Art is anything you can get away with, Andy Warhol once said. All art students have heard that, and many consider it a wonderful piece of news
An apparently naked 22-year-old art student sat on the front steps of the library at Texas State University in San Marcos this week, explaining to her friends that she was enacting a serious work of Performance Art. She appeared to wear nothing except a blindfold and headphones, but in a gesture toward modesty crucial parts of her body were covered by three tiny bits of flesh-coloured cloth. She said she would rather have been entirely nude but feared that would be unlawful.
A good sampling of the 36,000 students on campus came for a close look. Many took photographs for use on social media. She is Monika Rostvold and she’s studying for a degree in Fine Arts, demonstrating by inadvertence what Alexander Pope meant when he said that a little education is a dangerous thing.
“I wanted people to view my body as beauty and power and not a sexual object,” she said. Her goal is feminist: “I wanted to take control of my body.” She said she was also raising awareness about sexual assault.
Art is anything you can get away with, Andy Warhol once said. All art students have heard that, and many consider it a wonderful piece of news. It means you don’t need to study drawing or colour in order to make art. In fact you don’t need to deal with any of that hard stuff. You just have to come up with something resembling a thought, then elevate it to the level of a concept. Immediately you become at least slightly famous.
Emma Sulkowicz, an undergraduate at Columbia University in New York, has become much more famous than Monika Rostvold. Emma’s image has appeared in many newspapers and TV news shows, where she’s always called Mattress Girl.
Student sues Columbia after fellow student accused him of rape and made him subject of ‘Mattress’ art project She, too, has a Performance Art project. For months she’s appeared everywhere in the university with a mattress strapped to her back. Her project is even more transgressive than Rostvold’s — it’s a protest against the university for failing to expel the man who, she says, raped her. She complained that he raped her in 2012, but both the university and the New York police decided that he did not. The district attorney’s office investigated the case and declined to charge him.
The alleged rapist, a German student named Paul Nungesser, has brought a lawsuit, not against his accuser but against Columbia University, its president, and the art teacher who (Nungesser says) encouraged the mattress project. His suit charges sexual discrimination. His lawyer says that by allowing Sulkowicz to receive a course credit for her project, Columbia violated the law that gives Nungesser the right to a discrimination-free education. The Mattress Project, Nungesser complains, has subjected him to verbal aggression, intimidation and hostility based on his gender. His lawyer, Andrew Miltenberg, claims that the university, by refusing to deal with Sulkowicz’s harassment campaign, destroyed Nungesser’s college experience, reputation and career prospects.
As stories about these two projects were being absorbed by the art world, a headline from the Japan Times brought news from Tokyo: “Vagina artist Megumi Igarashi indicted on charges of obscenity.” Igarashi also makes art with a purpose. Her mission is to demystify female genitalia in her country — where, she believes, they are “overly hidden.” She acquired through a crowd-funding appeal enough money to build a kayak based on a 3D scan of her own genitals. And some art-hating police are standing in the way of innovation.
The craziness that afflicts the art world today goes back roughly a century, to the sensation created by Marcel Duchamp. A talented artist, he turned against the tyranny of art-world theory and created a theory of his own, one that has so far lasted nearly 100 years. Implying that art is everything, he invented “ready-mades,” everyday objects that seemed to change their nature when placed in the context of art. He chose an ordinary rack for drying bottles and placed it in an art gallery. In 1917 he exhibited a urinal, signed and dated, “R. Mutt, 1917.”
That too, he implied, was art. His exhibits expressed an angry nihilism, intended merely to make a point. Duchamp must have imagined it would soon be forgotten, but critics and journalists put it in books that established it as a historic breakthrough. No art student can miss it when reading about 20th-century art.
But if everything is art, then art can be used for anything. And in the process meaning and value dissolve and art becomes hopelessly debased.