Emma Sulkowicz recently posted a new work of art on the Web, and I use “work” and “art” in this case with regret that convention requires it.
This is the same artist who spent the last eight months hauling around a mattress as an extended piece of performance art and protest against Columbia University’s alleged mishandling of her rape complaint against another student, Paul Nungesser. The validity of that complaint has been the subject of able investigation by Cathy Young and Robby Soave at Reason.
The facts of the case indicate to Young that Nungesser “may have been the target of a group vendetta.” Soave asked a lawyer with experience in sexual-assault accusations to comment upon Nungesser’s lawsuit against Columbia for its alleged mishandling of Sulkowicz’s rape complaint. He replied, “Here is a man who was found innocent of all charges but whose primary accuser has actually been given course credit for continuing to call him a rapist—and making national news in the process.”
The japers at Jezebel slavered over Sulkowicz. The art world followed along. Her piece, entitled “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight),” was named by Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine one of the best art shows of 2014. That’s not the sort of thing we usually think of as a show, but never mind. “This work is pure radical vulnerability,” he gushed. Ben Davis of Artnet wrote that it was “almost certainly already one of the most important artworks of the year,” and furthermore praised its “thoughtfully composed symbolism.” Roberta Smith wrote for The New York Times, “it seems certain that the piece has set a very high standard for any future work she’ll do as an artist and will also earn her a niche in the history of intensely personal yet aggressively political performance art.”
Emma Sulkowicz’s Latest Performance
That last bit about the standard for her future work may explain why the art press has thus far avoided critical commentary upon her latest effort, which has been described as a sex tape, and not inaptly. It’s a four-way split-screen video of Sulkowicz in an encounter that would seem to recall her version of the episode with Nungesser in her dorm room, complete with mewled protests and complaints about the action.
After four minutes, the man finishes, grabs his clothes, and leaves. She lies around for a long while, by the standards of drama if not video art, and the last few minutes of the recording are devoted to her making her bed and lying in it, the implications of which I think are unintentional.
What moves it into the category of art, besides the fact that it’s not interesting as a sex tape, is its presentation on a Web page below a list of conditions that the artist deems to impose on the viewer. Here we learn the title of the piece, “Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol,” which means “this is not a rape” and refers to Rene Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images. It’s the highbrow equivalent of insipidly naming your art after a Beatles song. In 1929, “Treachery was a bold act of surrealism that raised a philosophical point about the difference between the real and the depicted. Now it’s conceptual art for fourth-graders. People knowledgeable about contemporary art in 2015 don’t find this kind of thing challenging anymore.
Her conditions include some doozies. “Do not watch this video if your motives would upset me, my desires are unclear to you, or my nuances are indecipherable.” Her express desire—“I want to change the world, and that begins with you, seeing yourself”—is preposterous. Deciphering her nuances seems less urgent than analyzing her misdirections. She has made a video depicting a less-than-consensual sexual act and told us it’s not about a rape, and it’s really not about that rape. So perhaps my motives for viewing might upset Sulkowicz. I don’t know. I don’t care. I’m an art critic. It’s practically a tradition for us to harbor nasty motives. When nineteenth-century critic Louis Leroy coined the term “impressionist,” he meant it as an insult.
“If you watch this video without my consent,” she continues, “then I hope you reflect on your reasons for objectifying me and participating in my rape, for, in that case, you were the one who couldn’t resist the urge to make Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol about what you wanted to make it about: rape.”
Think What I Want Or You’re a Rapist
Wait, what? Did I just rape Emma Sulkowicz? Well, okay then, but I wish I had gotten more out of it than this lousy video. “Please, don’t participate in my rape,” she goes on. “Watch kindly.” Sorry, I just looked at my job description and “watch kindly” isn’t on it. So rape it is, if those are the two mutually exclusive options.
That said, I don’t think that this piece is “about: rape” except indirectly. As far as I can tell, it’s an attempt to perpetuate the social and news-cycle momentum of “Mattress Performance” with a related project. Like so many sophomore efforts in the arts, it has gone off the rails. The premise, that the video doesn’t depict a rape but our watching it with motives disagreeable to the artist somehow is an actual rape, is silly. Like I said, the discrepancy between the real and the depicted is no longer challenging.
The suggestion that we’re objectifying her begs the crucial question of whether she’s objectifying herself. It doesn’t even hold up politically. The notion that Sulkowicz is changing the world, starting with our self-examination, sums up the pathetic attitude of postmodernist progressivism. Sing it along with me: Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with you.
The Double Standard for Art Responses
Back in May, Christopher Knight, art critic of record for the Los Angeles Times, wrote an essay about the American Freedom Defense Initiative’s “Muhammad Art Exhibit & Contest” in Garland, Texas, into which would-be American mujahedeen tried to empty their AR-15s. (Speaking of critics with nasty motives.) Of the AFDI and their supporters, Knight said, “What these folks really want is not free speech, but applause and support for spewing hate.… Congress has made no law abridging the right of free speech for [any of these] hack artists. The show itself was proof enough of that. But neither is there a law that requires liking their cheap propaganda, which is all that [Pamela] Geller, [Geert] Wilders and their hateful ilk are after.”
Knight’s surety about what they “really want,” contrary to their stated intentions, is striking. May we do likewise to Sulkowicz and proclaim what she really wants, contrary to her stated intentions? Not according to her. Now, the motives of the audience, what we really want, are the issue. They constitute the difference between helping her change the world and participating in her rape. Supposedly we must flee from viewing her art if we suspect our motives wouldn’t be to her liking. How lovely if a notable art critic had made the equivalent demand of the two Garland attackers and their sympathizers—if your motives would upset the artists, don’t look at the art.
But that’s not how the art world works. Nowadays you’re a radical for appealing to the established critics. Thought policing is standard procedure. Nonconformity? Freedom of expression? Subjective responses? Only if you nonconform and express and respond in the acceptable ways.