If you haven’t been paying attention, then you might assume that everything is the same as it has always been, and you might think that the sameness of your circumstances is a reward for your patriotism. If you have been paying attention, then you know that this assumption is founded on privilege, and you would recognize that people around the country are being oppressed, deported, and murdered. Now, what is the difference between one perspective and another, you might ask. How do two very different groups of Americans find themselves at such odds, at such different conclusions, and with such different responses to the same sociopolitical reality? The answer lies in the narratives we tell ourselves, which shape our perception, sometimes expanding it and sometimes limiting it, resulting in either the inability to see from other vantage points or the ability to do just that.
There is a constant characteristic among the politically conservative that causes them to revise history, to re-contextualize their actions, and reinvent their morality, and all to suit whatever their party’s agenda might be. That said, it is important to recognize that part of this need for revision and reinvention is the fact that their party has not been a constant itself, the conservative oscillating from the Democrats to the Republicans, Dixiecrats to the Tea Party, Libertarianism to Fascism. The one thing that all of these groups have had in common is being motivated by self-interest, being united Eurocentric masculinity, and a general lack of accountability. For this reason we see conservative Republicans praising US Presidents Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln within the same breath, regardless of the fact that they held strikingly different views on slavery, and that one was a conservative Democrat while the other was a liberal Republican.
The core characteristic of the conservative is to adhere to a romanticized past that never existed, and in so doing re-contextualizing the historical and cultural figures and events of that past, and essentially hijacking them to serve their ideology. We see this in the Libertarian Flag, the very name of the Tea Party, and in the way that the Christian-Right claims victimhood constantly crying wolf about their religious rights are being oppressed all the while pushing Christianity as the state religion. Since the Bush Years, these characteristics have become more and more blatantly obvious, and they are reflected in our popular culture. Often in strange ways. Three pop culture icons that have been or appropriated, or misappropriated, in recent years are from the comic books The Punisher, V for Vendetta, and Watchmen. But I’ll touch up those latter two in another installment of this ongoing cultural commentary. And yes, I know what you’re probably thinking, and indeed it is strange. Comic book characters as mascots for political parties and extremist ideologies? Yeah, that is the level of immaturity our society has devolved to, and it’s an adequate expression of how misappropriation works.
The character of Frank Castle, The Punisher, was created by writer Gerry Conway and artists John Romita Sr. and Ross Andru in 1974. Within the comics, Frank Castle’s family was gunned down by the mob, and Frank, a veteran, decides to take it upon himself to wage war on crime. Unlike Spider-Man or Superman, Frank Castle doesn’t have superpowers, wear a mask, or a cape, and he doesn’t dress in a colourful spandex outfit. Frank Castle shares more in common with Batman, whose own family was gunned down by criminals, in that Frank has no superpowers and he is all about symbolic vengeance. He is different from Batman, however, because when Frank dons the title of The Punisher, he does not hesitate to use guns and to kill. In fact, this is one of his defining characteristics, what makes him unique, and what makes him dangerous as a revered pop culture icon. Frank Castle, The Punisher, is a brutally violent vigilante, a self-appointed authority who takes the law into his own hands and in doing so takes many, many lives. He wasn’t designed to be a superhero. He isn’t super. Arguably, he isn’t even really a hero, but an outlaw with a twisted sense of justice. The Punisher operates outside the law in order to do what he saw as serving the law. This is, of course, meant to be ironic. That he was created during the end of the Vietnam War and the end of the Nixon presidency is no coincidence. This was a time when America was questioning its identity, its heroism, its fascination with violent entertainment, and its admiration for self-righteous authority.
When The Punisher debuted in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man, issue #129 in February of 1974, during the Nixon Years, he seemed to be too violent, too brutal, and too dark. Maybe he was too much of a reminder of the horrific violence that soldiers witnessed, experienced, and committed during the Vietnam War, or maybe Americans just weren’t ready to see such a grim portrayal of their own fantasies brought to life. Whatever the reason, he just didn’t seem to fit into the world of the “Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man“, and the character faded into the background, but this would change within the span of a decade.
By the time of the Reagan Years, The Punisher was the perfect embodiment of the ’80s grim and gritty hero, the muscle-bound, gun-toting, macho man who would take it to the bad guys as viciously as they would take it to you. Frank Castle is consumed with an icy rage and a desire to see criminals punished for their crimes while he punishes himself for his own crimes by suppressing his humanity. He is single-minded, obsessive, and selfish in his pursuits. He fit in perfectly with the likes of Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sylvester Stallone. America was engaged in a futile Cold War, locked into a standstill with the Soviets, and many Americans wanted immediate action. They wanted a clear-cut victory and a good guy versus bad guy narrative. They wanted to see their “enemies” dealt with expeditiously and permanently. That meant not relying on diplomacy, on foreign relations, or on criminal trials. It meant dealing out death to those who you see deserving it. When you can deliver on those things, when your very symbol is an icon of a skull, you represent death, and you endear yourself to people who crave that kind of self-appointed power. This is the kind of thinking that The Punisher was criticizing, but much like Archie Bunker in All in the Family, this is also what made The Punisher appealing to many of his fans who agreed with this school of thought. People have a funny way of taking an ironic criticism of themselves and adopting it as a hallmark of their own flawed value systems.
