Annie Sprinkle has come to terms with the unpleasant reality. With a hint of a grin, the “post-porn” performance artist and former queen of kink concedes that she needs Rep. Dana R. Rohrabacher just as much as he needs her.
“I like exploring forbidden places,” Sprinkle, 35, explains in her sometimes-dreamy, sometimes-deliberate voice. “I like breaking taboos, pushing limits.
“If we didn’t have the other people on the other side, making the taboos and setting the limits, I wouldn’t have anything to explore.”
The 42-year-old Rohrabacher, who represents northwestern Orange County, has never met Sprinkle, a former prostitute and the star of more than 100 hard-core pornographic films. But he’s been thinking about her a lot lately.
The Republican congressman has leveled his guns at an 80-minute, one-woman show that Sprinkle performed last month at the Kitchen, one of New York’s best-known showcases of avant-garde performance art. Rohrabacher’s complaint is that, as he understands it, “Annie Sprinkle: Post Porn Modernist” was staged with the assistance of the United States government.
“Does the following performance sound like an appropriate use of tax dollars to you?” Rohrabacher asked last week in a “Dear Colleague” letter circulated to all 435 members of the House of Representatives. The letter, which has become a hot item around Washington, went on to list various acts reportedly performed by Sprinkle with an assortment of inanimate objects and gynecological instruments.
Whether the Sprinkle shows ever actually received any of the taxpayers’ money is a matter of some debate: Government officials in New York say they “purposefully did not fund” them because, artistically, the shows were found wanting. Still, the controversy has become the latest touchstone in Rohrabacher’s campaign to prevent the National Endowment for the Arts, which Congress funds, from supporting indecent or obscene artwork.
Last year, Rohrabacher tried unsuccessfully to eliminate government funding for the arts, citing the Libertarian argument that art ought to be free of government interference. He later returned to the issue when he aligned himself with conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) in an attempt to ban NEA sponsorship of “offensive” artwork.
The latest flap pits Rohrabacher against Sprinkle, the NEA, the New York State Council on the Arts, and The Kitchen Center for Video, Music, Dance, Performance and Film in lower Manhattan. While Sprinkle’s artistic credentials may be open to dispute, those of the Kitchen apparently are not. The New York State Council on the Arts has helped support the Kitchen for nearly 20 years. Among the theater’s other patrons are the American Express Philanthropic Program, the AT&T; Foundation, IBM, Chase Manhattan, CitiBank, the Morgan Guaranty Trust Co. of New York and the New York Times Foundation. Its board of directors includes Laurie Anderson, a performance artist, and Philip Glass, a composer and musician, both of whom have performed there. The New York Times has referred to the Kitchen as “New York’s pioneering and premiere space for the avant-garde performing arts.”
“It’s not a fly-by-night organization,” said Tim Mulligan, a spokesman for the New York arts council.
Officials of both the embattled NEA and the New York State Council on the Arts insist that they did not specifically approve financing for Sprinkle’s performances and that their money did not support her shows.
Rohrabacher, however, contends that the NEA underwrote the Sprinkle shows at the Kitchen in two ways: indirectly, through a $60,000 grant to help pay the Kitchen’s operating expenses, and through a $25,000 grant from the New York arts council for a series of shows this year. The New York arts council receives $500,000 from the NEA.
“The (state) arts council receives funds from the NEA, but those funds are used for administrative salaries, and not granted to the Kitchen,” said Barbara Tsumagari, the theater’s executive director. Furthermore, Tsumagari said, the arts council did not use any state funds to support Sprinkle’s shows.
The Kitchen originally applied for a state arts grant for 36 shows in its performance art series, including four shows by Sprinkle. The state arts council approved a $25,000 grant for 32 shows, but did not specifically list the shows that were to be funded.
“The council purposefully did not fund the full series because it believed that the Annie Sprinkle presentation was not of an artistic quality to warrant council support,” the council said in a statement.
As for the $60,000 operating grant from the NEA, Tsumagari said, “because the endowment gives (operating) money does not mean the endowment is literally funding every single activity of an institution.” Tsumagari said Rohrabacher is attempting to hold the national endowment responsible for the actions of the institutions that receive its support.
“I think that’s a very dangerous argument,” she said. “I think his use of this incident is reckless because (what he says) is not factually accurate.”
Rohrabacher dismissed that explanation. “It’s clear from everything they’ve said that they did not prohibit the use of any of their funds for Miss Sprinkle’s performance,” Rohrabacher said. “They felt that denying funds to an act that was as sexually graphic and even pornographic as the one Miss Sprinkle was engaging in . . . would be an act of censorship. . . . These people are living in the Twilight Zone.”
For her part, Sprinkle chooses not to discuss the specifics of the financial dispute. But she will tell you, “My (tax) money goes to a lot of things I don’t like. I’m paying for nuclear bombs. I’m paying for wars. . . . My tax dollars are going for art that I think is really stupid and boring and trivial.”
