An especially acute headline in The Onion once proclaimed, “Marilyn Manson Now Going Door-to-Door Trying to Shock People.” It’s an addictive thing, fame, and when it no longer need have any connection to talent, it can seem available for the begging. As Mr. Manson discovered, though, yesterday’s subversion is today’s shtick.
Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia University art-department cynosure known as “Mattress Girl,” has become a new Marilyn Manson. Seeking to keep her notoriety alive, she has created a “performance art” piece in which she is tied up in her scanties, hoisted in the air, and beaten for the amusement and edification of spectators. We’ll spare you the pictures. Suffice it to say that if they depicted your daughter, your first thought probably would not be, “My little girl is so empowered.”
Sulkowicz became a global celebrity three years ago by turning an almost certainly false accusation of rape into a brainless performance-art project in which she dragged a mattress around campus. She kept it up all the way to her graduation ceremony, after which she promptly released a pornographic sex tape.
How, then, to retain the exhilaration of being in the public eye? Earlier this year, she pretended to be a therapist at a Philadelphia gallery, where she chatted with patrons for 30-minute sessions and called the effort The Healing Touch Integral Wellness Center. That didn’t exactly titillate the world media, though, so she returned to the source of her original notoriety: fictitious sexual attack. This time, though, she linked the matter to President Trump.
Sulkowicz told the site Broadly that she was inspired by a Bertolt Brecht quotation: “What good is art hung on the wall of a sinking ship?” The quote appears to come from Brecht’s essay “Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties,” in which he warns of a war that “may well leave our continent a heap of ruins” and adds, “It is not untrue that chairs have seats and that rain falls downward. Many poets write truths of this sort. They are like a painter adorning the walls of a sinking ship with a still life.” Brecht published the essay in Paris in 1935, and since we all know that Trump is Hitler, so far, so predictable. Any convocation of artists these days that fails to draw the comparison is as unthinkable as a Star Trek convention without someone dressed as Mr. Spock.
To get her point across, Sulkowicz decided to put on an American-flag bikini and “hang from the wall of the gallery in the shape of a figurehead of a ship, making a statement about the impotence of artwork during our given circumstances.” The Broadly writer went on to explain that “after what seemed like days — but was was really about 45 minutes,” a middle-aged man in a suit identified as “Master Avery” tied up Sulkowicz and hoisted her off the ground using pulleys. Sulkowicz wound up wrapped around a suspended beam, and “the rope visibly cut into her skin as Master Avery took off his belt and started hitting her with it.”
Transgressive! There is much possibility to contemplate in Sulkowicz’s work. What societal ill couldn’t she highlight by taking off her clothes and getting abused in front of an audience? Maybe next she’ll spark a dialogue on Islamophobia by having performers dressed as a rabbi, a minister, and a priest take turns flogging her while she writhes on a prayer rug wearing only a headscarf. Perhaps she’ll draw attention to inequality by turning up in a gallery wearing a costume made of dollar bills and having a snickering fellow done up like the Monopoly Man peel them off her. Maybe she’ll protest global warming by inviting us into an overheated studio to watch her sit on a melting block of ice in a G-string and pasties.
Sulkowicz is being praised for “channeling her rage,” but it seems a trifle opportunistic to purport to be enraged at the Trump administration for something that (again, almost certainly) didn’t happen to her in the Obama years. Her fans say she “continues to provoke,” although like Marilyn Manson she seems to have arrived more quickly than she’d have liked at the point where the main things she provokes are cringing and yawning. Mattress Girl is indeed a sad, pathetic victim, but what has led her to her present state of unfortunate desperation is a female-empowerment culture that invites young women not only to be complicit in their own degradation, but to confuse it with liberation. Someday, perhaps, she’ll regain a measure of self-respect. Until then, the best we can do for her is avert our eyes.