45 degrees off

Seeing the same thing from a different angle.

Teachable Moments in Art

“Teachable moments” are often the moments where something happens that makes a perfect illustration of the point you want to get across. If you want to teach people that wearing seat belts saves lives, a “teachable moment” is when a car wreck is reported on the news where the car is totaled but everyone in it was wearing a seat belt and survived with minor bruises and cuts.

I believe teachable moments happen every day. I also believe art can provide us with many teachable moments. It can sometimes be difficult to get people to think about an issue or idea until there’s an illustration right in front of them. Especially when the issue or idea relates to horrible things that happen or are done to people, it doesn’t really make anyone feel better to have a real case on hand to use as an illustration in their teaching. Art can provide us with fictional cases that still make excellent examples or icebreakers to begin a conversation about an issue.

A few months, I found out about the From Enchantment to Down photo series by Thomas Czarnecki. The photos are shown in this article, but I’ve chosen not to show even one of them here in this post. The reason is I’ve looked them all over carefully before and would rather not do so again. They are upsetting to me.

But why are they upsetting to me? Mr. Czarnecki has created a series of pictures showing the “Disney Princesses” all grown up and meeting very depressing, perhaps even violent, ends. Is it the depictions of such things happening to beloved characters that bothers me? Is it that it makes me think of violence against women in the real world? I asked myself those questions when I looked at the pictures before, especially since I didn’t interpret them the way the people who brought them to my attention did.

I became aware of the photo series because of a tweet going around on Twitter claiming that someone had tried to be “edgy” by showing all the Disney Princesses as rape victims. There was a lot of talking about how sickening that is when an artist thinks they’re “cool” for doing something like that, and how the media has too much violence against women as entertainment already, but I didn’t see any discussion of other interpretations of the work. I wasn’t even seeing real discussion of the work, but simply of the idea stated in the original tweet… that someone had depicted them all as rape victims.

It was weeks later, when the story about the photos was run in several big internet news outlets and online versions of a few newspapers, that I finally saw discussion of the work. Not everyone cared for it. Some people found it to be disgusting and senseless. Some people thought it was brilliant. Every website reporting on it seemed to interpret the pictures different ways, and even commenters had different interpretations. According to the article I’ve linked here:

Mr. Czarnecki admits his aim was pure culture shock.

The photographer was inspired to create a clash between what he calls ‘the naive universe and the innocence of the fairy tales’ and a ‘much darker reality that is as much part of our common culture’ provided through imagery we see in entertainment and media.

‘So many Disney characters embedded in the collective culture as sweet and innocent creatures that I decided to get out of their recognized fairy-tale frame and universe,’ he said.

I’d tried looking for a statement from the artist about what his motivation was when I first saw the work but hadn’t found one then. What I did find was an interesting split in feminist discussions of the work. Most of the feminist discussions I saw on Twitter focused on that idea that he was depicting them as rape victims, and that somehow this was to be “entertaining” or “edgy”. I saw feminist discussions in other places, such as Tumblr, that seemed more in line with what his eventual statement said. Many of the women I saw discussing the photos are not fans of the Disney Princesses, seeing them as bad role models for girls, and were talking about these photos as a warning about what can happen if you deny your true self and live for fashion and pleasing a man. Interpretations of individual photos included seeing them as rape victims, drug and alcohol abusers, suffering from depression, and I saw at least one case of the photo of Ariel being interpreted as a warning about ocean pollution.

The wonderful thing is that the work was being discussed as having value and lessons to be learned from it, rather than judging the artist’s possible reasons for doing it.

This has been on my mind again because of a recent post on The Stories of O. I don’t play the card game she’s talking about (Magic: The Gathering), but the issue isn’t about the game. It’s about the art on one of the cards.

O explains the uproar about the art more fully, and there’s at least one commenter who gave some additional information on the context of the card, but the short version is this :

There’s a story that goes with the game. The woman is a powerful necromancer who cursed the man, and he’s gone after her to try to force her to lift the curse. Another card shows the continuation of their fight, in which the woman wins. There are some people who seem to have reacted to the art without taking context into account. They see the woman as helpless and pinned down by a large violent man, and there have been statements that they understand there is no sexual assault happening, but that the scene calls such events to mind.

Those speaking out against judging the art out of context, like O, have pointed to how the card makes it clear the woman is not helpless and “unarmed”  (she’s casting a fireball spell) and that this is a fight not just between a man and a woman, but between a man who is rightfully enraged because he was cursed by a woman who is a powerful necromancer. I’d like to step away from that argument for a moment and look at how this could become a teachable moment.

This art provides opportunities to discuss a number of issues. It can be used to show that being smaller doesn’t make you helpless. (She is casting a fireball spell, and she does win the fight.) Discussions of fictional worlds where women can be even more powerful than many men can open doors for discussions about how women can be empowered in our own world by simply getting people to think about the subject. There are still people who think rape is about sex, and this art could be used in an educational context to correct that misguided idea. Yes, it is clear from the context that sexual assault is not what’s happening here. However, the fact that people are able to see it so easily out of context means it would make it easier to show people the paralells and educate them about assault being about power and dominance over another person, no matter what kind of assault it is.

If you’re fighting a war against ignorance and outdated societal attitudes, use weapons of opportunity. Turn the tools of the masters against them.

I did figure out why Mr. Czarnecki’s photos upset me, by the way. They pushed me to think about things I usually avoid thinking about. I learned quite a bit about myself from the experience.  I had to make myself look at them and ask myself some uncomfortable questions to get there, though.

Note: These are very hot-button issues, and intense discussions about them have happened more recently in some social circles than others. I will open comments on Monday, but would rather not spend my weekend moderating them.

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