Paola Cordova scrutinizes the tradition of turning a blind eye to the sins of genius
If I can’t have you- no one can.
Those words trigger a shiver down the spine, don’t they? They evoke the image (at least personally) of a man about to inflict damage on his partner in a fit of jealousy or rage, a controlling outburst of anger that can largely be attributed to- put quite bluntly- misogyny. Intimate partner violence can be observed on an almost daily basis in a multitude of forms, some on an escalating level that has terrifying consequences.
One of the many ways I have seen intimate partner violence develop can be chalked up to the idea of using a woman with the purpose of discarding her- taking her for everything she has to offer and using and abusing it until she is perceived as “worthless” by her male counterpart. It implies that a woman is an object, something to be used by a subject with an external value determined by a marketplace developed to serve the male gaze. It is also something that artists and creatives have been particularly guilty of doing for centuries, but mainly in the past couple of centuries or so, as they have gained celebrity status in the eyes of the public.
We study and observe the work of Pablo Picasso in awe, even though he exploited and abused most of the women who came into his life. With his famous Goddess-Doormat (something he verbatim stated) dichotomous view of women in general, the man was well known for having a multitude of lovers who spoke out about how horrifying his treatment was toward them after their relationships ended (look no further than former lover Francoise Gilot’s memoir). He would even go on to explicitly say “Every time I change wives, I should burn the last one” and add in a sadistic fashion “That way I’d be rid of them.” It is no wonder two of them committed suicide on account of him.
We forgive the sins of syphilitic pedophile Paul Gauguin, we ignore the deeply exploitative behaviors of Auguste Rodin toward Camille Claudel, and even go as far to pretend that Carl Andre had nothing to do with Ana Mendieta’s “accidental” death despite all evidence pointing to the contrary. These men all had something in common: we label them all geniuses and ignore the connotation of the label itself. Linda Nochlin asked the question in her acclaimed 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” and posits the idea that these “genius” men would be no one and nowhere without the women in their lives and the resources that come with male privilege. This mystical genius is only a genius because he (and it is always “he”) can exploit whatever and whomever he wishes to achieve his goals- and then it is justifiable, because his ideas were perceived as truly being that wonderful, innovative, and singularly belonging to his mind. Ends always justify the means when it comes to the genius, and society has a never ending list of excuses to forgive and venerate the destruction they caused.
To backtrack for a second- let’s return to Ana Mendieta. The successful, revolutionary Cuban American feminist performance artist was at the height of her career in the 1980s when she decided to marry the acclaimed and famed Carl Andre. Neighbors claim to have heard them quarrelling next door- both intoxicated- before hearing the words “No no no no” and a body hitting the ground after falling over 30 stories. She was wearing only blue undergarments, and he had visible scratches on his face.
The 911 call that Andre conducted to the police had him explaining that they were arguing simply because of the fact that she was jealous of his exposure as an artist being a star on the rise herself. He explained that she had “somehow gone out the window” and provided nothing much further- something that aroused deep suspicion in the police as well as Mendieta’s friends. He also claimed not to have remembered what happened, providing the explanation that he was inebriated and that she might just have chosen to jump out of the window of her own volition (despite her well-known fear of heights).
Contradictions were abundant in the interviews held between Andre and law enforcement, and most of the evidence cited by the people defending him in court was related to Mendieta’s art as proof that she was depressed enough to commit suicide. The judiciary system skewed itself in his favor at every turn, whereupon his case was not cross examined by a prosecutor, and he eventually was deemed innocent- the O.J. Simpson of his day if you will. A New York Times article was published following his acquittal in 1988 with statements from her mother and sister providing that Mendieta was “planning to divorce Mr. Andre because of his infidelities and that she had hired a detective to follow him.” All of her family remained convinced he had murdered her in cold blood.
Feminist groups like the Guerilla Girls (see above) were outraged at the response of the legal system after Andre was acquitted of Mendieta’s murder. Even more outrage was sparked at the idea that Andre’s career was relatively untouched by the scandal- with his art being included in exhibitions and museums of great prestige (i.e. the Tate in 2015). Books were written about her death, and the anger continues to burn on in the hearts and minds of all who knew better than to believe the crooked trial Andre was put through, and the question continues to be asked- Where is Ana Mendieta? She’s absent in the first few Google searches of his name, but he shows up immediately when you look her up. We have chosen to ignore her pain and suffering, the violence and double standards that she critiqued so blatantly in her work all under the omissive guise of “separating the artist from the art.” Forgiving Carl Andre’s “genius” simply because he was never outright convicted of femicide seems, in this case, reductive. We make too many excuses for the wrong things and people with the “two sides” narrative, where false neutrality has continuously perpetrated violence to a bone chilling degree.
We say that cancel culture can destroy a man’s career and take everything away from him, that the evil feminists have now made this a woman’s world where men have little to no agency, but to what extent is this true? I echo the sentiment surrounding Brock Turner’s 2016 sexual assault trial- where news outlets were putting a rapist’s swimming career before the humanity and basic dignity of the woman whose life he heinously affected. Why do we pick and choose with such liberty at the expense of those who suffer? Why are we okay with Chris Brown continuing to make music and letting his albums top charts despite his (not so distant) past with domestic abuse? More than anything- what don’t we know? We normalize intimate partner violence to the degree at which even the vilest things are excusable, and all in the name of the “genius.” Changing that is something we owe Ana Mendieta and all the other women who have suffered at his altar.