Licking, Race and Gender

whipped 11.1.09 [305]

Yesterday I had the pleasure of hearing George Lewis (Columbia University) speak at the NYU Department of Music. George is the author of an an award-winning book on the AACM and an inspiring composer and creative musician, and I always find myself thinking differently about things after hearing him. His presentation was titled “I’m Glad You Asked That Question”: In Search of Benjamin Patterson. He did find Benjamin Patterson, and on the way Lewis told stories about the way we tell stories—not just about who is in and who is out, but the different ways people are included in histories. Patterson, he said, is mentioned in many stories told by Fluxus artists but the official histories rarely address his work in a substantive manner…. He is hiding in plain sight. I’m afraid I instantly knew what he meant because at the start of the talk I thought I didn’t know anything by Ben Patterson, until Lewis mentioned his inclusion in the recent MoMA exhibition. In fact, I’d seen quite a few pictures, like these of the Variations for Double Bass (1964).

One of the pieces Lewis mentioned was ‘Licking Piece’, also from 1964. The instructions read, in part:

cover shapely female with whipped cream


Have a think about what you might expect to see given those instructions, and then have a look at this photo documentation and full instructions. Think before you peek.

Done that?

A number of thoughts spring to my mind, to do with gender, race, and interpreting scores. The instructions do not say that the ‘shapely female’ (what species?!) needs to be naked, but the woman in the documented performance is (or appears to be). Admittedly, the idea of licking cream off someone’s clothes is somehow yuckier than the sensual experience of licking cream off skin. Nor do the instructions say anything about who should be doing the licking. The picture appears to show men doing the cream spraying; presumably they did the licking too. For that matter, the instructions do not specifically say to lick the cream off the woman: it just says ‘lick’. Perhaps one could just lick one’s lips or have an ice-cream at that point. So, there’s a whole bunch of questions about how that score could be interpreted.

To be honest, my first reaction to the picture was to groan inwardly. What is so new about the objectification of a woman’s body? I mean, this is a bunch of men covering a naked woman with white goo: just the usual gendered power dynamic. Like Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964), it prompts thought about power relationships between the performers involved, between audience and performers (at least it does for me). Does it make a difference that Ono gave the first performance of Cut Piece sitting still while audience members took turns cutting pieces of cloth from of her clothes with scissors, whereas Patterson is not the one being creamed and licked? Is that a significant issue? While Ono did suggest that Cut Piece could be performed by a man interacting with the audience, Patterson doesn’t appear to have specified that possible variation which could alter the power dynamics. It would make for an interesting thought experiment though. In any case, this piece doesn’t seem as challenging a commentary on women’s bodies as, say, Shigeko Kubota’s Vagina Painting (1965).

Where this performance of ‘Licking Piece’ was socially radical was in its racial diversity, in the intersection of race and gender politics. The performance surely challenged racial mores, given that many states still had anti-miscegenation laws in place in 1964. New York, where the performance took place, seems never to have had anti-miscegenation laws, but that doesn’t mean that intimate interracial interactions were unremarkable (even in 2008, only 3.9% of all marriages in the US involved partners considered different races), and performers and audiences would hardly have been ignorant of the racial politics in the country as a whole.

Anti-miscegenation laws protected the idea of whiteness. Most states focused on marriage to those classified as white and didn’t proscribe marriage between people from the various groups classified as not-white. That the concern was with whiteness is also evident from considering the history of rape and lynching: the race of the alleged perpetrator and alleged victim mattered (and still does). Many black women slaves, like Harriet Jacobs, were raped by their white owners, with few, if any, repercussions for the white rapist, whereas long after slavery ended African American men were violently murdered, lynched, for alleged wrongs to white women. The tragic case of Emmett Till, a fourteen year old boy from Chicago who was brutally murdered for offending a white woman shop proprietor in Mississippi, came to national attention in 1955, nine years before this performance. Even when the Civil Rights Act passed in 1957 there were still state laws governing interracial relationships. The 1963 March on Washington included a black father holding a banner for the Interracial Marriage Club of Washington, photographed with his two daughters (institutional access to the Black Studies Center ProQuest archive may be required to view), and stories on challenges to anti-miscegenation laws appeared regularly in newspapers. On Dec. 9, 1964, the Daily Defender ran an article describing miscegenation laws as ‘the touchiest issue in all the legal literature of civil rights.’ Florida’s law against interracial cohabitation had recently been struck down following the prosecution of a Honduran man and a white woman for ‘habitually . . . (occupying) in the nighttime the same room’; the finding ruled that their ‘Constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law had been abridged’. The same article mentions the case of Mildred Loving, a woman with African and Native American ancestors, and her white husband, Richard Perry Loving, who had begun their challenge to Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws in 1963. It wasn’t until 1967 that the Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision overturned the last of the US’s anti-miscegenation laws. So, it doesn’t seem to adequate to consider only the gender politics of this piece. A naked white woman consenting to be covered in whipped cream and licked by a racially-diverse group of men and that being able to happen without prosecution or backlash was certainly radical, and perhaps more radical in that particular combination of people than with reversed genders.

If performed today, I think ‘Licking Piece’ could still raise all sorts of questions about boundaries (personal and social/cultural), about the transformation of all the performers and their reflection on the decisions they make during the performance, and about power dynamics between performers and between performers and audience. Given that the first performance happened when the fight for equality for interracial couples was in the news, perhaps it’s time to reimagine this piece now that the fight for equality for same-sex couples is in the news. In 40 years perhaps someone will look at a picture of three men covering a naked man with cream and preparing to lick it off, and groan inwardly about the oh-so-boring politics of that image.

Update: For a fascinating analysis of a more recent gendered & raced interaction that points out that the ‘Little Helpless White Lady’ and ‘Big Ole Scary Black Man’ scripts are still with us, see Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ discussion (also posted on 27 Jan) of Governor Jan Brewer pointing her finger in the face of President Barack Obama: ‘A Teachable Racial Moment: On Fingers Pointed in Black Faces’.

Photo credit: whipped 11.1.09 [305] by timlewisnm, on Flickr.