Irony: putting a trigger warning on a post about trigger warnings. Irony aside, it’s only fair to give a warning that I’ll mention a particular episode of my bulimia as part of this story. So if this is an issue for you, feel free to read something else.
I was an art history minor in college. I loved all my art classes, with one exception.
Contemporary art and issues.
I don’t connect with most contemporary art, or the art doesn’t connect with me, or we fail to appreciate each other’s vision and see only the other’s blind spots. (As if “art” is as human as I am!)
That semester was a particularly lonely time for me. I was recovering from a nervous breakdown and mono, and was still wrestling with depression. I also had no one in my life who loved art like I did, no Christian to help me puzzle through the ideas and issues thrown my direction. I muddled through.
I made it through abstract expressionism. Jackson Pollock and paint drip paintings. Messy, but no problem.
I made it through pop art. Andy Warhol and soup cans. Yummy, but no sweat.
Then, halfway through the semester, the visual slides took a darker turn. The works embraced controversy, desiring it like an object of lust. Sex. Violence. Ugliness. Deliberately provocative pieces that punched traditional ideals of beauty in the gut.
One afternoon, the professor flipped to a slide of a work by Cindy Sherman. Sherman is known for dressing in costumes and different guises and creatively photographing herself in various locations. It’s a challenge to the notion of a fixed identity, rather than a true “selfie” or “self-portrait.” Many are disturbing. This particular one focused on eating disorders, the ideal image of the feminine, and how far some of us will go to become change our image, though our self-image never matches the ideal image.
In the photo, a pair of sunglasses lies on a beach towel.
Reflected in the dark lenses is a woman—Sherman in another of her disguises—vomiting.
Suddenly, I was back there, at my old college, wrestling with bulimia again.
I swallowed hard and kept silent during the hybrid lecture-discussion.
Another slide, this time by Andres Serrano (of Piss Christ fame). I don’t recall the exact image, only that it was grotesque and violent. I shuddered and looked away.
I may not remember the image, but I remember the feeling it created in me: a sickening sense of personal violation.
My face must’ve betrayed my revulsion, because the professor caught up to me before the next class. He apologized for showing the offensive slides.
“They’re important works,” he said, his brow furrowed, “and I feel like I have to show them. I know they’re offensive to your religion, so would you like a warning before I show a rough slide? Or you can slip out the door if you need to. That’s okay, too.”
I was grateful and said, “Thanks, yes, that would be great.”
Not only had he explained his position and why he had to show these slides, but he showed respect for my personal convictions and feelings. Plus, he gave me an option that wouldn’t embarrass or offend me. He must’ve guessed, rightly, that I wouldn’t leave a class mid-lecture without permission.
From then on, if the next slide was graphic, he gave a warning. “Next slide’s a little rough,” he’d say, and I’d duck my head and take notes. This helped me handle the troubling subject matter.
Recalling this incident made me think about the idea of placing “trigger warnings” on certain reading material, such as classic novels. Think about some of the literature that’s commonly assigned in upper level English classes. There’s a lot of disturbing elements.
Ancient Greek tragedies and mythologies are filled with incest (Oedipus & family), rape (all those human women unlucky enough to attract the attention of Zeus & company), and violence (the battle scenes of The Illiad), not to mention the slaughter of children by their mother (Medea).
That doesn’t include the sexual innuendos (common in comedy, from the ancients to Shakespeare to Restoration lit to present), adultery, suicide, racism, sexism.
It’s not that these pieces are bad literature. Quite the opposite. One of the reasons that the writings have survived is how brilliantly the authors have grappled with the truth about humanity, often the brutal and ugly parts no one wants to see.
Some people need to see it: they’re hiding under a rock, pretending that the world’s as pretty and sterilized as a Thomas Kincade print. They aren’t naive, but willfully ignorant.
But others should not, because they know all too well that the world can be a terrifying and grotesque place. Those people need to be shown that beauty exists, too.
An official warning label plastered on the cover of Oedipus Rex might not be appropriate. But a clear indication of the text’s contents from book reviewers or novel blurb writers might be. Then the reader can judge for himself whether to read.
In a classroom, I think teachers should allow students to skip certain books (or flag the most disturbing sections, at least) if the student says that the content is problematic (meaning, triggering, not just difficult!) for her.
Obviously, this is a difficult subject, and not one that is easily resolved.
Any thoughts? What would you do, if you were a teacher wanting to discuss a text that might cause problems for your students? What would you do if you were an author of such a text?
(Photo credit: alice10, morgueFile.com)