“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”
— Winston Churchill
The Phantasmagoria of Offense is a short animated film, adapted from a lyric essay, that offers a history of images that have been censored, suppressed or controlled. The film is structured as a collage, moving back and forth in time, to underscore the tension between images and themes, rather than relay a linear sequence of events. In researching possible images—of which there are many more—I chose to narrow my focus to those related to the male body, and the cultural anxiety around the male nude expressing vulnerability, homosexual desire or questioning the dominant paradigm. Subsequently, this choice underscores the political ramifications of image suppression during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. If there is a takeaway message, it is that censorship is not an abstraction; it has a body count.
I adapted my lyric essay into a visual film for several reasons. First, I wanted to make sure the reader knew which images I was referring to. Second, the juxtaposition of certain images—particularly the graphic, exaggerated phallus of Priapus in the opening sequence followed by the meek Sleepwalker in his sagging underwear, begs to be seen. Third, Walter Benjamin’s assertion that “history breaks down into images, not into stories” is realized, both as the project’s thesis and form. The title is also inspired by Benjamin, who cited the phantasmagoria—the projected ghost story—as one of the materialist conditions of the modern era. “This fetishism of commodities has its origin … in the peculiar social character of the labor that produces them. … It is only a definite social relation between men that assumes, in their eyes, the phantasmagorical form of a relation between things.”
My retelling these “images of offense” as a ghost story informs both the visual style of the animation as well as the moments where spectacle eclipses reality—where the telling is more shocking or offensive than the images themselves. Two examples of this are in Helms’s description of Mapplethorpe’s work as “a photograph of two males of different races fornicating on a marble-top table” and the later description of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ as “a crucifix dunked in a jar of urine.” The description of these artworks remains alive and well today, and, like the game of “telephone” persists in its distorted characterization both of the actual artwork and the artist’s intention. It is a familiar tactic to disparage artworks (and often artists) in order to further the political cause of the offended.
I chose to create the film as an animated sequence in order to underscore the theme of drawing both as a visual and conceptual approach. I want the viewer to draw the connections between episodes and consider the impressions and distortions that the medium of drawing invites. Further, I was able to visually stage several scenes that do not have visual documentation, of which there were many. I include historical images, where available, particularly to show terrible precedents (eg. the Arte Kunst exhibition) or to give voice to the many people who have protested censorship in the arts and the lack of support during the AIDS epidemic.
This project stems from deep concern, both professional, political and personal. As an image-maker and an educator in the arts, I feel it is imperative we have informed, thoughtful decisions made about the increasing role of images in our broader culture. This, of course, cannot happen if we suppress and silence specific works. The “culture wars” have attempted to seed the idea that artists are untrustworthy, salacious idles that diminish “community values.” Looking at the economic revitalization the arts bring to local economies and increase in arts participation, the opposite is true. Funding for the arts continues to be attacked by a minority of politicians, despite broad support for the arts in all swaths of American culture and data that shows governmental funding generates both economic vitality and cultural growth. On a personal note, I have lost family members, former mentors and “artist-hero” to AIDS. Noting the lack of offline or online remembrance last December 1st, I asked both younger colleagues and students about this and was alarmed to learn that none had ever heard of the “Day Without Art.”