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Razer: Sophia Hewson’s ‘rape representation’ and the old trick of churching up titillation

It was in 2014 that the artist Sophia Hewson first found herself up my ginger. In a piece possibly entitled You’re Hot and I’m Hot So Let’s Pretend We’re Lezzers to Get All the Guys in the Nightclub Super Hard, she supplied the world of art with little but an unwitting condemnation of everything that is less than noble about the Archibald Prize.

In a portrait that saw the artist giving pop-star Missy Higgins a yard of tongue, Hewson used, as other entrants sometimes do, celebrity as an easy prop. She made, as others have, a safe bet on prurience, courting the mild disapproval of some and the mild liberalism of others with an unchallenging moment of soft-focus lesbianism. Which is to say, she used the flat old artist’s trick of churching up titillation.

“I’ve been thinking about the proximity of the orgasm to death,” she said in her artist’s statement, as though these thoughts on Thanatos and Eros were in any way new and as though a picture of a cute young aspiring celebrity blonde pashing a cute young actual celebrity brunette could deliver audiences anything more than cause for an “artistic” wank.

You know the sort of thing, particularly if you’re a Seinfeld fan. Of the fictional film Rochelle, Rochelle, whose log-line is a “A young girl’s strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk”, Elaine is the sole critic. Stop pretending this is art, she implores George and Jerry. But, along with nearly every trash aesthete in New York, George and Jerry keep on pretending that their arousal is artistic. This “foreign film” leaps off the screen and onto Broadway, its reputation unreasonably buoyed by a city full of semi-hard dicks. Elaine is furious.

There’s nothing wrong with rubbing one out. There’s something very wrong with artworks that support the fiction that you’re rubbing one out in a more informed way. Masturbation is always an abject act and to pretend that it is not is a moralising lie of the first order.

But, Hewson is hardly alone in extending the delusion that desire is a matter of class. She was young and entitled to ponce about being acceptably sexy and call it subversion. When she really shat me was when she assured news.com.au, perhaps the most appropriate site for discussion of such a flat work, that she was not queer but, “very, very straight!”

I felt, and not, I believe, without half-decent cause, affronted by the decision of a Very, Very Straight artist to monetise queer.

As a person who is neither very, very straight nor very, very patient with ill-considered attempts to shatter the “male gaze”, or even to apparently understand what that very particular term means, I found this disavowal aggressive. I mean, for a start, it’s very close to saying “Eww.  No. Lesbians. Gross.” Second, for a work that purports to have at its basis some deep Freudian thought on death and climax, it seemed either actually ignorant or wilfully ignorant for the artist to assert an autobiographical sexual detail into a public understanding of the work. I mean, isn’t this chick playing with ideas of subject-hood, and wouldn’t she then know not to say “OH MY GOD NO I’M NOT GAY”?  I mean, what do they teach them at VCA these days? How to get coverage in the nation’s shittiest newspapers with your version of Rochelle, Rochelle?

All of which is to say I felt, and not, I believe, without half-decent cause, affronted by the decision of a Very, Very Straight artist to monetise queer. It wasn’t just that she’d hurt my feels. It was that she had more broadly shat on queer by representing it as something to which she had, by her own explicit admission, no proximity at all.

These objections of mine are, of course, as nothing compared to those raised these past days about the new video work by (a still of which is pictured above) by Hewson, Untitled (“are you ok bob?”).

If I felt injured by a flat representation of queer, I can’t even begin to imagine how survivors of rape would be feeling today.

I haven’t seen the work, currently showing at a Melbourne gallery, and nor have many of the commentators who have written about it. (I should mention that this is not for want of trying. The gallerist initially told me that I could come see it tomorrow when the exhibition re-opened. When I pleaded deadline and nagged for an online viewing, she said she would open the gallery for me. (Sadly, I was already in my pyjamas and way past due to the ed.) But, given that the work is built largely from the stated parameters of its own production—the artist “invited” a “stranger” to rape her and filmed the results—I think we can say that even a direct experience of the work would still upturn the ethical problems with a purportedly ethical work that have already been broadly canvassed.

