Art is often viewed as a powerful method of social and political change. Paula Rego, who sadly passed away on the 8th June, blazed her own trail in this regard. Her work had a significant impact on the decision to legalise abortion in Portugal, particularly through her ‘Abortion Series’ in 1998. But how did her work prove so persuasive? Beatriz Rodrigues argues that the power of Rego’s work lies not in shock-value, but rather in its ambivalence and mystery, tapping into the conflicted and confused emotional states which trouble us all.
By the time of her death, earlier this month, Paula Rego was widely recognized for her decisive role in the renewal of figurative painting in the second half of the 20th century. The two recent retrospectives of the Portuguese-British artist in the UK (2021 – Tate Britain, London; 2019 – MK Gallery, Milton Keynes, and Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh) consolidated her image as a socially engaged artist, who addressed themes of political oppression, social inequality, and gender discrimination throughout her career. Although it is certainly true that the value of Rego’s works is in great part derived from their critique of social dynamics, their emotional ambivalence precludes reduction to a univocal end. Rego is, thus, a superb case study to explore some of the subtle ways in which art can prescribe attitudes, convey truths, and produce social change.
The close relationship between eroticism and violence permeates Rego’s entire oeuvre.
The Abortion series (1998) is exemplary of Rego’s social commitments in her work. The ten untitled pastels, along with a series of etchings, depict backstreet abortions, with women alone and full-clothed in dark-coloured rooms, squatting, with their legs splayed open, or crawled in the foetal position. Later referring to them as ‘propaganda’, Rego worked on these paintings in reaction to the rejection of the 1998 referendum to decriminalize abortion in Portugal, with the explicit intent of raising awareness of the physical and psychological risks of illegal abortion. These works were widely disseminated in Portugal, and it is believed that they had a pivotal impact on swaying public opinion by the time of the 2007 referendum, in which abortion was finally legalized.
However, it is important to note that the women in this series are not portrayed as victims, appealing to the audience’s sympathy. Even though their bodies are tense with pain, they remain stoically composed, in many of these images defiantly meeting the gaze of the viewer, betraying no weakness or shame. This bold, provocative stare accentuates the sexual nature of their poses, hinting at the absence of the partner and at the close relationship between eroticism and violence which permeates Rego’s entire oeuvre. The artist’s insistence on keeping these women clothed reveals her expectation of the audience’s voyeurism, which is, thus, negatively imprinted in these images. Ultimately, this series arouses discomfort more than pity, leading the viewer to question her preconceived ideas regarding abortion and the women who choose to undergo it, without imposing a fixed response or manipulating the audience in favour of the desired outcome. Rego’s women are worthy of respect without the need of asking for it, even when they are depicted in an apparent servile position, longing for the return of their ‘master’, as the ‘dog woman’ in Sleeper (1994), or awkwardly preparing to fly with their strong, heavy bodies, as in the Dancing Ostriches series (1995).
This emotional ambivalence sustained by implicit violence and eroticism is characteristic of Rego’s mature work, lending it a moral ambiguity and complexity which exceeds any clear-cut political position.
Significantly, despite the discomfort elicited by her Abortion pastels, Rego does not resort to shock either. As she explained in an interview: “I tried to do full-frontal, but I didn’t want to show blood, gore, or anything to sicken, because people wouldn’t look at it then. And what you want to do is make people look, make pretty colours and make it agreeable, and in that way make people look at life.” The idea that people would not engage with the works if they were too violent sounds by now, if not then, irredeemably naïve. An explicit representation of the horrors of unsafe abortions would not only emphasize the costs of these operations but also appeal to stark emotional responses. Yet Rego opted for a subtler depiction of the suffering of these women through grave bodily and facial expressions. Ironically, the ‘pretty colours’ of the pastels – navy blue, crimson, pink, mustard – add to the dense, claustrophobic atmosphere, instead of dissipating it. The unsettling effect of Rego’s pastels is, thus, fundamentally different from that of Hans Bellmer’s dolls or Cindy Sherman’s Sex Pictures (1992). While shock tends towards its own resolution, compelling the viewer to look away from the piece, become desensitized to its violence, or laugh at the source of discomfort (as often occurs with horror films), with Rego we are left to manage the elusive but enduring uneasiness. Shock also imposes a different relation to the object: Bellmer and Sherman played with lifeless dolls, reducing them to bodily monstrosities, whereas Rego wanted us to “look at life” in the Abortion series, that is, to preserve the embodied, living humanity of her figures.
