There are quite a few BDSM signifiers in the video to BBHMM. Photo: YouTube screengrab
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Rihanna's BBHMM video has horrified many feminists – but I saw an empowering BDSM fantasy

The last time I looked, a heavy black leather collar covered in D rings is not what supposedly goes with a bikini this year.

Rihanna's “Bitch Better Have My Money” video is giving me life. I have loved the song since I first heard it. The infectious, pulsing trap chant, whose lyrics are less important than its anxious beat - the intensity of its threat - is already the song of the summer.

The song was written by Bibi, a fierce young woman from Berlin who was “in a ratchet mood”. She unleashed her anger on tape at LA's ROC Nation studios, especially for Rihanna, who snatched it up and made it hers.

The video just makes me love it more.

The seven-minute film is already a popular and commercial triumph, and will certainly speed the song to - as the song itself predicts - complete dominance at clubs worldwide this year. But it has horrified many feminists.

I wonder if the people who critique the sexualised violence of Rihanna's triumphant #BBHMM video have never thought of revenge. Perhaps, they are forgiving enough never to experience those thoughts of bloody, gleeful pay-back, springing unbidden to mind, years later. I am not one of those people, and now I know that even the most glamorous woman in the world can feel such hate.

Spoilers follow: The inspiration for the video's titular Bitch was an accountancy firm that swindled Rihanna out of millions of dollars in 2009, nearly bankrupting her and leaving her with a mould-ridden Beverly Hills mansion that she had to sell for a huge loss. First world problems, indeed. But put yourself in her shoes. She was a woman betrayed by accountants that she trusted, and left in a cash-poor position in a crucial period of her career. She was angry enough to sue, which is never an easy choice for a high profile person. The loss of nearly nine million dollars must have been a powerful personal violation to Rihanna - one that was going on against the much more well-known backdrop of her ex Chris Brown's physical abuse. In Rihanna's case, her accountants settled for ten million dollars. Now she's made that money back many, many times over; her revenge fantasy is that much more seductive because it comes, so obviously, from a position of recovery, strength and confidence.

The financial violation of women is commonplace, and widely unacknowledged. From the lowest to the highest echelons of labour, we’re paid less than men. We’re routinely screwed for raises, in divorce settlements, and in the closing of big deals in entertainment. Women are not supposed to care about money under patriarchy, but money is survival; choice; security. Getting hit there hurts, and it's personal. The wound can tingle with ghost pains, even when every penny of the money has been earned back. About five years ago, a charming sociopath swindled me out of thousands of pounds. Time and therapy have only dulled the ache; I still remember him, and still, occasionally, in my lowest moments, wish the worst on him, in graphic detail. I can imagine Rihanna hearing Bibi's song, and feeling ratchet: snapping back to 2009, to that feeling of frustration, of impotent rage and fear. Her revenge fantasy does not pander to violence. Its violence is a cleansing, a reckoning, crafted lovingly by the artist: fierce, resurgent, rich, brilliant and as beautiful as she is. Perhaps we are trembling before her anger because we know just how carefully, and how successfully, she crafts her own image. When we see her anger, we really believe it. It's too close; too intimate. We look away.

The video's violence has repulsed critics, but I wasn't the only woman to exult in Rihanna’s justice - play. "There was a joy in watching her take vengeance on mediocre white male entitlement to money, women and power. She's tapping into a kind of frustration that we never let out," said a freelance journalist friend. Our visual culture makes space for male revenge fantasies, or a space for female revenge crafted by a man, a la Tarantino's Kill Bill, which has clearly inspired Rihanna. But is there a space for a cleansing, exclaiming revenge, for the most beautiful woman in the world covered in gore?

