Issue 7

Behind the Cover Art

Featured: Jessica Gunn

IMG_3212.jpg

Although we've entered the months of spring, the wintery feelings of darkness and laziness can be hard to shake. Nature and art for many of us provide a source of happiness and light in the darkness. So, take a deep breath, grab a warm mug of your drink of preference, and allow yourself to enjoy exploring the newest issue of Calliope!

WTF are NFTs: The Latest Art Market Craze Explained

Vanessa Silvera dives into the strange and complex world of NFTs, and why you should pay them some attention

unnamed.jpeg

Beeple’s digital collage Everdays: The First 5000 Days; Image(s): The Washington Post

 

When I first read on the news that someone paid a record-shattering 69 million USD for an NFT at auction at Christie’s, I was stunned, but most of all, baffled. Prior to this historic sale, its creator, American digital artist Mike Winklemann, who goes by the moniker Beeple, was unknown to the artworld. Not only was his piece, a digital collage called ‘Everydays: The First 5000 Days’, the third most expensive work to be sold at auction by a living artist, but the first entirely digital artwork sold by a major auction house. How did this happen and why are NFTs suddenly everywhere you look? What on earth are NFTs in the first place and are they just another fad or are they here to stay? This article aims to explore some of these pressing questions as well as the benefits and drawbacks of this new development that’s taking the artworld by storm.

 

NFTs, also known as non-fungible tokens, are essentially one-of-a-kind digital assets. Since they are non-fungible, they cannot be replaced by something else of equal value (i.e. one bitcoin for another). Think of them as the digital counterpart of physical collector’s items, like a rare, limited edition book or painting, but with a clear, verifiable ownership history. These tokens can assume the form of images, gifs, audio files, video, or even a tweet. Yup, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey got in on the action and auctioned off his first tweet as an NFT, which sold for 2.9 million USD. Other big names include musician Grimes, who sold 6 million USD worth of digital art, and Kings of Leon, who became the first band to release an album as an NFT. In short, anything that can be uploaded as a file could be ‘minted’ as an NFT.

 

Digital artworks and files have been around since the dawn of the Internet age, so why is this a big deal? Embedded in the NFT is a statement of provenance, or a certificate of authenticity. Replacing the printed certificate is a unique string of characters connected to the blockchain, which is a big encrypted ledger. If you’re familiar with cryptocurrencies, then you at least have a vague idea of how the blockchain works. Rather than having one entity such as a bank keep a record of transactions, the blockchain consists of a decentralized, vast network of computers holding a shared public record. All parties involved in any single transaction receive a copy, increasing transparency and accountability. Furthermore, datasets are immutable and time-stamped, producing a secure and unchangeable document. This system is a great solution for NFTs because now there is a way to trace its origin and transaction history, not possible before the advent of the blockchain.

unnamed.png

CryptoPunks; Image(s): Larva Labs

 

However, NFTs have actually been around for a few years now. In June 2017, the Ethereum blockchain released one of its first NFTs, CryptoPunks, a series of pixelated avatars, which can cost anywhere between 2,000 to 20,000 USD. Its emergence into the mainstream from relative obscurity is largely a result of a growing interest in the blockchain. For many individual and institutional investors, they are another means to capitalize on the rise of digital currencies more generally. Their acceptance by the art, entertainment, and media industries only continue to validate and normalize them. According to a recent report by the site NonFungible, the NFT market in 2020 quadrupled in size to over 250 million USD. There’s also been speculation that the ongoing pandemic has probably accelerated that process now that more time is being spent behind screens. With the closure of galleries and other exhibition spaces, NFTs can provide an additional source of income to artists during these trying times.

 

This leads us into our next question: what benefits can this market offer its users? For digital artists, NFTs are a game-changer. The blockchain with its provision of a transaction history resolves problems regarding ownership of the item. Moreover, artists are entitled to royalties from secondary market sales, which is highly unusual in the artworld. To sell an NFT, collaboration with a prominent global auction house is certainly not necessary. The majority can be found in specialized marketplaces including OpenSea, Rarible, Mintable, Nifty Gateway, and KnownOrigin. These spaces have incredible potential to level the playing field since anyone can open an account and upload their work for sale. Buyers range from multi-millionaire tech investors who made their fortunes on crypto to ordinary people who want a collector’s item.

 

For novices, in most cases, acquiring an NFT is easier said than done. First, users must purchase Ethereum (ETH), a denomination of cryptocurrency, which is a complicated process in its own right. Once you transfer the currency into a digital wallet, you are ready to buy, but there’s a catch. At check out, there are ‘gas’ and other hidden fees, which can add up quickly. It’s expected though that buying experience will improve overtime and begin to resemble traditional online shopping. Another major drawback are concerns about their environmental impact. Mining and transferring NFTs require an immense amount of electricity. By some accounts, one crypto transaction consumes more power than the average U.S. household in one day. As a result of this heightened scrutiny, Ethereum has pledged to cut back on their energy consumption by 99 percent, but it remains unclear when or how.

unnamed.gif

NFT; Image(s): Angela Gonzalez

 

Unsurprisingly, NFTs have their fair share of skeptics who doubt their longevity. They assert this is just another fad and once the novelty passes, there will be major losses for investors. While no one can say with complete certainty whether NFTs are here to stay or fade into oblivion, we can make predictions based on corporate activity. For instance, within the artworld, Christie’s archrival Sotheby’s is currently collaborating with digital artist Pak on its first sale of NFTs set for April 2021. Besides auctioneers, tech companies are doubling down on NFTs and crypto. Earlier this year Tesla made headlines for investing 1.5 billion in Bitcoin and will start accepting it as payment, setting an interesting precedent. In addition, there’s been a boom in crypto startups such as NFTfi, which allows people to use their NFTs as collateral for loans. The more institutions embrace them, the more legitimate they become.

 

You might be thinking, why pay? Couldn’t I just download one for free? You could, but that’s missing the point. It’s about ownership and bragging rights. It’s the difference between owning a print reproduction of the Mona Lisa versus owning the Mona Lisa. Although creators maintain all intellectual and copyright rights to their works, buyers acquire ownership rights after purchase, differentiating their NFT as the ‘original’, which can carry a certain prestige and appeal. What’s more is that people can directly support the artist and become a patron, a very exciting prospect for those who want to get into collecting. On a sentimental level, it’s the feeling of owning something one-of-a-kind that you will be able to cherish for years to come from the convenience of your desktop. Should you buy an NFT? Possibly. If the work really speaks to you and is within your price point, I say go for it. You could possibly be the next owner of your favourite gif.

Censoring music in the age of Stalin: Shostakovich and Stravinsky

Davide Dolce analyzes the effects of a totalitarian regime on the freedom of musical expression

Producing music in 1930s Russia was tricky to say the least. The totalitarian dictatorship established by Stalin after the death of Lenin did not allow for much flexibility when it came to freedom of expression. Composers had to please crowds and the ruling elite alike, write music that would tick several boxes at once, and make sure not to diverge from the only acceptable form of art: Socialist Realism.

