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.