I will put my content note here, for kidnap, assault and murder. Here's how the story supposedly goes. In her self directed video, Rihanna’s two henchwomen, accomplished model Sita Abellan and Instagram artist Sanam, and she kidnap the blonde, aquiline wife of Hannibal star Mads Mikkelsen’s snide Bitch. In a funny, graceful scene, the immaculate wife, played with humour and gusto by Rachel Roberts, stalks out of her flat, clutching her fluffy Pomeranian. She steps into the elevator to see an insouciant Rihanna and her great big case. The door closes, and when it opens again Rihanna is dragging the case with the wife trapped inside. According to one narrative, now she's bound, stripped, tortured, humiliated on a yacht, forced to drink and smoke cannabis, and ransomed, to lead the accountant Bitch to a fatal meeting with Rihanna, from which the singer emerges, bloody. We see her lounging in the chest filled with her money. Some say that Ri kills the wife, too, drowning her in a pool in an earlier scene; we see what looks like her body, hidden under a float. In that narrative the video is a self indulgent, sordid, pandering, violatory tale.

But the timeline for that theory doesn't work out - at the fateful ransom handoff, we see the wife nestled in the opened case, alive. She's not drowned in the pool scene - she's hiding from that cop, now in league with her kidnappers. Her husband has laughed off her ransom, as he parties and shags other women, rolling in his money; and so, she has defected. Eight out of ten of my Facebook friends believe the wife was set free. TV critic Miss Banshee offers the view that I believe: "The whole point is that they bring [the wife] into this world and like a gang, they have to bring her in through fire. Not once - not once is she fighting back. Not once does she look anything but cautiously excited. Her last scene is (clearly alive) swinging from a chain, after partying with the ladies," said Miss Banshee in a Facebook chat.

There are quite a few BDSM signifiers in the video. The last time I looked, a heavy black leather collar covered in D rings is not what supposedly goes with a bikini this year. Nor is a translucent latex dress what you wear to a murder scene; swinging someone slowly back and forth like a human pendulum in inverted suspension isn't a usual torture method. Rihanna went out of her way to depict fantasy violence, not a graphic, direct Natural Born Killers spree. In one reading, the film has two layers; one that's a straightforward revenge killing, and one that - at the very least - suggests a BDSM fantasy, one that foregrounds female dominance completely.

I acknowledge the essential point made by Helen Lewis in these pages that real BDSM requires consent, and this video shows no explicit consent. Rihanna won't be the first to offer a fantasy scenario in art where consent isn't discussed, or happens offstage. Some fantasies - intended as strictly such - explore nonconsent. Perhaps these kink signifiers, so clearly and consciously placed, are a reminder that this is only a fantasy. It’s not real, but anyone who has ever wanted revenge can relate to it. Yes, the video is ambiguous, but the video's theme is, as so many have said, flipping the script. Its central joke is the reveal of the Bitch's unexpected identity. It invites us to consider: what else is hiding in plain sight?

Rihanna has long shared her interest in kink with the world - in songs and videos like S & M, and in interviews. Perhaps I was primed to see it in #BBHMM, but to me the video “coded” kink. I had to watch three times before I could even begin to see the horror that some feminists see in it. To me and others who read consent in the Bitch’s wife, the suffering of the Bitch's wife will always be a jumping in; a ritual ordeal in a lush, vibrant fantasy. To us, the video's vengeful, dominant Rihanna was a vital, joyful contribution to the year of Furiosa. She's bathed in blood; she steals the warlords' wives.

#BBHMM is an imperfect fantasy. We don't see consent. That's true, though, for much of BDSM erotica. Consent is assumed to have been negotiated offstage in stories and many videos - although some hot authors like Sinclair Sexsmith are now including negotiation in their erotica. One of the first things a new kinkster learns is that it is never like the porn or the sexy stories - you have to talk about interests and limits together. If it is meant to be BDSM, that lack of explicit consent makes #BBHMM potentially dangerous, particularly if the wife changed her allegiances mid - kidnapping. But it won't be the first or the last artistic work to misportray consent, or the most dangerous; that award goes to Grey.

