Emma Sulkowicz, recent Columbia grad and performance artist best known for Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight), has released her newest project: Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol, “This Is Not A Rape,” an “homage” to the classic Rene Magritte piece. Responses range from pointlessly gross on the conservative side to stunned confusion & muddied messages from feminists.
Upon arriving at the page, visitors are greeted with an artist’s statement in which Sulkowicz requests certain things from her audience– most pointedly, she requests that you “do not watch this video if your motives would upset [her].” The video portrays her and an actor in a staged dorm room sex scene which, we’re told, “is consensual but may resemble rape.” She also provides questions for viewers meant to probe at our own intentions.
I didn’t watch the video. It was described. I can imagine it. It doesn’t sound like something I would enjoy or would learn from.
Especially considering that, as she describes in her very own statement: “it’s about you, not him.”
Before I get at what I think Sulkowicz is trying to relate, I’d ask you: what has she done? I’ve read the transcripts of both parties’ communication, so I’m fully versed in the context, but the question remains. If Sulkowicz is a sinister sociopathic puppetmaster, what damage has her plan wrought? The accused, Paul Nungesser, is likely emotionally distressed by the situation and the attendant struggles that come with suing Columbia University.
And that’s it.
He’s not going to jail. He will have a stigma attached to him for the rest of his life, but that stigma will also draw people to him– his defenders. Same with Sulkowicz: if Nungesser is a lying predator, then she suffers emotional distress from her assault and nothing else happens. Some will hate her, others will protect her, there is a kind of balance between the two forces.
I’m not equalizing their suffering; I’m attempting to illustrate that, through a practical lens, the impact of Sulkowicz’s accusation is all but nil. Nungesser and Sulkowicz walk away from this terrible situation with an emotional mess that can’t be resolved. “What happened” can’t be answered, it’s a moot point now. Everything since has had only one measurable effect on their lives, and, in turn, our lives: visibility.
Emma Sulkowicz is violated. This is all we can know. No way to verify her feelings, same as all feelings. Her violation is public, and she tells us, and we can either trust her or not. Her claim of violation is her one point of influence. That’s not a reduction of her experiences, it’s an assessment of the audience’s perspective. Her claim of violation is the single aspect of her infinite individuality that inspires near every opinion about her.
That’s italicized for emphasis, and I’ll even rephrase it before the onslaught: the vast majority of Sulkowicz’s critics blame her for doing a “bad thing,” and that bad thing is, in essence, her public ownership of her feelings of violation.
And how do people respond to this “bad thing,” her behavior? Here’s a collection of highly-upvoted comments in a thread about the performance in r/TumblrInAction, a subreddit dedicated to mocking radical Tumblrinas. (Full disclosure: I hate both of these communities.)
The comment section available at the bottom of Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol is yet another source of vitriol, but those comments are made in a vacuum and further anonymous than Reddit. I don’t wish to draw any conclusions about men, or Redditors, but only Sulkowicz’s critics– the critics are furious, violent, spiteful, and frightened. It’s what she recognized and counted on for the success of this piece. We know this happens when women try to own any part of themselves, men panic and try to stop it, because we’re supposed to own all the parts of women (a preceding conclusion that I’m happy to draw about men).
To that end, she’s created a piece of art that challenges us to take it seriously at every step, provoking all sorts of discredit: the title is a deliberate reference to a legendary painting, forcing the juxtaposition of a recent grad against one of the masters. She includes an artist’s statement that prods at us in many ways, asking self-reflective questions that are certain to get the reactionaries boiling over. It even starts with a trigger warning, current noted blight on free thought. Many viewers seem to think this is footage of her actual rape, a confusion that, despite clarifying in the statement, she seems to have no qualms allowing given the video’s content and relation to her experiences.
“Look, she’s admitting, honestly, that she aspires to change the world– how naive and dumb to feel that way.”
“Ha, demanding consent to view a prurient video that she released amidst intense scrutiny, how dare she? Where does she get the nerve to ask things of us, as if we should respect her? Why would we do that?”
Why would you not do that?
These responses are only words on the internet, but those words are governed by feelings, and these feelings are disproportionate. Her critics trumpet that they assess Sulkowicz and Nungesser’s conflict objectively as they allow their aggressive fantasies to run wild, making me wonder what ground they hold over Emma when it comes to not operating on pure feels.
Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol may come across as a shallow statement to those versed in art history. I’m not the guy who knows. What I’m witnessing here is Sulkowicz doing her damnedest to somehow reach those who hate her most, sacrificing her sexual body and, hand-in-hand as always, the respect of the public. Her hope is that one confused man may read her words, watch the video, and maybe, just maybe, that man will wonder “Why?” That scenario could have odds of ten-million-to-one, but I’m sure you can find videos with 10,000,000 hits on Pornhub.
In an interview with ArtNet, Sulkowicz admits that she believes vulnerability is the best way to change the world, and that the media buzz around her life has been, in a word, “terrifying.” Otherwise, she keeps the intent of the piece guarded, afraid of influencing the response.
There was a feature I noticed just before I began writing this. I’m surprised I didn’t catch it before, my eyes simply glazed over its function in the text. I’d like to direct you back to the header of Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol, where “Artist’s Statement” is blanked out, all but its bookends.
I’ve seen no commentary about, no mention of this detail as I’ve scrambled through reactions. In yet another hamhanded-to-the-point-of-deliberate turn, Sulkowicz makes her intentions clear: she knows that her statement is superseded & ignored, her desires are ignored, even her acknowledgement of this ignorance goes ignored. In the face of her one accusation, everything she does next is forfeit. It is rape culture, it is FYGM, it is irrational, and the only option she has left is to keep running into it headlong in hopes she won’t be the first destroyed.
For all the uproar around her request for consent, I have seen no pause at her most direct prescription, found at the end of her statement: “Please, don’t participate in my rape. Watch kindly.” The second phrase is all it takes to honor the first.