While The Punisher was created as more of a critique for a certain attitude that was popular in the ’70s and ’80s, he hasn’t been written or illustrated by one person or even one team, so throughout the different incarnations there have been fundamental differences in approach. Just as the character appeals to a widely varying group of fans, he has also been written and drawn by a widely varying group of comic book writers and artists. Not all of them share the same perspective on the character and some even portray him in a way that is in stark contrast to his creators’ intentions. Gerry Conway once acknowledged that he had created a kind of monster with a strange and enduring legacy, saying, “Everybody brings to it their interpretation, and I have no problem of any of those, so long as there’s a fundamental understanding that this is not a good guy.“
The skull emblem worn by The Punisher became a kind of calling card for people who thought of violence as the be-all, end-all solution to crime and terrorism. Never mind that The Punisher is himself a criminal and uses terrorist tactics to achieve his ends. It was taken up by police who were weary of inner city violence and gang-related crimes and liked seeing The Punisher shoot up the Italian Mafia, the Russian Bratva, the Chinese Triads, and the Japanese Yakuza. It was taken up by punks on the Left who saw The Punisher as a product of a corrupt statist society and as rebelling against authority by killing corrupt cops and politicians. It was taken up by racists on the Right who saw The Punisher as someone who was cleaning house of immigrant criminals and gangs comprised of young black men and Latinos. It was taken up by soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran who saw The Punisher fighting against terrorists and foreign enemies. It was taken up by American sniper Chris Kyle who simply thought that the skull looked cool and that he shared a common living with Frank Castle: killing people. The Punisher became many things to many people (and most of those things weren’t good) and each of them saw his skull as symbolic of their own beliefs and worldview. They misunderstood that it simply represented death and that The Punisher was just a product of violence. He isn’t good. He isn’t bad. He isn’t a hero. And he isn’t quite a villain. He does some good things. He does more bad things. That is why he’s considered an anti-hero. When you identify with him, you should feel discomfort, you should feel conflicted about it. The skull isn’t an emblem of any philosophy or ideology. It’s not a call to action. It’s an admission of failure, a failure to serve and protect, and a failure to recognize oneself. The whole point of the character is to question vigilantism and authority, not to embrace them, and the people who know the character best want you to know that.
“I’ve talked about this in other interviews. To me, it’s disturbing whenever I see authority figures embracing Punisher iconography because the Punisher represents a failure of the Justice system. He’s supposed to indict the collapse of social moral authority and the reality some people can’t depend on institutions like the police or the military to act in a just and capable way. The vigilante anti-hero is fundamentally a critique of the justice system, an example of social failure, so when cops put Punisher skulls on their cars or members of the military wear Punisher skull patches, they’ve basically sided with an enemy of the system. They are embracing an outlaw mentality. Whether you think the Punisher is justified or not, whether you admire his code of ethics, he is an outlaw. He is a criminal. Police should not be embracing a criminal as their symbol. It goes without saying. In a way, it’s as offensive as putting a Confederate flag on a government building. My point of view is, the Punisher is an anti-hero, someone we might root for while remembering he’s also an outlaw and criminal. If an officer of the law, representing the justice system puts a criminal’s symbol on his police car, or shares challenge coins honoring a criminal he or she is making a very ill-advised statement about their understanding of the law.“
– Gerry Conway, writer and co-creator of The Punisher, on the use of the skull logo by American law enforcement and the military
The Punisher skull logo has also been adopted by Blue Lives Matter, a counter-protest movement, which sprung up on the heels of the Black Lives Matter movement. Blue Lives Matter is a group that holds to the notion that lives of police also matter and therefore we should be siding with law enforcement. Along with All Lives Matter, it operates under the assumption that Black Lives Matter is somehow an isolationist or supremacist movement. What it fails to recognize is that while, yes, all lives matter, not all lives are being systematically targeted by racist agendas. Worse it operates under the misapprehension that there are “blue lives”. People are born black, born brown, born red. These ethnic groups have been targeted time and again by white ethnic groups. Nobody is born blue. Blue skin doesn’t exist. People aren’t born into the profession of police officers. That is a choice that a person deliberately makes. You don’t get to choose your race or ethnicity. What is odd is that if police lives matter isn’t opposed to black lives simply existing, then why did their movement rise up in response to Black Lives Matter, and why did they choose as their symbol for support for law enforcement a skull; an emblem of death? That doesn’t seem to equate “to protect and serve”. It’s intimidation of a minority group disguised as support for police. It’s no different than racism aimed at one ethnicity disguised as national pride in another.
Black Lives Matter sought to show the world how American police have perpetuated a long history of brutality, violence, and suppression on black Americans. Historically, this is true, and it’s almost impossible to argue against. There is a long and undeniable history of police violence against people of colour (I have covered that in a previous entry). Yet, rather than actually acknowledge that and look for possible solutions, many white reactionaries have pointed out that there is even more “black on black violence“, referring to the percentage of black men killed by other black men. But the reality is that one could also say that there has been an even greater problem of “white on white violence“. Most violent acts are perpetrated by people within the same community, ethnically and geographically, and that is not surprising for a variety of reasons I won’t get into here. Then there is the other reactionary argument that if people of colour weren’t committing crimes then they wouldn’t be getting shot by the police. Well, there is some truth to that, but that response generally overlooks decades of institutionalized racism, segregation, and socioeconomic conditions, and it also overlooks the important statistics about who commits crimes and where. Violence is violence and it is all negative. But that doesn’t take away the issue of police brutality visited upon black communities. Period.
This is where we get into false narratives. We live in an age of “Fake News” and “False Narratives“. These are terms that have been popularized by fringe groups and political commentators on both the far-Right and the far-Left. There are indeed false narratives, but more often than not, the term is applied without much thought or analysis as a knee-jerk reaction to a statement that someone disagrees with. No further explanation is given to back up the claim or provide a justification for the term being used to begin with. I am going to try to explore that. Holocaust deniers call Anne Frank‘s diary a false narrative, despite the fact that the diary itself is supported by numerous other documents verified to be authentic, and by the fact that a vast majority of historians acknowledge that the Holocaust, which left behind thousands of bodies and thousands of first-hand accounts from survivors, did happen. Many white supremacists claim that the South will rise again, despite a nationwide movement to remove Confederate monuments, a surge of African-Americans entering into significant positions within the government, including but not limited to President Barack Obama, and a strong backlash to every single White Pride demonstration for decades. A false narrative persists in its folly despite all identifiable facts pointing toward the contrary. Both the false narrative and the terms “Fake News” and “False Narratives” have been part of the alt-Right movement.
