Karen Finley Exhibition: Sexting is Now More Than Just Smut, It's Art

Two years after a sexting scandal caused former New York Senator Anthony Weiner to resign, feminist performance artist Karen Finley is turning sexts into art in an exhibition at the New Museum.

In the May 23-26 exhibition, "Sext Me If You Can," Finley creates paintings based on personal photographs "sexted" to her by patrons. These participant-patrons drop anywhere from $200-$500 to be immortalized by Finley and can take one of their sponsored paintings home at the end of the exhibition.

The media treats "sexting" as vulgar and inappropriate, with the term almost always paired with the word "scandal."

Finley pushes back against these notions in her exhibition.

In an interview with Jennifer Miller of Co.Create, Finley argues that, "There’s an out-of-proportion sense of shame with sexting."

Of her exhibition, she says, "There’s nothing at all creepy about this." She points out that nude models have a long tradition of being used in portraiture and says that she is "taking that long-held tradition and placing it within today’'s social media and trends."

Finley has a long history of using her performance art to provoke conversation around cultural conceptions of sexuality. She was catapulted onto the national stage in the 1990s as part of the "NEA 4," four artists who instituted a legal challenge to the National Endowment for the Arts veto of their grants for violating decency standards. Finley has addressed sexual violence, nudity, and gender norms in graphic detail in past performances.

In "Sext Me If You Can," Finley takes on a taboo topic that is surprisingly common in our society, for all the media outrage. According to a report by the Pew Research Center, "15% of adult cell owners have received a sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude photo or video of someone that they know on their cell phone," while "6% of adult cell owners have sent a sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude photo or video of themselves to someone else using their cell phone."

"Sext Me If You Can" participants voluntarily offer a traditionally private exchange of messages into the public conversation in a powerful reversal of the usual dynamic, where "sexts" are exposed by the media to the great embarrassment of their subjects.

Jamie Peck of The Gloss praises Finley’s latest project, describing the exhibition as "a participatory piece that ties together technology, old school painting techniques, erotic exchange, commerce, 'high art' and 'low art,' all in a humorous package."

Christen Clifford documented her experience participating in Finley’s exhibition for CultureBot. She described the surreal feeling of "photographing Karen Finley looking at my sext to her, and she was painting a picture of me" while "crowds of people were outside, titillated and watching and taking pictures with their cell phones outside the window ..... while the photographer from the New Museum was taking my photo."

To make this whole experience even more meta, social media users have been posting pictures of Finley painting the sexts in the lobby of the New Museum.

Check out a (NSFW) sample of Finley’s paintings so far here.

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Lindsay Funk

Lindsay hails from the great state of Washington, where she developed a fondness for vegan food and coffee shops. She is a Religious Studies major at Stanford and is also interested in international affairs, counterterrorism policy and celebrity gossip. Articles reflect solely personal views and not those of any affiliated organizations or employers.

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