Art and sexism: is it acceptable?

Last night, after the heated discussion on the Nick Cave essay by Crawford, I thought I’d post some of my reflections on the debate which have left me a little confused about my own beliefs as an artist. Is art allowed to be sexist? Is art allowed to cross the line? It seems everywhere you look these days everyone is being careful to be politically correct for fear of being sued or being labeled sexist. I can understand journalism is reporting fact but what about art? Is all art considered fictional? Is music fictional? I’m a little confused about all this myself. Is fiction allowed to be sexist if we are just reflecting on the human condition and the world we live in which is, in fact, sexist?

A few people have told me that ‘The Slap’ is misogynistic. I agree that some aspects of the female characters, especially the breastfeeding mother, could be seen that way. But is there anything wrong with that? If a writer creates fictional characters that are sexist if people like that do exist in our society is that okay? As a writer I want to challenge and confront my reader, have them question their own beliefs. But as artists if we write or sing whatever we want are we not just contributing to the problems in our society? Are we glorifying the wrong and therefore hindering change for the better? But it’s strange because I thrive on art that doesn’t conform – it inspires me but I’m not sexist. And art is supposed to be limitlessness and without boundaries. I was once a breastfeeding mother and when I read ‘The Slap’ I wasn’t offended, rather I asked myself ‘why is our society like this? Why does society view breastfeeding in this way?’ Because society does do that.

Any thoughts out there?

Koraly Dimitriadis

Koraly is a widely published Cypriot-Australian writer and performer. She is the author of the controversial Love and F**k Poems. Koraly received an Australia Council ArtStart grant. She presents on 3CR radio and has a residency at Brunswick Street Bookstore. Her 2013 La Mama show is Exonerating The Body. She is mentored by Christos Tsiolkas.

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  1. I think it’s useful to draw a distinction between the subject of a piece of art, and the attitude the art takes towards that subject. So, in my opinion it’s fine to write about anything at all. What you need to be careful about is what the writing says about the topic. So write about sexist, racist or homophobic people, write about anti-semites, write about the holocaust, write about murder – but make sure that what you’re writing doesn’t support or reinforce those attitudes or events. Make sure its attitude is a critical one, rather than an uncritical one. This doesn’t mean you need to be some kind of soapbox, but rather that you write about these things in all their complexity.

    So in the case of Anwyn’s article, she wasn’t criticising Cave for writing about sex or women, but for writing about them in stereotypical ways that reinforce an already existing sexism in society. She was criticising Cave’s inability to write about sex or women “in all their complexity”, and instead for relying on sexist cliches. For that reason, people who criticised her for being “sexless” are way way off the mark. Rather, if you read her article closely, she explains that his work tells us little about the complexities of “desire.”

  2. You wouldn’t have many characters left if you weren’t allowed to write about anyone who offended others – murderers, rapists, racists, sexist bastards, politicians. How can you not sometimes portray the real world in fiction. It is one of the ways that we learn about our society. And the days when these characteristics no longer exist is never going to happen, except in some Utopian fiction that some academic is writing about.

  3. Art is not some rarefied realm acting independent of society, history, politics. But neither is it in any way reducible to political ideology. Significant art crosses the lines of political ideology — think the sometimes aggressive anti-humanism of modernists — left and right — pitted against (sometimes progressive) Victorian sensibilities. It may even be that regressive ideology gives an artist some significant take on the present in a way not available to someone who is conventionally progressive. Why should we as readers or viewers or that art feel implicated in the politics of this? The forms, traditions, realities, orderings found in art and literature need to be assessed on their merits. To my mind we can deepen our understanding of these things by making reference to society, politics and history but I’m bored by condemnations of artists and their works for being suspect ideologically.

  4. Yes, absolutely art is allowed to explore those topics. And exploring taboos is a vital role for artists – and an excellent way of interrogating our society, culture and beliefs. And artists can approach these in a sexist manner if they want to (which is different from portraying sexist or racist characters, or having characters act in those ways – which can be done in a way that makes us question or confront those aspects of ourselves, or of our society, which I think ‘The Slap’ does, and does well). But I’m not likely to want to read or experience art that celebrates or glorifies sexism or racism, or inhabits a loathsome character, without giving us any particular insight into why they’re like that, how they impact on society, etc. I think the Cave novel is just Cave revelling in being shocking and perverted. And, quite simply, it’s not a good book. It’s a bit different from reading ‘Lolita’, which inhabits the mind of a paedophile with real insight and literary skill – and makes us feel something in response.