 

Socialist Realism, theorised by Maxim Gorky at the beginning of the 20th century, was the official artistic doctrine of the Soviet Union after 1932. In the words of J.B. Borev (Fundamental Esthetic Categories, 1960):

 

Socialist realism is a method, type or form of figurative emotional thinking which corresponds to the objective esthetic [sic] wealth of reality, to the practice of revolutionary struggle of the proletariat, and to the building of socialism. Socialist realism is a means of truthful reflection of reality from the position of socialist esthetic ideals.

 

In practical terms, this meant that the artist should represent reality truthfully, in all of its different aspects. It is through the unity of these aspects that truth is obtained. For this reason, complying with the ideology meant that the proletariat had to be portrayed as the heroes, and that its struggles were the basis for a plot. All works were subject to this scrutiny, whether they were written before or after the 1930s.

 

Aside from fitting into this description, music also had to be simple and easy to remember so that it could become a source of collective unity when sung or hummed together. This was easy enough to achieve when it came to writing a mass song – a song written for the masses, usually featured in a film, that people sang together during moments of work or rest. However, it was complicated to apply this concept to operas or symphonies, as their expressivity came from abstract emotional effects: the more complicated and innovative the composition, the fewer the chances that the piece was going to be received as a clear exemplification of Socialist Realism. This put composers not only in a difficult position, but in a dangerous one: the threat of arrest and deportation was constant in Stalin’s USSR.

 

Socialist ideology in the history of the Soviet Union is hardly a singular and static phenomenon. Instead, the official line of the Party changed as often as its functionaries and leaders did. Because of the tight link between socialist ideology and artistic production implicit in Socialist Realism, the defining lines of this art form were subject to the same changeability as Soviet socialist ideology itself. Therefore, a work of art that had been praised a decade before could be banned permanently as times changed. Stalin himself was known to attend artistic performances frequently, and, true to his desire for control and immense power, he could make or break artists with his judgement, often based on personal whims and caprices.

 

Among the countless artists who fell victim to this system, Igor Stravinsky and Dimitri Shostakovich provide two noteworthy examples. While the two composers are not contemporaries and their circumstances are deeply different, they are both prime examples to understand the changeability of criticism and how and why works were censored in 1930s Soviet Union. These two artists are linked by their common struggles in the Stalinist artistic space, by the similarity of their artistic pursuit and by the revolutionary aspect of their music. To better understand censorship in the times of Stalinism, we will take a closer look at two works that were censored at different moments in time but for similar reasons: Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. But first, some background information on these two artists.

image2.jpeg

Shostakovich with his piano; Image(s): newyorker.com

 

Shostakovich suffered a complex and tumultuous relationship with the government in the days of Stalinism. The ever-changing opinions of the critics meant that his work was praised and then condemned. He was simultaneously known for the two denunciations he received in 1936 and 1948, and for his film music which contributed to the development of the mass Soviet song and was known and appreciated throughout the Soviet Union. He had to withdraw his Fourth Symphony, fearing for his life, and at the same time, he received accolades from the government officials for his Fifth Symphony. Regardless of the tangible threat upon his life, Shostakovich never left the Soviet Union and decided to continue writing for Russian audiences.

 

Stravinsky chose the path of emigration and left the country following the outbreak of World War 1. He abandoned his hopes of returning to his homeland after the October Revolution, for fear that his work would be condemned. He was not far from the truth, as opinion on his compositions fluctuated: as Boris Schwarts points out in The Musical Quarterly of July 1962, they were approved in the 20s, cautiously considered in the 30s, and deeply rejected in the 40s and 50s. A versatile artist, Stravinsky is remembered for the eccentric compositions of his “Russian Period”, such as the ballets Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. Living abroad allowed him to express his potential without restrictions, but this didn’t necessarily mean that his music was well-appreciated. To westerners, it was too bizarre; to the Soviet Union, it was too westernised.

 

Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is a cultural transplantation of the famous Macbeth by William Shakespeare. True to the canons of Socialist Realism, the characters of the composition are peasants and workers. The opera follows Katerina Lvovna Izmailova and her love for a worker employed by her husband, the ensuing murder of her husband and the results of this. From the very beginning of the opera, the public is immediately struck by a sense of oddity, created by the clarinet’s haunting melody and the recurring leitmotiv of Katerina Izmailova. The opera proceeds only to become more and more bizarre, as innovative musical techniques are employed by the composer. While the reception of the work is generally remembered to be disastrous, this was not true for over two years after the premiere. Initially, the opera was very well received, both in Russia and abroad, and was highly praised for its innovative spirit and musical mastery. In fact, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk paved the way for Shostakovich’s national and international fame and was performed hundreds of times until 1936. In January of this same year, the fortune of the opera took a sharp downwards turn. Shostakovich was invited to attend a performance at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow on the 26th, and by the 28th the great success turned into a source of fear for the composer when one of the most infamous pieces of musical criticism was published by Pravda, the official newspaper of the regime, entitled “Muddle instead of Music”.

 

The newspaper had previously praised the work following its premiere and the other journals had followed suit with clamour. However, the author of “Muddle Instead of Music” (believed by some to be Stalin himself), asserts that:

 

From the first minute, the listener is shocked by deliberate dissonance, by a confused stream of sound. Snatches of melody, the beginnings of a musical phrase, are drowned, emerge again, and disappear in a grinding and squealing roar. To follow this "music" is most difficult; to remember it, impossible.

 

This is the main fault that Pravda found in the music: it was not easy to remember, and therefore was not for the proletariat: it was a “petty-bourgeois” composition. This interesting turn of events makes Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk a prime example of how quickly the tide could turn for an artist, and how success could be transformed into disgrace in a matter of days. The anxiety of the music, the sharp contrasts and the almost mechanical sections of the opera suddenly make sense in the light of this observation: all of this is derived from the struggle of the composers to strike a balance that would allow them to satisfy both the regime and the audiences. This balance resolves in a struggle between tradition and innovativeness; crude realism and operatic drama; a celebration of Socialism and condemnation of negative human qualities. The nervousness of the critics resolved in the nervousness of the composer, who had to fear for their safety regardless of how much attention they put into making the composition fit the mould of Socialist Realism.

image1.jpeg

Performance of The Rite of Spring; Image(s): first-works.org

 

The Rite of Spring precedes any of Shostakovich’s works by several years. It is the representation of a pagan rite related to the start of Spring that ends with the selection of a sacrificial victim and her subsequent frantic dance to death. It is interesting to note that this ballet was written and performed abroad and before the October Revolution, which technically makes it a pre-revolutionary piece. However, the way the piece was interpreted and received raised a few eyebrows in the Soviet Union of the 30s. The Rite of Spring is an incredibly innovative piece that caused composers to reconsider the way they thought about rhythm and the very essence of composition. Because of its complete detachment from contemporary standards of ballet, it shocked the audience at the premiere in Paris in 1913, to the point it almost caused a riot, with the public reportedly shouting, booing, and leaving their seats impatiently. The pagan representation of a spring rite, the bizarre costumes, and Vaslav Nijinsky’s eccentric choreography was so far removed from the stereotypical Russian ballet (The Nutcracker or Swan Lake, for example) that they proved distressing and unsettling for the audience, and presumably for the Stalinist critic as well. The result was that the piece (and most of Stravinsky’s music) was censored until 1962 when the composer finally returned on a visit to Russia on the invitation of Nikita Khrushchev, the new leader of the Communist Party.

