#MeToo and Art: #TimesUp for the myth of the troubled male artist; let's actively seek female voices instead
If you and I have knowingly supported, promoted, defended, collaborated with any art that is tainted, let’s own up | #MeToo | #MeTooIndia
Abuse — and its redressal — plays out like theatre of the absurd. As women, we learn that pretty early.
My lesson began at 15, when I was repeatedly abused by a teacher for close to a year.
Each Sunday, my mother would drive an overly curious younger version of myself to Sir’s house. We’d have lunch with his wife and eight-year-old daughter. Sometimes, my mother would stay back for lunch; at others, she’d drop me off and leave. Sir would ferry me back home later. He was then in his mid-30s: erudite and well-spoken, full of stories about his life as a journalist. He was also the first teacher I’d taken to — much to my parents’ giddy relief: I’d been an inquisitive child, and teachers constantly complained that I asked one too many questions.
Sir, however, welcomed my questions; he answered them as you would an adult’s, and urged us to think beyond our textbooks. I had a knack for language, and soon became his favourite. He’d often teasingly complain that we — the girl students — rarely kept in touch beyond tuition hours, insinuating that boys inevitably make more loyal pupils. Soon, some of us started staying back after class, heading to his house on weekends; we’d chat, take book recommendations, tell him what we thought of the last book we’d borrowed from his library. We were teenagers and he encouraged us to think.
Perhaps that is why when he eventually started touching me, more and more pervasively each Sunday, it remained — even at 15 — very difficult to tell right from wrong.
For many years after that, I coped by separating my teacher: the mentor, from my teacher: the abuser. The same separation that we’ve proffered to so many of our favourite artists — individuals who have shaped and moulded cultures, prodded the boundaries of morality, thought, social acceptance. From Picasso adding perspective through Cubism, to Polanksi’s morbid exploration of the fringes, to Vikas Bahl bringing feminism to mainstream India — we owe much of our conjectures in contemporary culture to art. Genius, albeit monstrous artists have 'graciously volunteered' their thoughts and musings around which we’ve shaped our discourse.
As audiences and as individuals, we’ve found refuge in the philosophy of ‘the death of the author’ (as articulated by Roland Barthes’ 1967 essay, in which he drew a distinction between the creator and his/her creation); we’ve evaluated a work of art on its own merit, independent of the flaws of its creator. This separation has allowed us the continue finding inspiration in the works of many geniuses, despite having known them as sometimes emotionally, sometimes physically violent perpetrators.
Over the last year however, each narrated account of heartbreaking abuse has chipped away at that assumption. It’s impossible now to look away from the fact that the books, films, music, art, literature — almost everything that has shaped our perception of ourselves, of each other, and has influenced our relationship with our bodies, sexual and cultural selves — is possibly tainted.
Tainted by their creator’s urge to callously violate. Because, as men in positions of power, they could.
Seen in this light, their works thereafter only feel like attempts at justification - some more feeble than others - or at best, a tool of public manipulation. For instance, I can no longer watch American Beauty without noting the predatory obsession that Kevin Spacey’s character, Lester, develops for his teenage daughter’s friend, and wondering about the many the actor might have preyed upon in real life. As much as I loved Woody Allen’s movies, I can no longer un-see the self-serving, patronising undertones to the neurotic-hence-desirable women characters he created. The distaste lingers.
For me, this comfortable separation of art and the artist began to come undone in 2013 when Tarun Tejpal was accused of rape. Tejpal had a way with words, his reputation as an uncompromising journalist preceded him. At 19, his Alchemy of Desire, had been my introduction to erotica (though now it seems fairly odd that as a woman, my first brush with erotica was written by a man, an aggressor moreover, but here we are). I would have actually believed Tejpal’s side of the story, as is standard practice in such cases — except that his responses to the accusation had an all-too-familiar ring.
Back in 2006, when I became reluctant to attend Sir’s classes, my mother had prodded the truth out of me. Naturally, my furious parents confronted my aggressor — who then launched into months of vengeful slut-shaming. The narrative remained pretty much the same - that I was “doing it for attention” and that I, in my tailored tops and flamboyant skirts was a sl*t and effectively not to be believed.
