Writer and activist Grace Dunham was invited to speak last year at New York's Frieze Art Fair, appearing alongside her longtime collaborator artist/writer/activist Reina Gossett, writer Karley Sciortino, and artist/filmmaker Leilah Weintraub. Moderator Casey Jane Ellison asked the panelists to speak about the concept of "hotness," particularly how the panelists see themselves through that lens. Given that Dunham doesn't identify as a hot woman, or a woman at all, she gave a speech on value and systems of evaluation. (Word has it that the speech provoked some productive tension on the stage.)
Some things about me are that I’m white, that I have relatively famous parents, and that my sister is a celebrity. I also have a vagina, which makes people think I’m a woman. I have an intimate relationship with a black trans activist, Reina, who by being in a public collaborative relationship with me validates my perspective and—despite my whiteness, my class, and my proximity to fame—makes my critique of power seem legitimate in ways it otherwise might not. In other words, as a commodity, I have power through my associations with social capital; in addition, I hold a set of marginalized identities which give me intellectual authority and increased use-value in contexts seeking "diversity."
I was paid $500 to speak on this panel, which is very little money compared to what the objects in at this fair sell for, but a lot of money for a 23 year-old gender-nonconforming person to get paid for sitting on a stage for an hour.
So, in the eyes of this market, the market meaning this system of evaluation, those are the reasons I’m valuable. This is why I’m valuable, and that’s how valuable I am.
And, of course, because this is the system we live in, because this is the system in which I came to know myself, sometimes it feels good to be valuable. Sometimes it feels good to be told I’m valuable, to believe that I’m special.
But this type of validation—validation through systems of evaluation, through the lens of power, through the lens of markets—is not the same as feeling known, and not the same as being loved.
It’s very different than when someone—a loved one, even a stranger—reflects something back at me that feels like the core of who I am rather than the sum of my evaluated parts.
Like last month, in Los Angeles, at a bar in the valley, when an older trans woman I didn’t know touched the side of my face and told me I was a pretty baby boy; or when someone I desire touches the back of my neck.
Of course, these moments of feeling seen are not always outside the systems through which our value is assessed and appraised. Like I said, this is the system we live in, and this is the system in which we come to know ourselves. This is the system in which we’re trying to be loved.
Sometimes a beautiful woman wants me—maybe she likes that from certain angles I look like a boy, that I’m sweet and honest, well-spoken and self-aware; maybe she also likes that I am the way I am despite, or even because of, my proximity to power, to money, and to fame. And maybe she tells me she wants me, and I sense the many reasons, but it still feels good and I want to be wanted.
So, again, the ways in which we are evaluated are not always separate from the ways we might want to be seen. How could they be? There is no purity in capitalism, as Reina taught me, no purity in this culture of assessment and evaluation.
And in this culture, it’s real to wonder, “Why am I valuable?” Valuable, as in evaluated; valuable, as in deemed valuable. And it’s real to ask what about being evaluated, what about being deemed valuable, makes people think they feel good, makes people want to continue being deemed valuable.
From having grown up surrounded by artists, I know what it does to their sense of self-worth to have themselves—their work—evaluated, priced, and consumed in a competitive monetary market. It becomes harder and harder to distinguish between yourself, your “work,” and the ways that you are evaluated.
From being close to fame, I know that—in some capacity—fame harms everyone. I know that fame isolates those who hold it, that fame pains those who long for it.
People like to complain about art fairs: they like to complain about the blatant economy of buying and selling, and the social life that exists around it, or because of it. But I think this fair lays bare an economy of competitive evaluation, of pricing, selling, and buying, of social life through inclusion and exclusion. I think it lays bare the many ways that people try to fill the big holes in their hearts that result from and, in turn, reproduce this kind of economy.
I wonder if the artists here, maybe some of you in the audience, feel like being recognized—your work being recognized as valuable, through praise or press or money—makes you feel like you yourself are worth more. And I wonder if, whether or not you’d like to admit it, being priced and sold, having your work sell well or not sell well at all, has affected your sense of your own worth more than you’d like. I wonder if you’re jealous of other artists, who sell more or sell better, who are more known, more recognized, more appreciated.
If there are dealers and collectors in the audience, I wonder how selling art and buying art makes you feel about your own worth. Does it make you feel less boring, more relevant, more powerful, more attractive? Do you feel some shame about the fact that you sell or buy, instead of make? Do you wish more people knew your name? Do you wish more people loved you or wanted you?
I don’t ask these question because I hold judgement, or because I think that you should be judged. I ask because I think that these emotions are the logical result of a culture that breaks us down and assesses us, makes us feel like we’re worth more if we’re powerful, if we’re rich, if we’re known; a culture that makes us feel like we’ll be loved more if we have those things, and if we are those things.
So if the question is, “Why am I valuable?” I wonder what different answers we might get if we asked ourselves, “Who do I want to be?” and “How do I want to be loved?”