 

While Stalinism is at the heart of these works’ censorship, the results lasted long after that: the two compositions were banned for over twenty years. The original uncensored version of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was not performed in Russia until 2000. This makes us wonder: what happens after a piece of music has been censored for such a long period of time? The ban on Stravinsky in the Soviet Union meant that scholars of music had to study his work without ever having heard it performed, which undoubtedly made it complicated to establish to what extent the work was influential on later generations of composers. Arguably, Shostakovich is known by many as the composer of Pesnja o vstrechnom (1932) and the soundtrack to the film Alone (1931), rather than for his symphonies and operas. It is difficult to ascertain the damage that these bans inflicted to musical historiography, but we know that Stravinsky wasn’t featured in music textbooks in the USSR until the beginning of the 60s, and this surely made it difficult for scholars to understand orchestral music produced in the west, considering the everlasting impact that Stravinsky’s compositions had on his contemporaries. In light of this consideration, we come to wonder if contemporary Russian orchestral music would have been different had these bans and similar ones not been put in place, and had composers been exposed to these two artists appropriately. We can only conjecture, but this is certainly food for thought.

Art and Data

Ava Benbow tracks the intersection between art and scientific data at the height of technological innovation

pasted image 0.png

Image(s): medium.com

 

You’ve probably seen more COVID-19 data in the past months than you can remember. Graphs with projections, actual numbers, different ages, and countless other factors have crowded our collective consciousness for the past year. There have been color coded maps, infographics, and live graphs to click along to with every new test result logged. To me, it has been a crash course on how we handle data. With huge amounts of data coming in, we have to find a way to interpret it, and often, this is done through visuals. Sifting through huge amounts of data is tedious, but looking at a graph can give us an instantaneous impression of millions of data points.

 

We are truly living in the world of big data now. The real question now is not how to collect data, but how to use it. Every day, there are quintillions of data points that are being recorded and endless possibilities of how to use them. Not only on things like weather and travel but also on ourselves. And there is no doubt that big data is becoming an increasingly important part of society. The availability of big data to anyone with an internet connection only serves to amplify the effect. One of the expressions of big data is in artistic representation. Art based on big data is a rapidly emerging field with diverse interpretations of the data that is all around us. While people have been using art to represent data sets for decades, data art really emerged in tandem with both the invention and commodification of the internet and the rise of conceptual art. Data art forces us to decide what is important and how to present extraordinarily complicated relationships. How we present data is hugely subjective and can reflect how we see the world. Initially, it may seem strange to make art out of data, but artists are pushing the boundaries of what art can be made of. To find beauty in something that can seem cold and artificial is remarkable.

 

The intersection of art and data spans the space between art and science. It blurs the line between truth and expression in a captivating way. In a way, data art shows us that any presentation of data is subjective. However data is represented, it is through the lens of who is presenting it. There is increasing scrutiny on data and data presentation in the age of fake news, and data art pokes at this idea by using factual data creatively. Data art asks us why we can’t create something human and imperfect out of something objective.

 

Take the art of Aaron Koblin, whose works transform data into works of art that feel deeply personal. One of his most famous works ‘Flight Patterns’ forms a sort of moving map out of the air traffic in North America over 24 hours. The video shows the moving flight paths in brilliant colors over a black background. On its surface, it feels detached. But watching the multicolored lights make some sort of shape that is familiar and feels very human. The lines are anything but random, based on where people were going on some given day. The silhouette of North America appears and disappears from view as the domestic flights arc between cities. It's based on 24 hours, but it encompasses an enormous amount of information. Where cities were formed and where people want to go, its thousands of years of history compressed into a single day. Every line is based on years of history and human nature. ‘Flight Patterns’ captures what I think is one of the most interesting aspects of data art. It shows a soft combination of the individual and the collective. Each of those flights was populated with real people who chose to travel that day, but the bigger choices were made years before. The glowing hubs of cities that were destined to be full of airports and planes before the idea of a plane had even been dreamt of. There is an organic kind of beauty in a deeply inorganic process. The paths of thousands of big metal birds going against the forces of the universe resembles something wholly natural.

 

But not all data is based on such huge swaths of people, so neither is all data art. Another artist utilizing data is Laurie Frick. She creates abstract art using data points from all facets of her life. Frick’s art seems particularly relevant with all of the attention on personal data protection. In a world where your data is a hot commodity, we are constantly monitored. Frick’s work seems to come from a place of observation of the ways in which we track ourselves. Making her own sleeping schedule, step logs, and moods into art pieces feels like a reflection of our own need to monitor ourselves. Creating beautiful abstract art, her pieces feel personal and distant at once. These pieces feel personal, they are compilations of her life, but they also feel detached. Isolating one part of your life and inspecting it requires an enormous amount of honesty, treating your own life as a series of data points. Even though Frick’s pieces are data-driven, they are marked all over with humanity. Using found objects and hand-cut materials, there is a distinct blend of coldness and warmth, the cold data and the warm hands that put it together. It brings the duality of all of the personal data together. While we are unique, three-dimensional people, to the devices that collect our data, we are nothing more than a series of values. Big data technology has transformed people into data, and we have to decide what to do about it. Frick seems to be viewing herself through this lens and it feels self-aware to do so. Her art seems to be taking the flattening of people by data and turning it on its head, creating deeply personal works by using the very methods used to make people into numbers. Frick’s art also exposes flaws in this personal data collection, that you can’t reconstruct a person from data points.

 

These are only two examples of data artists, but there are many more with extraordinary growth in the field. Data art feels especially relevant today. More and more, we are reduced to something less than ourselves. It would be impossible to live without this simplification, there is no way to process all of the information available to us, but data art reminds us of what we lose when we view the world this way. To me, data art feels like reading the summary of a great book. The patterns that are laid bare are only scratching the surface of understanding the data and what it represents. Data art embraces the shortcomings of how we represent data and exploits them into making art that is thoroughly intriguing. We are curious people, and data art begs us to ask questions about it. Instead of a graph positing a clear-cut point of view, data art has more ambiguity. It trusts the viewer to think about why. Why are those the flight patterns? Why have someone’s moods fluctuated? Their steps? Their sleep? Information overload is made engaging with the trust in the viewer to make meaning for themselves.