  5. Arguments in the negative remind me of this: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. (Matthew 5:28)

    I disagree with Matthew. Just because you thought it, imagined doing it in minute detail, does not mean you did it. Anybody who can’t separate the real from the imagined, even if the imagined could – and it probably does – represent the real, is a moron.

    One of art’s functions is the aestheticisation of the real world. The real world I live in is sexist. So, yes. It’s OK.

  6. Agree TF, there definitely are people in the world that are sexist. So if all art was devoid of sexism then isn’t that restricting people being able to use real world experience to develop their own story. Just because people write, draw, sing about characters or acts that are sexist doesn’t mean they are sexist or condone it. It needs to be taken in context: is the artist referencing sexism because it is part of their story or are they condoning sexism?

  7. Sorry about the delay in moderation. For a series of reasons too depressing to list here, I no longer have internet access at home and so it might take a while to approve outstanding messages. The simple solution, of course, is to get a wordpress username and password.

  8. Rjurik, I don’t think you can always distinguish between the subject of a piece of art, and the attitude the art takes towards that subject. If you create a fictional character that is a sexist pig, the typical bad boy that girls are drawn to, how can you make him believable without channeling the characters beliefs? It’s like Harry in ‘The Slap’. He is racist, sexist, violent pig and there is no apology in the writing for him being that way. He doesn’t even get punished by the law for his actions. Yet I’m drawn to him. This is my point – it is a very, very fine line. And if readers are drawn to Harry, is this not in a way glorifying him? I have a very confronting character in my novel that really crosses the boundaries yet he remains unpunished for his actions. Woman will be drawn to him. Am I not contributing to the problem?

    Many people have told me that the characters in ‘The Slap’ are stereotypical, just like Anwyn is criticising Cave for writing about women in stereotypical ways. It’s basically all the same to me. Cave is telling a story through his music just like Christos is in ‘The Slap’ only Christos has a lot more words to play with than Cave. I love ‘The Slap’ and Cave. I haven’t read Cave’s books so I can’t comment on that, but the music, however confronting it is, I’m drawn to it and want more.

    Don’t know if that’s wrong though. 🙂

  9. Ariel — Totally agree about not being interested in reading racist or sexist books and I think your Nabokov contrast is a telling one. These are the no-brainers — life is too short to waste time with them. I wonder though whether its more usual for ideologies to have a subtle role and effect within literature and art that make these questions more difficult. I haven’t read the Cave book yet but do just note Mark Mordue’s take in ALR:

    “It’s something of a shock to realise then that this piece of pulp fiction is not just about sex or playing for misanthropic laughs or revelling in shock value. It’s really about fatherhood and love and a quest for male redemption in a desire-racked world. That Cave’s true intent is in fact another repeated line in the book, from W.H. Auden: “We must love one another or die.” Or, as Arthur Miller once said, “attention must be paid”. Q”

  10. I’ve also been thinking about exactly that Koraly, about sexism in art and ‘The Slap’ (and Zeus and Hera/Jupiter and Juno, alluded to in the original post, one among the many patriarchal/misogynist myths upon which our western culture is broadly based and about which I could go on at length) – and agree with you, that there is a place for sexism in art, because the world we inhabit is sexist. And I think it’s important that artists explore their own ambivalences, discomforts, malevolence the way Nick obsessively explores his obsessions with women, which I think Anwyn described pretty accurately in her article, which for me was a blast of truth in a year of one-eyed Nick adulation.
    Books like ‘The Slap’ and McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ – in which the mother who is not up to the apocalypse is conveniently dispatched at the beginning, doesn’t have the courage to continue, leaving The Father and The Son to travail through The Wilderness – bother me deeply, despite the fact they also deeply impress me. My own response? I dream of writing – or reading – the anti-slap and the anti-road, or would that be ‘the pals’ and ‘the daor’?

  11. Koraly,

    I don’t think portraying a racist sexist pig who doesn’t get punished and who, for some reason, people are drawn to, contradicts my point at all. Rather I think it reaffirms it – the point is to try to write him in all his complexity. If we are drawn to him, then that is something worth investigating. And it’s not to glorify him, I don’t think. That’s to examine our own attitudes and the culture which forms them.

    As a contrast, we might think of your typical femme fatale, the woman who leads a good man to his doom by using her sexuality as a weapon. In this case, the femme fatale is often a stereotype expressing fear of women. And partly this is because she is not investigated in her real complexity. She is a flat surface. Do people like her actually exist? No. People are more complex than just personifying ‘naked evil.’