Like a lot of contemporary works, this one is philosophising. Which is to say—and by no means do I mean this in a hyper-critical “artists don’t know how to paint anymore!” kind of way—the work is more about the idea than its execution. Much of what you need to know about the work is contained in the artist’s statement, and this fact of works being appended to written intent is fine. What is not even a bit fine is asserting that the piece is “conceptually challenging” when the only real challenge it can possibly pose is to the authenticity of rape. And, you know, rape survivors get enough of that as it is.

I am not suggesting for a nanosecond that the expression of artists should be contained by morality.

I am not saying here that we can’t talk in new ways about sexual violence. I am not suggesting for a nanosecond that the expression of artists should be contained by morality. I am saying, however, that a philosophising and a political work has a responsibility to be actually philosophical and political and, FFS, you just can’t go about saying, as Hewson has, that you have a “militant feminist” project while undermining that project in the clumsiest and most foundational way.

Unless Hewson is re-asserting the radical feminist view that all acts of penetration are rape, and she’s not, then this was not rape. It was Tinder. And why is a “militant feminist” putting us in the position where we have to say, again, that a particular act is not rape? Like Paul Sheehan’s fabulist account of jihadist rape that never happened or Rolling Stone’s reprehensible negligence in the A Rape on Campus story, this artefact not only serves to hurt survivors who were never believed. It serves in some small part as a juridical rationale for the same doubt.

Basically, it’s just awful to say to anyone “you weren’t raped”. Even the artist who herself declares it. And this work can only provoke that response.

I am certain that Hewson’s motivations were noble—perhaps they were in the Higgins portrait, too. But, I am also certain that a work that is built chiefly from philosophy should hold itself to the highest philosophical standards.

If there’s any good to come of this work, perhaps it will be to provoke a young artist who works in thought to more careful thought. Perhaps she will hoist herself to the level of many good feminist writers on sexual assault, some of whom have shown great and thoughtful impatience with this work.

39 responses to “Razer: Sophia Hewson’s ‘rape representation’ and the old trick of churching up titillation

  1. I believe Sophia is a genius. She is the most beautiful and the most perfect woman on the planet. I am totally and completely devoted to her. She is beautiful, and everything she does is perfect. Please do not slight Sophia or her work.

  2. I made myself listen through to the end of Sophia Hewson’s podcast discussion on her work on 774ABC, it was excruciating. She was so obviously out of her depth- not that anyone else on the panel challenged her; when the topic turned to her views on pornography I almost projectile vomited, what utter garbage. The final line of her ‘conceptual accompaniment to the work’ was a trite ‘I did not get off on making this work’! Go away Sophia, and take your shallow and ignorant stereotypes with you.

  3. It might not have been necessary to see this work, but will you give us a review of an exhibition you have seen, Helen?

  4. I googled Missy’s kiss with Sophie and just didn’t get a flicker or even a hint of a hard-on. The two of them look incredibly uncomfortable, Sophie the more uncomfortable of the two. It looks as though neither of them are able to give themselves up to the sensuality of the moment. Just on the other piece, I don’t think young women who pash each other in nite clubs to get the boys hot realise what a childish and petulant act it is in a long line of similarly self-serving acts. The staging involved as betrayed by the hopeful peeks about the room mid pash usually give the girls up. The flicker-o-metre would fail to be moved at all for most but the dumbest of dumb men. Write-on Helen.

  5. In a generous mood, I might regard Sophia’s work as a critique of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece or various work by Marina Abramovic.

  6. Great commentary, but now I want to see it! I did see her Missy pash and thought the most interesting thing was the way all the middle class watchers tried to discuss it as if it really were art, on the non-prurient sense. Guess I’ll wait til someone down the line pirates this latest one and pops it on YouTube. I’ll bet she is wallowing in what she thinks is your bourgeois misunderstanding of her “radical” project as we speak.

