March 05, 2000 12:46pm
Art Student Punished for Sexually Explicit Performance
by: Kim Curtis
(SAN FRANCISCO, CA) -- A student's sexually explicit performance at the San Francisco Art Institute, a school that long has prided itself as a center for artistic innovation, is forcing even the most avant-garde to acknowledge that art has its limits.
Jonathan Yegge, 24, was forced to drop his performance art class and advised to seek counseling, get tested for AIDS and share the results with his sex partners after school officials learned of his "Art Piece No. 1."
Yegge's project, performed Jan. 25 on an open-air stage and observed by about 20 other students, two professors, and passersby, involved unprotected oral sex and exchanging excrement with a bound and gagged classmate.
The performance, first reported in the Feb. 23 edition of SF Weekly, a tabloid-style alternative newspaper, raised eyebrows even in a city that tolerates extreme forms of sexual expression.
Yegge insists that he intended the piece as an exploration of Hegel's master-slave dialectic and Kant's theories on freedom of thought and action.
"They say you can do whatever you want as long as you can justify it artistically," said Yegge. "I was given no chance to do that."
The classmate, who volunteered for the performance without knowing its details, signed a waiver beforehand consenting to "actions of a violent and/or sexual nature" and agreed not to sue Yegge or complain to school officials.
"Everything was great. He didn't seem upset," said Yegge. "He didn't yell at me or anything."
Yegge claims his classmate even smiled when he asked to be cut down from the ropes that immobilized most of his body during the 10-minute session.
But the classmate did complain to school officials, who have since made it clear that when it comes to keeping students safe, they are willing to retreat from art's cutting edge.
Yegge's instructor, Tony Labat, calls the piece "bad art, absolutely." Labat says he has not been disciplined, even though he watched the performance and did nothing to stop it.
School administrators have refused to discuss their investigation. They did clarify the school's health and safety policy and met several times with Yegge, who withdrew from the Institute in frustration on Wednesday.
The Institute is privately funded and doesn't get money from the National Endowment for the Arts, which was attacked by conservative politicians who learned that the NEA funded Karen Finley's "indecent" art.
Finley, an alumna of the Institute whose work has included smearing her naked body with chocolate and inviting audience members to lick it off, was awarded an honorary doctorate from the school after she was criticized in Washington.
But the health risks involved in Yegge's performance were too much, even for Finley's alma mater. Yegge said he's not HIV positive and felt comfortable having sex with a stranger. Condoms were not offered, nor did his volunteer ask for them. By signing the consent form, Yegge believed the acts were consensual. And Yegge said he would be retested for HIV.
But the school took a dim view.
"It is considered a serious violation for you or any individual to participate in any activity, sexual or not, which involves exposing yourself or others to any bodily fluids or excretions including but not limited to feces, urine, semen, saliva and blood," reads the letter from Larry Thomas, the Institute's vice president and dean of academic affairs.
Yegge said he spent months planning his performance, studying the school handbook and the mission of the "New Genres Department," which encourages students to "work outside of the more traditional practices of painting and sculpture."
"I'm just shocked and appalled that you can't do certain things in art school," Yegge said. "All these bodily fluids have become a medium. Since the beginning of time these have been used as a medium. This is hardly something revolutionary."
He also said Labat approved the general premise beforehand.
"I didn't know what he was going to do," said Labat, an Institute alumnus who has taught there since 1985. "It does not represent the work I do and what I do in my class and what has gone on at that school for 30 years."
The institute, which was founded in 1871 and has about 650 students, has long been a magnet for artists pursuing innovative art forms. Ansel Adams founded the nation's first art photography department there in the 1930s. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was a center of beat and funk movements.
The New Genres Department was founded by sculptor Howard Fried in 1970, who wanted to recognize art that left no physical remnants.
"There isn't much happening in this piece that's beyond any boundaries," Fried said. "I'm not teaching now, but if I was I wouldn't be involved in trying to be a censor about people's work."
Yegge is now trying to figure out his next step.
"If they'd ask me to come back, I would. I really love it there," Yegge said. "I'd have a different focus. I'd love my academic classes and try to do other art that doesn't deal with the body."