The skull logo of The Punisher has been used by many of these groups. A simplified version of the skull has even become a symbol for the White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis that marched in Charlottesville. And what does The Punisher say to that?
– Jon Bernthal, actor who plays Frank Castle/The Punisher on the Netflix series, on the appropriation of the skull logo by white supremacists and the alt-Right
Really, it’s no secret at all that in Hollywood, profits will trump ethics almost every single time. So, when a scandal occurs involving one celebrity or another, you can assume that how a studio responds to that scandal will be more dependent upon how much capital that celebrity generates than upon some moral decision, which is problematic for a number of reasons. There are writers, directors, producers, and actors who are thriving in Tinseltown despite being involved in some very shady goings-on. Others find their careers ended due to mere associations and rumours. Then there are those who are cut off from the entertainment community with good reason. Just this week Allison Mack, a leading actor from the hit WB/CW series Smallville, confessed to being involved with a sex cult/human trafficking group. This comes after the recent sex scandals surrounding Bryan Singer, Kevin Spacey, Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby, and Harvey Weinstein. (Hollywood clearly has a real problem with sexual exploitation and abuse that needs to be addressed.) In almost all of these cases, the exception being Jackson, the people caught up in these scandals have had their careers virtually wiped out by their misdeeds. And rightfully so. But in all of these instances, the people involved had multiple accusations of actual abuse made against them, and that is simply not always the case. So, what is the right course of discipline for people who may have overstepped the boundaries of propriety, of what is currently socially acceptable, but have not outright harmed anyone beyond the initial controversy of their words and actions? These are important questions in an ongoing discussion about freedom of speech and accountability in the free market world of American entertainment.
Enter Walt Disney Pictures… and Marvel Studios. When Disney bought Marvel back in 2009, around a year after the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), it was supposed early on that the family-friendly corporation might hold the reins to the comic book company a little too tightly. There were fears that they might even censor the more adult content of earlier comics and comic book-inspired films. So far, that has not been the case, and it’s largely been a pleasant surprise for fans. The MCU films have been a huge success. By “a huge success”, I mean a titanic, phenomenal, cosmic success. Since 2008, the MCU raked in a massive total of $19 billion, which is astonishing by any metric. No film franchise has come close to this level of financial success within a ten year period. It’s unprecedented. The films are making so much money that it puts Disney in an interesting and somewhat dualistic position. On the one hand, that level of success means that these films are highly visible, that there’s a built-in audience, and that they will pull a massive profit no matter what, and so there’s a certain freedom there to take risks and hire filmmakers to helm franchises that may not be immediately obvious. Or even safe choices. On the other hand, it also means that they may be overprotective of their investments, of what projects go forward, and how to ensure that those projects match up with the lucrative business of their previous films, which means that studio interference and control could be a potential problem. Either way it’s a lot of pressure for a studio president or executive to deal with.
So, what happens when a filmmaker, or even an actor, does something that doesn’t line up with the almighty studio’s plan, either in their personal life or in the process of making a film for Marvel? Well, the MCU‘s success might be unprecedented, but shakeups behind the scenes are not, and this is evident in who has been let go in those ten years. One might forget that both Disney and Marvel have a history of severing ties with talent when they feel that the studios’ overall vision doesn’t line up with the individual’s. Iron Man star Terence Howard‘s character James Rhodes/War Machine was recast with Don Cheadle in Iron Man 2. The original director of Ant-Man, Edgar Wright, was let go and replaced by Peyton Reed, who wound up directing both that film and its sequel. In the former situation, the actor was reportedly difficult to work with and made too many demands, and in the latter situation, the director’s creative vision didn’t align with that of the studio, so they were let go. But then there’s James Gunn. Gunn was apparently a charm to work with and he has been highly regarded by his cast and crew. Gunn’s vision for the Guardians of the Galaxy not only aligned with the studio’s vision, it surpassed it and enhanced it, and creatively he was responsible for two of Marvel‘s biggest hits. Marvel Studios‘ president Kevin Feige made it no secret that Gunn would be heavily involved with the future of the MCU, helping to spearhead it’s forward momentum and trajectory, much in the same way that Joss Whedon and brothers, Anthony Russo and Joe Russo have. When Gunn was fired last Summer for some highly inappropriate tweets from almost a decade ago, it sent shock waves through the industry, not least of all because professionally he had done nothing wrong.
James Gunn brought so much to the tone, aesthetics, and scope of that first Guardians of the Galaxy film. It would be hard to imagine anyone else stepping into that corner of the sandbox and creating anything comparable with what are essentially his toys. After his firing, the principal cast sent an open letter to the studio, respectfully asking that the studio let Gunn return as director. Tens of thousands of fans signed petitions. However, it looked unlikely that the director would be returning for the third (and final?) installment in the GotG trilogy. The one bright light in this whole dark drama was that Gunn’s recently completed screenplay for the film would still be used. For a while rumours circulated online of possible replacement directors who could step in to replace Gunn. At the top of the list were Nicole Pearlman and Taika Waititi. Nicole Pearlman was the original writer on the first Guardians of the Galaxy film before it was rewritten by James Gunn. The other choice, and the one that most fans seemed to flock to, was Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi. In response to these rumours, Waititi made a statement, saying, “For me, those are James’ films. Going into something like that with his stamp all over his films, would be like going into someone’s house and saying ‘Hey, I’m your new dad, and this is how we make peanut butter sandwiches now. It feels kind of awkward. However, I’m still hanging out with those guys [at Marvel] and talking about new stuff. I want to do another movie with them.” Apparently Disney and Marvel ultimately agreed, because now Gunn has been reinstated as the director of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, but what does that say about the ethics of the companies?
