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Concerning your recent online discussion of "Revenge of the
Goldfish", I am wondering why the woman in the image is referred to
as "mother". Perhaps it is my own psychological background that
determines my response to the image, but I have never even
considered the possibility that the woman in the image is the young
boy's mother. There are too many suggestions of sexual activity
(i.e. the setting of the bedroom, the state of undress of the young
boy, the woman of an apparently older age in the same bed, the limp
fish draped over the pillows in the lower left) for me to jump to
the conclusion that the woman in the image is the boy's mother. I
guess the suggestion of the topic of "incest" just never occurred to
me -my upbringing was (I will admit) definitely sheltered and such
issues were never even discussed within the family at the dinner
What visual clues led you to identify the woman as the "mother"?
Truly I am curious, as it was a definite surprise when I first read
the discussion. Thank you.
You raise interesting questions. I know from speaking to Sandy
Skoglund that the models in "Revenge of the Goldfish" are, in fact, a
mother and her son. Sandy Skoglund also understands the two figures
in the fictional photograph to be mother and son. But these facts do
not determine the image's meaning. As viewers we construct meaning
from what the artist has presented. An artist's intent alone, I
believe, cannot determine a picture's meaning.
When using this image with students of different ages, I have heard
many different interpretations of it. Some of them are sexual.
Fourth graders, for instance, sometimes giggle at what they perceive
to be the boy's nakedness, and maybe the woman's. With this age
group, as teacher, I tell them that we don't know what the boy is
wearing--he could be wearing pajama bottoms or underpants, and the
woman could be wearing a nightgown. We then proceed into nonsexual
interpretations, about dreams, and often about the fish and why they
might be vengeful.
In my college classes, I have heard interpretations which are
informed by Freud's notion of the Oedipus Complex. Some classes have
interpreted the image to be about puberty and the boy's sexual
awakening. With college students, I think it appropriate to discuss
sexual issues about this image when they raise them; I do not wish to
engage fourth graders in such discussions, but I think it is important
to acknowledge and address their giggles in a direct way.
An interpretation of incest had not occurred to me, and I have not
heard interpretations of incest from others. Now that I think about
it, it is a plausible interpretation, but not one that I would hold.
If you are interpreting the image to be about incest, I would want to
hear more evidence for such an interpretation. For instance, I don't
think the two are sharing the same bed or bedroom.
Thanks for raising interesting issues.