Can art ever be apolitical? Exploring Social Media’s influence on the hyper politicization of art

Lauren Riley discusses the inherent political implications of art, and whether or not the form can ever shed these associations

“From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of defending art”

-Susan Sontag, ‘Against Interpretation’

d41586-019-02228-w_16964800.jpeg

Image(s): dezeen.com

 

Coined by Theophile Gautier, the French poet, critic and novelist, signifiable at the time for his “cherry and green satin clothes”, the phrase ‘Art for art’s sake’ quickly became the maxim for the aesthetic movement. Figure-headed by Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, the movement evokes images of lavish drawing rooms, Italian gardens, turquoise and gold feathers, Japanese folding screens, blissful ignorance and immense privilege. The idea that art can exist without ties to political, social, moral or cultural aims, being only a mere expression or “mimesis” (Sontag, pg.3) of beauty is an endearing if an admittedly unattainable concept. However, the idea that art can be solely this, and that any form which can be considered a “handmaiden” or “servant” to a higher purpose would be somehow ‘anti-art’ is, in my view, depressing, small-minded and, at best, an extremely limiting perspective (Charles Swineburne on William Blake). The recent rise of political movements explicitly expressing their aims effectively though art via online platforms has demonstrated the invalidity of this mode of interpretation, since political art has a clear purpose.

 

The digital age has revolutionized the consumption of art. Art is now being specifically designed and produced for social media platforms. One of the most critical resulting changes comes in the form of a redefined relationship between artist and art. The separation between these two entities, which was never concrete, has become increasingly blurred. ‘Content creators’ are now more than ever being intrinsically tied to their content often overshadowing their art as the power of the ‘celebrity’ grows. This can be incredibly powerful in allowing the propagation of art to be more pervasive but it also has the potential to be damaging, for it creates an environment in which art has the potential to be hyper-politicized to the extent that its value is at risk of being lost.

 

In regard to the world of visual art, social media has allowed many of the barriers which previously faced artists to be demolished. The process of sharing one’s art has moved from a long ordeal involving critics, galleries and exhibitions, to pressing ‘post’. Instantaneously, an artist is able to share their work with an unlimited audience who has the ability to like, share, and comment.

 

Olafur Eliasson is a contemporary Danish-Icelandic artist who is well-known for his large installation artworks. Featured recently at the Tate Modern, his artwork is well-suited for social media platforms. His exhibits are extremely ‘shareable’, featuring bright, dramatic colours that photograph and video well. The hashtag “#olafureliasson” currently has 209k posts on Instagram and the official page @sutdioolafureliasson has 652k followers. His art is extremely politically driven, an idea which is reinforced by his website which claims that “art is a crucial means for turning thinking into doing in the world”. Eliasson has become a figure-head for his studio and for the political movements which inspire his work such as Climate Change awareness. He has been involved in creating documentaries on the topic and recently spoke on the World Economic Forum’s Climate Governance panel. Eliasson’s personal influence clearly demonstrates social media’s ability to aid in the amalgamation of artist and art and, additionally, create a keener focus on the artist rather than the art itself.

 

The success of Eliasson’s work shows the powerful nature of social media’s influence on the world of art and its ability to make change, yet there are many other instances in which social media has had less than positive effects on art. In 2017, Dana Schutz’s painting displayed in The Whitney Biennial, Open Casket caused major controversy over the rights of a white woman to depict black suffering. The painting’s subject is 14-year-old Emmet Till who was violently murdered and mutilated in a racially driven hate crime during the 1950s. The criticism of Shutz’s painting began on Twitter and eventually led to multiple Facebook petitions which called for the painting to be removed and even destroyed. Schutz was called upon to justify her art by explaining her artistic intention. She claimed her right to the maternal bond of mother and son, but whether or not Schutz has the ‘right’ to create the painting she did, seems, to me, besides the point once the painting has been produced. At that stage, the artistic value of the piece should be able to be separated from the artist. This hyper-politicization of art due in part to social media’s condensation of artist and art endangers, in my opinion, valuable art which is intended to create positive change and awareness.

 

A similar phenomenon seems to be occurring in literature. Barthes’ renowned concept of ‘the death of the author’ hardly seems possible now that our favourite authors have Twitter and Instagram accounts sharing their opinions on topics like their pet’s eating habits (see Molly the Evil One on Steven King’s Twitter Feed) to the Coronavirus relief bill (also see Steven King’s Twitter Feed). Once again, readers or the representative ‘audience’ in the literature/drama sphere have been given increased influence over creators through social media platforms. Readers can now directly apply to writers asking them to justify their art. This can be an effective way to influence and create progressive and diverse literature in the future. However, as with Schutz, whose race was shown to define how her art was interpreted, authors’ political views are shown to define how their past and future works are interpreted. The question of authorial intent has plagued the world of the critic for many years but social media has taken this one step further by creating the opportunity and culture which superimposes the political views of an author, primarily expressed on social media platforms, onto their work.

 

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is well-known for her feminist writing her most recently published work being Dear Ijeawele or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. Adichie has been criticized for comments made in a BBC Channel 4 interview which implied transphobic sentiments on the author’s part. Since then, several Twitter feeds have categorized Adichie’s Manifesto as similarly transphobic. This has led some users to include the entirety of her published works under this label, generating them ‘unreadable’. I find this slightly disappointing considering Adichie is historically outspoken in her support towards the LGBTQ+ community and was one of the first mainstream feminist writers to break the chain of white-centric feminist writing and successfully begin to diversify the conversation in a way that was and continues to be desperately needed. This article will not attempt to evaluate the comments that Adichie made, as I believe her works should be evaluated separately from interpretations of her personality that are primarily fuelled by her online, social media generated persona. Adichie’s writing has been hyper-politicized in a way that results in an attempt to de-value writing which has already generated important and needed conversation and still contains value as a work of art.

 

It is important to consider that the artist does have the option to create a social media presence. This gives considerable power to the artist as they have the choice in regard to which platforms to use, how to use them and which issues to weigh in on. Many artists view social media as a tool for the advancement of their career. Clearly a valuable form of marketing some artists have found social media to be pivotal to their careers. Shantel Martin and Benny Or are two examples of artists whose social media presence has helped to immensely accelerate their career. However, not all artists feel that social media would be as beneficial to them. Writer Zadie Smith, who recently published a collection of essays called Intimations that discuss topics such as the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd, has expressed in multiple interviews her purposeful avoidance of all social media platforms. She explained to the Huffington Post in 2017 that she “thinks [we] should retain the right to be wrong” and that social media would threaten this right and in turn, threaten her writing. However, just because an artist chooses not to create an online profile does not mean they are not expected by the online community to participate in social media-driven discourse. Often silence on these platforms is used to implicate artists as complicit in the corresponding issues. They are often accused of not upholding their ‘responsibility’ as celebrities and/or activists, even if they choose to participate in these discourses through their primary artistic forms.