Critics aren't thinking twice when they routinely question Rihanna's artistic choices, and her agency. Violence as an expression of Black female empowerment in art has long threatened white feminists, but not everything is a graduate class in feminist theory. Rihanna doesn't have to tick off all our feminist boxes for us to cheer her on. She was beaten black and blue and nearly choked to death by Chris Brown when she was barely grown, and look at her now. I'm proud of her. As the wonderful Black Girl Dangerous said so well, Rihanna has the right to be selfish. She has as much right to muster hundreds of people to make a video called “Bitch Better Have My Money” as the Beatles had to record Taxman, or as Carol Ann Duffy had to write the graphic Salome, a poem that is taught for GCSEs. Rihanna has every right to use guns and violence, and sex, and drugs, in her videos, just like the boys do. Progress is never orderly or predictable, and it never goes where we want it to go, but it moves forward anyway. And #BBHMM, for all its violence, is progress. It does not reify patriarchal tropes: it appropriates them, however imperfectly, however problematically. Like it or not, #BBHMM will empower a lot of little girls, and grown women, all over the world, across race and class divides, and I don’t think it will empower them to violence, but to success and confidence.

Without asking Rihanna, the director - and I've tried, and I am still trying to talk to her - we will never know what she truly meant by the video's shocking, glorious violence. Perhaps it's better to let it speak for itself; its ambiguity is, in itself, a message. Perhaps Rihanna is telling us that things are not always what they seem.

***

Now listen to a discussion of Rihanna's video on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

 

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.

ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION, NEW YORK
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"Someone was screwing here": the cryptic art of Robert Rauschenberg

Dense with allusion and synecdoche, Rauschenberg's art work reveals an extraordinary “stream of unconsciousness”.

Before he was established, Robert Rauschenberg had the following jobs. He was a neuropsychiatric technician in the US navy at San Diego. (Unsurprisingly, he preferred the patients when they were insane.) He worked for Ballerina Bathing Suits as a packer and at the Atlas Construction Company in Casablanca, where he conducted inventories of stock for $350 a week. As he made his way in the art world, he was a janitor at the Stable Gallery. He did window displays at Bonwit Teller on Sixth Avenue, as well as Tiffany & Co and Reynolds Metals. (When window-dressing in penurious tandem with Jasper Johns, they used the pseudonym Matson Jones.) Rauschenberg was also stage manager and lighting designer for the Merce Cunningham dance troupe. He was an occasional emergency choreographer (Pelican). You see? Hand-to-mouth, improvised, a “career” made from whatever was ready to hand.

Then, in 1964, he took first prize at the Venice Biennale and arrived. The jobs are, in their way, a perfect emblem of Rauschenberg’s art – unrelated, aleatoric agglomerations of items that happened to stray into the force field of his personality. In Alice Oswald’s long poem Dart, we hear at one point the voice of a stonewaller: “. . . you see I’m a gatherer, an amateur, a scavenger, a comber, my whole style’s a stone wall, just wedging together what happens to be lying about at the time”. This, too, could be Rauschenberg, ransacking the junkyards, with one eye on the gutter, for the found object, the overlooked, the discarded, the down-at-heel detail of daily life. In the Tate catalogue (but not in the exhibition) is a work called Hiccups. One visual burp after another, it consists of separate, one-size, totally heterogeneous items silk-screened and zipped together. Rauschenberg was said by Jasper Johns to have invented more things than anyone except Picasso. A slight exaggeration. Rauschenberg’s central inventive coup was the combine: that notorious stuffed goat with the automobile tyre round its middle will serve as an example.

For the New Yorker critic Calvin Tomkins, this was the legacy of the European surrealists – Breton, Duchamp – who took refuge in America during the Second World War. Rauschenberg’s combines are as arbitrary as the unconscious. His scrolls, his late work The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, are a kind of stream of unconsciousness, works of instinct and intuition held together by his assumed authority. (He once forgot to make a portrait of the Paris gallery owner Iris Clert, so sent a last-minute telegram: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so – Robert Rauschenberg.” The French loved it.) The results are a deliberate unconscious chaos, which, like dreams, give off the sensation, but not the substance, of reason.

