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Columbia University Professor Defends Institutional Support for Art and Activism

NEW YORK—For Hyperallergic, artist and Columbia University School of the Arts professor Jon Kessler writes about the response to his student Emma Sulkowicz’s 2014 work, Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight),the harassment that followed, and the changing political circumstances that have threatened the right to protest sexual assault on college campuses.

From September 2014 until her graduation from Columbia University in May 2015, Sulkowicz carried a twin extra-long mattress while on Columbia’s campus to protest the university’s refusal to expel Paul Nungesser, the student Sulkowicz had accused of rape. Nungesser sued the university, its president, and Kessler, for violating his Title IX rights by discriminating against him because of his gender by allowing Sulkowicz’s performance to continue. In July 2017, the university settled with Nungesser for an undisclosed amount. Last month, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rolled back protections for victims of sexual assault created by the Obama administration.

Kessler writes:

“Betsy DeVos recently invited not only victims’ rights advocates, but the lords of the manosphere themselves to a meeting held to address federal policy regarding sexual assault on college campuses. Among the men’s rights groups that attended were the National Coalition for Men (NCFM) and Stop Abusive Violent Environments (SAVE), organizations that claim domestic abuse and rape allegations are part of a feminist conspiracy to demonize men. Women who are beaten and raped are often the instigators, they claim, not the victims. NCFM has a long history of harassing victims of sexual assault, publishing their names and photos on their websites. SAVE has a section called “Rape Culture Hysteria” on its website and is listed as a misogynist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. […]

In the era of Trump, with its emboldened and empowered misogynists, white supremacists, fascists, racists, and climate deniers, protest art is more crucial than ever. Artists must not cower from expressing their views, and institutions must continue to support challenging works so that those messages continue to be heard.”

The piece can be read in full here.

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October 4, 2017