    In terms of Harry, does the ‘The Slap’ glorify him? If so, then yes, the book is sexist. If it doesn’t glorify him, but is ambivalent towards him, then you can’t claim it’s sexist, or simply sexist. If it doesn’t glorify him, but has some kind of critique, then you might say the book is feminist. I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

  12. For me, the most interesting pieces of literature are the ones that evoke such responses. I found The Slap so interesting because it presented some awful people, but they were nevertheless people I could recognise. This recognition is what made the book so interesting.

    The other thing perhaps worth mentioning in this discussion is the role of satire in literature. What do people think of a text like American Psycho?

  13. I think an interesting issue is also that of the writer’s identity. For example, Christos is widely regarded as a left wing writer, despite his perhaps mainstream popularity. Had The Slap been written by a white, extremely right wing writer, with quite a different stable of previous publications, would you be so prepared to detach character from creator? It’s an issue people are scared to tackle. Many of my poems, for example, would clearly take on a completely different meaning entirely if they were read by someone from a different cultural background (say, white south african), and the intention behind them would certainly be scrutinised.

    I believe that a responsible writer should find some way of ‘judging’ fucked-up (for want of better words) characters within the text. Not to do so is irresponsible. It assumes that the reader will be able to make the ‘right’ judgement themselves, and that’s too much of a gamble.

  14. maxine, you make an excellent point. perhaps irony is not colour-blind.

    i think good writing doesn’t offer neat moral answers. one of my mentors told me ‘at the heart of every good story is an unanswerable question.’ i think if a writer’s intentions interfere with the story it becomes strangled. so i’m not sure about judging the ‘bad’ guys. having said that, if your characters are just stereotypes – the femme fatale, the over-mothering mother – you should be worried. i would love to have been a fly on the wall in those editorial discussions with Tsolkias, if he was called on it at that stage.

    that’s not to say we operate in a moral vacuum. there are immense contradictions in being a storyteller and a political person. it makes life very interesting!

  15. I agree with Jejen on this. It’s not so black and white. If the author judges a sexist character is that reflecting reality? Does our society punish these sexist pigs in society? I think not. If anything, girls are drawn to them. I am sure I am not the only girl to admit that I am drawn to the bad boy in literature, even in reality. Yet I’m not sexist. I don’t even know why – go figure.

    And Rjurik, what you classify as a stereotype and what I classify as one may be different. I thought Harry wasn’t a stereotype but my friend did. There are woman out there that do use their sexuality to lure men. Yes, this a reoccurring theme in Cave’s work but every artist has a recurring theme in their work. If anything, he confronts the issue of this obsession with sex and domination in our society. This doesn’t mean he wants to rape/kill women. I write about rape, sex, drugs, domination in my book but it does not mean I condone it. But this is our society, this is it – it’s hard to digest isn’t it?

  16. Oh Koraly…seriously, girls (I assume you actually mean women?) are drawn to sexist pigs? This generalisation is based on what evidence?

    By ‘judging’, I don’t mean ‘punishing’. I mean providing some kind of (even subtle) counterpoint for an opposing view.

  17. Not all, but many I know are. Don’t get me wrong – this is unfortunate. I think it is just a consequence of being brought up in a sexist society. My background(Greek), sex is frowned upon before marriage for women only but men can do whatever. Women are expected to be housewives while the guys sit with their legs up watching television. What I am saying is that something has to change. And maybe by creating all this sexist art we are just contributing to this cycle of sexism – I don’t know.

  18. Many women are attracted to men, and many men happen to be sexist. I guess the question is whether the women you speak of are attracted to the men they are because of or in spite of their sexist attitutes. I’d say the latter, and I’d say that also applies to many Cave lovers. Silence, though, is indeed consent.

    I think Alec has effectively answered your question in his last post: part of what it means to be a truly progressive writer is to recognise that there is only backward movement in saying: ‘But society is sexist/racist/homophobic, and my art just reflects society, without attempting to make any kind of comment on or counterpoint to, this reality: subtle or overt, character-driven, thematically, linguistically, whatever… within the work of art.