Except Tejpal added that the accusations were politically motivated. I must have been a bit too young for that.
Over the last fortnight, a wave of #MeToo allegations have had Indian social media timelines in their grip. Horrific accounts from friends and colleagues in the media have called out men I’d previously regarded as cultural revolutionaries. Editors whose bylines inspired awe, whose righteous writing shaped my opinions, whose words and thoughts I vociferously recommended. I cannot help but feel guilty.
Guilty of being an enabler, of being complicit.
The revulsion that I have felt for these aggressors has not always translated into rejection of their work. Cosy in my pretend-sanctimony, I’ve consumed art from painters, filmmakers, authors whose works are littered with dark stories of abuse. We all have.
Great artists have their moral failings, we’ve rationalised. Their darkness often inspires light, not to mention, questions of morality in art are often met with the stark raise of an eyebrow — a judgement of your own progressiveness. A murky quandary for a murky bunch — we’ve reconciled with our conscience.
Sexual assault is made possible by this very sexual hypocrisy. In the imploding of #MeToo, numerous voices of women have called out this blatant hypocrisy, with accounts that have found strength in their gory details.
Most of us have nuanced recollections of incidents of abuse/harassment, both on our timelines and in our collective conscience, even though sometimes they may have happened decades ago. That’s the kind of lasting impact sexual abuse/assault has. It robs us of the basic agency that humanity offers - it robs us our personhood, reducing us to mere vehicles that lascivious men have lived their greed and power through.
Knowing this, can we ignore the damage wreaked by an artist and continue supporting their art? Is it not our support that allows the creator the legacy and often the monetary entitlement to continue being in positions of power? A power they exploit time and again to reinforce their sexual upper hand?
How can I argue that my desire for art is greater than a person’s right to not be violated, when each account of violation feels like a personal betrayal?
Over this past week, it’s a question I’ve posed to many artist friends — men and women. For the men, it’s mostly been an open and shut case: unless the art itself is tainted, they’re happy to make the separation. “We will have no benchmarks left then,” one of them suggests. Women mostly feel that we already don’t. “The normalisation of abuse that has become synonymous with the arts is yet another theme inseminated by the same men, no?” a writer friend points out.
True, the stalwarts in the arts have mostly been male, and the few female voices are often steeped in patriarchy. Naturally, they have constructed a narrative that has normalised this abuse. As this metaphorical envelope of culture has inched painfully forward, these men, have repeatedly reinforced that the abuse is inevitable - a cost of progress.
It’s difficult to unsee the double-standards, thereafter. This willful divorce of art from the artist has only reiterated a deep-seated misogyny that allows — welcomes even — the abuse of power to re-establish sexual hierarchies, at work or otherwise.
The same megalomania that we have fuelled is now reflecting in these men’s dismissiveness towards the trauma they’ve caused. Indeed, most of them seem not even to have noticed the trauma.
In turning a blind eye, we seem to have been blindsided. Our tacit compliance has signaled that their behaviour is okay, condoned it even. Add to that the fact that the works of these men have often shaped the way we think about ourselves and other women. Like my aggressor, who has authored a book dedicated to his daughter, which under the guise of a self-help book, tells young women how to live in the 21st century!
The layers of manipulation and abuse have only just begun to unfold. Naturally, as women, we don’t feel so sure of either artists or the arts anymore.
Good art has the ability to stand in for its creator. An artist friend, who came up with a beautifully subverted idea of #MeToo rakhis earlier this year, insists that it’s time we revisit all our arts. If you and I have knowingly supported, promoted, defended, collaborated with any art that is tainted, let’s own up. “What if a performance artist wants to ‘perform’ rape?” she asks. “Would you be okay watching?”
A judicious course of action then would be to boycott any content dirtied by this inane abuse. My decision to never pay to watch a Woody Allen film may not be a commercial penalty big enough to pinch his pockets, but surely it is a step in the right direction? But then does a pirated torrent count? What about the Renaissance artists — their stories are rife with the exploitation of underage girls, some as young as 13 — should galleries just take them off? What about the artists whose misdemeanours we know nothing of? Should we take comfort in our ignorance?
