Opinion

Protest Art, and Institutional Support of It, Is More Vital Than Ever

In the Trump era, the courage of artists like my former student, Emma Sulkowicz, and the institutions showing them is absolutely crucial.

Emma Sulkowicz and the rules of engagement of "Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)" (2014–15) (via Wikimedia Commons)
Emma Sulkowicz and the rules of engagement of “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)” (2014–15) (via Wikimedia Commons)

I was lying in bed in Marrakech, on vacation with my wife and daughter, when an email from the Associated Press popped up on my laptop, asking if I’d like to make a statement regarding the lawsuit. “What lawsuit?,” I replied, and then closed my computer and went to sleep. The next morning, I awoke to numerous requests for statements from other news agencies and a response from AP that informed me that I, along with Columbia University and its president, Lee Bollinger, was being sued.  The plaintiff, a young man, was a former Columbia student who I didn’t know. His lawsuit — 56 pages long and poorly written — explained that another Columbia student, a young woman, had alleged that the plaintiff had raped her. That young woman, that other student, was Emma Sulkowiczmy student, and an artist of exceptional talent.

That was less than two and half years ago, but, in many ways, it was a world away from today. Obama, a self-declared feminist, was president; freedom of expression was a given; and I had never even heard of the “manosphere” and “men’s rights” groups that populated the margins. Now those men occupy the White House, our president boasts about committing sexual assault, and freedom of expression has taken a bizarre turn, or rather multiple bizarre turns.  Trump attacks the free press, a necessary component of democracy, and declares the media an “enemy of the people.” Neo-Nazis and white nationalists, emboldened by Trump, march through US streets armed to the teeth and fascists organize “free speech” rallies. On the left, there have also been calls to cancel speakers with repugnant views and for art deemed offensive to be removed from museums and destroyed.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m an artist and a professor of visual arts at Columbia. Emma Sulkowicz came into my life in 2012 as a sophomore in my advanced sculpture class, where her intense focus, creativity, and talent stood out. At my urging, Emma applied to the Yale Norfolk Summer Program at the end of her junior year and was accepted. My students, past and current, know that my door is always open and while at Yale, Emma phoned to ask me what I thought about an idea she had for an endurance performance piece. She told me that another student, a friend of hers, had raped her, and that university officials had failed to expel him. Her plan for her senior thesis was to make an artwork that addressed this injustice. As an art professor, part of my job is to help students execute the piece that’s in their head, to help shape the parameters and conditions for that work, and to help them distill the essential idea — especially given that young artists often attempt to do too much in a single artwork. I also help them understand the historical precedents that inform it. Emma’s project touched on numerous established art forms: endurance performance, institutional critique, and political art. I gave her a crash course on some of the seminal artists who helped define each of those forms, such as Tehching Hsieh, Marina Abramović and Ulay, Michael Asher, Chris Burden, and Coco Fusco. Later, my work as a professor — work I do with all of my students — was distorted in the lawsuit, which falsely claimed that I “jointly designed” her project in an act of “Columbia-sponsored calumny.” I did no such thing. The brilliance of Emma’s artwork belongs to her alone.

As the beginning of her senior year approached, Emma was busy formulating her rules of engagement for “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight).” I was excited for her, but also questioned whether she, or anyone for that matter, could follow through with such a rigorous, burdensome, and potentially year-long work. My doubts were misplaced. Emma is a force, and her tenacious perseverance impressed me. The simplicity of her gesture in comparison to the enormity of its subject hit a chord with college students across the country, as well as with the public at large and the media. She became an eloquent spokesperson for ending sexual assault on college campuses, and for reform regarding how colleges address sexual assault when it occurs. She was honored by the National Organization for Women and attended one of Obama’s State of the Union addresses as Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s guest. She also received recognition from the art world that few artists get in a lifetime. Jerry Saltz, for example, called “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)” one of the best artworks of the year.

Emma was also the target of attention of a very different kind. The manosphere, a loose knit network of groups that believe men are an oppressed class, began a deplorable campaign that viciously harassed Emma, spewing misogynist myths too vile to repeat, and demanded that the university shut down her performance. Men’s rights trolls began appearing in the comments section of any article that mentioned her, including in the Columbia student newspaper, The Spectator. I took some comfort in the poor grammar and spelling of their loathsome rants — these shameful idiots were in all likelihood not Columbia students, and therefore not on campus with us. I should add here that I too was targeted, including an anonymous threat sent to my email.

Now Trump is in the White House, and those hateful trolls are no longer on the margins. In a decision that mirrors Trump’s infamous “blame on both sides” comment in response to Heather Heyer’s murder by a white supremacist, Betsy DeVos recently invited not only victims’ rights advocates, but the lords of the manosphere themselves to a meeting held to address federal policy regarding sexual assault on college campuses. Among the men’s rights groups that attended were the National Coalition for Men (NCFM) and Stop Abusive Violent Environments (SAVE), organizations that claim domestic abuse and rape allegations are part of a feminist conspiracy to demonize men. Women who are beaten and raped are often the instigators, they claim, not the victims. NCFM has a long history of harassing victims of sexual assault, publishing their names and photos on their websites. SAVE has a section called “Rape Culture Hysteria” on its website and is listed as a misogynist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Both organizations were part of the concerted effort to silence Emma. On Friday, these misogynist hate groups were validated when DeVos rescinded the Title IX protections that the Obama administration had extended to cover sexual assault on campuses

The lawsuit brought against me, Bollinger, and Columbia — ironically a Title IX lawsuit — perversely argued that the man whom Emma had accused (and who was found “not responsible” by Columbia’s sexual assault panel) was discriminated against on the basis of his gender. The case was twice dismissed in Federal Court and has now been settled. While it caused me considerable anxiety, not once have I regretted my role in helping Emma produce this powerful artwork and I would not do anything differently if I had the chance to do it over. And Columbia, an institution that is committed to freedom of expression, was right to not bow to pressure to shut it down. I am deeply proud of Emma’s courage, grace, and artistic integrity.

In the era of Trump, with its emboldened and empowered misogynists, white supremacists, fascists, racists, and climate deniers, protest art is more crucial than ever. Artists must not cower from expressing their views, and institutions must continue to support challenging works so that those messages continue to be heard.

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