[Content note: discussion of rape & rape culture; dehumanizing of incarcerated people]
Or we can talk about artists and rapists, if you prefer.
Just as long as you don’t make the mistake of thinking either pairing consists of diametrically opposed terms, and never the twain shall meet. If you believe that all rapists are simply monsters — and thus clearly distinct and apart from the rest of all us good and worthy humanfolk — well…
It may be time to burst that bubble.
What makes rape an inherently violent act (apart from any matters of concurrent physical brutality or psychological harm) is the way the rapist obliterates the physical boundaries and bodily integrity of another person. A rapist denies the very humanity of his or her victims, and enacts that denial upon their flesh.
In my deepest core, I do not believe that such violence is ameliorated in any way by returning the denial, ‘eye for an eye’-style, and monster-izing the perpetrator’s own humanity in turn.
But a quest for justice is not true root to the evergreen popularity of our ‘ALL RAPISTS = ALL MONSTERS, ALL THE TIME’ beliefs. Rape culture hides its traps in plain sight. If I believe that rapists (and I’m talking real rapists, to be clear: the really-real ones, who really really-rape) are always monsters, then I can comfort myself with the belief that no one I know is possibly a rapist.
Because I only know people.
Truth is, as Melissa McEwan wrote in response to Camille Cosby’s defense of her husband (Bill Cosby is “the man you thought you knew” from TV, according to Camille’s statement, and thus cannot possibly be the rapist currently portrayed in the media):
“[H]aving decent qualities that are common among humans does not mean that someone cannot also be terrible. We’re all some combination of good bits and bad bits….
“Rapists are not literal monsters. They are human beings, and often deceptively charming ones at that. They can be in one moment cruel, and the next kind, even with their victims.”
They sometimes can even create beautiful art.
Which brings me to an article published by Salon.com on Thursday: I love a rapist’s artwork: A brutal crime, a delicate work. (
The link is via DONOTLINK, btw; I will not be responsible for driving traffic to this painful mess. [EDIT 5/16: donotlink appears down for the count. Link is now direct.])
In the piece, poet and professor Jen DeGregorio reflects on her decision to buy a painting — and to carry it with her throughout numerous moves, during which she discarded many of her other possessions — all the while knowing the painting is the work of a convicted rapist, whom she met at the prison where he resided. Her introductory framing makes it a compelling question.
Her reflections on that question? Not so compelling.
I feel slightly twingey, singling out this one piece when so much horrid, rape-culture-affirming, incarcerated-person-dehumanizing stuff is published online every day. As Mallory Ortberg puts it, “like a fart from a stranger, it’s easier just to pretend you didn’t notice [a bad essay] and wait for the aftermath to dissipate.” But I am as fascinated by DeGregorio’s words as I am horrified.
In her effort to interrogate complex issues around what is visible — and what is not — when we look at art, she seems unable to grapple with the other complexities she encounters: rape, violence, identity, race, consumption, imprisonment, justice… Through her descriptions, the painting comes across as lovely and layered, open to multiple interpretations, while the painter himself remains flat, distant, trapped forever within a single, unidimensional label. Rapist.
(At the risk of repeating myself, I return to the words of Roxane Gay: “Art is nothing compared to humanity, nothing at all.”)
Let me take you now on an annotated journey through one writer’s effort to grapple with the vexing questions raised by
her personal taste in home decor that is to say, the adventurous frisson she gets from the spectacle of incarcerated bodies whoops, no I mean the persistent myth that most “rapes” are really just false accusations wait, I got it: the possibility that a single human being can both rape and paint.
In other words: Welcome to Rape Culture.
“Who painted that?”^ The question inevitably comes. “It’s beautiful.” But the answer to that question is the opposite of beautiful. It’s brutal and ugly. Because the man who painted it – an artist, some might say – is a rapist.
Yup, some might indeed say that a person who paints art and sells art — to people who then hang that art on their own kitchen wall for years — qualifies as “an artist.”
I can’t imagine what they’re thinking.
I’d moved months earlier to New Orleans, ostensibly for a job as a newspaper reporter. More truthfully, though, I was a New Jersey girl in search of adventure below the Mason-Dixon Line. And a day trip to Angola’s famous rodeo – where inmates ride broncos and sell crafts – sounded like just the kind of Southern Gothic jaunt I was after.
Nothing says “adventurous and jaunty” quite like tourists gawking at people incarcerated in a high security prison! For extra Southern flair, be sure to pick a prison built on the site of a former cotton plantation and nicknamed after the original home of the enslaved people who labored there.
One group, more ominously, paced inside a cage-like structure along the rodeo periphery.
