So. Did anyone else spend Easter Sunday making their 12 year old up like a bleeding corpse and pretending to eat him? No? I win!
Kristin St. Martin is my teenager’s terrific photography teacher, and she’s assigned her students a project based on selected works of squirm-inducing Sally Mann, and gorgeously creepy Julie Blackmon. Both photographers excel at taking everyday family scenarios and pushing them just beyond the edge of comfortable. Aesthetically beautiful and yet not the kind of photos you’d hang in your living room, both artists create scenarios which aren’t quite right, and which require viewers to ask themselves why they are uncomfortable.
Two tame examples of Mann and Blackmon:
Keeping these artists in mind, Jake was asked to photograph his family, with the option of creating a montage of the images. Part of his project will be a manipulated image of a family dinner, with a very dead Riley for dinner (Riley will also be one of the diners).
I ask my children to think about what they are seeing all the time; I don’t want them to be passive viewers, but to question and take responsibility for the participatory act of viewing. When Jake received this assignment we sat down and looked at Blackmon and Mann’s work more thoroughly than Ms. St. Martin could allow in a school setting, and discussed why we felt uncomfortable looking at the images. Why are Mann’s seemingly candid captures of the almost-sexualization of children more uncomfortable to look at than the hypersexualization of girls that we see everyday on TV? Why is Blackmon’s photoshopped child neglect so jarring ? Is it because there is a kernel of familiarity to it that makes us question our own parenting and ambivalence?
In assigning this project, Kristin St. Martin has broadened the spectrum of how I experience art. I’m not just a viewer or participant in making art; I’ve been in those positions before, and never felt uncomfortable. This time, though, I’m also involved as a parent. Is it wrong for Jake to create this faux-gruesome tableaux, and was it acceptable for me to encourage him to explore that? Like Blackmon’s work, Jake’s portrait of a cannibalistic family dinner will be photoshopped (we’re not really eating Riley until I get him fattened up a bit), and the set-up was no more than extreme make-up with some tableware thrown in. While Riley had a great time being dead, it did seem a bit wrong to pretend to eat my child, and I’m sure it’s one more thing Riley will need to discuss with a therapist in twenty years (“First she put fake blood all over my head, and then she pretended to EAT me! Do you think that’s why I’m afraid of intimacy?”).
My participation in Jake’s photo project makes me question wrong and right as a parent in a way I never have as an artist or viewer, even if it’s only pretend wrong. Encouraging my son to push and explore artistic boundaries is very different from pushing my own, much in the same way that a teenager’s sexuality is frightening to a parent who was quite foolhardy with their own when they were a teen. There are places in art and creativity that, while useful prods to society to promote debate and thought, are not necessarily healthy places for the mind to go. If other artists are willing to go there, Mazel Tov. But, as a parent of a teenager exploring those places, what is my responsibility? Do I have one at all?
This is one of the best assignments I’ve never had.