In what’s been a rough year for statues, the latest to face criticism is Medusa With the Head of Perseus (2008) by Luciano Garbati. The faux-classical statue — six feet tall and naked — was recently stationed outside the New York County Criminal Court, where Harvey Weinstein, once a god in Hollywood, was convicted for rape.
The Medusa story is more than two millennia old. According to Greek mythology, the sea-god Poseidon raped the beautiful mortal, Medusa, in goddess Athena’s temple. Athena transformed the rape survivor into a monster with hair of snakes and a gaze that could turn men into stone. When the hero Perseus later beheads Medusa, it’s only by looking at her reflection in his shield.
The myth was set in bronze by Renaissance sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, who hoists Perseus on Medusa’s decapitated body. Armed with a sword, Perseus raises Medusa’s head as a trophy and a warning. Garbati reverses this story. But his Medusa looks like a runway model, her wild mane tamed into a stylish coiffure, Perseus’s head dangling casually between her fingers like a Bottega Veneta Pouch.
In the post #MeToo world, the statue’s new positioning has a new charge. But viewers have also questioned it. Why is she carrying Perseus’s head instead of her rapist’s? Why is she sporting a Brazilian wax?
Historically, the earliest depictions of Medusa featured fangs, snakes, a vacuous gaze. Eventually, she became easy on the eyes, but continued to arouse in men fear and desire. Feminists reclaimed Medusa as the woman silenced by victim-blaming. Cindy Sherman’s photographic work from 1993, Untitled #282, has the artist with Medusa’s snakes, gazing straight at the viewer, upturning the idea of the muse. Beyond art, Sigmund Freud considered her monstrous face as a metaphoric vulva. Later, feminist Hélène Cixous rewrote her, emphasising her unbridled laughter.
But subject to countless makeovers, Medusa deserves a break. In the name of dismantling set structures, we seem to have run out of fresh ideas. Garbati’s avatar is just the latest in this long line of re-imaginings, and not even the most nuanced. For instance, Medusa was armed with a petrifying gaze. Why would she need a phallic sword to kill men? Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, wrote that Garbati could have created “something to memorialise the women who have stood outside of that courtroom in beautiful solidarity”. This statue, as part of New York’s public art programming, is a missed opportunity.
But worse, Medusa is occupying space that should ideally be devoted to new, suppressed or forgotten voices — and to spotlight the gender disparity in the art world. According to The Art Market 2019 report, only two works by women have ever broken into the top 100 auction sales for paintings, despite women being the subject matter for approximately half of the top 25. In 2018, as women sought out art to respond to the tumult of #MeToo, a chilling painting by Artemisia Gentileschi, titled Judith Beheading Holofernes, resurfaced. Gentileschi, a famous 17th century Italian painter, fell out of art history’s favour in the centuries that followed. She was more adept than her male peers at conveying the female anatomy and also knew how to deliver the full force of a decapitation. She was also a rape survivor, as is known from a well-documented trial. For a long while, unfortunately, Artemisia’s works were read reductively, as revenge fantasies. A newly-opened show at London’s National Gallery seeks to present a fuller picture of Artemisia, to let audiences “hear her voice from her letters, and see the world through her eyes.”
This is one of the better rewards of #MeToo in the art world. Institutions and projects have to spend time and funds in researching voices erased by history, especially those of women and transwomen from disadvantaged communities. Instead of an antiseptic Medusa by yet another male artist, what if a young Black woman had been invited to respond to #MeToo?
What the sensationalist Medusa statue has done is to drown out news of USA’s first memorial for rape survivors, open in Minneapolis. The Memorial to Survivors of Sexual Violence is a permanent outdoor installation of mosaic panels made by Lori Greene. The artist pieces together a story of a rape survivor, starting alone, gradually finding solace in a group. It emphasises that a rape survivor’s battle is not a lone one, like a knight with a sword, but takes communities to enable healing and justice. Instead of rewriting old mythologies, it’s more purposeful to write women and transwomen artists into history, to create new narratives for future generations. After all, it’s not gods who rape. Men do.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 28, 2020 under the title “The Female Gaze”. firstname.lastname@example.org
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