 

Returning to our consideration of the Aesthetic Movement, art was not, and can never be, apolitical. However, the potential for it to be evaluated or interpreted in a way that is apolitical has become increasingly impossible as social media blurs the line between the artist and their art. The aesthetes’ biggest fear was that the role of the critic, which has now been transformed into the public through social media platforms, would overtake that of the art. In this, we can learn something from them, as hyper-politicization takes away from one of the most fundamental and powerful conventions of art, which is its ability to be interpreted. If art is hyper-politicized interpretations are reduced to the singular. This, as we have seen, can have positive effects and encourage the acknowledgement of issues that are long overdue in their need to be addressed, but it can also result in hyper-politicization of art which will only deprive society of valuable art and conversation.

Art as Catharsis: Then and Now

Sierra Thompson breaks down the history of art as a method for healing

unnamed.png

Image(s): The New Yorker

 

The world has always been imbued with chaos. It is interwoven even within the first moments of recorded history; war, famine, plagues, death all around us ever since the human experience has been written down. We look back on that history and ask ourselves “how did they get through that?”, simply horrified at their circumstances. And here we are—because history seems doomed to repeat itself—we have found ourselves amid a global crisis that has brought the world to its knees.

 

The entirety of 2020 was full of people desperate to distract themselves from the state of life, and many of them turned to art. Films, music, literature, drawing, painting, you name it. People around the world found solace in both the works of others and their own creativity, enriched their lives with ways to express themselves and their stress. Despite the chaos, 2020 felt revolutionary: people were re-realizing their capacity to create and their love of art, keeping to a historical pattern that not many were aware of. Throughout human history, people have consistently created art to cope with these fantastical experiences and to process their situations. To understand the present, we must first look at the past.

 

During an outbreak of a plague in London, William Shakespeare wrote two of his most famous tragedies: King Lear and Macbeth. There is no doubt that Shakespeare was a prolific poet and playwright throughout his career, but the fact that his two most iconic and dramatic pieces were written amid a pandemic was no accident. According to scholar James Shapiro, Shakespeare’s creativity in this period soared to new heights.

 

Shakespeare used these dramatic works—as well as the love poem Venus and Adonis—as avenues through which he could repurpose and redirect his feelings of dismay and uncertainty. Through Macbeth and King Lear, Shakespeare did just that, but through Venus and Adonis, he was able to provide a small respite from the tragedy of his time. While the poem ends in heartbreak—as does the myth of Venus and Adonis—there was still beauty to be found in the art of the poem itself. Venus and Adonis provided readers of the poem with a way to lose themselves, even for a brief moment, in the fleeting love that the titular characters shared. By creating these pieces, Shakespeare had the opportunity to express the spectrum of emotions that he was feeling around that time. By consuming these works, his audiences were offered an escape from the doom and gloom of their daily lives while also finding an array of relatable sentiments within every word.

unnamed (1).png

Image(s): Alchemical Weddings

 

World War I is another poignant example of this: visual artists around the world engaged in the pursuit of creativity in an attempt to understand their lives and cope with their circumstances, much like a lot of us did in 2020. They expressed their anxieties, anguish, and pleas for peace through different styles, compositions, and techniques, able to capture the war through an array of perspectives. Printmaking was popular and common during this time, appropriated from its original purpose of the mass production of propaganda and turned on its head to display the horrors of war.

 

Still, though, many artists took traditional avenues to display either their pain or the pain of others; American war artist John Singer Sargent did exactly this, able to capture a plethora of scenes from France and Belgium. He was able to capture intimate scenes of the negative individual effects of war and humanized the experience of it through his other works. By focusing on the war and its effects at a smaller scale, Sargent was able to provide the public with the opportunity to acknowledge and reconcile with the fact that their fellow humans were at the center of the war, and that everyone was affected by it in some way.

unnamed (2).png

John Singer Sargent, Two Soldiers at Arras, 1918; Image(s): The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Because artists like Sargent were able to expose the raw and oft-overlooked personal impacts of war, they were able to create pieces that were relatable to the masses who were all experiencing different variations of the same crisis. This art was an obvious catharsis—for both the creators and the consumers—because it translated and recorded feelings of despair and melancholy into visual situations that allowed the masses to process their circumstances.

 

In 2020, we saw this same pattern across a wider spectrum of art. Poetry has made a resurgence in both literary circles and the mainstream as a way to cope with the mental and emotional effects of the pandemic, and verse, in general, has become a pressure-free way for people to express themselves. Writing as a form of catharsis and creating has always been popular—as seen in the Elizabethan era with Shakespeare—but because this pandemic and several other civil issues have thrown the world into chaos, writing has never been more accessible. It doesn’t even have to be creative writing to be cathartic; journaling has also become extremely useful for people that don’t want to feel confined by any type of form. When they write, they can simply write everything that crosses their minds, or how their day went: nothing is off-limits, and people can truly pour their hearts out.

 

The consumption of film and music is something that also provided--and still provides--a way for people to take themselves out of reality and lose themselves in for a few hours. They afford a much-needed distraction when watching the news came to be too much, and the sheer artistry on the part of the people that produced this media was something that became immersive and personal for many. Film takes us to new places and allows for an escape into them, while music expresses specific emotions and creativity that put words to what people were feeling. Not only this, but this media also inspires its consumers to create art of their own that mirrored their own experiences while pulling from the concepts of those art forms as well.

unnamed.jpeg

Image(s): Netflix

 

Similarly, visual arts have also exploded into the mainstream by way of art therapy, even if it was initially inadvertent for some; it became an avenue through which one could display their emotions without words. Not only this, but the expression of emotions in an abstract way can help one better process them—again, much like the art of World War I. In some cases, creating art can help one to acknowledge and understand those feelings on a deeper level than they would have if they had just talked them out. Art therapist Tammy Shella has said that art therapy can help people “convey what they really feel on the inside and reveal things that they weren’t comfortable sharing with the world”, and this is an incredibly important thing to remember with all kinds of art.

unnamed (3).png

Image(s): Getty Images

 

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that isolation and everything continuously not being okay has led us to pretend that we’re fine. When people asked, “how are you?”, the quick, automatic response was “I’m good, how are you?”, when things were anything but. The masking of emotions became normalized because we swore that we were okay even when our lives had drastically changed within weeks, even days. So, there came a demand for creative outlets to help us handle these emotions; some took up baking, some gardening, and some even delved back into their beloved childhood hobbies. Even though there was a vast spectrum of creativity being explored in 2020, all of them had one thing in common: they provided catharsis. They gave us something to be excited about, something to be proud of creating or participating in—they distracted us while the world was falling apart. While we might look back on historical crises and ask ourselves “how did they get through that?”, we can answer here and now that the creation and consumption of art was one of the main things that got us through 2020.

Waiting for Godot in Lockdown

Kailee Parsons speaks to why Samuel Beckett’s enduring classic has found new relevance in the Covid era

87891.jpeg

Image(s): theatermaina.com

 

When the world falls apart, I become an existentialist. Well, sort of. I don’t mean to imply that I adopt the mantra of ‘existence precedes essence’ whenever I feel low, or that I cast aside all hope of a universe imbued with objective meaning at the first sign of trouble. On the other hand, I have nothing against existentialism. Though I happen to think that life does have meaning, it is also fundamentally complicated. From where I stand, the existentialist viewpoint certainly makes sense. But I digress. An outright statement is a stronger start to an article without the caveats.