Lest you think it accidental, how DeGregorio’s first reference to the people who reside at the prison elides any distinction between them and rodeo livestock on display, she gives us inmates pacing beast-like in cages. Humans as zoo animals.
I remember his face, smooth and pale. He had placid blue eyes, with which he looked directly into mine as we spoke. His manner was friendly, even shy.
I have no idea what face Jen DeGregorio pictures when she closes her eyes and imagines the words, “monstrous rapist.” I do know — because she makes sure I do — that when she decided to buy a piece of art at a prison facility whose population is more than three-quarters black, she knew only one real thing about the painter behind the fence: the man looked white.
When I gave my offer for his painting, he smiled and nodded. I walked away feeling pleased with myself for having struck a deal. As I made my way over to the cashier, however, the dark humor of my situation hit me. Here I was at a prison that housed the state’s most violent criminals, many of them on death row, and I had just bought a piece of art to decorate my apartment.
“Dark humor”? You’re sure not “LAUGH RIOT”? At least she got herself a good deal.
But then DeGregorio begins to worry about the backstory of this maybe-artist-who-lives-in-a-cage:
Like any reporter, I decided to ask. The man I asked was the stripe-shirted one who’d been overseeing the stand where I’d spotted the painting. First I asked him why he wasn’t behind the fence like the painter. He replied that he’d found the Lord, was reformed, and therefore no longer considered a threat by Angola authorities. I took him at his word. “But what did the painter do that he has to be confined like that?” The prisoner looked down at his shoes, back at me, and dropped the fact: “That man’s a multiple rapist.”
“Like any reporter, I decided to ask someone whose only clear qualification was being not the person I wanted to know about.”
Again I was stunned by the mundanity of the scene. Shopping crowds, shining sun. Yet I felt sick. Why would I buy a painting from a rapist, engage in business with him?
And if the painter’s crime had been not rape, but any other violent act that can lead to incarceration at a maximum security prison (and possibly death row), would that not have posed the same dilemma? Who did DeGregorio imagine had created any of the artwork for sale at this particular craft fair?
She knew a criminal conviction would exist in the background of every human being there who wore a striped prison uniform, had she bothered to think it through — no matter how Southern Gothic her fantasies.
Then I began to wonder what it would accomplish to not buy the painting. Would leaving it behind constitute some sort of protest? Hardly. What I did with the painting now would change nothing about the past. And anyway, wasn’t the art separate from the man? Hadn’t I overlooked the corrupt (or allegedly corrupt) personal lives of many artists over the years in favor of appreciating their work? Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Ezra Pound, to name a few. Why not ignore this artist as well and simply enjoy the lovely image he had created?
Sure! Because acknowledging any beauty in the artwork of a man convicted and currently serving time for the harm he’s done to others is exactly the same as refusing to care about the harm done by an
admitted rapist “artist with an allegedly corrupt personal life” who plead guilty but is currently living in Europe (having fled to escape the terms of his plea bargain), where he continues to make high-profile movies to great critical acclaim, including an Oscar win.
Six years later, a conversation with a friend leads DeGregorio to wonder anew about her painting by the let’s-definitely-not-call-him-an-artist-if-he’s-actually-a-rapist-instead prisoner:
Although I’d been told the painter was a rapist, I’d never actually looked into the matter myself. The word “rape” has become such an abstraction, a term one hears in the media so often that it’s become divorced from the brutality of the act.
Lemme see if I can help un-abstract it: rape is the penetration of another person’s body, with either an object or a part of the rapist’s own body, without that other person’s consent.
Rape is brutal. It is also (if you’ll give me a moment to explain) often almost banal. Statistics suggest that, in the US, 1 out of every 6 women, and 1 out of every 33 men, is either raped or subjected to an attempted rape during their lifetimes. We’re talking about more than 20 MILLION PEOPLE victimized in this way. Making rape both a horrific trauma…and a quotidian occurrence. Rape culture norms function to protect the frequency of assaults by upping the ante on what qualifies as the horror. As the ‘rape-rape,’ if you will.
Enter the “classic rapist”: the stranger lurking in dark alleys or in bushes outside windows, a man who targets women he doesn’t know and attacks them with a knife to the throat or a gun to the head. As Mychal Denzel Smith points out, reliance on this image obscures the reality of how the majority of rapes occur. As more people come forward with their own rape stories that don’t match up with the “classic” scenario, our society is reaching a critical juncture: either we need to abandon our myths about rape [Hint: we need to abandon our myths about rape] — or we can choose to feel so overwhelmed by reality that we throw our hands in the air and declare “rape” to be a term overused to a point where it has lost all meaning!