  7. You demand greater rigour from the artist but you don’t bother to actually see the work you’re reviewing because you were in your pyjamas.

    1. By the time the gallerist made the offer, my article was already past due. As described in the piece, I had already asked for a viewing. I was making a joke. It was not intended to be read literally.
      There was no possibility of seeing the work before deadline, despite inquiries made before it.

      1. Why didn’t you hold the story and go see the work yourself at the gallery ?

        The show runs for another week – surely seeing the art before writing a review would have made more sense ?

        1. Frank ‘ Don’t know how to break this to you ‘ the subject of the article you reference ,is that anglican cleric had opened a Bill Henson show at a regional gallery. (The article went on and on about ‘nude children’ )
          In the comments to the article ,that same anglican cleric pointed out that the show he had opened was , largely landscapes , seascapes and some pictures of , adults, that’s all.

          1. But he would say that, wouldn’t he?

            I think the issues were slightly more complicated than that, Alf Dubbo, but thanks for replying.

            My point was that in certain circumstances, it’s quite justifiable to review art exhibitions without actually seeing them, given pressing ethical or other important social or moral principles apparently raised by them – this this case, the overriding principle being the manifest exploitation of a child – whose image, by the way, had been used to publicise the exhibition.

            ‘Nudity’ did not actually come into it, directly.

            I think the point being made (about the necessity to view) is appropriate in cases where what is being shown is not new work. Few artist exhibitions are mounted without an exhibiting history able to be sourced, or without familiarity with the oeuvre. In the instance I raised, the works were recycled and previously seen, and all the images exhibited were available online. Furthermore, there were some serious questions pertaining to the timing of this public association between a senior Anglican cleric (during a pending Royal Commission into institutional responses to abuses focussing at that moment on his Church) and the artist, where the latter was busily engaged in redeeming his reputation and market values – a process in which this leader of the flock could be seen to be (no doubt) unwittingly complicit.

            Given such pressing contemporaneous factors, the ordinary logistics involved in actual viewing the exhibition (albeit unnecessary) to do with geographical distance and time constraints, in my view justified a review from afar – conditions I deem to be analogous to Helen Razor’s critique above and precisely why I raised it.

  8. I pretty much agree with the rest of the article but I’m confused by the sweeping statement “Masturbation is always an abject act and to pretend that it is not is a moralising lie of the first order.” Razor states this as an absolute truth and then denounces those who disagree as pretenders and moralising liars. What’s so wrong with masturbation? What makes it abject?

    1. I wasn’t saying that wanking is bad. I just think when it is performed by a human that it is a form of (necessary) abasement. This is not a moral judgement. I just happen to think that we can only bring ourselves to climax when we believe that we are broken.
      I think the ideas of “positive” and :liberated” and “natural” sexuality are oppressive ones. Without transgression, there can be no climax.
      Again. Not a moral judgement.

      1. Helen, fine piece of writing overall and I don’t disagree with your general conclusions, but I’m struggling with your clarification here.

        Mainly, I’m not sure how concepts of “abasement” and “transgression” can be meaningful outside the context of a moral system – the concept implies a scale of value on which the abased is at the bottom, and what system of value are we talking about here that could not be described as a moral system? Or am I misunderstanding what you mean by a “moral judgement” – do you just mean you’re not putting the behaviour into a category of “things that should be shunned/discouraged by society”?

        Separately, I can agree that the expectation that people should experience “positive” and “liberated” and “natural” sexuality can be oppressive, but I don’t see how the concept itself is necessarily oppressive, probably because I don’t see how the “only” way to a climax is to believe I am broken. Wanking is a quite cheery experience for me usually, thanks for asking.

        Do you have anything you can point to (by yourself or others) that might go into what you are talking about here in more depth? I am curious (red, white and blue).

      2. Sorry, nothing to do with the article (which i think is pretty spot on) but I think you’ve got issues with masturbation if you think it’s a form of “abasement”.