 

What I mean is, in the times in my life that I have felt my lowest, I have always drifted, inexplicably yet unavoidably, towards existentialist fiction, turning a keen eye especially on the absurd. I park myself in front of the bookshelf, tracing my fingertips along the books’ dusty spines until they stop, hesitantly, over the works of Dostoyevsky, Sartre, Beckett, Kafka, and Camus. Though perhaps less explicitly existentialist, I count J.D. Salinger and Kurt Vonnegut among the ranks. I guess I never outgrew my sad boy phase; so sue me.

 

In a funny way, it is comforting to know that I am not alone, that this broken world has been oft traversed before. These authors are no stranger to times of difficulty, many having fought in the Second World War. They looked the horrors of the world in the face and lived to write about it. As I revealed in my last article, I find something similarly comforting about tragicomedy, in fiction that acknowledges the sadness of the world without letting the reader drown in it. It is no surprise that existentialism and tragicomedy often overlap, as is the case in Samuel Beckett’s brilliant play, Waiting for Godot. I’ve returned to it often over the years, so when I picked it up for an English module nearly a year after Britain entered lockdown for the first time, the situation felt eerily familiar.

 

In the simplest of terms, Waiting for Godot is about two men, Vladimir and Estragon, who spend the course of the play waiting for the eponymous Godot, who (spoiler alert) never arrives. About Godot, Vladimir and Estragon know very little. They do not know when Godot will arrive, if ever, or what will happen if he does. They question whether they are waiting at the right tree, whether they are better off apart or together, and why they are waiting at all. On several occasions they conclude that Godot is not worth waiting for, yet when the curtain closes, they are still patiently waiting.

 

A year into the Covid-19 pandemic, waiting is the name of the game. I sympathise with Didi and Gogo, as they are known to each other, in their utter lack of answers. Though fortunately the arrival of vaccines and a quicker-than-expected rollout means the end is in sight, it is impossible to say for sure when this end will come. I find myself wondering what post-pandemic life will look like. Will we continue to wear masks during flu season, or never again? How long will it be before I can go back to class without having to wipe my desk, and more importantly, how long before I can go to a concert, or attend a live performance? What does the end of the pandemic mean for businesses that have had to close, or industries that require a live audience? (I am especially interested to see how the theatre industry will fare.)

 

It has been posited that Godot represents God, which seems likely given the similarity of the two names, but Beckett famously fought against this interpretation, stating, “If I knew [who Godot was], I would have said so in the play”[1]. Still, it seems likely that Godot represents something like God, something that provides both meaning and an end to all the waiting. In the context of 2021, waiting for Godot is like waiting for the pandemic to end.

 

Over the course of the play, Didi and Gogo blather endlessly, sing songs, and converse with passing strangers. The second act, yet another day of waiting, is much the same as the first. The men make a sport of insulting one another, repeat conversations, and comically swap their hats as if enacting a Laurel and Hardy routine. None of these actions have any meaning, they are simply ways of filling the void. They serve only to take Didi and Gogo’s minds off their endless waiting. I see parallels in this coping mechanism, too. Thinking back on March 2020, I remember the sudden wave of social media posts detailing new (and increasingly obscure) hobbies. We started podcasts, learned TikTok dances, and made sourdough starters, realising how difficult it is to be left alone with our thoughts.

 

For the same reason, Didi and Gogo make every effort to avoid silence. “Let us try and converse calmly,” suggests Gogo, “since we are incapable of keeping silent.” A moment later, he offers an explanation, “It’s so we won’t think.” What follows is a nonsense conversation, which first sounds like a profound mantra but is later recognised as little more than a game of word association. Neither wants to be the first to give into the silence, or worse, acknowledge the waiting. Every time Godot is mentioned, the two men find themselves back at the beginning, unchanged except for a growing sense of doubt that Godot will ever arrive. Likewise, I find it difficult to acknowledge the anniversary of lockdown this month. Although things are looking a lot better for us than for Didi and Gogo, it’s hard to think back on the past year without a tremendous sense of loss and longing. Perhaps reflection is healthy. I’m not sure. All I know is that looking ahead feels better than acknowledging the waiting.

 

There is a parallel, too, in the sense of quasi-loneliness that pervades the play. For better or worse, Didi and Gogo are never truly alone, because they have each other. But the stage is still quiet and empty. It seems there is no functioning society in the world of Godot – instead, different pairs sometimes meet each other for a time and then leave again. When Pozzo and Lucky arrive, the interaction feels unnatural, as sentences are repeated and meanings lost. I had to laugh upon rereading these scenes -- the stilted conversation reminded me of Zoom interactions, our words lost due to an overeager mute button, sketchy Wifi, or lags that leave everybody talking at once. Twice over the course of the play, a young boy delivers a message to Didi and Gogo before running off again. The script details that there are two boys, brothers, yet most productions cast one actor. The joke is important: for the role that they play, they might as well be the same boy. I admit I feel the same about the postman. Sad though it is, I hardly notice who comes round, as long as I get the parcel I ordered.

 

Finally, as in the pandemic world, time in the land of Godot has no meaning. Gogo never remembers what day it is, but it hardly matters because every day is the same. Returning to the characters in the second act, the script states that it is only the next day, whilst in many productions, the changing leaves on the tree tell a different story. We might take this to mean that time does not pass in this fictional world in the same way it does in ours, or, more probably, that what day, month, or season it is doesn’t matter. Likewise, it might as well be March 2020 right now, as it seems time has stood still since then. Only last week, I had to remind my family it was Monday when my mother excitedly announced at the kitchen table that the week was almost over.

 

Naturally, these similarities were quickly mentioned in my English tutorial the following week, and they were met with both laughter and groans. It is no particular pleasant thing to realise you are living in a Beckett play, but as I suggested at the start of my article, there may yet be some comfort in it. If the world of Waiting for Godot is strikingly similar to this world in the midst of a pandemic, what can be learned from the former? For me, the central question is whether there is meaning in the waiting if Godot never arrives. Considering this, I asked my classmates if they thought Didi and Gogo would be happier if they went on with their lives. The answer was immediate and somewhat surprising: no. Even though the future is unclear, even though the waiting is torture, it is the very act of waiting for Godot that gives the characters’ lives meaning. Quite simply, if Vladimir and Estragon give up on Godot and end their waiting, there is no play.

 

I see Waiting for Godot as an anti-nihilistic play, as much as it is an existentialist play. While I am sure Samuel Beckett is rolling in his grave at the suggestion, I would reiterate that he was not keen to limit the play to one definite interpretation. At some point, a work of art belongs to its audience, and with what little part of Waiting for Godot belongs to me, I am choosing to read it as hopeful, because I think hope is what we all need. Whether or not Godot ever arrives, it is the hope that he will that spurs the characters to keep living. There is an element of absurdist joy in the struggle towards the heights, and it is enough to fill a man’s heart, or so says Albert Camus [2]. Like Sisyphus, we must imagine Vladimir and Estragon happy.

