This week, performance artist Ann Hirsch takes a stab at helping me understand this phenomenon. Here’s a psychological question that is unresolved for me, so I thought maybe as an advice columnist, it’s time for me to get some opinions from you all. I have seen over and over how my female artists friends who have been in situations, when dating or otherwise, of being judged negatively on a personal level by their work and their willingness for exposing themselves. My personal guess is that men see these women as too aggressive and not feminine (passive?) enough.  Paradoxically, quite often, these are the women that are the most traditional, even conservative in their lifestyles.

To explore this quandary, I bring you an interview that I did with artist Ann Hirsch. Ann is a performance artist who might seem to lack personal boundaries in her work but when you meet her she one the nicest, sweetest and borderline shyest people you might run into around here. Naked in public, but not even a low-cut shirt or eyeliner in life! I also think that her being normal (read highly functional) is what allows her to be productive with her talents and maintain a healthy, satisfying, long-term relationship with her boyfriend.

Let me tell you a bit about Ann’s work, so you can see what I mean about putting ones self out there in a sexually/emotionally vulnerable way. At one point in her performance art career, she stopped just short of selling videos of herself. As she states below here in this interview, “I was considering making nude videos and selling them to anonymous men…but my boyfriend at the time flipped out so I never really went quite as far with that part of the project as I had intended to.” Ann has worked as a web celebrity, Caroline, who danced provocatively for men, as well as being a contestant on a VH1 dating reality show. Currently she is doing work that involves her taking a bath naked on stage. See more about Ann’s work here.

Ann, what drives you to make such sexually/emotionally vulnerable work?

AH: A lot of it just stems from some kind of middle school obsession that I never conquered. I was so consumed with being a good Jewish student back then that I never took the time to figure out femininity. Like how is a girl “supposed” to look and act to get what she supposedly wants? I was pretty clueless about all that stuff so once I hit my twenties I was kind of like, well I better figure this stuff out now, I’m way behind everyone else here. That morphed into my artistic practice because I realized there was a disconnect between what I was, how I felt I should be, and what I desired.

Dr. Lisa: How does your work affect you/your self-image when you are out in the world?

AH: Sometimes I think my work is insanely masochistic. I do the most embarrassing/humiliating things I can possibly think of so that I can get over shit I feel ashamed about. It’s like my own brand of exposure therapy I’ve made up to lessen my anxieties. When I started performing as Scandalishious, I was hesitant to present myself as a “sexual object” because I thought people wouldn’t take me seriously. Trying to be sexy on the internet in more than 100 videos helped me realize I don’t need to feel ashamed of being a sexual person. That my intellect was not lessened by also trying to appear sexy.

More recently, after doing a few nude performances, I stopped worrying so much about how my body looks to others on a day-to-day basis. I was like, well, a couple hundred people by now have just seen everything! I guess the biggest difference in my life is that I’ve stopped wearing a bra. I used to be so self-conscious about the way my breasts looked or if you could see my nipples and now I don’t give a shit. I don’t want the way I feel about my physical appearance to determine how I go about my life.

Dr. Lisa:  Do you ever feel misunderstood or misperceived because of your work? Do you think that men assume that you are a certain way because of your work?

AH: I think mostly it is people within the art world actually who misperceive me because of my work. It’s like, if I show someone my Scandalishious work or my reality TV work, I also have to try to prove that I’m a “smart, thoughtful” artist or some bullshit like that. A few professors in grad school told me I was “too smart” to be making the kind of work I was making. I’ve had an artist peer of mine ask me to contribute an online project for his blog but ultimately have him reject it because I didn’t explain in an academic way enough how that certain project was art. On the flip side, I’ve had art people just dismiss my work because it’s too “feminist” and feminism is like over or something.

As far as non-art, or “regular” people, it depends what they’ve seen of me. I have been on the show Oddities on the Science Channel a few times, so people who know me from that think I am a huge nerd. People who have only seen my Scandalishious work think I’m an attention whore and people who have seen me on Frank the Entertainer think I’m some nice, pathetic lovelorn puppy. I guess I’m all those things but, because of the nature of the media, I could only show one side at a time. My goal is that by constantly showing all these different sides, some kind of holistic version of myself will appear.

Dr. Lisa: Obviously, your work is sexually explicit to some degree. How do you think making this type of work has affected your relationships with men you’ve been involved with?

AH: It depends how much I let it. When I was doing Scandalishious, at one point the work was headed in a dark direction, where I was considering making nude videos and selling them to anonymous men in the name of ART, but my boyfriend at the time flipped out so I never really went quite as far with that part of the project as I had intended to. I think most of my crazy “exploring my sexuality” days are over so it’s not much of an issue anymore. Although I do try to be attuned to my boyfriend’s feelings as much as possible while still pursuing the things I need to. There are certain sacrifices you need to make sometimes so that you can have a healthy personal life. But I think that goes for any artist who is dedicated to their work.

Dr. Lisa: Have you ever been interested in or hurt by someone who was put off by your work?

AH: Not really. But that could also be because I am pretty dismissive of people who are overly judgmental (read: if people don’t like me I usually don’t like them either). Also, I think there is an element of play and lightheartedness to my work that people enjoy and that makes it fairly accessible.

Dr. Lisa: What qualities does a man who’s not just super edgy need to understand and not be threatened by your work?

AH: Mainly I think men shouldn’t be so scared of feminism. This goes for “edgy” and “non-edgy” guys. Feminism isn’t just for women anymore! It’s for men too. There’s a lot of burden on men to be super masculine, to be good financial providers, to hide their emotions. I can see how breaking out of the mold of masculinity could be scary for a guy but, ultimately, hopefully freeing.

Dr. Lisa: Have you ever put yourself out there in a way that you regret?

AH: I can’t afford to. Otherwise I’d be miserable. If there is something I’ve done that has made me uncomfortable as I look back at it, I just figure out a way to turn it into something interesting within my larger artistic narrative.

Dr. Lisa: You’re in a relationship now that seems really homey and low-key. Can you describe that a bit and what about it that is not what people might imagine? Please include how exposing yourself in public in front of your boyfriend affects your relationship.

AH: My boyfriend who is a creative writer, is proud of me for getting nude in my performance works. He mainly wants me to take risks and be vulnerable in my work, as do I. We both agree that’s the most important thing you can do as an artist so he is proud of me after I take off my clothes and fart with my leg pits or something like that.

We work well together because we’re very similar people. We’re both conservative on the outside and strange on the inside. So we like to be traditional in our day-to-day but in our artwork that is where we both allow ourselves to explore our more unusual side.  We appreciate each other for our eccentricities. But the fact that we both came from super loving and mainly normal functioning families helps us be a strong couple.

Ann as a VH1 reality TV contestant competing here for “Frank, the Entertainer’s” affections. Photo courtesy of Ann Hirsch.


Dr. Lisa: Any dating advice for women that make risky work but are sane and want a sane guy?

My advice is probably the same as it would be for any woman. Be yourself, follow your dreams and do your thing. All men are attracted to that. I have a bit of yenta in me so if you’re looking for more than that simplistic statement feel free to email me with your boy troubles at [email protected]

Dr. Lisa: Thanks, Ann. This is great. I think there’s a lot of food for thought in this discussion. I’m really curious to hear opinions from other artists as well as dudes that date revealing girl artists, aren’t you?

AH: Absolutely!

So you people reading this, what’s your opinion – are women artists judged harshly for using sexuality in their work? Let me know in the comments!