That question isn’t easy to answer. If I had to sum it up, I would say that the bottom line is profit, and perhaps if there were two bottom lines, just above that would be prestige. Almost all decisions in Hollywood are determined by how much of a profit you can pull in and how much prestige your work can acquire in terms of critical appraisal and awards. Because of that, studios and the talents hired by them are often placed above certain moral expectations, and this is why Hollywood is often criticized for its lack of morality. The problem is that generalization really only applies to a select few people who have been highly visible due to the scandals that they’ve been involved. Hollywood scandals aren’t always, or even often, based upon a genuine interest in ethics. Many times scandals are concocted in order to bring down talented people. The motivations vary and range from professional jealousy to sexism and racism, from resentment over contracts to creative disputes, from personal grudges to political retaliation. And these Hollywood scandals are in no way new. They are just more widespread and quickly disseminated in the digital age.
When the silent film era was at its strongest in the late 1910s and into the early 1920s, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was falsely accused of raping Virginia Rappe. One of Rappe’s friends spread rumours about him raping her with an icicle and that her death was the result of Arbuckle’s weight on top of her. The doctor performing the autopsy denied there being any truth to these claims. Numerous witnesses countered the claims with their version of events where Arbuckle applied ice to her stomach while she was in pain. We know now that Rappe was suffering from medical complications arising from her alcohol consumption and peritonitis and that Arbuckle was trying to help her. The blatant lies that Rappe told were planned in an attempt extort money from Arbuckle. It ruined his career. Clara Bow also suffered similar treatment by the press. They were all fabricated for the sake of ruining her career. Some things don’t change.
Disney and Marvel came under a lot of fire when they severed ties with Gunn. This was because they knew about Gunn’s controversial tweets before they hired and then only fired him after they became well-known. That did nothing to give them any claims of taking the moral higher ground. Now they are receiving criticism from some people, most notable among them conservative actor James Woods, for having hired Gunn back. In my last write-up on this issue, I pointed out that Gunn probably should never have been hired based on his earlier social media presence and Disney‘s self-proclaimed values system, but given that the studios knew about his past and what he had said, firing him after the fact to save face was just hypocritical and facile. Now it appears all the more so since they have hired him back after Gunn’s six-month absence on social media. Interestingly, it’s been suggested by a number of sources that Marvel never really considered any other directors to replace Gunn, which may indicate that his firing to begin with was just a PR move. Whether it was always intended that he direct the film, even in the face of the backlash, it’s hard to say because the decision process has not been very transparent. What we do know is that James Gunn virtually disappeared from social media, ceasing to post on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, until March 15, 2019. Then on that day, he posted a statement, one which sent fans into a frenzy, announcing that the decision had been reversed and that he would indeed be returning to direct the third GotG film.
While it’s a topic that I have often overlooked, fashion has been an undeniable stone in the foundation of both high and low culture, serving as a point at which the worlds of commerce, films, music, and art have all intersected. It has become impossible to explore any of these areas thoroughly without seeing how the world of fashion has overlapped with all of them. Whether it’s costume design for films and television series, the latest business suits for the bigwigs of industry, the wardrobe supplied for commercial photography and modelling, or the extravagant apparel of celebrities walking the red carpet, fashion is an integral element of the modern cultural zeitgeist. And in recent memory, but especially in the last two decades, it’s hard to find another fashion designer who has shaken things up as much as John Galliano.
Controversial designer John Galliano, head of Dior from 1996-2011, has often been referred to as “the rock star of fashion”. Like a rock star, Galliano’s designs have pushed the boundaries of the fashion world with their combination of his haute couture (high culture) fashion mindset and the more counterculture Goth and Punk do-it-yourself aesthetics. He has also courted controversy on numerous occasions, both for his designs, and for his outrageous statements. Galliano has also drawn considerable influence and inspiration from the world of Fine Art. This becomes particularly apparent in his Ready-to-Wear 1997 Fall line (aptly dubbed the “Siouxsie Sphinx” line), which combined imagery taken from Ancient Egyptian artworks and the styles of the Goth sub-culture that was cultivated by none other than Siouxsie Sioux of the Post-Punk/Goth-Pop band, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and for his Haute Couture Spring-Summer 2008 line, which built upon the themes and aesthetics of the aforementioned line and explored other influences.
Galliano drew inspiration from Siouxsie Sioux, whose own fashion aesthetics were a mix of the black leather, metal spikes, dog collars, and tousled hair of Punk, the fishnet stockings and garters of the Cabaret dancer, and the theatricality of Kabuki performance with its luxurious silk robes, pale facial makeup, heavy eyeliner, and dark lipstick. Another important aspect of Siouxsie’s style was her love of the artworks of the German Expressionists and the artists of the Vienna Secession, most notably Gustav Klimt. The influence of Klimt’s work is most apparent on Siouxsie and the Banshees’ 1982 album A Kiss in the Dream House, which as an aside is often considered the band’s greatest artistic achievement in their early Post-Punk days, and, along with a trio of albums by pioneering Goth-Pop band The Cure, helped to establish the sound of the Alternative and Goth genres as distinct from the umbrella terms “New Wave” and “Post-Punk”. Sioux’s style was a combination of Punk, New Romantic, and the emerging Goth, and it would rise in prominence throughout the late ’70s and ’80s, and help give birth to the Goth look of the ’90s adopted by Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and others.
Looking even further into the progression of influence and inspiration, Gustav Klimt was moved to emulate much of what he admired in the artworks of the Ancient Byzantines and Greeks, with their lavish mosaics, recurring geometric patterns (of triangles, squares, and spirals), and bright flourishes of gold leaf. Klimt’s art, more of which can be seen HERE, was striking in its modern style and yet still incorporated ancient elements, resulting in something that felt both timeless and fresh. Klimt’s work was considered controversial and subversive when he, along with artists Koloman Moser and Max Kurzweil, and architects Joseph Hoffman and Joseph Maria Olbrich began the movement known as the Vienna Secession. The group’s motto was “Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit.” (English trans. “To every age its art. To every art its Freedom.”)