This emotional ambivalence sustained by implicit violence and eroticism is characteristic of Rego’s mature work, lending it a moral ambiguity and complexity which exceeds any clear-cut political position. Instead of prescribing the viewer a certain attitude or course of action, Rego upsets our conventional way of seeing things and invites us to make up our own minds. Although this characteristic ambivalence problematizes any straightforward political interpretation of Rego’s oeuvre, it suggests an ethical relation to the audience, which avoids the emotional manipulation of both sentimentalism and sensationalism. Such an ethical stance reflects, I believe, the artist’s candid but dignified treatment of women in her paintings.
The moral, social, and political consequences of art have been a subject of controversy in Western philosophy at least since Plato. By the end of the 19th century, the belief that the fine arts played an important role in the moral education of the public had been largely supplanted by the conviction that artistic merit is independent of moral value. This philosophical position, known as ‘autonomism, is understandable to the extent that it safeguards artistic freedom from the powerful influence and censorship of religious and political institutions. Nonetheless, autonomism contradicts our common experience of art, which is not restricted to the formal aspects of works, but rather involves an engagement and evaluation of their moral, social, and political content as an intrinsic dimension of their worth. This integrated view of artistic value, which takes into account the moral and social aspects of art, has become inevitable in recent decades, as artists become increasingly aware of their responsibility and committed to social change, in what has been termed a ‘social turn’ in art.
The emergence of socially engaged art simplifies, in a way, the problem of conceptualizing and evaluating the social impact of works of art. In several of these works, social transformation consists in a direct intervention on a specific aspect of social reality, as in Theaster Gates’ Dorchester Projects (2009-), which involved the rehabilitation of abandoned buildings in a poor area in Chicago to house a community centre, a library, and kitchen. Unlike other works which have social or political content, the purpose of the Dorchester Projects is not to represent reality but to change it, so that their success can be assessed, at least partially, in the same way as other social and political actions. On the other hand, Paula Rego’s work, like many others in the Western tradition, does not alter reality in a direct and visible way (save for the materials used in artistic production), although it can transform aspects of the world by representing them. As the reception of the Abortion series shows, art can raise our awareness and change our perception of things, possibly contributing to the actual change of things.
Such transformative effect is indirect, mediated by the viewer’s consciousness, which immediately raises two questions: first, who has access to the work? By ‘access’, I am thinking not only of physical access but also of the cultural resources necessary to understand and appreciate a given work. And second, is the viewer’s response warranted by the work? A response is warranted, in my view, if it is adequately grounded on an examination of the work, even if it is not solicited by the work itself. In keeping with the idea that works of art solicit certain responses, which may or may not be accepted by the audience, Hegel claims that art is “essentially a question, an address to the responsive breast, a call to the mind and the spirit”. As my discussion of Paula Rego’s Abortion pastels suggests, such address can take different forms, prescribing more or less determined attitudes from the viewer (a work may try to persuade us of something or simply persuade us to question something) and using different means of persuasion (generating uneasiness but not shock, for example).
Significantly, the transformative effect of a work of art can be independent or even contrary to the intentions of the actual or hypothetical author. This is due, first, to the autonomy of the audience, which can respond to a work in a different way than is expected or solicited. A blatantly racist novel, for example, might promote public awareness of the need of combating racism. Second, a work of art tends to exceed the control of its maker. Rego often said in interviews that “making a painting can reveal things you keep secret from yourself”, suggesting that art unveils hidden truths not only to others but to the artist herself. These truths are not given beforehand, but rather emerge through the artistic process, transcending the conscious intentions and deliberation of the author. For instance, while working on Salazar Vomiting the Homeland (1960), which was meant to convey unequivocal abjection at the Portuguese dictator and his regime, Rego recalls that she suddenly started to feel sorry for Salazar, as if the act of painting had made her aware that, despite the inhumanity of his actions, the dictator was still human.
What are these hidden truths in Paula Rego’s works which can inform our actions and contribute to social change? They include, amongst other things, the idea that some traditional forms of oppression persist in modern societies, without, however, being completely internalized by the victims, who continue to feel the injustice; or the recognition that subordination, dependence, and resentment are often mixed with love in romantic and family relationships; or the notion that feelings and desires, even in their crude, animalistic expressions, do not make us weak or less worthy of respect. These lines sound, of course, meagre in comparison to the richness of the works made by Rego over the course of six decades. Reflecting on the artistic merit and transformative power of these works, we are forced to consider not only what truths they convey but also how they convey them. As several philosophers have argued in recent years, art is a rich vehicle of experiential knowledge, knowledge of how it is like to experience something, which allows us to understand ourselves and others better, as well as to cultivate perceptual and cognitive virtues. Focusing on Rego’s work, I have suggested that the fact that art engages us affectively and imaginatively makes it a powerful means of persuasion, which should be exercised, as Rego did, with responsibility and care.