Just this past week, I put a ‘Missed Connections’ ad on Craigslist after making meaningful eye contact with a handsome chap. I didn’t really expect anything to come of it. But there were a few nice replies of the “I am not him, but I did laugh at your ad” variety, and then it happened: a dick pic. The fellow in question sent no other identifying information or chat save for said photo of his knob standing to attention as he lay in a rather barren room.
(There was one other bloke who at least had the decency to offer me “30 quid” if I was free to give him a foot job.)
Not really knowing what to do, I simply replied “Put it away, mate!” and deleted the email, but if happenings in New York’s Bushwick this week are any indication, perhaps I should have filed it away as material for an art show - because that’s what the “artists” behind Show Me More: A Collection of DickPix did.
“Four artists interested in feminism, the internet, sex, porn, and power have decided that the dick pics they've gathered are important enough to share with the public,” Vice’s coverage of the exhibition runs. “Over 300 men who have engaged in a little harmless online exhibitionism sending this summer may be surprised to learn that their members will mounted, framed, and put on display on August 23 at a Brooklyn gallery space by an artist collective known as Future Femme. The group is hoping to turn the tables on this mind-boggling male habit.”
To say my own response to this exhibition (or perhaps more accurately, statement) is one of great conflict is putting it mildly.
I certainly agree that receiving unsolicited dick pics is one of the less savoury aspects of internet dating (and sometimes just “the internet”, full stop!). As The Kinsey Institute’s Justin Garcia told Vice, “In a national context in which women are treated less favorably than men—in the workplace, in healthcare legislation, and when it comes to sex and dating, it’s troublesome to me that women are getting flashed in the digital era. With these pictures, you’re removing a certain agency from women. I think there’s a larger method of disrespecting women with these photos than we even recognize.”
It’s that very sense of entitlement that makes me wonder if, were the unsolicited wang photographers to discover their members in the Bushwick exhibition, it would make any difference to them at all. If exhibitionism is the order of the day, I don’t imagine the thought of their knob being viewed by hundreds, possibly thousands, of people would turn them off dick pics, as it were. In that sense, the ethics (or lack thereof) of the exhibition are beside the point.
But what of the men who have been, as NY Magazine’s coverage of the exhibit puts it, “catfished” by the women: the blokes who sent knob shots in (reasonably, one assumes) good faith because they were requested, thinking it was an entree to a consensual sexual encounter? As Vice notes, “Most of the women have gone the straightforward route in collecting dick pics, using versions of their real OKCupid profiles and brief conversations—sometimes just going right for the jugular and straight-up asking for a dick pic, avoiding flirtation and conversation at all costs. One of the artists, however, went a step further by posing as a gay man on Grindr and wound up with 150 photos.”
There are no ifs or buts about this: it’s unethical. But how do ethics mesh with the idea of art, which is supposed to be a free-for-all of expression? These women aren’t researchers, after all, they’re artists (or “artists”), which throws the whole thing into muddy territory. This isn’t as clear cut as the recent case - similar only in the sense that it involved photography and a lack of consent - of Arne Svenson’s exhibition of photographs featuring the windows of New York apartments.
Svenson said of his work, “The people I photographed were not aware at the time. That said, I have been committed to protecting their privacy—and stringent about not revealing their identities. I was not photographing them as specific, identifiable personages, but more as representations of humankind, of us.”
(The legality of Svenson’s work is up in the air, since the photos are of intimate situations, but technically taken in public, where New York’s legal system has a history of telling people who bristle - legally - at having their photo taken that they don’t have much of a case.)
There’s another difference: Svenson’s photographs are exquisite works of art.
Now, before you accuse me of dissing the artistic merit of the four unnamed women in Bushwick, I like plenty of grotty, base, sex-mad art - Sarah Lucas’ Two Fried Eggs And A Kebab and Au Naturel, for example. But there’s a vast chasm between making art about the idea of exhibitionism or sexual depravity, and turning unwilling participants into a riff on the same thing.
Also, saying “they had it coming to them” and “well, he shouldn’t have sent the photo” smacks intensely of victim blaming. Imagine a group of men posting upskirt shots from exes or women who’d spurned them as some sort of statement about sexual aggression. We’d probably just call that what it actually is: Creepshots on Facebook and Reddit, not art. Is Show Me More any different just because it’s women doing the “posting” and it’s happening in a gallery? Further more, if Show Me More is, as the coverage seems to imply, positioning itself as a feminist art project, well, I don’t intend to share feminist ranks with anyone who engages in victim blaming. No matter how many grainy photographs of naked schlongs are involved.