The Incredible Case
of The Stack o' Prints Mutilations
by De Clarke
© De Clarke, 1980. All Rights Reserved.
On Monday, March 31st, 1980, a woman walked into the Special Collections room of the University of California at Santa Cruz library. She checked out a set of photographic prints, tore them up, and poured Hershey's chocolate syrup over the remains; a photographer recorded the scene. The woman called her action "The Incredible Case of the Stack o' Prints Mutilations."
The woman was anti-rape activist Nikki Craft. The material she destroyed was a three-dollar promotional copy of a photoseries entitled "The Incredible Case of the Stack o' Wheats Murders." The series is defined by its promotors as a "humorous" treatment of what are sometimes known as signature murders--those in which the victim is subjected to a characteristic mutilation, or in which a particular object is always left at the scene of the crime.
Each of the photographs shows a woman, stripped either from the waist down or entirely, lying in what appear to be copious amounts of her own blood. The woman is usually gagged and bound, and her head is occasionally obscured by a bag or cloth. In some prints she bears realistic knife wounds. The partial or complete nudity of the woman, and the fact that she often lies with spread legs, suggests that she has been raped prior to or after her death. In one photograph, an upright Coke bottle stands between her thighs, an allusion to the common device of rape with an object. The victim is always in a familiar, mundane setting (a kitchen, a suburban doorstep) and every picture contains a stack of whole wheat pancakes.
The victim's blood, in the photographs, is really Hershey's syrup, and the photographer is not a police officer but "artist" Les Krims. Anyone who purchases the ten prints in 14 x 17 size (for $450) receives, gratis, one can of Hershey's syrup--and enough pancake mix to make one Stack o' Wheats.
The day after Nikki Craft saw the Stack o' Wheats prints for the first time, the murder of Barbara Schwartz made the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle; she was stabbed to death while jogging, in broad daylight, on Mount Tamalpais, her screams overheard by golfers who did not respond. Two UCSC women had been murdered in the summer and fall of 1979--Jennifer McDowell and Diane Steffy. Residents of Santa Cruz remember well the time of the Kemper murders, when woman after woman was found dead and mutilated. Some of us will never forget Larry Singleton, who raped fifteen-year-old Mary Vincent and then hacked off both her arms, any more than we will forget the Boston Strangler, the Hillside Strangler, or "Stinky," the rapist. Every month or so there is something new to remember.
It has been estimated that every five minutes, somewhere in this country, a woman is being raped; that every three minutes, somewhere, a woman is being battered. It has been estimated that one out of every three women, in any populous area, will be raped at least once in her life. These statistics are so much a part of our awareness that we consider it unwise for women to risk walking anywhere at night.
Given the context of real violence against women, the Stack o' Wheats prints must appear at least in the worst of taste, as much so as "humorous" treatments of Auschwitz and Dachau, or "satirical" photo-reconstructions of Klan terrorism. Violence against women in this country is unceasing, omnipresent, vicious, tragic and terrifying. It is hardly a matter of humor.
Still, as the Chancellor of the University remarked, it is a potentially dangerous thing when a person or group destroys library materials on the grounds that they are offensive or tasteless. Many students and staff called Craft's action censorship, comparing it to repression during the reign of Nazism or McCarthyism; some went so far as to call Craft herself a fascist. Others took the more limited position that art must remain immune to political criticism or action, and that artistic expression has by definition certain license not accorded to, for example, journalism. These are separate issues, and will be considered separately.
First, it is necessary to define terms. Art, strictly speaking, is any human skill or the product of the application of any human skill--anything human-created, made by the intentional shaping and manipulation of the world. A forest tree, therefore, does not constitute art; a bonsai, or a topiary garden, does.
The word "art" traditionally describes only the creations of white males; women's and Third World peoples' art are grouped under the term "crafts." This parallels a world-view in which the white male is the only true human (thus by definition the only artist and all other things (living and otherwise) are "nature" or "the world" upon which he acts.
In the visual arts, this world-view is manifested in the preference of the traditional male painter and photographer for studies of animals, "natives," and women. These are treated as no less objects, in his eye, than the fruit and flowers of his innumerable still-lifes. The same view is reflected in the recent proliferation of "how-to" photography books, with titles like Photographing Pets, Photographing Flowers, Photographing Children, and Photographing Women--all these being definable simply as non-men and therefore suitable objects for artistic composition.