  19. Well we do live in an overtly sexist society. The simple phrase of: “I’d tap that!” and the meerkat like attention given to women by the men is something I would call sexist.
    But in relation to the question, what can be considered art anyway? And what limitations are on it?
    Is a bottle of urine with a christian cross inside art? If so, is it acceptable? The American government claimed it to be acceptable but by doing so they offended a large number of their citizens. I may not be christian (I’m not even religious) but I still found it offensive.
    Is the idea of freedom of speech flawed by its vagueness? To follow it by those three words alone (freedom of speech) would mean you would be allowed to express yourself in anyway you want no matter how offensive or vulgar it may be.
    It is not against the law to hold racist or sexist thoughts, and even if it was such a law could be considered a fascist attempt to gain ultimate control over citizens.
    I’m not really sure where I’m going with all this so I’ll just get to the point.
    I think that sexist art or any art with any form of -ism is wrong, but it should not be suppressed. If it were to be suppressed we would be reducing ourselves to the level of those -ismy people who use “freedom of speech” as a way to promote their -isms whilst supressing all argument against them.

  20. I see no place for political correctness in art, including the arts of writing. I don’t mind people with differing views expressing those. Having the freedom to say what we all want to can only lead to more debate and change in society. People will read what they want to read and will not be swayed to become a criminal or sexist because of something they read. Our society is made up of millions of people with different experiences of life, influences upon them and different beliefs…and that is a wonderful thing.

  21. Tess, thanks for your comment. Like I said in Alec’s post, I think I am swaying towards freedom of speech in art(that is, art with no boundaries) but if you are going to create a character that is a sexist pig, if you don’t “deal” with him in the writing then you need to be able to justify yourself when the public asks you why. But I do think some readers ARE influenced by what fictional characters do. Not all people do this but some do which goes back to my initial point about whether or not artists are contributing to the problem instead of breaking the cycle and instigating change for the better. I know – it’s not black and white.

  22. Yeah, the bottled urine with the cross in it did happen and sparked a huge debate in the US about grants given to artists who use the money to make offensive pieces of artwork.
    Tess, I kind of half agree with you. The great majority of people won’t be swayed in any way by the arts but there are those that will be influenced heavily and those that will be offended.
    Although it is kind of hard for me to make a solid statement, I write crappy short stories as a hobby and if anyone read them they’d think I was a sadistic killer although the truth of the matter is I am a gentle pacifist.
    So by judging any form of offensive artwork I am making myself a hypocrite.
    And if you make a character a sexist pig there really is no need to “deal” with them, what such a character is, is a mirror held in front of society to make them squirm when they look at themselves.
    Of course the artist will take all the blame for putting this mirror in front of the people but that is their lot, no one ever gave them the illusion it would be easy.
    And what I have managed to do is confuse myself. I do not know whether to portray the controvercial and confrontation artist as an offensive and narrow minded pig or a martyr speaking out in an attempt to make change.
    I guess both of these groups would exist, but how would you differentiate between the two?

  23. Don’t worry, Marc – I am confusing myself too. I guess as an artist we have to make a choice and deal with the consequences of what we create. I don’t want to even get into what people will think of me when they read my book. Like Alec said, you can’t escape in fiction. Yes, we can differentiate ourselves from a characters but at the end of the day we created those characters and as artists we have to be able to stand behind our work and defend it.

  24. Koraly, sorry, but who are you to say what is and isn’t art?

    “yuck. Not Art.”

    Art can be shocking, as Andres Serrano’s art often is, but that doesn’t mean it’s “not art”.

  25. It seems to me that it’s open slather. The “eye of the beholder” will obviously decide what offends and what does not offend. If you think something is sexist – then it is.
    If it doesn’t seem sexist to you – then it’s not sexist to you.
    And if somebody comes along to correct our error, explaining to us why a certain thing is sexist, when we, in a naivety, view it in an entirely neutral way, if we are authentic, we will hold our position even if they then find us and our opinion as equally offensive as the item originally in question.
    Sometimes you have to suffer for the sake of your art.

  26. As an aside, I really liked Piss Christ, though I do find ordinary Christ figures highly offensive…but there you go, that illustrates Tess’s point above I guess. The genius in Piss Christ was partly the reaction it caused: art which created art. I’d definitely hang it in my house…as long as that glass was totally water tight.

  27. Chris, if I don’t classify it as art doesn’t mean I am right. Art is subjective. I might find a book a masterpiece while someone else thinks it’s trash. Piss Christ is definitely making a statement, don’t get me wrong, and a powerful one at that. It’s really confronting – my initial reaction was cringing, but I don’t know, maybe because it caused that reaction in me it has done it’s job as art.

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