Transgression, An Elegy

Sade does not give us the work of a free man. He makes us participate in his efforts of liberation. But it is precisely for this reason that he holds our attention. SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR, “MUST WE BURN SADE?” Vito Acconci, later to be known as the art world’s “godfather of transgression,” is crouched under a low wooden ramp constructed over the floor of the otherwise empty Sonnabend Gallery in New York. Apparently heʼs masturbating to sexual fantasies about the visitors walking above him, the soundtrack of which is projected through loudspeakers installed in the corners of the gallery. “You’re on my left . . . you’re moving away but I’m pushing my body against you, into the corner . . . you’re bending your head down, over me . . you’re pushing your cunt down on my mouth… you’re pressing your tits down on my cock… you’re ramming your cock down into my ass…” Now and then gallery goers can hear him come. The piece is titled Seedbed. It was 1971, Nixon was in the White House, and artists were shooting, abrading, exposing, and abjecting themselves, deploying their bodies to violate whatever proprieties had survived the 1960s, and shatter the boundaries between art and life. This would, in turn, rattle and eventually remake sclerotic social structures and dismantle ruling class hegemony, or so I learned later that decade from my Modern Art History instructor, a charismatic Marxist-Freudian bodybuilder who fulminated about Eros and Thanatos and seems never to have published a word, but greatly influenced my thinking on these matters. Transgression had been so long implanted into the curriculum that it had become a tradition — a required introductory course at the art school I attended as an undergraduate. Transgression was the source of all cultural vitality, or so

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