There is an old riddle, quoted by Andrea Dworkin in Woman Hating: "Why don't women create great art?" The tradition (male) answer is: "Because they are great art." (1)This, too, reflects accurately a patriarchal (male-supremacist) view of women. Not only is she the object, that-which-is-looked-at: she is raw material, inanimate, to be shaped--according to a male standard--into "beauty."
What Dworkin perceptively calls "the technology of beauty" is a vast array of methods and devices for modifying women's bodies. From foot-binding to eyebrow plucking to hair-bleaching, all the major processes of female "beautification" are painful, or hazardous, or both; and they must be so, inevitably, for they are alterations, damage done to the living body.
Thus, beauty in woman consists of a series of alterations to her nature. What begins as adornment (optional) becomes cosmetic (necessary). Woman becomes no more than empty canvas; her natural form is seen as ugly or repulsive; she must be shaped into "beauty" by the will and hand of man; and, inescapably, her beauty is the product of pain (as it must be). If beauty is then the evidence of pain--the pain of being modified, twisted, made artificial--it is one short and logical step to the conclusion that the evidence of pain is beautiful. In other words, "she is desirable because she is beautiful, passive, and victimized." (2)
Critic Robert Sobieszek's review, which accompanies the Stack o' Wheats photoseries, clearly reflects this point of view: ". . . no police file contains . . . such an array of utterly exquisite corpses . . . By meticulous design the streams of blood . . . did little to hide the body's harmonious lines but rather gave it a new beauty . . . despite the somewhat romantic exaggeration."
A corpse is a human being irrevocably altered, incomparably passive, human only in form, having neither will nor personality. These being apparently exact criteria of the patriarchal aesthetic of female beauty, it is not surprising that the reviewer can find the corpses "exquisite," rather than sorrowful or horrible. Blood is an obvious sign of damage and hurt to a living creature; in Sobieszek's eyes, this evidence of pain enhances woman's beauty. The use of the word "romantic" in this context completes the revelation of an aesthetic inimical to women.
Craft, and many other women at UCSC (by no means all of the "experienced" radical feminists), saw the Stack o' Wheats action not as an attack on the photographer, Les Krims, or on the library, but as self-defense in the face of violence. These women believe the creation and existence of the prints is an act of violence against women rather than a work of art; they believe, fundamentally, that art can constitute violence.
Now consider violence. "We speak of 'doing violence' to a text, and idea, or principle. That means to misrepresent it or distort it unscrupulously." (3) When we speak of doing violence to a person, likewise, we mean to deny her/his claim on our humanity: to deny a human's will, nature, or dignity. Both these levels of violence, physical and abstract, are inherent in the patriarchal aesthetic.
The traditional male artist regards woman as an object in the world; his conception of art therefore includes acting upon, using, and shaping women. Female beauty as represented in this aesthetic is consequently a misrepresentation, a lie, an unscrupulous distortion of the reality of women's bodies.
The distortion and damage wrought upon the bodies of living women is the corresponding physical violence. Footbinding, corsets, clitoridectomies, all reflect the ideology that woman must be changed to meet a male standard. The end result, as we see in the Stack o' Wheats and in all "violent pornography," is the interpretation of the pain, disfigurement, and death of women into things seen as beautiful or intriguing. (4)
Les Krims claimed in a telephone interview that he was attempting to portray the horror of violence against women. He referred to the series as essentially expository and even feminist in nature. It is fruitless to argue about his intentions; the photographs are intrinsically anti-feminist, pornographic, and misogynist in impact.
This is inherent in his choice of a model who perfectly conforms to current male standards of female beauty, a woman shaven where male taste dictates she be shaven, without visible musculature, posed exactly as models are posed in "men's" magazines. It is inherent in his being in the position to choose, being the artist who has the power to tell this woman to disrobe, to lie in uncomfortable and ridiculous positions, to be covered with chocolate syrup, to be stared at, considered, manipulated, and used by the male mind and eye. Krims thus enacts the entire scenario of the male dehumanization of women.
Further, as Sobieszek notes, "the postures are far less telling of struggle than of surrender, provocativeness, and sensuality." Aside from the important preconception that women "provoke" the violence committed against them, and the equally important question of whose "sensuality" requires the mutilation of the female body, it becomes apparent that there is here no realistic depiction of the ugliness of rape, torture, and murder. There are no bruises on the model (presumably they were not "sensual" enough for the artist's design); there are no signs that she fought, as women do and have, for her life. She is the embodiment of the patriarchal rape fantasy: the docile victim, the one who accepts her place as object and abnegates her humanity.