This motto accurately reflects Galliano’s attitude towards fashion as well. We can best see the effects of these various stylistic progenitors in Galliano’s opulent and elegant dress from the Haute-Couture Spring-Summer line in 2008. Here one can see echoes of Siouxsie Sioux and the Banshees, Gustav Klimt, and classical works of art and design from the Byzantine tradition. Much like a garment made from different materials, which are cultivated and gathered from different places, then carefully dyed, cut, and sown together following the plans of a designer, these seemingly disparate influences and inspirations all come together via the direction of creative peoples. Seeing this progression forwards and backwards through time not only hits home just how much art and culture is reverberated throughout the ages, but also how art in one form, the visual arts, can impact art in other forms, music, performance, and fashion.
Currently some of Galliano’s most spectacularly flamboyant designs, including the one featured in the photo above, are on view until March 3, 2019 at the Denver Art Museum as part of the special exhibition Dior: From Paris to the World, of which the Denver Art Museum is the sole location. If you’re interested in seeing more of Galliano’s Siousxie Sioux and Gustav Klimt-inspired designs for Dior, please follow these links to slideshow of his 1997 Ready-to-Wear Fall line and his 2008 Haute Couture Spring-Summer line on the Vogue website:
John Galliano’s Fall 1997 Ready-to-Wear Line for Dior
John Galliano’s Spring-Summer 2008 Haute Couture Line for Dior
From its opening in 1947 being protested for its extreme opulence during post-WWII austerity measures to its use of cultural misappropriation in the many themes for each fashion line, from the small size of both its dresses and its models to claims of plagiarism, the house of Dior has been no stranger to controversy. But nothing has been quite so controversial as a series of highly insensitive, violent, and anti-Semitic remarks made by John Galliano, which lead to his subsequent firing as the fashion company’s Creative Director. Galliano had held the position for almost fifteen years at the time of his termination. The reason behind it were ultimately two separate incidents when Galliano, who was drunk on both occasions, made some pretty horrific statements to patrons of a cafe in Paris, and then later again in the same cafe where the incident was caught on video and shared online. In the video, Galliano said, “I love Hitler. People like you would be dead today, your mothers, your forefathers would be fucked gassed, and fucking dead.” Galliano’s remarks were made in France, where it is illegal to make racist statements or to promote fascism, and so he was arrested, and his Legion of Honour medal revoked.
Ironically, much of the artwork that Galliano took inspiration from, be it the work of Odilon Redon, Edvard Munch, or Gustav Klimt, was part of a trend of radical artistic reinvention in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a trend largely born of Jewish intellectualism, and one that Hitler would denounce as Entartete Kunst: degenerate art. Greater irony, still, is that Galliano, a Gibraltar-born citizen of Britain, and a homosexual man, would also have found his own works banned and himself imprisoned by the Nazi regime.
Since his firing, Galliano has had a temporary residency for fashion designer Oscar de la Renta in 2013, and then in 2014 he became the Creative Director for Maison Margiela.
Over the years a number of songs and poems have grown out of my experiences with poverty and homelessness, both from the sides of having lived on the streets and from working with/for different organizations to aid the homeless, and this song is merely one of them. All too often, especially for people living on the margins, simply knowing you’ve been seen and acknowledged can be the beginning of healing and empowerment. The lyrics describe and invoke not only my own personal thoughts and feelings as I had them during those hard times, but they also I think sum up the thoughts and feelings of others who have lived in similar circumstances, and so I hope will provide some sense of camaraderie and even catharsis to those living it as a reality right now wherever they may be. If this song can at the very least raise awareness or empathy or give a voice to the voiceless then that is more than enough.
Can’t Go Up
In a melancholy urgency
I crawl out of my cocoon
Pick myself up out of the ooze
Take a gaze up at the moon
Grizzled in appearance
Unshaven and eyes faded
Got change to spare he asks
I say, ‘Change is complicated’
The melody of the night
Does nothing to soothe my mood
My senses are assaulted by the street
This awakening’s so rude
The broken sound of sirens
The tempo of marching feet
Copter blades flashing in the sky
Cops lined up and down the side of the street
I slide into these holy jeans
My pockets full of nothing
Barefoot on broken glass and concrete
Already I can feel my soul is chafing
Newspaper rolls in clusters
Crumpled pages from a bum’s diary
Littered rolled papers with buds of weed
Tumbleweeds and crumbling daydreams
Sky up above full of smoke
The stale scent of urine and feces
Heaviness in the cold city air
The state of things so hard to breathe
All these sickly sensations
And all these sounds and sights
Recycled and regurgitated
Just so I can have four more lines
And what am if not a failure
When you come down to it
This is my empire of the homeless
This is my kingdom of unwanted, broken shit
So, how am I supposed to rise up
How am I supposed to thrive
When social mobility is downward
And it takes everything I have just to survive
The lines to the shelter are growing
The benefits are being cut
The doors to all the churches are locked
And for us all doors of opportunity are shut
So, who am I supposed to be
My education’s going to waste
And of success I’ve no experience
Because life’s got a bitter taste
Fairness is illusion, okay
Justice protects the crime
Victims go to prison, baby
And I don’t have the time
The roof overhead’s collapsing
The walls are all closing in
The economy’s rebounding, they say
But where did that begin
I’m rolling on the sour carpet
Made of nails and dust and cum
Of leaves and rust and old blankets
And what have I become
I am nothing but invisible
To all you yuppie fucks
I am past my breaking point
So goodbye, farewell, good luck
The invention of the photograph was so much more than a mere technological innovation. It enabled the human species to graphically document their own existence while simultaneously allowing photographers the unique ability to express themselves in a manner that forced the viewer to experience their perspective. This kind of multi-faceted engagement with the viewer created a level of intellectual stimulation, and often provocation, as well as emotional stimulation, and sometimes manipulation, that carried with it the power to shape our perception of individuals and events. Lives were forever captured on film and preserved. Occurrences were frozen in time for all the world to see and to study. And ideas were proliferated through print.
