Working Girl: On Selling Art and Selling Sex
“The first person who bought my art was a client of mine,” writes Sophia Giovannitti in her debut book, newly released by Verso. Candor about transactions is common for the artist, who, in the legacy of conceptual art, often explores contracts and negotiations; she has previously charged $1,000/person to craft bespoke contractual agreements that fulfill individual desires, and she has sold editioned audio recordings, protected by nondisclosure agreements, that expose the debt involved with the production and exhibition of her work. Elaborating on a transactional mindset that some artists would be loath to admit, her text continues: “I wanted [the client] to buy it, knowing that to have been sold would make my work more salable writ large, and so I implied I’d take his buying the work as payment for the next time we saw one another.”
Indicating the extent to which all of her labor is enmeshed with economies of affect and intimacy, Giovannitti describes herself as, across the board, “working in the affect factory.” The artist, like so many others operating in precarious creative economies in expensive urban centers (in her case, New York City), is also a sex worker, drawn to the vocation for the possibility of flexible hours and high pay relative to most entry-level jobs (though of course not all sex work adheres to this schema). Performance artist and sex work activist Annie Sprinkle has highlighted that sex work often directly funds art involving the performing body: “Almost all the top women performance artists have told me…that they were in the sex industry as streetwalkers, go-go dancers, etc. I think the sex industry is a much bigger funder of the arts than the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts].”1
In Working Girl: On Selling Art and Selling Sex, Giovannitti—who has previously written about sex work, sometimes pseudonymously, for publications such as n+1 and the New Inquiry—explores the relationship between art work and sex work, broadly and in the context of her own life. Organized around themes of legibility, fantasy, violation, and meaning, her engaging book meanders, loiters, and slinks. Forays into writings by Lauren Berlant and Michel Foucault are interwoven with commentary on apposite current events (in once instance, she juxtaposes the 2017 Eros Guide raid with the Whitney Museum’s 2019 “Tear Gas Biennial”) as well as autobiographical passages in which her own experience conflicts with or complicates others’ fears and fantasies around sex work. Noting that she came of age during the “‘personal-essay boom’—a pinnacle moment for the proliferation of overwritten, underpaid, trauma-ridden personal stories,” Giovannitti is forthright regarding her trepidations about building a body of creative work that draws upon—perhaps even hinges on—her personal experience as a sex worker (sex work that she has pursued, in part, to support her artmaking practice). “Is this a capitulation to the kind of writing and art society most likes to extract from women artists?” she wonders. She lets the question float there.
Through intermittent exegeses on contemporary artworks that engage with themes of sex work, Giovannitti charts an art historical lineage in which she might locate her own practice. The earliest of the artworks that she references is Robert Morris’s 1964 performance Site, in which Morris used plywood to reveal and conceal a naked Carolee Schneemann playing the titular prostitute in Édouard Manet’s 1863 painting Olympia. (In response to this piece, Giovannitti orchestrated A Machine (2022), a six-hour durational performance in which her boyfriend welded a cage while she sat passively nearby.) Giovannitti’s analyses often linger on fallacies and contradictions in the artworks’ discursive lives. Musing on Jeff Koons’s Made in Heaven (1989), in which the artist depicted himself in explicit poses with the Italian porn star (and his future wife) Ilona Staller, Giovannitti laments that Koons later used Staller’s sex work against her in a custody battle (which he won). In her writing on Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s 20182017 photograph Darkroom Mirror (_2060403), a self-portrait in which the artist has a penis in his mouth, Giovannitti notes that reviewers, seemingly believing that disposition distinguishes art from pornography, have refused to read pleasure into the image—which was appropriated as a profile picture on the gay dating app Scruff. Giovannitti’s insightful readings thicken our understanding of these artworks and the discourses with which they come in contact.
The artist explains that she is not particularly interested in metaphors of prostitution; instead, she wants to “figure out what it means to be the metaphor: the prostitute moving through the world of cultural production; the whore at her own exhibit opening; the artist at the gallery dinner one night and the escort at the gallery dinner the next.” To this end, she illuminates material and structural parallels between the art and sex work industries. Both are hyper-capitalist informal economies, mired in asymmetries of power and precarity, where the eroticized production and extraction of social and financial value unfolds. Both are shaped by a fraught relationship with the product they peddle, as art and sex are often romanticized as somehow existing beyond the long arm of capitalism. Anticipating pushback on the notion that sex is inherently tied to capitalism, Giovannitti highlights uses and abuses of sex in the workplace, and points out that sex, for working couples, is already structured around work because jobs influence relevant factors such as schedule and geographic location. She asserts that “there is no outside to work,” “work” being “the material and psychic circumstances of those who must earn a wage” to have basic needs met. Asking what consenting to work means under compulsory capitalism, she irritates the binary notion of the willing/unwilling sex worker—and remarks on the disproportionate burden placed on non-white sex workers to prove that they are willing agents.
As Giovannitti expounds on the negotiations and violations that she sees in both industries, as well as glimmering moments of community, beauty, and anarchy, she draws on her own experience and carefully crafted critical lens, rather than accepting prevailing frameworks and prefabricated imaginaries. She writes about learning to draw from life: that the one rule is to draw what you actually see, instead of what you think you see. “I don’t want to live an approximation of a life I’ve been taught to see, a life that I only think I see,” she writes. “I want to live a life that I see.”
- Annie Sprinkle, quoted in Julia Bryan-Wilson, “Dirty Commerce: Art Work and Sex Work Since the 1970s,” differences, vol. 23, issue 2, 2012, p. 97.