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COMMENTARY : 'Scenes' of a Censorship Zone

April 17, 1993|JUDY FISKIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Editors' note: Calendar invited Judy Fiskin, a Los Angeles-based photographer who teaches at CalArts, to write about "Scenes From an Execution" at the Mark Taper Forum. The play by Howard Barker focuses on the life of a fictional Renaissance woman painter. and

Although it is partially dressed in 17th-Century Venetian drag, "Scenes From an Execution" sympathetically addresses the situation of contemporary women artists--from a decidedly male point of view.

British playwright Howard Barker has written a play loosely based on the figure of Artemisia Gentileschi, an important Baroque painter of the school of Caravaggio, and put her in a dilemma that has plenty of resonance for anyone familiar with the censorship battles that have been raging in the art world for the last four years.

The play's central character, Galactia, has been commissioned by the city fathers to paint the glories of a recent Venetian naval victory, but instead she follows her inner compulsion to depict with maximum realism the bloody horrors of the conflict. Controversy ensues, during which she suffers various insults and indignities related to being a woman.

For her offenses, the powers that be briefly jail her and then, realizing that they can co-opt her message for the state, raise her to an apotheosis of celebrityhood. While Barker is to this extent tuned into the power politics of our times, he has made scrambled eggs of the gender politics of both her century and ours.

A mixmaster of energy, Galactia is portrayed as living at such a high pitch of emotion that she seems to be suffering from a metabolic disorder. Striding around the stage in knee-high boots with her paint-streaked hair flying and her breasts spilling out of a red-velvet minidress, she is bellicose and combative, earthy and sensual.

She can't sit still to draw for more than two minutes. She is larger than larger-than-life. She is referred to by others as perhaps a little mad.

Barker has drawn this persona from a quaint grab-bag of cliches about artistic intensity, at the bottom of which he has unfortunately found our old friend, the Earth Mother. For the wellspring of Galactia's devotion to Artistic Truth is an infinitely deep compassion, an emotion that, according to this play, is absent in men.

When her daughter suggests that she compromise with her patrons for the sake of her career, Galactia rages, "You want me to paint like a man !" Perhaps Galactia had not heard of Michelangelo's troubles with the Pope over his "indecent" depiction of "The Last Judgment" in the Sistine Chapel, but surely Barker has. And as far as a vivid depiction of the horrors of war, has there ever been a better one than Goya's?

Worse yet, in Barker's universe, compassion is not only an exclusive attribute of women, it is also what makes them good. By contrast, the other main female character in the play is witty, elegant and self-contained. And like the powerful male characters she resembles, she is an absolute engine of evil.

I am sure that Barker means well by his character in making her the most talented, spirited, virtuous force of nature on the block. But what may seem to him to be a recognition that women have had to be better to be equal, comes off to me as a requirement. Must we still be so good, so mythically feminine, so--I shudder to say it--motherly, to be allowed into the playhouse with the boys?

Barker also gets it wrong about the way exclusion of women actually works. When the Doge of Venice gets up a good head of steam against Galactia's stubborn ways, he roars with seeming irrelevance, "I hate your woman's sensuality!"

This may indeed be a root of the problem, but I have never had a male curator, critic, dealer or collector cite this as a reason why I've been passed over for a show, article or sale. In fact, discrimination against women artists works so invisibly that in general we may only see it reflected in the statistics that show us by gender whose work is and is not being exhibited.

In Galactia's time it was simply a given that women were not professional artists. For the two previous centuries, women had not had access to an education in mathematics. This precluded them from learning the new science of perspective that was an essential component of serious painting. A woman like Galactia could only have been educated in painting by a male member of her family, probably because she showed some extraordinary talent at a young age.

So Barker celebrates his heroine, the exceptional woman. But as long as we are only allowed in as a special case--because we are supremely talented or because we are addressing questions of gender in our work or because, as Barker would have it, we are in our essence nicer than men, then we will not have gotten inside the door to stay.

Barker endows Galactia with a passion to show things as they really are; I wish he had paid more attention to that project in his play.

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