Indeed, it’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words, maybe even more depending on the picture, but more importantly, what words and how they are expressed is ultimately what determines their effect on us. Whether a photo accurately reflects its subject matter is largely dependent on the context in which we see it and how the image is in turn stored in our memories. Equally important is the intent of its author, the photographer, and how the photo is treated after its taken, whether its colours are heightened or muted, or whether the image had been cropped. Each alteration to the image can reveal so much about both the photographer’s own mindset and what they want viewers to see.
Collected here are some of the most iconic and socially significant photographs of the 20th Century and the stories behind them. While I am sharing these primarily with the intention of education, some of these images are graphic and may be considered disturbing, so view them at your own discretion.
It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words. This may or may not be accurate, in part depending on the picture, but also in part depending on the imagination and sensitivities of the viewer. Some images dictate to us the thoughts of their creator or evoke a particular emotional response. Some images tell an entire story or create from within our own psyche a story that we need to tell to ourselves; a bedtime fairy tale for the conscious as told by the subconscious. These stories come to us in vague imaginings or vivid dreams, and settle within the foundation of our personalities, shaping our continual personal and societal growth. Whether it’s the origin of a myth and the archetypes that proliferate throughout numerous countries and cultures or the dreams that we share together of our own fears, fantasies, and aspirations, the image contained within the mind’s eye is perhaps the most powerful and radical in changing us. It is the internal revelation that precedes the external revolution.
Sometimes you can walk past an image and not really see it. Other times you can walk past an image and see it, but not necessarily see it as it is, or in the case of a work of art, see it as it was intended. Other times still, you walk up to an image and something uncanny happens as you make a connection, simultaneously seeing and processing the image while getting the sense that the minds behind its creation can see you in return. This has been the case for me with the work of a number of photographers, but most recently, it’s the work of Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick that has been speaking to me. And I’ve been listening with eyes wide open.
I work in an art museum, and part of my job is to ensure the safety of the visitors and the art, but there’s more to it than just that, because as one of many individuals who roam the galleries, I play an integral role in introducing works of art to the public and thus helping to contextualize in their minds what art is and what it can convey. Many times now I’ve been asked what does this painting mean, or what is the purpose of that modern sculpture, or how was this image created. Occasionally there are clear-cut answers, which usually are the result of having familiarity with an artist’s work or the resources to research the details of their lives, and other times the best I can do is to offer a series of interpretations and let the visitor decide which one resonates with them. When asked about Kahn & Selesnick’s poetic photograph, Melora, I have to stop and ask myself if I am offering the artists’ perspective or my own, but furthermore, I have to question if there is indeed a difference, because with some works of art there is an invitation to explore and interpret the work only from the vantage point of a spectator.
One visitor at the art museum asked if the photograph was a statement on the environment and our collective need to be closer to nature. Is Melora returning to the wild to live in symbiosis with the land and animals? Another asked if there was some mystical meaning and if Melora was a shape-shifter. Is Melora undergoing some symbolic transformation or even a physical metamorphosis? One visitor even asked as to the identity of Melora. Is Melora the deer or the woman? To this last question, the answer is at least a bit more straightforward, because Melora is the name of the model. Artist Melora Kuhn, a friend of Kahn and Selesnick, posed for the photograph and lent her name its title. The photo was taken on her property.
As a feminist and a student of both art history and psychology, I look at Melora and I see an archetype, and I see an exploration of femininity. I see a woman wearing fashion of the late Victorian Era, an era of both technological progress and gender repression, of reverence for the ideal of feminine beauty and restrictive social roles where a woman’s innate power was suppressed. The woman moves out of industrialism and into nature, out of the rigid social strata of her time and into a realm of female liberation, and this is most abundantly clear by the antlers on her head. When visitors initially ask me what the image means, the first thing I suggest they look at is her antlers, because neither female elk or deer typically have antlers. Yet here is Melora, a seemingly human woman, striding into a field where a stag stands amidst the tall grass, its gaze meeting hers, and Melora’s antlers are equal to, perhaps even rival to, that of the stag. She appears to me to be a woman who is leaving behind her own world, where she is seen and treated as a subordinate and objectified, and entering into the world of the wild, where she can adopt an independence and a strength that civilization would deny women, and where she can be an equal to her male counterpart. She is seeking gender equity by abandoning the world that has attempted to reduce her to domesticity. This is, of course, just my own interpretation.
Interestingly, the reindeer is one of the only species of deer in which the female grows antlers, though not all of them do, because in harsh environments where food sources are scarce, the growing of antlers expends a great deal of energy and nutrients. While the male reindeer uses its antlers to fight other reindeer for social dominance, the female reindeer uses her antlers to move through heavy snows and to fight for food, and while male reindeer shed their antlers in the late Autumn and grow them back in the Spring, the female reindeer retains her antlers through the Winter and sheds them in Spring. This independence and self-reliance can be viewed from an evolutionary angle, and one could discuss biologically how reindeer differ from other bovids, but from a social perspective, this makes reindeer almost eerily familiar. There is something there that we can relate to.
At the time when I first saw Kahn & Selesnick’s Melora, I happened to be writing a number of essays on evolving gender roles in society throughout the ages, and during the research phases of these projects, I found myself repeatedly gravitating towards the work of Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, a celebrated poet, Jungian psychoanalyst, and trauma recovery specialist. Her works, particularly Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, were instrumental in introducing ideas and concepts that informed how I viewed Melora.
