Sunday, March 1, 2009

Illustration, obfuscation

This post began life as a comment on this post over at Helen's Cast Iron Balcony, but once I'd violated the three-paragraph comment rule I decided to bring it over here. There are, at last sighting, no comments yet on Helen's post. My guess is that we're all too horrified to speak.

In brief, Helen links to two recent newspaper articles by conservative antifeminist Miranda Devine and shows the two really vile caricatures of women that were drawn to illustrate these articles. In her post, Helen asks among other things whether the writer has any influence in what the illustrator draws.

I've had two experiences of what might loosely be called the opposite. The first occurred in 1983 when I edited a book of Australian short stories that included far more than the (then) usual number of stories by women, as well as stories about cities and migrants, and focused, in the detailed introduction that I wrote, on the traditional idea of the 'Australian' as a white Anglo-Celtic bushman or Anzac being something we needed to move on from. I was then horrified to discover that the publisher had chosen, for the cover of this anthology, the Tom Roberts painting 'The Breakaway', which shows an apparently white Anglo-Celtic male on a horse chasing a sheep with a lot of native trees in the background.

When I brought this up with the publisher he literally did not understand my point (it was 1983) and just kept saying over and over 'But it's very Australian, and it will sell the book because it's an image that people will recognise.' If I'd been older and more experienced I would have tried harder to explain how his response was exactly the kind of thing I was talking about, and was trying, in terms of cultural stereotypes, to move beyond, but I still don't think I would have won. (I love that painting, which didn't help.)

Two years later I wrote a conference paper on media and other cultural representations of Lindy Chamberlain (who was still in jail at the time) that got picked up by one of the dailies for the weekend features and given to an artist to illustrate. I certainly had no say in the illustration and I assume this is the norm, at least with newspapers where there simply isn't time for such consultation.

The illustration, which I didn't see till the paper came out, exemplified all the sexist media habits and assumptions that I was attempting, in the article, to deconstruct and undermine. It was a head-and-shoulders caricature of Chamberlain looking bloated, ugly and malevolent, wearing a lurid orange tent-like dress patterned in ironic little hearts. It's possible that it was a kind of meta-comment, but frankly I doubt it.

Now I was, and remain, a fan of the artist in question as a usual thing, but this particular drawing was unfunny as a caricature, unsuccessful as a portrait, and -- most importantly -- wildly misleading as an illustration of the text that it was supposed to be derived from. To this day I don't know whether he and/or the dude from the publishing house were either just so impermeable to feminist ideas that they were incapable of processing what I was saying, or whether their responses constituted active (conscious or subconscious) resistance to what I was saying, attempts to use their images to undermine my words.

'Illustrate': to illuminate, clarify or shed light on, to add lustre. The drawings shown at Helen's post certainly illuminate and clarify Devine's meaning and line of argument in both cases. But sometimes illustration can, in defiance of its name, be used to obfuscate: to conceal, confuse, darken, cover up.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

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