Linear Perspective

The naked man in the baby pool posed fetchingly on all fours. Krylon Superstar had just wriggled out of his tutu and sprinkled himself with glitter. It was time for the grand finale. A stagehand emerged to light a sparkler, which fizzed cheerfully, sending off little flickers of white light.

The sparkler, of course, was sticking out of Krylon Superstar’s ass.

Now in its eleventh year, the Sex Workers’ Art Show bills itself as a blend of consciousness-raising, entertainment, and titillation. The show’s national tour gives workers in the sex industry—strippers, porn actors, burlesque dancers, dominatrixes—a chance to present a more nuanced view of their profession. They critique and celebrate. They get naked.

But when I first heard about the show, I focused on the third word in the title: What would a stripper have to say about art? This question in mind, I joined the line of more than 100 people waiting on Saturday for the show’s one-night-only stop at the Adams House Pool Theater.

Every play and painting and song may be an attempt at art, but not all of them succeed. True art provides more than entertainment or information. There’s something else there, something elusive. Novelist Vladimir Nabokov argued that you feel art in your spine, where it prompts a “telltale tingle” of aesthetic bliss.

In search of this tingle, I filed into the packed theater and took my seat. There was a golden pole on a stand at one side of the stage. I tried not to speculate about what it was going to be used for.

“You came to see naked ladies, right?” founder and tour manager Annie Oakley called out as the show began. The audience whooped. I chewed nervously on the end of my pen. I was there for the art.

First on the program was the World Famous *BOB*, a burlesque dancer whose legendary breasts have been featured in books, films, and television series. She warmed up with the story of her hapless career as a dominatrix, explaining that every time the person paying her screamed, she would drop the whip and ask them, “Are you okay?” Her comic timing was impeccable, and the audience couldn’t stop laughing. Then, suddenly, her clothes were gone and she was twirling the enormous tassles on her nipples.

Impressive, I had to admit. But it wasn’t art.

Other burlesque dancers followed, adding a heavy dose of politics. There was Miss Dirty Martini, who came onstage dressed as blind justice and proceeded to gorge herself on dollar bills. It was an indictment of the Bush administration, and she had an American flag covering her crotch. Krylon Superstar started off by giving members of the audience a lap dance and then sang a protest song. The sparkler he put up his ass had, I think, something to do with America.

I talked to Miss Dirty Martini after the show, and she told me that burlesque was an American folk art, the dance equivalent of jazz. There was something mesmerizing about the ability of these performers to transform the act of taking off their underwear into an event.

It wasn’t just the shock of the nudity. I had assumed that hidden panels of Velcro would enable a dramatic baring of all available assets. Instead, each of the three burlesque performers shimmed their panties over their hips with a prolonged, deliberate awkwardness. They didn’t let the audience forget that what they were doing was something that everyone in that room did every day. There was something more in this than the razzle-dazzle of the pasties or the sheer stage presence of the performers. I began to see in burlesque the glimmer, the shiver, of art.

It was the pole dancing, though, that really convinced me. Performance artist Erin Markey started out with comedy, talking about trying to support herself after college by becoming a stripper. Markey had a cloud of puckish hair and dark-painted eyes, and she explained that the strip club had asked her to pick a stripper name. What she chose, she explained, was Bridget, her sister’s confirmation name and the patron saint of childbirth. At first this seemed a little sacrilegious. But then Markey started to sing.

She was topless, in gold panties and leather boots, arching her body around the golden pole. It was incredibly sexy, but it was more than that. She was singing about Bridget, the saint of childhood, and how she spread her legs, as Markey, too, slid up the pole and spread her legs wide. She kept climbing higher, looking at the audience with that sultry exhibitionist gaze but also reaching up, aiming for something more.

It was thrilling and thought-provoking and beautiful, and it was pushing beyond all these into something else, a kind of constant striving.

That didn’t just count as art, I realized, spellbound; it embodied it.

—Staff writer Lois E. Beckett can be reached at lbeckett@fas.harvard.edu.