The Comics Forum is a two day academic conference that runs alongside Thought Bubble in Leeds. The forum topic for 2014 was Violence.
My presentation seemed to go down well and unusually, there were lots of questions and discussion during question time (typically people ask me questions individually, in private, after any talk I’ve given) perhaps because I was part of a panel on sexual violence so the audience felt more comfortable about asking questions. I haven’t posted on here for a while so I thought I’d post the whole thing, images and notes. Hope you find it interesting.
Comics Forum talk – November 2014
Today I’m going to talk about honour and artistic freedom. I’m going to argue that the old fashioned concept of honour has contemporary potential, that it matters what we draw and how we draw it. I’ll be showing images from my novel length comic Becoming/Unbecoming, which explores a culture of misogynistic shaming typical to the 1970’s but relatable elsewhere. This is a double page spread from the book.
This is Artemisia Gentileschi, at the age of 37. She was a brilliant Italian Baroque painter, influenced by the work of Caravaggio, who was trained alongside her brothers by her father, Orazio, also a painter. Her naturalistic style is all her own. She is one of the few female artists who has NOT been ignored by art history.
This is her first painting, made at the age of about 16. The biblical story of Susanna is that she is surprised while bathing by two ‘peeping tom’ elders who then try to blackmail her into having sex with them. Susanna was a popular subject for painters at the time at least partly because it’s a good excuse to include a naked female.
Apart from the obvious precociousness of being able to produce this painting at such a young age, the main difference this work has to other work from the period in question is the attitude of Susanna’s body and the distress apparent on her face.
Here are some other examples made by contemporaneous male artists. Notice the unfeasible postures, the increased flesh exposure and the expressions on Susanna’s face. In the third image, it is almost an expression of pleasure.
This is Gentileschi’s Mary Magdalene, described by the Art Historian Mary Garrard as being distinctive, because unlike Magdalenes by other painters she is not in a constant state of weeping grief but recovering from crying – eyes swollen but half open, head resting wearily. This Magdalene is not crouching low, beseeching the heavens, but seated, without humility, on a high backed armchair, central to the frame. Remember that the word maudlin, meaning tearfully or weakly emotional, is a corruption of Mary Magdalene’s name.
Here are two of Artemisia’s paintings of Judith. She made the first one at the age of about 18 and the other a few years later. The story of Judith is that she saved her town from a warlord on the rampage by getting him drunk and then chopping his head off. The violence depicted in Artemisia’s paintings of Judith is unusual. Lets have a look at some other examples.
Allori’s Judith, looking coy.
Two bored looking Judiths
There’s this pair of sulky teens.
Then there’s this, this and this.
Images don’t stand alone, they exist within a visual landscape, a cultural geography.
There are unique complexities inherent in the depiction of female figures that those who wish to depict them need to take into account: Centuries of gendered inequality and prohibition to wealth, property and education for women, a culture of visual imagery that has long relied on the objectification of women’s bodies, etc. etc. Artemisa Gentileschi herself could not read and write because she had not been taught this, being a girl.
I’ve heard it said that it’s a cliché when women draw attention to autobiographical information in the work they make, or when feminists find the personal in the work of women in history. Many people like to assert the importance of objectivity over everything else. But don’t all the paintings shown here speak more about the (male) artists who painted them and the era in which they were painted than they do about the depicted or represented subject? These images are as autobiographical as any I’ve seen, they certainly don’t belong to some kind of neutral centre.
Even Caravaggio, a painter who was not notorious for his restrained style, seems to have painted a Judith who doesn’t want to get her dress dirty.
Why am I showing you this? Isn’t this a comics conference? If you’d wanted an art history lecture you’d have gone somewhere else.
I’m showing you this because Artemisa was famous during her lifetime and forever afterwards not only because of her painting but because she was raped at the age of 17 and took part in a trial to prosecute the man who did it. She painted her first Judith while the trial took place and the anger in that image in undeniable.
She didn’t report the rape herself, her father heard rumours and went to the authorities. There wouldn’t have been a trial at all if she hadn’t been a virgin. Artemisia was publicly humiliated and called a liar at the trial. She was tortured with thumbscrews to see if she was telling the truth.
Meanwhile, the man who raped her, Agostino Tassi, was already a convicted rapist, whose wife was missing, presumed dead at the time of the trail.
Artemisia didn’t find out he was married till the trial and it is an indication of the desperation these circumstances would have inflicted on her at the time that Artemisia had hoped Tassi would marry HER, to save her from the even worse fate he had inflicted on her by stealing her virginity. She was even betrayed by the only other woman in the house, the housekeeper, who ignored her cries for help.
Transcripts from the trial show that her rapist, Tassi, and his accomplice Cosimo Quorli were allowed to bring in a stream of witnesses to call Artemisia a whore, although unlike in many cases more recently, the Judge accused them of lying and did send Tassio to prison.
