Bad art made by bad feminist
I remember reading an article about MP Jess Philips receiving ‘600 rape threats in one night’ the same year that MP Jo Cox was murdered. The murder was also preceded by cyberbullying, which led Philips to campaign against the online anonymity. The help from the board representatives of Facebook and Twitter was proven to be largely ineffective, considering the fact that the number of reported crimes has doubled. No matter how irrelevant the subject of cyberbullying of public figures might seem for an ordinary citizen, it is a sign of emotional abuse that affects not only political but social and private lives. Psychological abuse exists and differs in its intensity and form (bullying, mobbing, coercive control) and is problematic to recognise for many. In England and Wales, coercive control was first criminalised in 2015. The legislation remains relatively new, and has been criticised for, among others, the ‘systematic failure’ of the police to help the victims of domestic abuse. The acknowledgment of emotional abuse as a social issue is slow and the growth of its implications (the significant increase of domestic abuse and cyberbullying cases) is disproportionate.
The correlation between Zofia Krawiec’s perspective on cyberbullying in her new video piece called ‘I burn easily’ and general film’s reception paralleled the dynamics of the issue with psychological abuse in society. Krawiec is a popular figure in contemporary Polish art world. She is a curator, art critic and artist. Inspired by Audrey Wollen's ‘Sad Girl Theory’, she created a similar project promoting, predominantly white and mainstream, selfie-feminism. Indicative of the fact that the work stirred controversy, were threats that the artists received and intense debates between art critics in Polish art magazine SZUM.
Krawiec’s new project is described on the gallery’s site as an entirely shot on phone ‘Instagram series’. The short movie follows the narrative structure of revenge film and is divided into 5 episodes. Considering that the artist directed, wrote and starred in her own movie and the fact that her other internet-based project (‘Nuerotic Girl’ @zofia.krawiec) is extremely intimate, it was impossible for some viewers not to identify Krawiec with the actions of the three main characters. ‘I burn easily’ begins with a simplified story of a difference between male and female gaze, the concept of ‘the gaze’ is derived from Laura Mulvey’s writing and based on heteronormative and white Hollywood. The half-naked, affirming body positive movement photo of three friends (two other characters played by Polish actresses Marta Malikowska and Aleksandra Domańska) was stolen by a hacker and appeared on a website called ‘PolishSluts’. The consequent cyberbullying, led one of the girls to discover the identity of a hacker. The Polish system’s failure to protect women’s rights, encouraged girls to plan their own revenge which involved seducing and humiliating the hacker in club’s toilet. Krawiec has been a faithful follower of ‘Bad Feminist’ by Roxane Gay and considers the celebration of girlhood to have a rebellious power (along with other artists like Petra Colllins, Molly Soda, Arvida Byström) it is not a surprise that the aesthetics of this video is rather ‘youthful’ and full of filters. The artist, continues her investigation of love theme in art that she started with the publication of her book ‘Love performance’, which is based on the series of interviews that the artist conducted with famous Polish artists and dedicated to the exploration of love stories behind their artworks. In ‘I burn easily’ the love stories appear as an emotional bridges in-between scenes. From the beginning of her career, Krawiec supported the idea of making art that would be available to and understood by a not familiar with the art world viewer. Therefore, the Instagram series is available to watch on youtube and reminds of a very popular in Poland overdramatised pseudo-documentary Tv show that deals with social problems. The combination of low cultural forms like revenge film, Polish tv’s pseudo-documentary or mainstream instagram aesthetics brings out the similarities with kitsch art.
Do you speak on behalf of the victim or oppressor ?
The rape revenge subgenre has been linked with exploitation cinema and cheap shock effect. As the art critic Claire Henry notices in her analysis of rape-revenge cinema, the victimisation and departure from the genre conventions has been investigated in ‘Twilight Portrait’ (dir. Angelina Nikonova, 2011), where the protagonist seduced and claimed to love, the men who raped her and in the ‘cycle of violence’ in ‘Katlin Varga’ (dir. Peter Strickland, 2009), where the avenger is killed in revenge for the murder of her oppressor. The lack of ethical exploration of vengeance in ‘I burn easily’ offended some viewers. The artist was not only accused of promoting unjustified violence but also of lack of empathy for those with mental illness.The story of the girl whose Tinder date mixed Xanax, Viagra and alcohol was particularly triggering and read as ridiculing man’s deep insecurities.
From the feminist theory perspective, it is a story of young females who were shamed and stigmatised for their sexuality in patriarchal society. First, the patriarchal society used the sexuality to humiliate the girls, then the sexuality was used by girls to trap the victim. The seduction usually associated with sexuality, can be understood as a tool of the oppressor. Conversely, from the second-wave feminism and anti-rape moment of the 70s perspective, the use of all the available tools to regain control is justified. From the patriarchal point of view the film positioned girls as promiscuous, privileged and portrayed female body as threatening. The lack of consideration or unawareness of female sexual power while taking half-naked, body-positive photo is seen by some as naive. Undeterred by the fact that the narrative was constructed through victim’s perspective, the girls were perceived to be ‘asking for it’. While analysing revenge movies Alexandra Heller-Nicholas notices that the censorship of rape scene ‘risks letting the rapists off to some degree’. The strange ‘balance’ between the wrongdoings of the oppressor and avenger, might decide upon the viewers’ empathetic capabilities. At the beginning of Krawiec’s video piece, there was no physical violence, there was an emotional violence instead. Considering the viewers’ outrage associated with the fact that the movie finishes with an assault, the emotional violence of the oppressor appeared to have less relevance. Significantly, the movie lacks a depiction of the psychological repercussions of cyberbullying or slut- shaming which often left the viewer unable to empathise with the victims. Low emotional literacy in patriarchal society (’toughen up’ attitude), discredits feminine crying in ‘I burn easily’ as oppose to humiliating psychical acts.
‘I burn easily’ addresses the problem of the complicit in misogyny law apparatus which focused the film’s moral intention on radical but active act of resistance against shaming of women’s sexuality. Lack of exploration of ideological antagonisms (feministic or ethical ones) in Krawiec's video piece didn’t allow for other meanings or possibilities to surface. The issues with the spectatorship in ‘I burn easily’ enabled to investigate the subjective nature of justice. After the movie was released, the artist experienced the acts of cyberbullying not only from anonymous people but also from the significant number of Polish artists. The entirely negative and perfunctory critique was justified as a reaction to ‘bad art’ and aimed to discredit and intimidate the artist. Just like the characters in ‘I burn easily’, Krawiec should ‘toughen up’, and do not cry when criticised (artist posts crying selfies on her ‘selfie feminism’ inspired instagram account). Having personal preference is inevitable but lack of constructive criticism always makes me wonder - how a complete negation of one’s art can translate into the lack of acceptance of the right of expression/ the reality of another human being?