There are further clues that the viewer is not meant to identify or feel for the woman, in the gags and cloths that obscure her face and render her unrecognizable. We cannot see her eyes, through which she might look back at her rapist, her murderer, or the omnipresent male artist. We cannot see her mouth, through which she might communicate her rage and pain, requiring a response. She is faceless, anonymous, having no human presence. Only her body expresses the absolute passivity of death.
All of this is a lie. Krims is lying about women and about violence/rape; he is doing violence to the human dignity of his model and of everywoman. In presenting the male viewer with the "exquisite," nameless, faceless, acquiescent victim, he reinforces the confusion of attractiveness and pain. His art may well be said to constitute violence.
One must also consider the "do-it-yourself" Stack o' Wheats kit included with the full-size prints. It is an invitation for the (male) viewer not only to live out the fantasy vicariously, but to reproduce it in reality. By inviting imitation, the photographer completes the validation of anti-woman violence which he began by clothing it in "humor" and giving it the cachet of "Art."
I have noted the reviewer's reference to "sensuality." He further comments, "There is a chance that a discrete pleasure will be received from the portrayed transgression of another body--a profound ecstasy . . . "one could not more accurately describe the psychology of rape, nor the function of pornography. It is indeed transgression (violence) that is being eroticized in Krims' work. As Richard Snowden said of pornographers: "They are not selling sex. They are selling violence packaged in sex parts."
To defend the Stack o' Wheats prints as art, in all their violence against women, and to deny Craft's action the same sobriquet for its "violence" against a set of 4 x 5 pieces of paper, is to defend, not art, but the masculinity of art. It is to defend the male artist's right to abuse women and Woman as he pleases, and deny the right of women to self-defense.
The issue of censorship arises in every discussion of the ethics of pornography, of actions such as Craft's, even of anti-sexist amendments to textbook publishing guidelines. It is a complex issue, not soluble by a simplistic First Amendment stance. Can feminists justify censorship (as some justify killing) in self-defense?
Most of us recoil instinctively from the idea of governmentally-imposed censorship--particularly radical feminists, whose works have been barred from many a school library or bookstore by less official censors. Even when it is clear that violent pornography invites and glorifies the dehumanization of women, eroticizes rape, and substitutes the sadistic abuse of power for human sensuality, we shrink from empowering the government to close a press, burn a document, or imprison a writer. We suspect that the power of official censorship will be used, as it has been in the past, to support the priveleged and silence the dissenter. Pornography, the product of a multimillion-dollar industry, is the literature of patriarchy. We, who fight against it, are the dissenters. Can we trust a male-dominated government to accurately represent women against pornographers?
Yet how are we not to militate against the business which sells the bound and abused bodies of women to millions of men "in the name of entertainment and free speech?" What are we to say in defense of the publishers of books like Let's Gang Up On Teacher, Little Schoolgirl Raped and 500 Ways to Cut Up a Woman? How shall we condone the dissemination of, not only the cheap and ill-printed flimsies that are stereotypical "dirty magazines," but the slick full-color glossies like Hustler, which has shown women not only beaten and raped, but chewed up in meat grinders, cut up with chain saws, electrocuted, and penetrated with bizarre plastic toys? And above Hustler in the pyramid of porn are the truly major publications, like Penthouse and Playboy. No blood is shown in these, but in photoessay and text they feed the reader a constant diet of women portrayed as enjoying humiliation and rape. These constitute an unceasing barrage of lies; they provide a feast of object-women, naked in public for clothed males to ogle.
Some research has indicated that male subjects, after seeing many porn films, begin to interpret women's screams of pain and fear as erotic. One is reminded of the case of the English man who invited four friends to come over and rape his wife. They did, and were acquitted on the grounds that it was reasonable of them to have believed the husband when he told them that her cries only meant that she was enjoying it.
Research has not yet, however, produced results conclusive enough to provoke any popular response (such as led to attempts at curbing the violent content of children's television). Perhaps it is not even necessary to prove that pornography lies in some kind of cause-effect relationship with realized violence against women, for it certainly condones and normalizes such violence by constant exposure. It might be said that when people habitually see women only as victims, they are less likely to be shocked and angry when a woman is victimized.
It is evident that pornography could not be the product of a non-sexist culture. Where women are acknowledged as fully human, valuable persons, it will be shocking and intolerable to the community to hear or see exaltations of rape and femicide. In a non-sexist culture, pornography would be instantly either ludicrous or horrible, or both, to any viewer. In ours, it is commonplace.
