What is art? Like really, in this day and age, how do we perceive art and artists? Frankly, how the hell do we find it? Sex, being the primary focus of every major current media platform, has always been a powerful tool in art, so is that the new form of modern art, or is it just exploitation? Can art define our outlook on a particular issue or mood (I explored this theme in a previous piece about James Turrell)? If art is reactionary, and sex certainly causes a reaction, then is porn the most widely spread form of expressionism art in our modern world?
These are all questions that artist and porn star Colby Keller has personified throughout his career. Now with #ColbyDoesAmerica, Keller is taking his years blending these two forms of artistic expression into one, asking the question: can porn be art?
"I started in porn to feed myself," Keller told me recently. Prior to porn, he had worked a series of low-paying jobs. As these jobs often do, they worked Keller hard, for little pay and with zero benefits (even though they were large corporate companies).
"My body was more exploited by these jobs than anything I've ever done in porn," Keller said.
Eventually porn became a means to support himself while he worked on his art. Over time the two started mixing, resulting in Keller becoming one of porns most well known artists (and some drawing comparisons to Marina Ambramovic).
As is often the case with art, a very real life moment became the inspiration for a project that will likely introduce Keller as one of America's next big modern provocative artists.
"I got kicked out of my place," Keller said. He had been living in Baltimore ever since college. Over the 10 years he had lived in the apartment, he turned it into his studio space. Facing the reality of not having anything to do with his stuff, he was at a crossroads.
"I thought about selling it," he said, "but what does that do? It reinforces this commerce driven society we've become." Instead he decided to give it all away, like literally, everything. "The deal was you had to come to my place, choose what you wanted, then sign a document stating that this is an artistic expression, and take a picture."
As it turned out, people had a hard time grasping the idea of someone giving their stuff away for free.
"I literally had to keep telling people, 'No, just sign this, take a picture, and it's yours...' There's this sense of being in debt to someone for a gesture like this, I get it, but it really is just art," he said.
Giving everything away didn't come without controversy.
"Some thought that I was committing suicide, which could not be further from the truth," he said. The most controversial thing he gave away was his Instagram account.
"The reaction to the Instagram account was the most shocking," he said. He gave it away to his friend and fellow artist, Deena Jones. As soon as she started posting pics, followers began using racist and misogynistic language in the comments, calling Jones (an African American woman) a, "Black Widow." The harassment became too much, and eventually she ceased posting pictures. (She now uses @IAmDolbyKeller, which you should follow and call her beautiful.)
Free of possessions, Keller was able to hit the road and start his big new project, #ColbyDoesAmerica. Currently an Indiegogo campaign, Keller is raising money to travel the country and create films, images, pieces of art with fans and artists everywhere.
"This might just be porn, but might not," says Keller. His goal is to create a new project in every state, using local talent and collaborating with people across the country. The models that agree to perform, sexually or otherwise, will be regular folks, local, not necessarily professional models.
"Art is made between people, the space between people," he said. "I need other people to help realize this project... It's hard, there's a lot of room for failure here, for people to laugh at you. It's ridiculous, but it's that ridiculousness that makes it compelling and uncomfortable. These are great tools to work with."
"I don't know if this is just porn or something really great artistically, and I won't know until we do it. Which is why we need to do it, it's why any art needs to be created, to explore ideas."
Access to art isn't easy, and it certainly isn't easy to be a working artist. Which is why it's important to recognize and support a talented artist that's creating engaging work.
What is art? Everything is art.
H. Alan Scott is a writer and comedian based in LA and New York.
This piece first appeared on Thought Catalog.