 

In the context of Covid-19, where does this leave us? Waiting, I think, but not without hope. With every passing day in lockdown, with every passing day that we choose to stay at home, wear a mask, or keep a respectful distance to keep each other safe, when most of us would much rather return to our normal lives, I feel sure that the outcome will be worth the wait. Luckily, we know now that the wait is not indefinite. If we have concluded that Godot is worth waiting for, even if he never arrives, it is clear that waiting out the pandemic is worthwhile, too.

[1] Alan Schneider, “Waiting for Beckett,” The New York Times, November 17, 1985.

[2] Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus.

Life in Colour: LGBTQIA+ Representation in the Contested Medium of Kids’ Cartoons

Why is it so difficult for mainstream media to depict LGBTQIA+ people living their actual lives? In this article, Catherine Mullner explores the contested medium of children’s cartoons in the battleground to represent LGBTQIA+ stories

lgbtqia article calliope.jpeg

Image(s): adventuretime.wikia.com

 

The smell of pancakes and orange juice is in the air as you wander downstairs on a Saturday morning. The sun has finally peeked through the skyline and risen this early morning, and in your footie pajamas you drag your favourite blanket down to the kitchen. The TV enters your sight as you sit at the kitchen table but, like a moth drawn to a flame, you wander up closer to the TV set and plop down in front of it. Saturday morning cartoons fill the quiet March day that would have been without them, and your giggles ring against the sound of sizzling pancakes against the griddle.

 

Suddenly, you feel a kiss on your forehead and the aroma of home and flour coats you in a hug. “Come on dear, your breakfast is going to get cold. And don’t sit that close baby, too much TV is bad for you.”

 

Maybe the best way to start your day is to not sit so close to the TV that your hair and Dora Pajamas circa 2006 gain static. However, the ritual of enjoying Saturday morning cartoons is something sacred to the imagination of modern childhood. Of course, when we were children we were still watching cartoon classics like “Looney Tunes” or “Scooby-Doo” as kids did thirty to forty years ago, laughing at the Road Runner sprinting through the same desert, or Scooby-Doo searching for the fumbling villain (and a snack).

 

But with the turn of the twenty-first century and the rise of mainstream social activism and awareness, new cartoons made post-2000 featured something that had not been given due credit on the main screen: LGBTQIA+ characters, storylines, and lives.

 

Differing from LGBTQIA+ representation in live-action film and television, it is in cartoons -- specifically kids cartoons-- that LGBTQIA+ characters were featured to children as just normal people, living their normal lives. This is, of course, distinctly different from mainstream film and television from the mid 20th century to even now, where LGBTQIA+ main storylines are only concerned with either hiding their sexual orientation or coming out to other characters.

 

So, my question is simple: why is it through the medium of children’s cartoons that LGBTQIA+ representation has been enabled more than ever (specifically in the last five years), and why is it such a contested medium for such storytelling?

It’s Time to Adventure into LGBTQIA+ Representation

 

Between the three titans of children’s television networks, (Disney, Nickelodeon, and Cartoon Network) it is on Cartoon Network that one can find the longest history of LGBTQIA+ representation. Today, audiences look towards shows as Adventure Time and Steven Universe for examples of LGBTQIA+ characters that are living their lives, represented in the stories of the shows’ plotlines as a whole.

 

One of the earliest on-screen representations of an LGBTQIA+ character on Cartoon Network actually occurred in 2002 in one of the last episodes of Courage the Cowardly Dog titled “The Mask”. It is one of only two double-length features in the series’ history and features discussion of themes such as misogyny, misandry, and domestic violence. In this episode, Kitty shows up at Courage’s house and beats him up because he is a dog; Courage’s parents Muriel and Eustace think Kitty is just one of Courage’s friends and invite her to stay. This is when Courage learns that Kitty is trying to save her best friend Bunny from her boyfriend, the abusive and controlling “Mad Dog”. Courage helps Bunny to escape so Kitty would leave his house, and the episode closes with Kitty pulling Bunny up on a train romantically, implying they are in fact not best friends, but romantically involved. This episode aired in the last season of Courage the Cowardly Dog and is thought to have actually been the reason for the show to be cancelled, specifically for its depiction of a lesbian relationship.

 

Flashing forward eight years, the next show that overtly has LGBTQIA+ representation on Cartoon Network is Adventure Time, created by Pendelton Ward in 2010. Adventure Time is, I would argue, the turning point of when cartoon shows went from the rule of “implied” LGBTQIA+ representation to showing LGBTQIA+ lives and stories in their cartoons, specifically on Cartoon Network. The best remembered and represented LGBTQIA+ characters in Adventure Time are Marceline the Vampire Queen and Princess Bonnibel Bubblegum, who are implied to have had a romantic relationship in their past. What is so important about the representation found within Marceline and Bonnibel is the evolution of the openness of their past relationship, and their presence as strong, female leads in the Adventure Time universe.

 

This relationship was first hinted at in Season 3, Episode 10, “What Was Missing”, which aired on 26th September 2011. In order to open a door to gain back their favourite possessions from the Door Lord, Finn, Jake, Marceline, BMO, and Princess Bubblegum must work together to create a song. As Rebecca Sugar, one of the storyboard artists on “What Was Missing” and a main proponent of “Bubbeline'' said: “It might seem like this episode is about friendship, but I wanted it to be about honesty! Marceline almost gets the door open because she drops her guard and tells the truth for a second while she sings this song.” The most important movement we see in this episode is the decentring of Finn’s heteronormative crush on Princess Bubblegum to focus on a queer relationship and the complex history of Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen.

 

However, this is not to say that Cartoon Network as a corporation was completely behind storyboard artists like Rebecca Sugar, who would go on to later create Steven Universe in 2013. With the release of “What Was Missing”, came a behind the scenes video recap by Frederator Studios called the “Mathematical” recap where the writing staff actively implied that there were romantic relations between Princess Bubblegum and Marceline. Fred Seibert, of Frederator Studios fame, ended up taking the video recap and Youtube channel down in 2011, saying that the audience’s involvement and their “spicy fanart” went too far.

 

By the end of the series in 2018 and the subsequent release of the Adventure Time: Distant Lands series that premiered on HBO Max in 2020, viewers were able to have a direct look into Bubblegum and Marceline’s past relationship without the animators or storyboard artists having to hide it due to censorship. Seibert’s dialogue on “Bubbeline” Fanart as “spicy” reveals a longstanding belief in TV censorship that anything directly depicting LGBTQIA+ relationships or lives is somehow inappropriate for children and audiences. Throughout the years Adventure Time helped to change this dialogue and transformed under it itself.

