Shia LaBeouf’s Rape Claim: Where Is the Line Between Performance Art and Violation?

In 1974, Marina Abramovic lay down in a gallery in Naples surrounded by objects of pain and pleasure ranging from silk to a gun, and allowed the audience to use those tools on her body. She ended up literally naked, exposed and bloodied, feeling violated by “the heaviest piece I ever did.” She recently reflected on the piece, titled Rhythm 0:

Troubled actor Shia LaBeouf’s recent performance piece #IAMSORRY in which he sat with a tux and a paper bag and passively received visitors one by one — had already been criticized for being heavily deriviative of Abramovic’s work, specifically the Rhythm 0 piece.

Now, the actor says he was raped by a woman who came to the show:

One woman who came with her boyfriend, who was outside the door when this happened, whipped my legs for ten minutes and then stripped my clothing and proceeded to rape me… There were hundreds of people in line when she walked out with dishevelled hair and smudged lipstick. It was no good, not just for me but her man as well. On top of that my girl was in line to see me, because it was Valentine’s Day and I was living in the gallery for the duration of the event – we were separated for five days, no communication. So it really hurt her as well, as I guess the news of it travelled through the line. When she came in she asked for an explanation, and I couldn’t speak, so we both sat with this unexplained trauma silently. It was painful.

The story has since been corroborated by LaBeouf’s artistic collaborators:

One of the reasons they spoke out is because Piers Morgan went on the offensive against LaBeouf:

What Morgan is responding to is this: it sounds like what held LaBeouf back from stopping the violent act against him was his fidelity to his project, rather than any kind of mortal fear. In other words, he could have ended it if he’d decided to.

Yet Morgan judges the situation too easily. There’s very little to say definitively here without knowing exactly what transpired in the room. The line between violation in the name of “art” and “real” violation is an arbitrary one if it exists at all, determined by the actors in each case. Marina Abramovic can say she was violated and hurt by those who poked and threatened her during her pieces, while also making their acts a performance, a part of the piece. If LaBeouf was indeed treated as he claimed (and it doesn’t seem unlikely), it’s absolutely horrible that someone would take advantage of his performance to hurt him; the person who did so is, for all intents, a rapist. Indeed, if the story is true, her actions should be roundly condemned.

It seems to me there are two takeaways beyond the specifics. One is that it’s important to remember that for most rape victims, the silent force that might prevent them from fighting back isn’t “art” or arbitrary insistence on not breaking the continuity of a project. Instead, they are silenced by terror of bodily harm, fear of social censure, fear that speaking up will hurt them worse than being “good” victims does, or the inability to articulate “no” because of learned social programming. These victims and survivors would never have been able to break the fourth wall. So the passivity in a piece of performance art simply echoes the submission and passivity that is a crucial component of real rape culture.

The second takeaway, to get back to #IAMSORRY and the Abramovic piece, is a sobering one. Decades and continents apart, a human body was put forward for an audience to contend with. Compassion and cruelty were both options laid out for the audience. In both cases, people simply couldn’t resist the urge to inflict harm on a very public body belonging to another human being.

What does that say about our progress as a society? Nothing good.