Can We Enjoy Problematic Media And Recognize It As Problematic At The Same Time?

How do you confront problematic media? Are you zero-tolerance or a concientious consumer of Bad Things?
Publish date:
September 8, 2014
overthinking it, media criticism

In the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, in a room with livid crimson walls, beside a north-facing window, there hangs a large painting by 16th century Italian painter Titian. The painting is called Europa -- once, The Rape of Europa -- and it depicts the titular princess being carried across the sea on the back of a white bull, who is the god Jupiter in disguise.

People tend to have strong feelings about the Gardner Museum. As a museum, it confounds the visitor with its lack of tidy plaques identifying each work of art. You might stand staring at a painting for half an hour with no idea of who painted it, what it was called, what it is about, where it was made, and only your imagination to suggest why it was placed in this spot, in this room, with these other works -- the reason may not be geographical, chronological or artistic similarity, but merely the whim of the woman who put it there. The collection contained in Isabella Stewart Gardner's museum remains arranged and presented just as it was when she died in 1924,* and as such it is a tribute to Gardner the person as well as her enviable collection.

Titian's Europa was acquired by Gardner in 1896 for a record-shattering price (it seems Gardner paid 20,000 pounds, although the actual price was reportedly 14,000, the remainder being shared by her acquiring agents in a fancy bit of grift). Gardner was eager for the painting to arrive, writing to Bernard Berenson -- her art dealer, friend and longtime collecting-collaborator who had purchased the painting abroad -- “When comes Europa? I am feverish about it. Do come over, just to unpack her and set her up on her new shrine!”

After the painting’s arrival, she wrote to Berenson, “I am breathless about the Europa, even yet! I am back here tonight after a two days’ orgy. The orgy was drinking myself drunk with Europa and then sitting for hours in my Italian Gardner at Brookline, thinking and dreaming about her.”

Europa is widely considered one of the world’s great paintings, by people with the wherewithal to make such pronouncements. It is a tremendous work, both in size and impact. It is overwhelming, mesmerizing, impossible to ignore, even beautiful. It is also a painting about rape. Europa, her clothes in disarray, her legs awkwardly splayed, is tricked by the god Jupiter, who has taken the form of a beautiful white bull in order to entice Europa into perching on his back. Once there, he spirits her away across the ocean -- Europa clinging to him lest she drown -- later to forcibly impregnate her, and plump, rosy-cheeked cupids attend the abduction all the while.

That this is a story about rape is not in question. Today it is often referred to as simply Europa, its fuller appellation having shed “The Rape Of” because, well, it is uncomfortable to find beauty in a painting that tells you, right up front, that it is about a sexual violation, even if the act is perpetrated by a god and therefore, according to some scholars, more a tale of rapturous ecstasy with a hypothetical “positive outcome.” (Titian, for his part, did not title his paintings, and this title was first applied 50 years after his death.)

It is also not without controversy, in spite of being considered one of the greatest works of its era to be displayed in an American institution. Feminist critics have argued that it “eroticizes and celebrates” rape -- or at least abduction with the intent to rape. For some, it is the fact that Titian’s portrayal is so compelling and elegant that is the problem.

Knowing this does not make the work any less compelling and elegant. Europa is by definition, a deeply problematic piece of media for this reason. Should we revile Titian? This is what it comes to. Were Titian a contemporary and were Europa not a painting from 1562 but a television series or book today, its author would have much to answer for. But rape was no less terrifying then than it is in the modern era, even as our politics have changed.

Is it OK to like Europa?

Or, for that matter, Miley Cyrus?

In my long-ago life as a (failed) academic, my colleagues and I had hours-long conversations unpacking and deconstructing things that were “problematic,” usually in the form of popular media that also relied on politically lousy ideologies. We could talk about the troubling gender norms enforced by romance novels, or the roles of women in music videos, or the feminine body politics portrayed in fashion magazines. But there was never a sense of having to abandon those media because of our criticism.

Part of that may have been the environment. If we removed all the things we analyzed from our lives, there would have been nothing left, because we analyzed everything.

But also, I feel as though more and more, when things are publicly identified as problematic, there’s a social expectation of united agreement, of shared action, and a failure to condemn an artist’s entire oeuvre is perceived as a sign of ethical weakness. It is often no longer enough to thoughtfully criticize a problematic thing. Smart people must all dislike problematic things, and we must do so in unison, to demonstrate their unacceptable nature.

Further, with more artists and celebrities being candidly outspoken than ever before (often enabled by social media), it’s not always about the art itself. There is media that is intrinsically problematic, and then there are creators who (allegedly, in some cases) do and say problematic things that may not be evident in their individual pieces of work. And there is an effort to dismiss them entirely for it.

You’d think it would be easier to separate a problematic creator from their non-problematic work, but often, it’s just not. Woody Allen and Roman Polanski are two obvious examples, but more recently, can you listen to Cee-Lo ever again after last week?

I’m as guilty of this as anyone. Avoiding the films of Woody Allen is no great sacrifice for me -- I thought he was overrated even when I was a pompous film student -- so I’m happy to draw that line and feel no loss for having done so. But there are other cases that are less convenient, like one notoriously flamboyant female singer whose work I have really loved on its own merits, but which I can no longer truly enjoy because I can’t forget the crappy stuff she’s said and done over the past few years. (That sort of thing actually makes me angry, because why do you have to ruin good stuff for me? THIS COULD BE US, etc.) There are actors I can only frown at and never take seriously in a role again because of things they’ve said in interviews. My boundaries are unpredictable but once established, very firm.

And then there’s the stuff I hate to love. Katy Perry has some deeply offensive cultural fetishization issues, but damned if “Teenage Dream” isn’t also an unavoidably catchy earworm.

So if you like something that is problematic, are you rewarding bad behavior even if you can identify its problematic aspects and like it in spite of them?

As tempting as it is to try to create some kind of media-consumption ethical purity test, in which we examine individuals’ political morality by gauging their confessed like or dislike for various songs or television shows, ultimately we all have to draw our own boundaries. It’s not for me to judge others’ limits, or for you to do so either. My criticism shouldn't influence your ability to enjoy something, nor vice versa. So when I hear from people who are really, genuinely struggling with wanting to buy a ticket for a Woody Allen movie but who are uncomfortable putting money in his pockets, or who feel rapturous joy over a Miley Cyrus concert even as they cringe when she defends her appropriation, I try to remember that just because these are things I find it easy not to like doesn’t mean everyone else can or should feel the same way.

They’re listening to Bangerz and I’m staring at Europa, and so long as we don’t shut down criticism and debate on either account, we ought to be able to coexist peacably.

Or maybe not. How do you confront problematic media?


* The exception being the 1990 robbery of the Gardner Museum, in which the thieves made unpredictable choices, stealing a couple Rembrandts, a Vermeer, a Manet, some Degas drawings, and a few other pieces. The Titian, among other extraordinarily valuable works, was inexplicably left behind. The FBI continues its investigation to recover the stolen works. But that is a story for another day.