What Tassio did was called at the time ‘Throwing the game’ stealing a girls honour and getting away with it. There is an age old divide between those who think this makes you more of a man and those who think it makes you less of one. After the trial was over a family friend rescued her from ruin by marrying her and moving with her to a different area. They stayed together for a few years before separating.
Art historians have been arguing about Artemisia for 400 years. What is more historically important, her artistic brilliance or her rape? Was the artistic brilliance caused by the rape? Was it all made up and actually she loved Tassio? Are feminists doing her a disservice by claiming her as a feminist hero, thereby undermining her status as stand-alone artistic genius? Are art historians doing her a disservice by claiming her genius and ignoring the autobiographical information that so clearly contaminates her images? However you look at it, something that someone else did has ended up defining her AND her work.
As she was already well known as a painter, she had to live with the notoriety, speculation and loss of her reputation for the rest of her life. She couldn’t hide. But Artemisia never depicted a rape scene, not even when she painted Lucretia, arguably the most famous victim of rape. What would have been the effect if she had?
I’d like to ask a question about the artistic freedom and narrative necessity that comics artists and writers and film makers and comedians cite when challenged about their rapey material. Did Artemisia ever have what we might term artistic freedom? Do you think she would have used that artistic freedom to paint a rape scene?
Perhaps Artemisia didn’t depict rape because she knew that sexual violence doesn’t look anything like these melodramas, that were the typical depictions of her era. She knew that in fact it is a much more ordinary, squalid act, not picturesque at all, and an everyday occurrence across the world.
Notice that in these images the woman’s body is displayed for the delectation of the audience.
In my book, Becoming/Unbecoming, there are no direct or graphic depictions of sexualised violence despite the fact this is the only subject the book explores.
The panels that explore sexualised violence and its after effects communicate through form and the symbolic. Comics is unique as an art form in allowing, for example, multiple and simultaneous narratives, shifting temporalities and a visual language that communicates on an iconic level. So it’s not necessary to describe the abuse in graphic detail. But is it ever necessary?
Lately, thanks to many high profile cases in the UK, discussions around the social conditions that hinder the reporting, prosecution and prevention of sexual violence are inescapable. There seems to be potential for change. But how to rethink this problem so that another 400 years don’t pass while we argue about what it all means. The global culture today is not always different from the one Artemisia knew, but how can we act to change our culture and our social conditions? Can we harness visual culture to influence the way people think about this ancient problem? Entrenched attitudes are hard to change aren’t they?
In 2013 a social psychologist called Sezgin Cihangir, investigating the concept of ‘honour based violence’, did some research with a group of older high school students in the Netherlands, assessing their perspectives on the importance of male and female sexual purity and its relationship to honour as part of an education programme within the school. The results by gender are fairly predictable, but there’s something more interesting. Cihangir found that those students, mostly male, who responded aggressively to perceived insults, who described being provoked to violence by it, were the same students that held strong views about sexual purity being related to women’s and girl’s honour. In addition, this group perceived their own personal honour as being determined not by their own actions but by the actions of others around them, their close relatives and peers.
Cihangir’s subjects were from Dutch, Turkish Dutch and Moroccan Dutch backgrounds. Reading between the lines it seems perhaps the researcher expected to find some cultural differences but he found NO cultural differences between these groups. What he did find was that the unhelpful attitudes towards women he found in one group of students were changed when the group was exposed in an open classroom to new and different ideas. Peers who held different ideas around sexual purity seemed to influence a change in attitude, evidenced when measuring responses at the end of the programme. These findings match research in prisons which suggests that men who have been convicted of a wide range of violent offences towards women can be influenced to change their attitude by peer pressure from other men. They don’t listen to what women say, that’s for sure!
I’d like to claim this old fashioned idea of honour, and refashion it as the honourable, even the heroic. Unlike heroes and heroines, heroic acts are genderless. It is a term that describes honourable actions in the face of danger and adversity, usually from a position of weakness. We can be honourable in our work, even heroic. We can choose. It’s not about censorship, but about understanding your audience.
So does it matter what we do, say and represent?
Well, some people don’t think so:
Mark Millar on the use of rape in his comics ‘I don’t think it really matters’
Says Laura Hudson on Mark Millar: “There’s one and only one reason that happens, (in Kick Ass 2) and it’s to piss off the male character.” “It’s using a trauma you don’t understand in a way whose implications you can’t understand, and then talking about it as though you’re doing the same thing as having someone’s head explode. You’re not. Those two things are not equivalent, and if you don’t understand, you shouldn’t be writing rape scenes.
And the last word to Sarah Silverman:
On rape jokes – ‘the truth is, it’s like the safest area to talk about in comedy. Because who’s gonna complain about a rape joke? I mean, I would say rape victims, but they’re not traditionally complainers, they don’t even complain about rape.”