“Yet even in an oppressive culture, in whichever women the Wild Woman still lives and thrives or even glimmers, there will be “key” questions asked, not only the ones we find useful for insight into ourselves but also ones about our culture. “What stands behind those proscriptions I see in the outer world? What goodness or usefulness of the individual, of the culture, of the earth, of human nature has been killed, or lies dying here?” As these issues are examined, the woman is enabled to act according to her own abilities, according to her own talents. To take the world into one’s arms and to act toward it in a soul-filled and soul-strengthening manner is a powerful act of wildish spirit.
It is for this reason that the wildish nature in women must be preserved—and even, in some instances, guarded with extreme vigilance—so that it is not suddenly abducted and garroted. It is important to feed this instinctive nature, to shelter it, to give it increase, for even in the most restrictive conditions of culture, family, or psyche, there is far less paralysis in women who have remained connected to the deep and wild instinctual nature. Though there be injury if a woman is captured and/or tricked into remaining naive and compliant, there is still left adequate energy to overcome the captor, to evade it, to outrun it, and eventually to sunder and render it for their own constructive use.” – Clarissa Pinkola Estés
The image of a woman in the wild, outrunning predators, outrunning the unwanted attentions and advances of men only to be tricked, recalls the Greek myth of Atalanta. In the tale, a beautiful huntress and priestess, Atalanta, takes a vow of celibacy in the name of Artemis, goddess of the hunt, of the moon, and of virginity. Atalanta was said to have been abandoned by her father, Iasus, left to die on a mountaintop, because her father would accept only a male heir. Like Artemis, Atalanta has sworn off all relationships with men, and she develops into an untamed beauty, self-possessed, strong, and uncompromising. Raised in the wilderness, according to some versions of the myth, by female bears, Atalanta developed a fierce wildness and could live off the land independent of so-called civilization. Other versions of the myth say that she was found by hunters who raised her as they would have raised a boy, teaching her to fend for herself, and to rely on her strength and her mind rather than just her beauty. She was said to challenge men, including the hero Peleus, to wrestling matches and would easily overpower them.
When two centaurs attempted to rape her, she defended not only her body, but her sacred vow to Artemis, and she slew them. In doing so, she gained Artemis’ favour, and she would later serve as her proxy in the legendary hunt for the Calydonian Boar. After King Oeneus forgot to make an offering to Artemis at the time of the harvest sacrifices, Artemis let loose a monstrous boar upon his kingdom, and this boar plagued the local farmers and destroyed the crops. Many of the bravest of heroes and hunters gathered together, even going so far in their hubris to place bets as to whom would succeed in killing the fearsome boar, but none of the men took Atalanta seriously as a contender. No, they either dismissed her altogether or they were outright angered by her mere presence intruding upon their fraternal display of ego, and Atalanta was only at last permitted to accompany them when one of the hunters, the hero Meleager, convinced his fellow men to allow her. He did so only because he lusted after and coveted her. The fact that he was already married was of no relevance in his decision, and Atalanta’s vow of celibacy, no deterrent to his desires. He would ensure that she was present when he killed the boar if only to win her affections. But that was not the way of it, and many of the hunters were brutally killed by the boar, and others fought among themselves and murdered one another, and when few of them remained alive and unscathed, it was not Meleager’s spear that drew the boar’s blood; it was Atalanta’s well-aimed arrow that brought the boar down. The boar, however, still lived and was only incapacitated. Not to be outdone, the conceited Meleager then killed the boar, but instead of giving it as a sacrificial offering to Artemis, as would have been proper, he gifted it to Atalanta instead. Still she would not be won.
Atalanta’s adventures did not end there. After achieving fame during the hunt for the Calydonian Boar, Atalanta and her estranged father were reunited, and as women were viewed as the property of either their fathers or their husbands throughout much of the ancient world, Iasus was determined to capitalize on her celebrity and marry her off. Her intelligence being no less than her physical prowess, Atalanta set forth a challenge that whomsoever could beat her in a race could have her as his wife, knowing all too well that no man could run as fast as she. However, the goddess of love, Aphrodite, intervened on the behalf of Hippomenes, because Aphrodite felt slighted by Atalanta’s repudiation of love. She gave Hippomenes three golden apples with which he was to distract Atalanta during the race. Each time he passed her, knowing full well that he could not maintain her speed, he would drop one of the golden apples. She managed to surpass him after the first two apples, but when Hippomenes dropped the third and final apple, Atalanta stopped to appraise it and Hippomenes outdistanced her and won the race, becoming her husband.
In viewing Melora, I am also reminded of Frida Kahlo, one of my favourite artists. Kahlo, who in a 1946 self-portrait, depicted herself as a wounded deer with antlers, lived a rich and complex life, and possessed character as rich and complex as her work. Kahlo experienced profound pain throughout her life beginning with a trolley accident in which she was impaled by a rail. Impalement, literally and metaphorically, would become a recurring theme in her work, as would her relationship to nature and animals. In The Wounded Deer, the two themes are united, as Kahlo, realizes herself with both male and female attributes, which has been theorized as representing her masculine and feminine sides as well as her bisexuality. While her face remains stoic, almost reminiscent of the Sphinx or the Mona Lisa, her body is pierced with nine arrows, revealing her anguish.
Frida famously began an affair with muralist Diego Rivera, which lead to their eventual marriage in 1929, but the relationship would prove to be as volatile as it was passionate, and he was incapable of remaining faithful to her. In turn, as a bisexual feminist, defiant, bold, and as desirous as he, she embraced Rivera’s polyamourous lifestyle, taking both men and women as her lovers. Still, Rivera’s affairs left her deeply hurt at times, and often seething, especially when Rivera slept with her younger sister, Cristina. This would inspire Kahlo’s 1937 painting, Memory, the Heart, in which Kahlo depicts herself caught between the Earth representing her family and the sea representing the inconstant Rivera and his many infidelities. Surrounding her, aspects of her personality, including a modern school outfit alluding to her education in European politics and paternal heritage and a traditional dress alluding to her Mexican home and maternal heritage, are strewn about and she is pierced through the chest by an elongated arrow.
