Posted by Shivranjana Rathore
Yesterday, a friend of mine shared an article on Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial 1955 novel Lolita, as part of an ongoing conversation between us on whether one can ever separate art from the artist. Our discussions on this started much before Weinstein and #MeToo became part of dinner table conversations. I believe that we first discussed this with our focus on Woody Allen and his work.
As consumers of literature, music, and film, time and again both of us have swung on either side of the discourse – sometimes feeling that art and its artist are two separate entities (take for example, the contrast between the Nine Inch Nails song Closer and the general personality of its creator, as she pointed out long back) while, at other times, we would find it hard to separate art from the artist because, well, we are women, and to continually know of, witness, and experience our dehumanisation at the hands of (so-called) great men (and sometimes women), felt completely contradictory to our own principles and beliefs about our dignity as humans.
However, I write this to take forward the thoughts that this particular article brought forth, and make two points on the morality of desire, literature, and art and how they all come together.
I have noticed this desire to be the object of a man’s obsession as a manifestation in the lives of real people, inspired by such art.
I wish to focus on the seductive nature of Lolita – of how, even after knowing the fact that Humbert is ‘making love’, essentially raping a 12 year old girl, many readers – including young women – continue to swoon at this character’s obsession, often wanting to be the object of such obsession. This idea left me with a lot of discomfort stemming somewhere from the knowledge of times when I have noticed this desire (to be the object of a man’s obsession) as a manifestation in the lives of real people, inspired by such art.
That young girls today might imagine that, leaves me with squirming in my seat, mostly because I find it difficult to imagine my younger self desiring this. Of course, in my time and the exposure to art that I had back then, there were other not-so-great influences that taught me stereotypical notions of desirability for women, but I did not have access to a wider variety of literature and art that dealt with things of complex nature, particularly, desire and sex.
In fact, my first few brushes with the taboos of desire and sex came with me being silenced when I questioned the meaning of prostitution, both at home and in school, leaving the adults (both women) stuttering in shock.
So, as a young girl, while I did not find access to things like Humbert’s obsession, I do believe that it does not take much academic deliberation in deciding how wrong it is to portray children as objects of sexual desire of adult men or women. That is because when as a girl, I was taught through sign language and codes, that no man should touch me anywhere besides a handshake, and that, it would be utterly wrong to allow them to do that.
As an adult however, I realise that the error that comes into the picture and how despite widened eyes and codes when we tell children of strange uncles and aunties, we forget to teach them independence and self-respect. Why I say this is simply because this half-baked warning that children are given often leaves them with half-baked understanding of their agency. They are left confused on which adult is trustworthy and which isn’t and hence, end up silencing themselves until brought up in a very safe environment.
When I was six years old, an employee at our family business who was the coolest uncle there had touched my thighs under my skirt. I ran from there in shock but only told my mother years later. I don’t know what it was – shame, anger, shock, worry or guilt, but I knew as a six year old, that that was something wrong, that if I didn’t run away from him in that moment I would get hurt.
But my silence was because besides that one moment of cruelty that this man showed towards me, he remained the coolest uncle there and my six year old self could not process that act of his. And as we teach silence to our children, especially teaching young girls demureness as a great and desirable quality, I pushed back this incident until years later (probably 4-5 years later) I decided to share with my mother.
This makes for my first point – the fact that young girls might find themselves wishing to be the objects of desire of an obsession of the Humbert kind, is not real. For a well-informed adult, it might be a kink but for a young girl, it is nothing but an embodiment of patriarchal notions of desire, sex, and love.
I feel that sex and desires of all kinds leave many with the itch to know more – to understand, to observe, for a little while sans morality, mostly because of the taboos built around it, which again becomes a structural thing.
Whatever knowledge that does exist around these is either explored through art or remains intensely academic, leaving quite a few to turn to other media to satiate this curiosity (when in minimal degrees) or resort to abuse or assault at other times (when in relatively greater control of this curiosity, that leads to focusing only on one’s desire and not, the agency of the others, which is perhaps what Humbert’s obsession seemed to do).
The other point that I wanted to make is the one that I started with – do we need to separate the art from the artist? Or, do we leave it alone saying that the art was a mere exploration of the human psyche, freedom of expression, yada yada yada?
As a self-taught writer and artist, I can safely say that while my art is indeed separate from me, it also does stem from somewhere within me. As a creator I must admit that, yes mere observations and analyses can create art, but one just cannot forget or cut off the observer or the analyst in the process! How can one create if one completely distances oneself from art?
I have written and drawn pretty dark stuff at times and I have observed the startled responses that get. I believe that is probably because those people don’t identify that darkness with me as a person but, I also know that that darkness does come from somewhere within me – acquired or naturally occurring, it exists.
art is for ‘human’ consumption, and not solely for the male gaze.
I will close with one example of a mural in a hill town in the Northeastern part of India, painted by a male artist. Now, the concept of the mural is beautiful but, the artist’s portrayal of the female form (which is part of the concept), is superbly stereotypical and not in any way relatable to the audience in that town.
This is one example of drawing the female form (mostly by male artists) that seems to accentuate the curvature of their butts or their breasts so much that only the ’silicone valley’ can relate. Pun intended. On the other hand, there are murals that I love by a group of women artists that portray the female form with a gorgeous focus on her entire body – curvy or not.
In conclusion, I would say that art is for ‘human’ consumption, and not solely for the male gaze. Also, the portrayal of abuse that dehumanises a certain sex, age group, community, reinforcing existing and unequal power structures, is problematic for me. It needs to take that into account. And secondly, as a struggling artist, I will take the ‘risk’, and say that I am quite tired of men using their art as a way to assert their power and manipulate women.
There are too many examples of the brooding artists (established or struggling), using this image of an artist (maybe they took a leaf from Picasso’s book) to play around in the name of make art. I think as each artist explores her/his creative journey, it is important to remind oneself what Nina Simone once said, that “It is the duty of the artist to reflect the times”.
Shivranjana is a self-taught writer and artist based in Goa. Her interests in both focus on development – particularly gender. She is currently working on her first book. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and her blog.
Featured Image Source: Time