Furthermore, Sprinkle says, “in a sense, I feel I am government-sponsored in general. I pay taxes, I’m a taxpayer, I walk on city streets, they give me water, they have police to protect me. So they’re sponsoring me to do whatever it is that I do.”
Annie Sprinkle is anything but reticent about discussing her views of art, pornography, censorship, the federal government, Rohrabacher and sexuality, not necessarily in that order.
Sprinkle, born Ellen Steinberg in the San Fernando Valley, looks more like a New Age Goldie Hawn than a pornographer. Her dark hair is barely tamed. She favors tie-dyed tights under short, black skirts. And she can screw up her face into a self-consciously innocent grin that would put Fanny Brice to shame.
She loves diamonds. But not the usual variety. She wears a real one in an upper incisor and shows off a black, diamond-shaped tattoo that circles her right ring-finger.
“It’s my diamond ring,” she says.
She lives in a modest, midtown Manhattan apartment that houses an extensive library of literature on Tantric and Taoist sexual practices, whimsical pornographic photos, an energy altar of incense and candles, and a pair of black spike-heeled boots that hang on a wall.
“Those are bed boots,” she says. “You can’t stand up in them.”
Another wall is filled with Polaroid photographs of men and women in various stages of undress and display.
“This is my friend Les, the transsexual,” Sprinkle explains. “He was a woman who became a man. Here I made him up as a woman. This is me dressed up like a guy. This is my Tantric sex teacher. This is my mother. . . .”
Sprinkle is serious about her work and what she says is the threat of censorship. But she bounces her way through the thickets of philosophical debate with the off-kilter finesse of a Gracie Allen.
“I consider myself a sex researcher,” she says. “I study my own sexuality, I study other people’s sexuality. . . . I read a lot of books. I do it every which-way. . . . That’s what I do in life. That’s my job. And that has taken me into all kinds of areas, including pornography and prostitution. And now art.”
Sprinkle describes her move out of pornography and into performance art and the higher realms of sexuality as a journey that has delivered her from the “junk sex” that is the staple of most Americans’ diets.
“In terms of mainstream porn, I find it boring and dull, and I’m over it,” she says. In its place, Sprinkle says she is exploring the outer reaches of sexuality in an eclectic approach that combines Eastern philosophy, meditative breathing, spirituality and healing.
“Sex is not really about genitals, it’s more about energy. You can learn to build energy, share it with a partner, send it out to the universe, channel it for healing, or whatever. You can have an orgasm just from breathing.”
In an article on feminist pornographers that appears in the most recent issue of Mother Jones, Sprinkle is quoted as saying, “I want to be the Shirley MacLaine of porno.”
Despite Rohrabacher’s graphic description of her performance, Sprinkle says her show was not intended to arouse.
The show was “not about being erotic,” she says. “My work is about deconstructing mainstream images of what is sexy.”
In one segment, for example, she projects on one side of the stage erotic photographs that she has taken in her apartment/studio. On the other side are photographs of the models as they arrived for the photo session, in street clothes and without makeup. The piece is called, “The Transformation Salon.”
“It totally smashes their image of what a model is,” she says. At the end of the piece, Sprinkle tells the audience: “Maybe there’s a little porn star in some of you, and maybe not. But I can tell you from a lot of experience that there’s a lot of you in every porn star.”
In “Bosom Ballet,” Sprinkle cups, twists and nearly ties a knot with her ample breasts. Writing in Mother Jones, Laura Fraser observed that the piece works at “exaggerating people’s big interest in big breasts.”
In another piece, Sprinkle performs oral sex on inanimate objects. However, she says the piece, which features a background tape of men’s voices making suggestive remarks, is intended to deal with the subject of sexual abuse.
“I cry, I scream, I spit. It’s very visceral,” Sprinkle says. “But the congressman, he saw it as just sucking on sex toys. . . . It was a prop to express pain and agony and sadness and grief. If you take it out of context, it may sound like a 42nd-Street (pornographic) show, but it was so far from that.”
But is it art?
An earlier version of the show received a favorable review in Art Forum, a national art magazine. “Sprinkle went beyond nakedness, revealing so much of herself that it transcended eroticism to become something even more primal,” reviewer C. Carr wrote. Sprinkle also has been interviewed by Drama Review, another highbrow publication.
“Annie has been looked at by the serious art community,” the Kitchen’s Tsumagari explained. "(Her) program I think is a serious work that deals with very serious issues. It is well within the tradition of experiment that the Kitchen has pursued for 20 years.”
A statement released by the theater said, “The performances of Annie Sprinkle were an important and timely contribution to an on-going examination of gender issues as they relate to the mass media . . . (including) the nature of pornography and the treatment of women.”
Even Rohrabacher said he is unwilling to say that Sprinkle is not an artist.
“I can’t make that judgment. Let’s let the people decide for themselves what’s art and what isn’t. If people want to spend their money to see Annie Sprinkle, they have every right to do so, and she has every right to present herself to the public.
“The only thing I’m complaining about is when, directly, or indirectly, they’re putting tax dollars into her garter belt.”