This important and vibrant show at Tate Modern usefully complicates this accepted narrative – with its implicit emphasis on the artist as magus, performing a kind of magic, of visual hypnosis. To give one example, there is a big billowing work called Glacier (Hoarfrost) (1974). It is an emperor-sized sheet, with solvent transfer of newsprint on satin and chiffon. There is a pillow underneath, more or less invisible, to create the billow. It is a work of straightforward representation, of realism. It is a glacier in which the illegible newsprint serves as shadow, as a great and exact donation of texture. There is an Elizabeth Bishop poem, “Varick Street”, which describes a factory at night: “Pale dirty light,/some captured iceberg/being prevented from melting.” All the grime, all the dereliction and detritus of the glacier is captured in the Rauschenberg.

Leo Steinberg, a shrewd but not uncritical supporter of Rauschenberg, rejected the idea, first mooted by Robert Hughes, that Monogram’s stuffed goat forced through a tyre referred to anal sex. Steinberg preferred to think of the work as “funny”. Indeed, just behind it is a brown tennis ball like a (large) goat dropping. I thought of Alexander Calder’s chariot in his Circus: when Calder started to improvise performances around the work, he would scatter then sweep up droppings behind the horses. Here the tennis ball’s appearance is prompted by the representation of the tennis player Earl Buchholz on the hinged platform supporting the goat: providing an alibi. There is also a rubber shoe heel, which has trodden in something – bright-blue lapis lazuli – another ambiguous allusion to excrement, here transfigured and glorified. Here, too, a man is crossing a gorge on a tightrope (signifying danger), and there is a high-ceilinged room with several pillars (easily read as phallic). “EXTRA HEAVY” is stencilled in one corner, a touch not without ­significance, to nudge us away from frivolity. Goats are a traditional byword for lechery. Two more possible indicators: we have to ask why the tyre isn’t whitewall but painted white on the tread of the tyre, a deviation from the norm. Is it prurient to wonder if this represents sperm? The second touch is a man with his arms akimbo, casting a long shadow – a doubling at once different but identical and therefore perhaps a figure for homosexuality.

We are used to the idea that Rauschenberg was interested in eliminating the artist’s presence and personal touch. At the beginning of this show, we have Automobile Tire Print, the black tyre track on 20 sheets of typing paper that was laid down by John Cage driving his Model A Ford; it is an artwork whose execution is twice removed from Rauschenberg by the driver and his automobile. There are, too, the dirt paintings, as arbitrary as Warhol’s later piss paintings – which produce, in Dirt Painting (for John Cage) (1953), very beautiful, random, blue-grey mould. These are works in which the artist cedes agency to natural process. Nevertheless, it is impossible, I think, to look at the Cage dirt painting and not be forcibly reminded of the marginalised artist and his palette with its attractive, accidental accretions of pigment.

Despite this posture of disavowal, Raus­chenberg’s work isn’t devoid of same-sex iconography. For example, he is drawn, time and again, to Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus and Rubens’s Venus. Both are quoted several times, reproduced in silk-screen. Why? Partly an act of magisterial appropriation and a demonstration of self-confidence. (An act of felony itself stolen from the Picasso who repainted Velázquez’s Las Meninas, part of a sustained campaign of annexing the overbearing classics. No false modesty in Picasso.) Rauschenberg’s Monogram goat is also an attempt to replace Picasso’s signature goat – said by Picasso to be more like a goat than a goat – by a monogram, a sign of ownership, like a pair of monogrammed slippers or shirts.

The other reason for the quotation of Rubens and Velázquez is that both nude women are contemplating and presumably admiring themselves in mirrors, mirrors that in both cases are held up by cupidons. The perfect topos of self-love – and therefore of same-sex eroticism. Originally, the stuffed goat (stuffed!), with its horny horns, was set against a painting called Rhyme (a not insignificant title, suggestive of sameness and difference). Rhyme (1956) has an actual necktie on the left. On the tie are grazing cows and a four-bar corral fence. In the centre of the picture are dense squiggles and squirts of colour – again like an artist’s palette, but which here represent a pallet or bed. Above the bed is a bit of lace and adjacent to the lace a red ball. What we have here is an aubade, dawn through lace curtains, and the tie as an indication of (male, out-of-towner) undress. Of course, nothing is explicit. Yet the self-censorship, the furtive and necessary concealment, is represented – by some kind of structure that has been removed, leaving behind trace elements. And what are they? Angular outlines and screw-holes, a sexual metaphor you can find in Maupassant’s Bel-Ami. Someone was screwing here.

