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Who Is Responsible For This?: Assault in Art

“Why didn’t you make any noise?”
“How long after it happened did you tell?”
“Why didn’t you tell it immediately, and, if immediately,

why didn’t you bring suit?”

 

Does this line of questioning seem familiar to you? It is an echo of so many questions that are all too often hurled at women who have been brave enough to call out sexual assault and abuse.

Remarkably, these very words were spoken by Agostino Tasso, in 1612, as he was allowed to cross-examine the very woman who had testified to being raped by him. This barrage of questioning came, incidentally, immediately after she was tortured with finger screws, to ensure the veracity of her testimony. This woman would become the very successful Baroque painter, Artemisia Gentileschi.

With Brock Turner back in the news trying - repulsively and inconceivably - to create a new defense for his indefensible actions (raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster), it reminds us that far too many women are still being put on trial for being the victims of sexual assault. It is a narrative that hasn’t changed in centuries. Suddenly, a 400 year old story doesn't feel so outdated.


When we began developing Artemisia's Intent in January 2017, #metoo was a movement yet to be born. Our first way into constructing Artemisia's story was by interacting with her masterful paintings.  We had to recognize the narratives of assault embedded in her work, a reminder that these narratives have been captured in romantic form in art throughout the ages. Like like many of her contemporaries, Artemisia was working for commission, painting the stories that wealthy (male) patrons wanted to see: Susanna fending off two lecherous men, vulnerable Bathsheba being spied on by King David, Lucretia committing suicide after being raped.  Sexual assault immortalized for the ages. A common refrain in Artemisia's Intent is: who is responsible for this?

 

(To be clear, when she could, Artemisia pushed against these narratives, including subversive details in her paintings and her body of work does include numerous other examples of strong women.) 


We struggled with how her personal history should be viewed in relation with her work, but it always felt disingenuous to remove her biography from her powerful masterpieces. Surely we can recognize that she found power in her lived experience. The story of a teenage Artemisia having been sexually assaulted by her tutor and then required to relive this violation while on trial affected me deeply. I too had once been a young artist-in-training, thrilled to be an Assistant Director on a mainstage production, "apprenticed" to an older male grad student who was to teach me the art of directing. Instead, he used his power to manipulate our working relationship to the point of assault. The outcome was me re-living the experience: reporting it to the police, the head of the theatre department and a University Dean. It was my word against his. I left the production, thus ending my participation in the theatre department for my last semester of school.  

 

While these are deeply traumatic events, developing this play has illustrated just how systemic these personal injustices are.

 

My case never made it to any official arbitration in the University setting. (Regardless, there is a long history of colleges failing to properly handle sexual assault cases.) The grad student was merely instructed to never meet alone with an undergrad again. That was it. He did not lose his directing opportunity, nor was his graduate degree threatened. Let us recall that Brock Turner was sentenced to six months in jail for raping an unconscious woman, of which he served only three.

 

A sexual assault case going to trial can often be tantamount to another violation, a second rape.  Most defense strategies aim to discredit the victim. There is a long lineage of women being disbelieved, only saved by the word of a man.


In 2015, Emily Doe’s experience was verified by two men - grad students who witnessed her attack and intervened. In 1612, Artemisia Gentileschi's brave courtroom testimony was corroborated by a man who lived next door. And what about Artemisia's frequent subject, the biblical Susanna? She was vindicated only by the word of Daniel.

 

While writing this post, Mr. Turner's appeal was overturned. Small comfort yet shocking that it feels like a victory. I shudder to imagine how his victim felt when she heard the news of his attempted reframing of the events of that night.

 

And yet.... Where is popular culture in this moment of great upheaval?

 

Not long after Harvey Weinstein was exposed, it was announced that David Mamet wrote a play about him. It will probably get produced on Broadway. Speaking of which, his classic play Glenngary Glen Ross is going to Broadway - with an all-female cast! and female director! - in Spring 2019. Is this the kind of artistic response we need to the exposure of our anti-female culture? Mysogyny literally embodied by women? The preservation of abuse towards women?

 

Who is responsible for this?

 

 

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Upcoming performances of Artemisia's Intent:

September 27-29 at the Scranton Fringe Festival. Details here.

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