exposes the cultural machinery that produces the city’s (male) art stars and the invisible connection between bankability and underground success.

“And because notoriety is crucial to something much larger than graffiti culture, Dash Snow is becoming a kind of sensation. Young people poured out onto Joey Ramone Place waiting to get into his last show at Rivington Arms gallery. You may not be able to find him, but you can hear his name, that zooming syllable—Dash!—punctuating conversations in Chelsea galleries and Lower East Side coke parties and Miami art fairs and the offices of underground newspapers in Copenhagen and Berlin, like a kind of supercool international Morse code. Because the art world loves infamy. Downtown New York City loves infamy—needs it, in fact, to exist.”

But for infamy to work, first we have to be enamoured by it. Choe might use a wealthy porn star as a vehicle for his version of debauched masculinity but his paintings are gritty, dreamlike and undeniably compelling. And Snow and McGinley’s work might feature ingénues in compromising positions, but it also transports you to a hypnotic Neverland that’s immune to both time and place.

In Ways of Seeing, John Berger offers one explanation for this struggle between liberal myopia and feminist instinct – why we identify with art that reduces our bodies to the level of 35mm film or a tube of acrylic paint.

“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight,” he writes.

But if this means we’re doomed to substitute sex for talent, how do we tell the difference between good art and the stuff that makes us squirm? Watch the Girls episode where Marnie realises she’s drawn to Booth Jonathan’s infamy, not his ability – after all, breaking sexual boundaries has nothing to do with creating groundbreaking work.


Posted on April 24, 2013

Tags: popular culture, opinion