DeGregorio appears to be opting for Door Number Two.
For the first time, I wondered about his victims. Who were they? On the other hand, I considered the possibility that the man was falsely accused.
“For the first time, I wondered about his victims. I wondered if they were all liars and perjurers.”
Maybe I should have inquired into the details of the painter’s alleged crimes before I’d decided to take his art home.
PRO-TIP: By the time a person’s been convicted and locked in a high security prison for 30-odd years, I think you can stop using the qualifier “alleged” quite so axiomatically. Even for rape.
(Also, see above re.: “Sooo…exactly which violent offenses must a person avoid committing if s/he doesn’t wish to be forever disqualified from painting lovely landscapes, with sky and field that meet where five small and chimneyed houses stand?”)
After bit of searching, DeGregorio learns that, as a young man in the ’80s, the painter confessed to the rapes and attempted rapes of five women. (The minimal details she provides suggest the attacks fit into a mostly “classic” pattern: stalking, breaking in, increasing levels of terrible violence.) She finds the number five significant, as the painting itself includes five bushels of cotton in the foreground and an echoing five houses in the background:
Could it be that the painting portrays the point of view of a stalker in the act, one hiding and watching the houses until dark? Do his five confessed victims correspond to the five houses and five cotton-filled baskets? Is the painting meant to be a memorial of some kind, a celebration of the artist’s crimes?
Yet there’s a meditative quality to the painting, bespeaking an inner intelligence and sensitivity that is inconceivable in a rapist, a word synonymous in my mind with “monster.”
Another observer might see these as not-incompatible interpretations: that the use of fives could both reference his five victims (or crimes, or confessions) — and do so from the perspective of a man who has now had thirty years to meditate on those events. Another observer might have less difficulty conceiving of a human being, over three decades, deepening his perspective and possibly also his regret for past actions, even (perhaps especially) if those actions were violent and harmful.
Of course, neither DeGregorio nor I can possibly know what lay in the man’s mind as he painted. Few artists — even the rapist ones — release their work with a decoder ring.
To wish that the rape never occurred, then, is to wish the painting unpainted. And if such an exchange were possible, if I could go back in time and trade this painting for the rape, then I certainly would.
If I could go back in time and trade these sentences juxtaposing “the painting” and “the rape” as almost monolithic abstractions for a more-nuanced attention to the fact that she’s discussing multiple events, in which five actual women suffered actual harm, then I certainly would.
The piece ends with:
Today when I look at the cotton field, the smoking chimneys on my wall, I can’t help feeling that I am looking through the eyes of a rapist. I worry that, in doing so, I have somehow condoned him, forgiven him. These concerns are much like those that troubled me six years ago, when I debated dizzily about whether to take the painting home. The only difference is, now, the painting’s mine. I own it.
I think what DeGregorio actually fears is that she is looking through the eyes of a predator currently on the hunt. Her occasional desires to ignore the painter’s identity altogether, her hope that perhaps he has been falsely accused, speak to how she freezes this man in time, at the point of his most heinous choices. Not just “once a rapist, always a rapist.” What she suggests is more “once a rapist, always a mindless brute monster gloating over past victims and seeking out new prey.”
If rapists are always monsters, then we can easily recognize and avoid them. We may hang on our walls things they once made, we may even publish thought pieces musing over what such things mean to us — and we will never experience greater danger or distress than a dizzy feeling when we fork over $50 at a fair.
If rapists are always monsters.
I want to return for a moment to the fact of 20 million victims of rape and attempted rape in their lifetimes, in the US alone. Consider that number. Consider how many people you interact with on a regular or occasional basis…and how many of them must surely stand among those 20 million.
Now consider the rapists. How many human beings must rape other human beings, for our country to reach a figure like 20 million? Consider how many people you interact with — how many acquaintances, how many coworkers, how many friends, how many family.
Consider how many of them must surely stand among the ranks of predators.
A member of my family — someone I have known my whole life, someone I love and who loves me in return — is a rapist. I do not condone what this person has done. I have neither forgiven this person nor not. Forgiveness does not seem my place, as I was not the person directly harmed, and I choose to defer to the judgment and wishes of the person who was. Who is also a member of my family, and also someone I love. Contemplating both the pain and the love — the raw humanity — of our collective pasts sometimes leaves me dizzy.
I have art created by each of them currently hanging on my walls.
[^Quotation marks indicate what appears in italics in the original.]
[5/11/16 UPDATE: After DeGregorio contacts me regarding this essay, I have a few further thoughts.]