The Failure Of The Mentor

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I have mixed feelings about the Pre-Raphaelite movement. On one hand, it was an important art movement responsible for enduring works of genius. On the other, many of the artists treated the models (who were often artists themselves) as sexual party favors to be passed from one man to another. The brotherhood of artists did not extend to those without penises.

This disturbing trend – in which female artists are cast solely in the role of muse, sexual partner and “filthy assistant” – continues to this day. Under the guise of mentorship, established artists or creative talents prey on younger women.

The art and comic book world is built on connections. There seldom exists a system of traditional job interviews and a clear ladder of promotions. In South Africa, one approaches an established art talent with the hope of being mentored by them. This can launch your career or it can destroy before it had begun.

The mentorship dynamic tends to lead to creative fiefdoms. Creative fiefdoms – set-up and ruled by one established mentor – are normally toxic to everyone involved. Young women are often treated as potential bedmates while young men are emotionally attacked by the “mentor,” who sees all other men as competition.

In these creative fiefdoms, queer folks are treated as jokes and certain races (even in a racially diverse culture) are targeted. The mentor’s assistants are divided into favourites and “whipping boys” (pardon the gendered term.) An intern’s position can change from one to another at the drop of a hat. Favourites are encouraged to bully and isolate the “whipping boys.” Refusal to do so means a change in status.

Having lived on both sides of the mirror (so to speak), I’ve experienced how insidious attempted coercion can be within a power structure. I know what it’s like to be treated as an assistant when you’re the most qualified person in the place, to be expected to make coffee instead of attending meetings, to be told to wear something sexy to win over a client and have your justified anger dismissed. Society tells the vulnerable that all you need is a self-defense course to feel safe. As an ex-bodyguard and martial artist, I can tell you that knowing physical combat skills doesn’t make a difference in social interaction. If a mentor or boss cracks a filthy joke about oral or anal sex while staring at your ass, you cannot put him in a headlock.

This toxic enviroment is normally the result of a paternalistic set-up and women are most frequently the ones who suffer under it. But creative fiefdoms are facilitated by power disparity even more so than gender. I personally know of a queer intern who was targeted by women in higher positions and who suffered a great deal of inappropriate touching, teasing and invasive questions at their hands. When he tried to politely set boundaries, he was labelled as the problem. As long as we view power solely in terms of binary gender, we fail to recognize the internalization of patriarchical systems.

The art world is rife with power disparity. At best, you have companies soliciting free work from young artists and not crediting them. At the worst, you have many mentors preying sexually or emotionally on the vulnerable.

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