Watching a movie might not be an unbridled endorsement of its maker, but “boycott” does seem like a justifiable punitive measure. Media giants like Netflix removing the likes of Kevin Spacey, Woody Allen from their sites, for instance, is about taking responsibility and removing perpetrators from positions of power.
In India too, retribution is at work: Over the course of the last fortnight, Phantom Films has been dissolved, editors at several media houses have been forced to step down, MAMI has dropped productions by Rajat Kapoor and AIB from its 2018 festival line-up, Sajid Khan and Nana Patekar have been forced to disassociate from their next film. Men across industries are being held accountable.
In a country where seeking legal redress is yet another form of harassment, monetary penalties do seem like our best bet.
Particularly in the Indian mediascape, boycott is not a very difficult choice. Art that exists beyond the express purpose of making money is rare. Disillusioned fans have often called out Bollywood’s pseudo “isms”. My consultant friend says she is A-okay boycotting the likes of AIB — she’d rather get bored, than consume content that is making these edgelords money. In the digital age, every view/like/share is endorsement, she insists. It’s easy to understand her rage - when you realise that your social icons are but, excuse my french, hypocritical a**h***s, it does leave a very bitter taste in the mouth.
But perhaps, that is also why it’s easier to boycott a Salman Khan, than a Kim Ki-duk or a Polanski. Surely, the fringes, where art rides not merely on commerce but thrives in its own obscurity, deserves a little more consideration?
I do not have a one-size-fits-all answer. It is an individual battle hereafter, and there will be scars, whichever you choose. For me personally, the artists’ crimes have outshone their brilliance.
As an individual audience, and a collaborator I, therefore, promise to support more women in the arts — to find and buy their work, to watch their films, to listen to their music and read their books, to follow them on Instagram, to always give them an eager hearing. As women, our vision has been shaped and directed by men for too long. It’s going to be an uphill climb, finding our own narrative.
As women, we are just beginning to envisage our own. Elena Ferrante resonates the thought while talking about a woman director adapting her book for the screen: “In the great warehouse of the arts, set up mainly by men, women have for a relatively short time been seeking the means and opportunities to give a form of their own to what they have learned from life. We’ve been inside the male cage for too long — and now that that cage is collapsing, a woman artist has to be absolutely autonomous."
I’ve looked for and found exceptionally skilled and gutsy female artists. Incidentally, many of them have also been subtly sending us a message for a long time now: remember Mira Nair’s casting of Rajat Kapoor as the child abuser in Monsoon Wedding? Or Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills — a series of 69 photographs that innocuously subvert the stereotypes of women in 1950s and ‘60s Hollywood and European art-house films. Or Amrita Pritam’s empowering celebration of the feminine — a theme that Rosalyn D'mello echoes in her Handbook For My Lover, while also beautifully reclaiming the word “c*nt”. A few years ago, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni dared to retell the Mahabharata from Draupadi’s perspective; more recent have been Amruta Patil’s resplendent interpretations of mythology — the sutradhar is finally a woman! Anusheh Anadil sings of love, of co-existence — her feminine, the restorative rain comes through when the masculine clouds, loud and boastful, become too full of themselves.
In a world that incessantly champions men despite their failings, what do we women see, when we tell our stories?
It is these voices that we need to actively promote, advocate, provide more room, platform and support for, if we are to salvage any semblance of balance from here on.
My friends in the media agree. A journalist friend tells me that we have to keep talking about this, we cannot treat it like another news cycle. It is our responsibility as individuals, as a collective, to support each other and reject the idea pimped by patriarchy under the garb of popular culture, that we are ‘each other’s worst enemies’. “Let’s build hereon, from ground up. We are at ground zero and there is a lot of work to do,” she says
Women have finally found their voices and the strength to band together — from WhatsApp groups to courtrooms to dinner-table conversations with the in-laws, we are starting to fight back.
Like the culture of silence, the culture of courage too has become contagious.
Our battle-cry in #MeToo is our first step towards redressal. The house of cards that these men have meticulously built is beginning to crumble; the literal one (the Netflix show), I hear, is coming back - this time with a female protagonist. Maybe it is time we also give up on Hemingway and Manto, and pick up an Ismat Chugtai!
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