Steven Universe and A Legacy of Inclusion

 

But, it’s in shows like Rebecca Sugar’s Steven Universe that audiences got to see overtly and “unapologetically queer” characters on their screens. Sugar has commented that she wants to move “LGBT stories from the margins into the mainstream” with Steven Universe, which focuses on themes of “bisexuality, same-sex attraction, trauma, grief, and consent” through the adventures of Steven and the Crystal Gems who protect Earth. The Fems are “ageless alien warriors'' who project female forms from the gemstones at the core of their being. Although today Steven Universe is recognised as formidable in its dedication to representing LGBTQIA+ stories and is held as a torch of social equality by Cartoon Network, it was still in 2015 that conflict arose over showing overtly queer themes.

 

On March 12, 2015 “Jail Break”, the Season 1 Finale for Steven Universe, aired to critical acclaim and retribution. In this episode it is revealed that Garnet is a fusion, meaning that she was created out of the love of two component Gems, this revealed to be Ruby and Sapphire. With this straightforward representation of what Steven Universe writer Joe Johnston has clarified to be a romantic relationship, specifically a romantic relationship between two gay non-binary people, the Steven Universe team was warned that their show would be officially cancelled if countries where homosexuality is illegal picked up on these themes.

 

Steven Universe challenges the idea that LGBTQIA+ romantic relationships are inherently inappropriate or too mature for children, which is arguably one of the most used reasons to justify networks’ or countries’ homophobic censorship policies as a whole. In fact, in the same year “Jail Break” aired, UK broadcasters actually censored an episode of Steven Universe where Pearl and Rose Quarts were romantically dancing because the “song was too risque”. I argue: was it really the song, or rather the depiction of queer romance? I suspect the latter.

 

Steven Universe further pushed for LGBTQIA+ representation in its depiction of multiple sexualities and gender identities. In an episode titled “Alone Together” in January 2015 Stevonnie debuted, who is a non-binary and intersex character created as Fusion between Steven and Connie. The finale of Steven Universe that aired in January 2019 featured the representation of a polyamorous relationship, and in 2018 Steven Universe became the first kid’s cartoon to display a lesbian wedding in the United States. Although shows like Adventure Time and Steven Universe have ended, their struggle and success in representing LGBTQIA+ stories and relationships have impacted the cartoon industry heavily today.

 

In 2018 Netflix premiered She-Ra: Princess of Power pushed the envelope with not only its wide range of LGBTQIA+ main and minor characters but its normalisation of their relationships and lives. On 2nd May 2019, the episode “Reunion” came out where audiences meet Bow’s two dads without any drama, painful explanation, or judgement. Other shows like Craig of the Creek, OK K.O! Let’s Be Heroes, Young Justice, and recently Owl House continue to feature LGBTQIA+ storylines and characters, especially in the last 3-5 years.

Cartoon Today, Reality Tomorrow

 

The point of this article is not for me to sit here and say that kids’ cartoons are inherently revolutionary in their universal depiction of LGBTQIA+ lives and stories. Audiences can see that in such cartoons as Legend of Korra, where Nickelodeon studios barely allowed the series finale end scene of Korra and Asami romantically staring into each other’s eyes to be aired. Only retroactively could Korra be officially confirmed as bisexual, although original showrunners argue her sexuality was canon for most of the series. Disney is especially infamous for its lack of LGBTQIA+ characters, and if executives do confirm a queer character it is frequently retroactive, with said character often being a minor character in minimal scenes of the story. Furthermore, it is repeatedly done in an act of self-preservation, where studios now feel pressure to have some token of LGBTQIA+ representation so they do not seem homophobic to their national audiences.

 

However, what is important to note about the form of the cartoon -- specifically children’s cartoons- is its adaptability. Perhaps there is such conflict and often damaging portrayal of LGBTQIA+ characters in live-action television and film because audiences live in the same “world” aesthetically and morally as the characters on the screen. There are certain expectations for how the world of a live-action film or television series is going to work, and studios and audiences, therefore, operate within them. Even adult cartoons that operate in a parallel but still realistic world, such as Archer, Family Guy, and American Dad depict LGBTQIA+ characters in a stereotypically damaging way.

 

In children’s cartoons creators are free to create any world, any moral system, and any society they please that does more than often mirror the society of its viewers. However, it is less about the magical or wonderful realm these cartoonists have created and rather boils down to what any television programme wants to do: tell a story.

 

Cartoons are afforded the freedom to depict a story that can be about love, grief, family, relationships in its own medium and on its own terms. The medium of cartoons is often severely underestimated in its ability to create social change or tell a dramatic story, that it’s just a “silly cartoon” and doesn’t mean anything. But I think about the days I sat in front of my TV watching Saturday morning cartoons and who I am now (yes, a twenty-year-old woman who still watches Adventure Time).

 

More importantly, I think about the tens of millions of children watching these shows today, a bowl of cereal in their lap as they hug their parents and hear that it is not about who you choose to love, but the way you love.

Muse of the Month

Alice Robson highlights an inspiring author and activist

Book-Review_We-Should-All-Be-Fem_1200.jp

Image(s): Feminists in India

 

I was seventeen when my best friend gave me a small book for my birthday. ‘I thought it was perfect for you!’ she laughed as I unwrapped it, revealing the cover. We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a transcription of her TED talk. I agreed with every single word.

 

Award-winning author, feminist, and activist, Adichie has penned three novels, a collection of short stories, and given several TED talks.

 

I was initially drawn to Adichie because of her subject-matter – a Nigerian author who wrote about the Nigerian civil war, the experience of a Nigerian woman who immigrated to America, and the complexities of religion and society in Nigeria were all topics which hadn’t been covered by any school or university syllabus I’d come across. But it was how Adichie’s writing made me feel, how it spoke to me, that had me hooked. Adichie writes images and metaphors so intricately detailed and interwoven they’ve spun into a beautiful web before you even realise it. Her characters were full human beings. The protagonists, mostly female, stand big and bold, flawed and entirely real, and so do her other characters that other authors would often not flesh out so well.

 

What really struck me about Adichie was how vividly I came to understand the world her characters inhabited, and how beautifully she painted this world to be. Adichie perfectly captures what it is like to live in our world today but to make it seem beautiful. And so, in turn, I began to look at the world slightly differently.

 

Americanah, the story of a young Nigerian woman who emigrates to the United States, is one of my favourite novels of all time. Adichie fully recognized what it is like to be a young woman, in love, afraid, alone, on her own adventure, and she made me feel hopeful for where my life could go, and what adventures will come my way. One of the final lines reads “she had, finally, spun herself fully into being”. I have since sat and thought about that line for hours.

 

Many of my friends, male and female, have felt keenly recognised by Adichie’s work. So many of our mistakes, flaws, and humanity can be found in Adichie’s works, crossing language and cultural divides. I think that’s the testament of a truly brilliant artist. To perceive humanity clearly is one thing, to be able to create something which truly represents humanity is quite another. Every single word Adichie writes has me entranced, each page contains an aspect of truth about myself I hadn’t even known existed. There is a beautiful power in Adichie’s writing, and I find myself returning to her works again and again, desperate to see the world as she does. To understand, to listen, and to create.