Enema of the State

Readers and S.F. Art Institute students respond to our story about the controversy surrounding performance art student Jonathan Yegge


Editor's note: We have been awash in letters since publishing our Feb. 23 cover story, "Public Enema No. 2," recounting the furor over a performance art piece by student Jonathan Yegge at the San Francisco Art Institute. What follows is a sampling of the response. We were also delighted that the story inspired several other art students to produce yet another piece of art, which is reprinted below.

Well, well, well, so Tony Labat et al. are being made to sleep in the bed they made. How appropriate that it be made of shit. About time! You can wrap your "art" in any popular "isms" that you want. It's still bullshit! How you could expect a rational discourse from the parties involved is beyond me. Hey, Tony, wanna do something bold? Something fringe? Try creating beauty! Create something of substance, that doesn't require a 10-page explanation. I hope the Institute fries for this one!

Thom Story
Bernal Heights

I am an alumnus of the San Francisco Art Institute, and I was appalled at Tony Labat's irresponsibility. In a city filled with information about AIDS, he knowingly exposed two students to possible infection of that or any number of diseases. I think it's time to discipline the instructor for his negligent behavior. This appeared to be a school-sanctioned activity, since it was part of his class. The instructor's ignorance could be fatal.

Name Withheld
Arizona

I am writing in response to the story entitled "Public Enema No. 2." As an artist (one who actually considered the SFAI several years ago for grad school, but opted for a school not full of postmodern hacks), I am offended that this type of activity was permitted to happen in an educational institution meant to teach art.

One thing that Jonathan Yegge, his professor, and perhaps the entire SFAI misses is the purpose of art. Art is the creation of things that have form or beauty. One great thing about much of performance art is that it creates a response in the mind of the viewer that the viewer can then use to enrich their lives. Mr. Yegge did none of this. What Mr. Yegge did was to take an innocent victim, and remove that person's freedom, destroy his dignity, and even endanger that person's life. He destroyed a piece of that person's humanity. Destruction is not art. Art is creating.

Anyone can take their actions and use the defense of "it's for art" to justify themselves. Timothy McVeigh could have claimed that his bomb was art meant to make Americans rethink their view on international relationships. Jeffrey Dahmer could have claimed he was using humans as sculptural elements. The Nazis' could have claimed that exterminating Jews was an art form, and so on, and so on.

In America, we have laws that are meant to protect people's individual freedom to exist as humans. Mr. Yegge overstepped those laws. Any other individual in any other circumstance would have to pay the consequences. Perhaps it is time for the SFAI to rethink its position as an educational institution meant to teach art to young, impressionable minds before the consequences of their actions overwhelm them.

Aaron Merritt
Oakland

Jonathan Yegge's piece had nothing to do with art, Heidegger, or Derrida. At the very most, it had nothing more to do with those things than any action performed by any person at any time. Its contrived nature, however, suggests to me that it had even less to do with any of the things he claimed to be interested in than the countless, mundane actions I allude to.

At the very least, his idiocy should earn him a failing grade on this assignment. As for his volunteer, I'm curious about the extent to which he was aware of what awaited him in this "piece." Though my suspicions on that matter could be wrong, it seems that if you don't want to eat shit, you shouldn't sign up to do it. Was he paid? That would open some other issues.

And this professor is a boob. His position assigns him the responsibility to imbue his students with an understanding of the medium he claims to teach as well as to be acutely aware of the high potential for ridiculous situations such as this. Had I the authority, I would can him.

Louis Smith
Via Internet

The background research informing Matt Smith's "Public Enema" reads like it was limited to some sophomoric performer's private 1965 Happenings art manifesto.

First, stating that in "the world of performance art, a work may leave no physical artifact on the earth" ignores the countless performance art pieces over the past 30 years in which the physical products of performance -- objects, messes, blood, or even poo -- have been left behind for minutes, weeks, or years as sculptural artifacts for audiences' consideration.

Similarly, Smith's feigned horror over descriptives of Yegge's performance ("... well, maybe it's best to let Yegge explain") falls prey to the same crime that Yegge is most guilty of: ignorance of performance art's amazing history.

As any veteran performance art audience member will tell you, taking a whiz or a crap on a volunteer (or the audience, for that matter) is old art hat, jaded as that may sound. Yawn. Shoving stuff up one's rear end (or taking things out of same and/or eating them) is also cliché to the max. Yegge's professor, Tony Labat, should have made this clear to Yegge, challenging him instead to come up with new variations on old themes, rather than settling for mere mimesis. In the same vein, he should have impressed upon Yegge that justifying performance with statements like "It's about Heidegger and Derrida -- all this stuff" does nothing to foster rigorous critical thinking, much less convince art critics that the artist knows anything about art theory or hard philosophy.

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