Frida Kahlo‘s work is harrowing, sensual, and primal in a way that even if one does not understand the symbols, motifs, and references she utilized, the emotions she was expressing are universal; they are as clear and vibrant as her palette. She was rebelling against pretension and propriety as much as she was against capitalism and sexism. She lived in the moment, in a way counter-intuitively, throwing herself recklessly into her life, allowing herself to be hurt and immersing herself in her pain, channeling that pain back into her work, and then stripping down to her most vulnerable and exquisite self in order to do it all over again.
Which brings me to Amanda Palmer, Amanda fucking Palmer to her fans, who is also a fierce feminist willing to put herself out there again and again, to be hurt, and to lay her life bare for the honesty of her expression. Amanda’s attitude, her modus operandi, and philosophy can be summed up as “in your face vulnerability”. She seeks empowerment through connection, through creativity, through nakedness, through wildness, but above all through vulnerability. She’s the kind of artist who will walk out on stage in the nude, her legs and armpits unshaven, her eyebrows shaved off and then drawn back on, her belly and breasts exposed, and declare to the world, “This is me.” She’s the kind of woman who breastfeeds in public, and when confronted about will reply, without skipping a beat, “I’m a mother.” She’s the kind of writer who will show up to a book signing in her pajamas, put together a makeshift blanket fort, and explain it all by simply saying, “I had the worst flight from L.A..“
That’s Amanda… fucking… Palmer. When I think of Amanda, I think of the quote below, a quote that embodies a philosophy that I myself have prescribed to for sometime, and which I find all the more refreshing hearing it from someone so undaunted.
“The perception that vulnerability is weakness is the most widely accepted myth about vulnerability and the most dangerous. When we spend our lives pushing away and protecting ourselves from feeling vulnerable or from being perceived as too emotional, we feel contempt when others are less capable or less willing to mask feelings, suck it up, and soldier on. We’ve come to the point where, rather than respecting and appreciating the courage and daring behind vulnerability, we let our fear and discomfort become judgement and criticism.” – Amanda Palmer
It’s coincidental, funny, and just a bit odd to me that when I look at Kahn & Selesnick’s Melora, the first person that always came to mind was Amanda Palmer, whose creative output I have admired since I first found out about The Dresden Dolls in the first half of 2003. I look at Melora and what I am reminded of is Amanda’s first solo album, Who Killed Amanda Palmer?, and how her unique style left such an impression on me. Her aesthetic, an alchemical mixture of Victorian Era fashion, Weimar Era cabaret, Punk and Goth helped to define what has been called Dark Cabaret since the early 2000s.
When I see Melora, her dress hiked up, marching out into that field, her auburn hair done up in an elegant, but not meticulous bun, and her antlers protruding from her head, I think of Amanda. So, it was surprising and synchronous to me when I was scrolling through Instagram and found that Amanda brought in Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick to do promotional photography and the artwork for her next album. To me, it seems like the perfect fit, bringing Kahn & Selesnick and Amanda together. She has a history of selecting amazing photographers to work with and this time around will be no exception.
In her post, Amanda said, “This record I am about to make in L.A. is without a doubt the most personally intimate/painful/raw record I’ve ever made… my patrons who have been following the trail of demos know what I’m talking about: the songs deal with death, cancer, abortion, miscarriage. I didn’t want to just get glamour shots. I wanted to make meaningful images that match the stories and convey the heaviness of the record. This is why I’m so happy that I met Kahn & Selesnick in upstate New York—they totally get it. I actually started weeping during the shoot a few days ago: I felt so perfectly peaceful and powerful and understood.“
There’s a trend right now, a glorious trend that I wish more people were aware of, of feminist music, raw, intelligent, poetic, danceable, brilliant music by women singers and songwriters (Annie Lennox, Austra, Bat for Lashes, Cyndi Lauper, Florence + the Machine just to name the first that come to mind and the most widely known). I’m glad to see Amanda right there in the midst of it, singing about a woman’s right to choose and her experience having abortions and miscarriages, singing about Harvey Weinstein and sexual harassment and assault, singing about Judy Blume and the influence she had on her as a teen and an adult, singing about the loss of her best friend who died of cancer, singing about the challenges and joys of motherhood, and singing about life as we all experience it and can relate to it. This is what the world needs right now to understand itself and to heal. Sometimes you have to go to the wilderness to heal. Sometimes you have to heal to embrace your own wildness. Sometimes you have to enter the wild in order to strip yourself down to its bare, essential, creative self. Sometimes it is only in the wild that you can be free to cry, to laugh, and to sing. And woman of the wild, I hear thee…
Artists’ and Authors’ Website Links:
Kahn & Selesnick’s website (https://kahnselesnick.biz/)
Melora Kuhn’s website (https://melorakuhn.net/)
Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ website (https://www.clarissapinkolaestes.com/)
The Dresden Dolls’ website (https://dresdendolls.com/)
Amanda Palmer’s website (https://amandapalmer.net/)
Recommended Reading List (includes audio books):
Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes/ by Edith Hamilton
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings/ by Maya Angelou
Le Féminisme ou la Mort/ by Françoise d’Eaubonne
The Word for the World Is Forest/ by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Creative Fire/ by Clarissa Pinkola Estés
Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype/ by Clarissa Pinkola Estés
Theatre of the Imagination/ by Clarissa Pinkola Estés
Tales of the Brothers Grimm/ edited, selected, and introduced by Clarissa Pinkola Estés
The Resurgence of the Real: Body, Nature and Place in a Hypermodern World/ by Charlene Spretnak
The Art of Asking: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help/ by Amanda Palmer
Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone/ by Brené Brown