For this week’s Mahal, I met with author and sex columnist Jill Di Donato at a garden in the Lower East Side. The garden was the perfect place to talk to Jill about her new novel and video, Beautiful Garbage, about the commercialization of sex and art in the LES. Sitting around the cement and trees, we spoke about Jill’s great new book, the history of sex in the LES, and how she managed to interview a bunch of prostitutes.
VICE: Historically, what role has sex played in defining the tone of the LES?
Jill Di Donato: If you think about infrastructure, the LES is flat; architecture is horizontal. People are coming and going. Art is in galleries, as opposed to the museums of upper Manhattan—everything spills out onto the streets, whether that’s food, art, or sex. I’m not using a metaphor. I’m speaking literally. Fighting, gambling, punk rock—these are part of this neighborhood’s history, a neighborhood founded by craftspeople, artisans, cooks, and lovers. That’s not to say the Upper East Side didn’t house brothels and Fifth Avenue mansions where wealthy men kept mistresses. But sex on the LES put up less of a facade.
At the turn of the century, Canal Street cigar stores catered to sailors and working class men looking for prostitutes. With the rise of factories, people were fucking in alleys and doorways of industrial buildings. Even back then, there was this voyeuristic appeal in capturing the seedy sexuality of the neighborhood. In the 1940s, you’ve got Monogram Pictures documenting the original bad boy crew, the East Side Kids (also known as the Bowery Boys). A decade or two later, an influx of artists, musicians, and writers settled in the East Village and SoHo, and the LES took on a more industrial tone. In the 1970s, the LES was an incredibly dangerous place. From the 1980s until recently, the LES became known for hot, underground nightlife. The neighborhood hummed with this cult of exclusivity, but in the most bohemian way.
In what ways have you seen sex influence the art world?
There’s never been a time where sex has not been a part of art. The art world, which is driven by a constant searching—for beauty, talent, money, the newest thing—is inherently sexy. Whenever there’s a yearning for any of these things, let alone all these things in concert with one another, there’s going to be lots of sex.
In your work, you seem to suggest that all people—not just sex workers—use sex to make a living. How does this happen in the New York art scene?
The obvious metaphor is the notion of the art whore, a person who will give any part of him or herself for the recognition factor. I suppose that’s true in any industry, but in the art world, sex and beauty is part of the currency. Inherently art, at its basest definition, intends to elicit an emotional response. We’re all whores to something.
As part of your research, you interviewed prostitutes. How did you end up meeting them?
In Manhattan, I interviewed women who worked as escorts in the 1980s, and many of them went to Ivy League schools and were doing it to keep up with the glamorous lifestyle they stepped into. There were stories of girls being coerced into sex work. Girls who were vulnerable and manipulated. Girls who became mentally ill from prostitution. Girls who were murdered. I wanted to be able to write about a prostitute without exploiting her—without myself feeling like a pimp.
How has sex evolved in the New York art scene?
I love going to art shows where there’s gratuitous nudity, hardcore porno images, and sex paraphernalia, and watching all the erudite uber-cool New Yorkers take it all so seriously. Nothing is dirty any more. I mean you have to be really dirty to be considered dirty these days. Literally, you have to be covered in filth.