Just before attending a gallery tour of the Wexner exhibition Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life by artist Sheilah Restack (Wilson), my friend, artist Suzanne Silver, with whom I had taught the class Drawing Ideas a year ago, handed me a copy of Amy Sillman’s zine The O.G., the eleventh issue of which was focused on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as part of her exhibition After Metamorphoses at The Drawing Center. (Without seeing the exhibition, I wrote about it on Minus Plato on January 8th, ahead of its fateful opening day of January 20th)
As we creep towards the anniversary of Trump’s election, while our Facebook accounts remind of what we were doing a year ago (canvasing, calling and working for and towards the first female US president), reading Sillman’s zine returns us to the fresh rage of January 2017, “on the literal eve of an inauguration and we face a global rise of neo-fascism”. Neither Sillman, nor any of us, could have known back then how swiftly that “and” was to be removed, as white supremacists, enabled by the president, made Charlottesville into a violent neo-fascist global event. Even if we couldn’t predict this specific violation and the murder of Heather Heyer, what Sillman recognized back in January, was that the president would ground his base misogyny within a violence towards women’s bodies, both legislatively and rhetorically.
In the zine, Sillman reproduces her exchanges with poet Ann Lauterbach, classicist Joy Connolly, medievalist Marilynn Desmond and essayist André Aciman, about temporal and bodily change explored in Ovid’s Roman poem, and more often than not, she returns to the violence inflicted against the female body, ancient and modern.
For example, Sillman addresses Lauterbach with the story of a god having sex with a young woman, only for her to be punished by being turned into a cow by his vengeful divine wife (a reference to the story of Io). Sillman reacts as follows:
I mean, how are you supposed to deal with that? It seems like whatever happened, happened, without our kind of moral map underneath.
As we knew before January, Trump wanted to “punish women” for having abortions, while since January, this pulling of the moral map from beneath our feet, is inflicted on women by the current government on a daily basis (e.g. the rolling back of the Obamacare mandate on the provision of contraception earlier this month).
In her exchange with Joy Connolly, Sillman tries to figure out the difference between Augustan politics and poetics, the way governmental accountability under the new regime, was wiped away and how Ovid was both complicit and separate from the regime. Yet as a Roman, his work operates within culture that saw rape of a non-free body (a slave) as violence to the owner. To return to Io, does her punishment fit within a narrative that saw the distinction between god and human as between slave-owner and slave?
Sillman then asks Marilyyn Desmond to respond to the fact that “some people hate it [the Metamorphoses] for its misogyny, noting how much rape there is”. Desmond claims Ovid:
offsets some of the misogyny through ironic juxtaposition of victims and Ovid’s exploration of the Subjectivity of victimhood which invites the reader to identify with the victims more than the perpetrators.
André Aciman, addressing the question of time, returns to Io’s metamorphosis as part of the “tragic awareness of their victims to what is actually happening to their bodies”. Aciman notes the lag of consciousness at these moments of bodily change.
This lag of consciousness is one of the ways artists like Sillman struggle with the balance between making and protest as part of feminist resistance and emancipation with a misogynist in the White House, directing a violent agenda against women’s bodies and minds.
Yet in my experience this semester teaching a class on Ovid’s mythical women and contemporary feminist art, the lag in consciousness between antiquity and now is a fertile way to explore what has and has not changed in terms of our own moral map. So long as we, like Sillman, return to Ovid with questions from today, well aware of the political and cultural differences between Roman society and our own, we can harness his attention towards the victims’ articulation of their experience of sexual violence under Augustus, as a vital process for their articulation under Trump. Just because Ovid was living in a different time, it doesn’t mean that the lag of consciousness in change, doesn’t equate to the same struggle. As such, any Classicist who dismisses a project, such as Sillman’s, which uses an historically responsible return to Ovid’s poem to address questions of contemporary misogyny, is complicit in such a misogyny.
To paraphrase an earlier Minus Plato post about an instance of this misogyny close to home, what happens if we cannot separate the misogynistic images we project ourselves from those of the objects of our discipline? We may not be able to change antiquity, but we can transform our pedagogy, find new models and new methods to teach the past with a sensitivity and solidarity with care for the inequality and violence of the present.
You can read all of The O.G. #11 Metamorphoses on Sillman’s website here.