In the late 19th century, Norman Lindsay’s grandfather took him to visit the Art Gallery of Ballarat, the oldest and largest gallery in Australia. Ballarat was still young at the time, but one of its newly acquired paintings managed to catch Norman’s adolescent eye. He stared at it for some time, transfixed by the oil masterpiece—not just its craftsmanship but its scandal as well. What stood before him was the towering painting by Solomon J. Solomon:
Ajax and Cassandra
Lindsay went on to become a successful painter himself, clearly taking a certain kind of inspiration from Solomon into his own work. His paintings were so lewd, in fact, that when they were shipped to the U. S. during World War II for safekeeping, they were promptly confiscated and burned. Yet I am not sure that even Lindsay’s work can match the pure scandal of Ajax and Cassandra.
Solomon’s 1886 work depicts, as you might guess, the rape of Cassandra by the Greek hero Ajax. It’s a graphic scene described in Virgil’s Aeneid, and it centers on the Trojan princess Cassandra, a priestess of Athena who after rebuffing the god Apollo’s advances is cursed to have the gift of prophecy yet never be believed. When the Greeks attack her home, she warns her people concerning the Trojan horse, yet they ignore her premonition and the Greeks ransack the city in the night. During the chaos of the attack, Ajax storms the temple of Athena and Cassandra clings to the goddess’s statue, claiming sanctuary from her attackers. But Ajax simply rips her from the statue and rapes her before the virgin goddess.
Despite the horrific nature of its subject, Solomon’s Ajax and Cassandra is a masterful painting and personal favorite. The artist transcends realism with the shape and movement of his actors, their clothes and the smoke—it is an impelling work, descending down upon its viewer. Not only is there striking contrast between the dark temple background and the white priestess vestitures as well as blood-red robes, but the skin tones add another layer of differentiation, of pearly and pure and of ruddy and violent. And of course, there is the face of Ajax—more indifferent than stern—that centers the dynamic work of art.
Yet as much as I admire the skill of this painting, Ajax and Cassandra remains undeniably alarming. It’s a portrayal of rape—and a haunting one at that. And yet it is art. This tension naturally leads to the question: what is appropriate for art?
This is a historically difficult question to answer. In the 1964 Supreme Court Case Jacobellis v. Ohio regarding whether the film Les Amants was potentially pornographic, Justice Potter Stewart famously used the phrase, “I know it when I see it,” as his threshold test for obscenity. Few have found his method helpful.
Louis CK, the popular comedian, has made a career out of this dilemma. Many of his funniest jokes are rooted in topics deemed very inappropriate, often embracing them to the humorous shock of his audience. One of his boldest examples deals with the subject at hand, rape:
Many give Louis a pass, along with other comedians, because his line of work is idealized as proffering uncomfortable truths. Something similar is often done for other narrative-based artistic mediums. The popular film essayist, The Nerdwriter, recently published a video defending the popularity of Black Mirror—an objectively obscene and distressing television show—as cathartic.
And then there’s the Civil War statues—those are a part of this discussion too. While there are other factors in the conversation, the heart of the matter is that across the South there are hundreds of works of art memorializing an institution dedicated to defending something obscene. Different measurements can be taken to defend the statues as historical property, but as public art they are undoubtedly guilty.
As a society, we are still arguing over this question, what is appropriate for art? We can generally agree on what ideas and deeds are themselves inappropriate—rape is bad, cyber terrorism (a recurring theme of Black Mirror) is bad, slavery is bad—but our culture is very divided on how we should handle art’s depiction of this material. Does art have a license to present whatever it wants? Or is bound by some criteria?
Like the rest of my generation, my education taught me that art has a duty to present unadulterated truth (somewhat like journalism). This high, philosophical idea worked out for me as it relates to movies—I can see most any movie I want, regardless of its MPAA rating, because it’s true art.
But I’d be a fool to think that even in the most capable of hands, that art cannot taint me or corrupt me. Even the greatest artists can fumble with that most dangerous instrument. Nothing has more power than art to influence the mind and soul, and I fear that media like Black Mirror abuses that power. Whatever its intention may be, the acclaimed television show lacks the intentionality and moral guidance to redeem its dark subject matter.
That said, I would never dream of blaming rape culture on Ajax and Cassandra or anything similar. Rather, I just want to step back and make the mild claim that art impacts people on a profound level—it influences us in ways we may not know or we may simply ignore. Despite its privileged place among the beautiful and true, it may alter us in ways that wouldn’t make our mothers proud—just ask Norman Lindsay.