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On the End of Emma Sulkowicz's Art Career

Post #1850 • November 21, 2019, 3:28 PM

[Image: Emma Sulkowicz’s protest performance, with a Chuck Close mosaic at the Second Avenue subway 86th Street station, photo by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang]

Emma Sulkowicz’s protest performance, with a Chuck Close mosaic at the Second Avenue subway 86th Street station, photo by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang

Back in 2014, Emma Sulkowicz took to hauling a mattress around the campus of Columbia University, where she was matriculating at the time. She did so in response to what she characterized as mishandling by the school of her sexual assault complaint against a fellow student. This act garnered her praise from the art world that approximated drooling. Jerry Saltz called it "pure radical vulnerability," and Ben Davis said that it was "almost certainly already one of the most important artworks of the year." Roberta Smith, the rightful owner of Jerry Saltz's Pulitzer Prize, got as caught up as any of them but noted presciently:

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.

I paid Sulkowicz little mind until she produced a follow-up work in 2015 so aggressively presumptuous and head-breakingly stupid that it moved me to critique it for The Federalist. Her act of self-expression consisted of a video of someone having rough sex with her. She presented the video alongside demands and conditions that she had no place to make. One of them stipulated that anyone viewing the video critically was participating in her rape. Longtime readers will remember my essay by its title, "Oops, I guess I just raped Emma Sulkowicz."

In an irony of fate, this linked me and her for years after. Until somewhat recently, if you searched "Emma Sulkowicz" on Google, my name came up, in the form of that article, on the first page of results. If you searched on me, her name came up, in the form of that article, on the first page of results. The old adage comes to mind about why you don't wrestle pigs—you get covered in mud and the pig likes it.

That brings us to 2019, which sees Sulkowicz back into the news, though not for her art. Apparently she has stopped making it. No, the news here is that she has started talking to conservatives and libertarians as if they were real people. Writing for New York, Sylvie McNamara profiled Sulkowicz as she attended a party for Reason author Robby Soave, spoke of befriending the family of Jonathan Haidt (author of The Righteous Mind), and sat down for a chat with an unnamed conservative fellow whom she dated briefly and remains friendly with.

At this point you may be thinking what many others are thinking, that she is engaged in yet another performance piece and we're all getting suckered. "But Sulkowicz is adamant that this isn't performance," reports McNamara. "Having found the art world humorless, narrow-minded, and grotesquely competitive, Sulkowicz says she stopped making art about a year ago. She quit a fellowship at a museum, ceased teaching art classes, and was essentially unemployed for a time, drawing income from occasional speaking gigs, mostly about campus sexual assault." McNamara later quotes Sulkowicz: "I’m a human and humans can change."

Let's go with that.

Back in 2015, I looked forward to Sulkowicz keeping me in story pitches for The Federalist for decades to come. But then she supplied them, and I shrank back. In 2017 she arranged for a professional dominator to lash her to a beam and abuse her. For one, I didn't think that I could explain its significance, such as it had any, to Federalist readers. (It somehow commented on the limitations of art school.) But also, the eagerness that I felt to savage her two years earlier had dissolved into pity.

Then, in January 2018, she had herself photographed in front of works by Chuck Close and Picasso. She wore black panties, and tape arranged over her nipples to form two asterisks. She had also drawn asterisks on her bare skin. This was to make the point that the museums should place asterisks next to the artists' names, leading to footnotes describing their sexual indiscretions. Yes, that really was the whole thing. The headline at Jezebel read, "Emma Sulkowicz Still Has Our Attention," but clearly they were the only ones. The situation spoke of a talent getting used up. Say what you will about her talent to begin with, that can happen to anyone. Pity turned to sympathy.

Sympathy within limits, anyway. Sulkowicz reported her onetime paramour to Columbia's Office of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct, aiming to have him thrown out of school. Long after Columbia found him "not responsible," as the ruling put it, she filed a complaint against him with the New York Police Department. When they declined to pursue charges, she created her mattress performance and effectively made him the subject of an international shaming campaign. Whatever did happen between the two of them, someone at Columbia ought to have summoned the common sense to put a stop to this, if only for self-interested legal reasons. The accused brought his own suit against Columbia, which the school settled on undisclosed terms.

Nevertheless, here she is, comporting herself in a manner that people ought, when it comes to other viewpoints: investigating them in a spirit of curiosity and moral imagination instead of the shrieking judgment to which art worlders and progressive activists have long goaded her. Moreover, she is communicating a need for this investigation using her example, and not the ham-fisted symbols in which her art trafficked. It is an example that few of the art worlders, whom she has left behind, will be able to follow. It may sound like an implicit insult, but I mean it as praise: this is her bravest work yet.

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