Bed (1955) features the famous stolen (and very beautiful, subtly patterned) quilt. At the point where the sheet turns back and the pillow is on view, both are liberally stained with paint. The paint is both fluids and (deniable) paint – paint as itself and a synecdoche. Leo Steinberg wants to restrict the combine to a self-referential aesthetic statement – the flatbed horizontal as opposed to the vertical hang, which he sees as Rauschenberg’s primary revolutionary innovation. But while Steinberg is right to dismiss ideas of murder and mayhem in Bed, the action painting mimicked here is also surely mimicking action in the sack.

None of this is certain. The illegality of homosexuality in 1955 made explicitness out of the question. But I think it unlikely that something so central to Rauschenberg’s identity – his sexistentialism – should be completely absent from his work. Even aesthetically programmatic work such as the very early 22 The Lily White (1950) has references to homosexuality. It is an off-white painting with outlined sections like a street map, each of them numbered. The numbers are sometimes upside down. Steinberg believes this is a strategy to subvert the accustomed vertical hang, because it is not clear which way up it should go. I think the numbers are upside down because they are inverted, with everything that adjective denotes in the sexual context. And the shapes are revealing, too: it is made up of extended interlocking jigsaw shapes that mirror and fit into each other. The title refers to the lily-white boys of “Green Grow the Rushes-O”.

Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) can be dismissed with Harold Rosenberg’s ­famous quip: “The less there is to see, the more there is to say.” Rauschenberg, the junior artist, persuaded Willem de Kooning to give him a drawing that he would then erase. De Kooning chose a drawing that used oil crayon so that Rauschenberg would have a proper task. It took him a long time. And actually, though no one says this – they are too interested in the sacrilege, in the idea of erasure, in destruction, in the concept – the erasure isn’t complete. It  isn’t the promised blank that you don’t need to see to understand. You have to see it to see the Wunderlay.

What does it mean? Partly, obviously, the picture is Oedipal, an act of aggression against a prior master by a junior. Second, the end product is “poetry”, according to Rauschenberg. You can just make out the ghostly marks so that the surface is like a veronica – or like a romantic fragment. It brings to mind Coleridge’s imitation of fragments of antique poetry, creating an aura of irresolvable suggestiveness. On the surface are extra marks, 12 of them, whose provenance is uncertain, but whose presence is as indisputable as the vague but redolent under-image.

Suggestion is the ground note you take away from this show. In Untitled (1955) there is a sock and a parachute – the combine of paint and actuality, somewhere between painting and sculpture – but also to the left, some crumpled paper, overpainted in white, that reveals an eye, nostrils and a retroussé upper lip with phantom teeth. There is painted cloth, taken from pillow-slips or bedlinen, with a decorative milling effect, which makes this Rauschenberg’s bed scene, a long time before Tracey Emin. Similarly, Short Circuit (1955) incorporates work by Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg’s ex-wife, Susan Weil, hidden behind doors. It is a work all about concealment, reveal and suggestion.

There are many, many beautiful things on show here, exemplary energy, and a few empty failures. Don’t miss Untitled (1958) which hangs, from two tarnished safety pins, a khaki handkerchief, treated and soaked, so that you can make out the pattern in the weave. The humble snot-rag transfigured. Its square is a warp of frail rust, a tuille. Above it is a frame of grey-painted cloth, showing a trouser loop and that milling effect again. It is stunning. And so are his majestic cardboard boxes – Nabisco and Alpo for Dogs – makeshift sculptures that read as solid wood, charismatic brand-name Brancusis.

“Robert Rauschenberg” runs until 2 April 2017. For more details visit: tate.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage