With allegations of sexual abuse and harassment shaking up politics and the entertainment business, it was only a matter of time before accusations would surface in the fine art world. But what to do when the accused—in this case celebrated Polish-French painter Balthus—is dead and can't defend his work?
Many of Balthus's paintings feature pubescent girls. He always denied allegations of pedophilia, but many see eroticism in these works, which some find disturbing, even creepy. Mia Merrill is among those people. She is the creator of an online petition asking New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art to take down one of those paintings, “Thérèse Dreaming” (1938).
“It is disturbing that the Met would proudly display such an image,” wrote Merrill, who described the painting as “an evocative portrait of a prepubescent girl relaxing on a chair with her legs up and underwear exposed...It can be strongly argued that this painting romanticizes the sexualization of a child.”
The Met, by the way, has owned the painting since 1998. Also, it has no plans to take it down. Kenneth Weine, a spokesman for the museum, told Newsweek in an email that “moments such as this provide an opportunity for conversation, and visual art is one of the most significant means we have for reflecting on both the past and the present, and encouraging the continuing evolution of existing culture through informed discussion and respect for creative expression.”
Merrill's petition, which garnered more than 9,000 signatures, said it does not necessarily call for the work to be “censored, destroyed or never seen again," it should simply be removed from the gallery or accompanied by a line such as “some viewers find this piece offensive or disturbing, given Balthus' artistic infatuation with young girls.” She went on to say that, in displaying the painting, "The Met is, perhaps unintentionally, supporting voyeurism and the objectification of children."
Even with the "perhaps," that's a harsh accusation. “The idea that this painting suggests that the Met supports, on some institutional level, an unhealthy sexualization of young women misunderstands the role of a cultural institution,” Nora Pelizzari, a spokeswoman for the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), told Newsweek. “Attacking art is counterproductive to the open discussion necessary for us to confront the realities of sexual harassment and abuse,” the NCAC had said in an earlier statement.
The anti-censorship organization applauded the Met's decision to keep the painting on view. To their mind, said Pelizzari, “Hiding potential sexualizaiton of young girls thorughout histroy does not help...the current conversation around sexual harassment.”
PEN America, which works to protect literary and artistic expression, agreed. They see such petitions as part of a troubling trend. "We are alarmed about what seems to be a rising tendency to turn to artistic censorship as a way to express social, political, or other grievances,” PEN America said in a statement to Newsweek. “Some advocates seem to have decided that artists and art institutions represent soft targets, more vulnerable to public campaigns than are the actual power structures that perpetuate the ills these campaigners are fighting against.”
The concern for both organizations is that the censorship of art does nothing, in the end, to address systemic problems. Furthermore, it shuts down the necessary debates that lead to reform.
“Thérèse Dreaming” is one of a few works of art that have generated outrage this year. In September, Stephanie Lewis launched a petition urging the Guggenheim Museum to pull three works set to be part of the exhibit “Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World.” The petition described them as “instances of unmistakable cruelty against animals in the name of art.” After receiving "explicit and repeated threats of violence," the museum ultimately decided not to include the works in their show.
A few months earlier, Dana Shutz’s painting of Emmett Till’s body in an open casket—featured in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s biennial—attracted a petition (later taken down) by British artist Hannah Black. The issue, protesters said, was that a white artist was exploiting a black tragedy. Black's petition called for the Whitney to take down the painting and destroy it. Parker Bright, an African-American artist, was one of a handful of critics who protested the work in person, standing in front of it during the opening week of the biennial to block it from public view.
The Whitney refused to take it down.
Pelizzari is disturbed by the "escalation of the culture of outrage, as well as the move towards threats of violence as a means of stifling artistic expression and artistic display.” The Whitney's decision to keep Shutz's painting up was, in her view, precisely right. The museum engaged in discussions with the protestors and other artists, allowing for "a wider conversation on our interaction on race and history and grappling with our history as a society."
From the NCAC’s perspective, “the removal or silencing or erasure of art is never good." That, she said, includes the works of individuals who have sexually harassed or assaulted others, like Louis C.K., although she emphasized that the viewers’ decisions about whose art to consume and support financially is of course up to them.
“Everyone is allowed to react to art in exactly the way they naturally do,” she said. “Where we intervene is when you try to impose your reaction to a piece on others' ability to see it.”
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