NY’s Dance Tax, Art/Entertainment Hierarchies, and Women’s Bodies

New York State’s proposal to exempt erotic dancing from the tax exemption on dance performance is all about policing women’s work, women’s bodies, and class/race-based norms about the “appropriateness” and “significance” of female nudity. This NewYork Times editorial gets it largely right. I just want to flesh out in more philosophical detail why this proposal is (a) misogynist, and (b) aesthetically unsound. The misogyny and the aesthetic unsoundness are actually interrelated. 

The NYT editorial hints at the fact that there exist zero consistent criteria that distinguish “high art” from “pop” or “entertainment.” In Western aesthetics and art theory, as well as in everyday practice, the only thing that is consistent among all serious/pop hierarchies is the feminization of the pop/low term. I argue this in The Conjectural Body. Femininity—and especially lower-class, not-entirely-white femininities—is the one thing that clearly distinguishes taxable erotic dancing from tax-exempt art dancing. (It’s not location: many art performances happen in bars, shady clubs, underground galleries, or other venues that seem more like strip clubs than opera houses? And, artists have used porn/webcam/chat platforms to do performance/new media work.) Fine art is gendered masculine; entertainment is gendered feminine. Gender can be a solid foundation for an otherwise unsound distinction if and only if the male/female hierarchy is absolutized–that is to say, only if the devaluation of femininity is universalized and unquestioned.

Gender is the basis of our commonsense distinctions between art and entertainment. For example:
  • ·      When working-class women make a good amount of money sexualizing their bodies, it’s not art. When (usually) male artists make a good amount of money sexualizing women’s bodies, it’s often art. When women artists make generally lessmoney—than male artists, and perhaps even female erotic dancers—sexualizing women’s bodies, it may be art.
  • ·      Naked white women at MoMA? Fine. Les Damselles d’Avignon? Fine. Rite of Spring may incite a riot, but it was still considered art. Naked women of color in the natural history museum? Fine. Naked women in a modern dance piece? Fine. Naked hipsters in an arty video? Fine. Strippers? Not fine.

You could argue that erotic dancing is done for a profit, but art is somehow not-for-profit, or not primarily for profit. You must not know any professional artists, then, because they earn their living off the surplus value of their artistic labor. The artworld is a business, and anyone who thinks otherwise is ignorant and/or in denial.

You could argue that this is sex work and not creative expression. That’s what the discussions about choreography, rehearsal, and planning aim at. To claim that art dancing requires forethought and training, while erotic dancing requires no forethought and/or training, (a) assumes that erotic dancing is some inherent capacity in bodies themselves, and thus (b) naturalizes all the learning we have to do to acquire properly gendered performances of erotic/sexy bodily comportment. In addition to all the implicit knowledge involved in sexy performance, it takes a lot of work to pull off a dance that is actually, you know, erotic (and not clumsy, boring, etc.). So, (c) this claim discounts the actual labor women put into their careers as erotic dancers.

You could also argue that erotic dance and art dance have two different purposes or ends—the former, sexual arousal, the latter, creative expression. However, as many feminist aestheticians have demonstrated, this view rests on the false assumption that all art is disinterested—that is, that art is definitively exclusive of sexual arousal. For example, if you pay careful attention to Kant’s and Hume’s discussions of sexual arousal, art, and aesthetics, their attempts to separate aesthetic experience from sexual desire just fail. So it’s false to claim that erotic dance has no artistic or aesthetic properties; it’s also, and perhaps more importantly false, to claim that art or aesthetic experience is non-sexual and disinterested. So, unless we want to start taxing Marina Abramovic’s performances because nude bodies may lead to sexual arousal, then we shouldn’t tax erotic dancing.

The law does not, because it cannot, establish a valid and sound distinction between “art” and “entertainment.” The telos of the law is not art, it’s women, women’s bodies, women’s work, and female/femme sexuality. Exempting erotic dance from a tax exemption on creative work/performance/art does not protect art as such. It punishes women, effectively legislating a pay cut.