Art or gimmickry or pornography?

This post is potentially NSFW, which means Not Safe For Work, non-internet-savvy readers. (Hey, my parents read this blog!)

Molly’s mother in The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire is the kind of artist whose work would make any teenage girl cringe. Multiply that by ten if you happen to be her daughter in a small town where everybody knows about it.

Of course, Cassandra was great fun to write, because she allowed me to tap my inner terrible feminist artist. I love art, and I didn’t decide that I wasn’t going to pursue it as a career until I got to UMass and couldn’t get into any of the studio classes my freshman year. (I declared an English major that year, and that was that.)

But writing will never be as in-your-face as the visual arts can be. And while I admire certain artists for making the unspeakable a topic of discussion, I have also always wondered what it would be like to actually, say, be their kids, or their husbands, or wives.

One work, in particular, inspired such thoughts: The Dinner Party, by Judy Chicago. It premiered in 1979, toured to great controversy, and is now housed in the Brooklyn Museum. It’s a triangular arrangement of dinner settings that purports to represent important women from three historical eras. (Yes, Virginia Woolf is there.) What made it shocking (at the time) was that the plates were painted to represent stylized vaginas.

As Wikipedia says, it provoked a range of opinion. Some loved it.

Feminist critic Lucy Lippard stated, “My own initial experience was strongly emotional… The longer I spent with the piece, the more I became addicted to its intricate detail and hidden meanings,” …. These reactions are echoed by other critics, and the work was glorified by many.

Many others hated it.

Hilton Kramer, for example, argued, “The Dinner Party reiterates its theme with an insistence and vulgarity more appropriate, perhaps, to an advertising campaign than to a work of art.”[9] He called the work not only a kitsch object but also “crass and solemn and singleminded,” “very bad art,… failed art,… art so mired in the pieties of a cause that it quite fails to acquire any independent artistic life of its own.”[9]
Maureen Mullarkey also criticized the work, calling it preachy and untrue to the women it claims to represent.[9]

(Go to Wikipedia for the full article, plus references.)

Personally, I am as guilty as the next Philistine of thinking of some contemporary art as a vulgar gimmickry (although I will also grant you that sometimes vulgar gimmicks are what it takes to get a conversation going). One generation’s shameless art may well become another generation’s fine art, and vice versa. Also, there’s clearly a lot more artistic attention to detail in The Dinner Party than there is in Cassandra’s work.

Of course, Cassandra’s art is not the only art in the book. Towards the end of Ribs, David takes Molly to The Clark Institute, one of my favorite museums in the world, where he is freaked out by two paintings on display in the first room. If you click on the link for the Clark above and let the photographs at the top of the home page run through their animation, you’ll see just how striking William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Nymphs and Satyrs painting is as you walk in. It’s not subtle, either, David tells Molly, when she shares that  criticism of her mother’s work. But she forgives Bouguereau’s piece for not being subtle because it’s beautiful.

Another painting still on view at the Clark (which recently renovated) is Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Slave Market (below). As the Clark’s web site points out, “This disturbing scene is set in a courtyard market intended to suggest the Near East. The vague, distant location allowed nineteenth-century French viewers to censure the practice of slavery, which was outlawed in Europe, while enjoying a look at the female body” (Lees, Sarah, ed.).

And as I look at this painting with fascination — and I have visited and done so many times — I always feel uncomfortably voyeuristic. There’s inherent drama in this painting. There’s arguably a point being made about a brutal and unfair balance of power (possibly a racist and anti-Islamic one). There’s also that icky feeling of wondering if I’m essentially just looking at pornography in a very public place.

The thing is, I know that I can’t explore the topic of sex in my books without asking myself if what I’m writing strays into that territory. And, in fact, David asks Cassandra that question about her art.

But I feel compelled to write about it anyway, because sex is part of our existence, and so is the risk of becoming a victim, not just of the rapist, but of the bully, the murderer, the thief, the car driven by the drunk, the awful storm, the disease, the plane crash.

Of course, we prefer not to think about this, even to shift blame to the victim, as if somehow if that person had just prayed harder, gone only to the right places, eaten only healthy food, had the good sense to be born in the United States, been a good enough person, then God would have protected her, or him. Or, if we don’t expect God to protect us from all harm, then perhaps we assume that excellent judgment will provide its own shield from disaster.

And surely it does help, but not enough, not all the time.

And perhaps, if we could empathize a little better with people caught in that reality, and sympathize with those who have gone through it, we will be better able to lend a helping hand. Maybe we’ll try a little harder to prevent some of the trauma and carnage in the first place, instead of just turning away, or condemning the victim.

That’s my hope, anyway. If you’re not a kind person, and your reaction to Slave Market ends with “Woo hoo! Look at them titties!” here’s where I humbly suggest that there are a whole lot of Tumblr sites that would be a much better match for you.