        What “transgression” takes place in order for climax?!? (Sorry if you’re religious?)

  9. Sort of agree – I think Helen wants us to place too much trust in artists’ statements. Even if what Hewson says she is trying to do is bullshit, she is still doing something. Even if all she is doing is sneaking pornography into polite conversation, that is still something, and still at least mildly subversive, even if the object/subject of subversion are different from those presupposed in the artist’s statement.

  10. “Masturbation is always an abject act …”

    Oh, I don’t know.
    Only as “always abject” as online social commentary.

  11. Three legged, half a borrowed trick show pony .. will do just about anything for publicity, except anything of worth. Australia’s Got Talent but this ain’t it.

  12. Exactly. Good comment “what they are teaching at the VCA these days.” On return to Victoria and opening a new gallery in 2001 I went to the VCA to look at students’ work, as I had done in the 1980s when John Walker and his team were producing marvellous artists. the Director was a person who specialised in video, two woemn told me no-one discussed practical questions about painting, and several students discussed pressure to focus on video and not painting or drawing. Of course your article deals with wider issues, but once the artworld is controlled by media specialists as opposed to artists, thought and content are subjugated to marketing.

    1. Judith
      “Content is fancy form” the very idea of Art as ‘idea’ without complex constructed form and that takes skill ,is incoherent : Hamlet without the words, gestures and movements is just a blank page.

  13. Look the level of “ideas” these kids are taught at Art School is nil. In a way it had to happen and the debate is good BUT let’s all face it, the vast bulk of Contemporary Art now is crap! The same cliches made for the same middle class audiences. Youtube is far more interesting. Why do we even have wastes of tax payer dollars with art colleges. Just teaches kids to be poor.

    1. I am not certain but I feel it is safe to suppose that there was rarely a democratic period where we could not say “most art is crap!”
      I don’t really have a problem with the way contemporary art chiefly deals in ideas. And, I don’t think you do either. Perhaps we are agreed that if the medium is more-or-less thought, than the thought needs to be as assiduously taught and learned as techniques in composition once were.
      I am often very interested in the themes that contemporary artists explore. Lacan and Deleuze still seem to make regular appearances in artists’ minds, and I have been struggling willingly to understand these guys for twenty-five years. But, when I see a piece and I can credibly think” Gee. I think maybe even I understand those concepts better than you do”, it’s troubling. Or unsatisfying.
      I know it’s hard to be young and absurdly hard to be a young artist. But, this was always so and a little extra pain in understanding ideas better than you, me and other viewers do is plainly needed.

      1. Helen
        Italian Renaissance art is an exception to your “most is crap” rule, while some artists , Titian etc were much more skilful , insightful or amazingly spiritually illuminated such as Piero dela Francesca , the also rans were good ,if not as good . Really crap Renaissance art is quite rare.
        John Berger has some interesting ideas about why this is the case.

          1. If you go through the French 18c ( pre revolution) section of the Louve there are miles of canvases made by what Delacroix later called the “conscientious servant of the Art of boredom”.
            Boreing would have to be one of the worse kinds of crap art , no?

      2. If the medium is thought, then that kind of makes it tough on young artists who, typically, run over the same old philosophical ground that most of us did. I cringe when I look back at my younger self. I’m not saying it’s not valid, or even an essential part of maturation, but original thought often comes after you’ve worked your way through all the same-old-same-old. Other mediums, like painting etc., because of their visceral natural, often bypass critical thought making them, potentially, more spontaneous and a less conscious expression.

  14. Hewson is filming staged sex acts for money and the entertainment of a particular kind of audience. She is selling sex. Both are more or less valid kinds of employment. Why dress it up as Art? S

      1. Helen
        Reminds me of a lesbian friend back in the 1970s heyday of lesbian separatists, one night after a few drinks she vented her frustration at all these ‘ lesbians’ that do not ‘sleep with, women’. Women ‘That just want you as a fashion statement at party meetings’.

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