It’s not every college girl who gets to have her claim of sexual assault aired on the front page of the NYTimes Arts Section or reported by the leading art critic of that paper. In this case, Emma Sulkowicz, the self-reported victim, has not been satisfied by the hearings that were authorized by Columbia University after she reported this rape; the assailant was found to be not responsible and that finding was upheld by a subsequent appeal. Emma followed up by attempting to file charges with the NYC police but she found this so “upsetting” that she dropped that plan.
Some mitigating factors in this story are that Emma had two previous consensual sexual experiences with the fellow student whom she then accused of rape the third time. Although it’s entirely possible that this is exactly what happened, there is also the lingering possibility that two yeses paved the way for the third attempt which was less a rape than a misunderstanding between a couple who had already been intimate twice before. In other words, this was a more “nuanced” assault than one which occurs between two strangers or between two people who have never been physically intimate before. It’s easy to imagine the problems of a panel hearing these accounts and trying to sort out what each person expected based on their past experience. Yes, yes, no is a more complicated situation to parse than NO! followed by a scream for help.
Ms. Sulkowicz decided to make this incident her senior “art project.” She now drags a mattress around campus, intending to keep doing this until the “assailant” leaves or graduates next spring - until her private standard of justice is enacted. She has written up some rules governing the grand shlep and given it a lofty title “Carry That Weight.” Here’s how the premier art critic of the Times describes this “Fulcrum of Art and Political Protest: The work Ms. Sulkowicz is making is strict and lean, yet inclusive and open-ended, symbolically laden yet drastically physical. All of this determines its striking quality as art, which in turn contributes substantially to its effectiveness as protest.” (NYTimes 9/22/14)
But what exactly is Ms. Sulkowicz’s art and what is her political protest? Her decision to drag a mattress instead of a sack of potatoes is so literal that it defies Ms. Smith’s characterization of it as symbolically laden. Her protest is that she didn’t like the verdict that the original panel gave and the appeal process upheld. In fact, this young woman was given two opportunities to have her grievance heard - is she protesting that she should have kept getting an infinite number of hearings until she got the verdict she desired?
In a city with as much artistic activity as NYC, it’s perverse that this un-imaginative bit of make-believe drudgery should become the front and center piece of the NYTimes. Perhaps we need some full disclosure from Ms. Smith as to whether Emma Sulkowicz is really the daughter of a friend, a relative or a very nasty creditor.
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