This is the main reason why official censorship, even if applied as desired, will not solve the problem of porn. As feminists are well aware, even the instantaneous destruction of all the rape-glorifying texts and pictures in existence would not stop rape or the battery and mutilation of women. Feminist anti-porn actions are therefore not undertaken to advocate governmental suppression, nor in the hope of individually eradicating every woman-hating document ever produced. Rather, they are committed in the tradition of civil disobedience, with an eye to educating the community, with a determination to call attention to issues and bring concealed untruths into the light of controversy.
The victim of what is legally called slander has recourse in the courts to redress the wrong done. Women, subjected to the organized and profitable slanders of pornographers, cannot afford to institute legal (governmental) retribution in the form of censorship. In feminist analysis and art, we are instead to publicize issues, to incite public discussion and exploration of cultural values. Controversy is the lifeblood of the political and artistic community; it is through the (often heated) argument over visible and controversial actions (like Craft's) that real change takes place--the change that starts in the heads and hearts of people.
I consider Craft's action to be in an entirely opposite spirit to that of censorship. Censorship is an official function enforced from above, not the solitary action of an individual. Further, the publicity Craft organized (including an on-campus forum to discuss the implications of her action, as well as coverage by the local media) has extended awareness of the issue of violence against women not only within the University but to some degree in the town of Santa Cruz. In view of the history and results of her project, it is impossible to claim that Craft undertook it with the intention of silencing, concealing, or repressing anything; rather, she resorted to drastic action to create an environment of healthy controversy.
The university dropped criminal charges against Craft, who was considered for academic disciplinary action. She was later nominated by a sizable group of students and staff (including the Provost of her college and her arresting officer) for a Chancellor's award for "outstanding contribution to campus understanding of ethical principles." The Chancellor declined to give such an award this school year.
The complicated interaction of power, violence, sexuality, and sexism is resident in all our lives. We cannot hope to avoid an aesthetic and epistemology which permeate every medium of our culture. The Stack o' Wheats action is a remarkably well-documented illustration of the issues and the difficulty of resolving them.
Pornography is aimed at teaching men to believe a lie about women. It teaches men to equate power with sex, and violence with pleasure, denying all desire for trusting and reciprocal sensuality. The need for intimacy with a loving equal is repressed; the ascent into passion or ecstasy is perverted into a descent into brutality, domination, and hatred. It is only a trifle rhetorical to say that men stand to lose their souls under the rising tide of porn: to lose their valid perception of their own needs and their ability to perceive the humanity of women. Women, meanwhile, stand to lose not only freedom and self-respect, but life itself.
Craft's action, and its implications, are relevant to all of us. Her intent was certainly not to silence a lone pornographer, nor to terrorize the University library. Her action is rather an invitation for us to examine, rigorously, the ethics of a male-dominated art and its aesthetic, as well as our own values, priorities and assumptions. It is a refusal to be silent in the face of slander. It has brought into sharp focus the tension between on the one hand a belief in civil liberty and freedom of speech, and on the other hand a belief of women's right to liberty and the need to oppose violence in the media. Both a political statement and an art work, "The Incredible Case of the Stack o' Prints Mutilations" is above all an exercise in issues.
(1) Andrea Dworkin, Woman Hating (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1974) p.46. BACK
(2) Ibid, p.48. BACK
(3) Frederick Wertham, "The Goddess of Violence," in G. Estey and D. Hunter, ed., Violence: A Reader in the Ethics of Action. (Waltham, Mass.: Xerox College Publishing, 1976) p.210. BACK
(4) I tend to put the term violent pornography in quotes because it implies that there is non-violent pornography; this, to me, is a contradiction in terms, and I reserve the word erotica for non-abusive sexual material. BACK
Further resources for the reader interested in pursuing any of these issues I have touched upon: Craft, Nikki, Speech given at Stack o' Wheats forum, UCSC.
Daly, Mary, Gyn/Ecology, 1978, Beacon Press.
Dworkin, Andrea, Woman Hating, 1974, E.P. Dutton.
Griffin, Susan, Rape: The Power of Consciousness, 1979,
Harper and Row.
Griffin, Susan, Woman and Nature, 1978, Harper and Row.
Russell and Vande Ven, eds., The Proceedings of the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women, 1976, Les Femmes.
The Incredible Case of the Stack O' Wheat Murders Speech by nikki craft