Worst-Case Scenarios: Contemporary Art’s #Metoo Handwringing

Photo by Deva Pardue.

Like most grassroots movements borne of slow-simmering anger and long-standing frustration, #MeToo is both overdue and messy as hell. Its faint whiff of anarchy is terrifying and exhilarating; let’s face it, there’s energy in the mob. In general, though, I believe the current smoking-out of sexual reprobates leans towards justice – so long as we understand justice as something that can be achieved outside the laws of the state, doled out on social media in the form of humiliation and embarrassment and P.R. disasters. It’s imperfect, but not nothing.

My Facebook feed – filled with the usual artworld suspects – offered gratifyingly unanimous condemnation of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Matt Lauer during the fall and winter, and mostly thoughtful debate about the less-agreed-upon cases of Aziz Ansari and Al Franken. This is unsurprising, I think, given the global sea-change around issues of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. Yes, there will be some missteps, most people seem to be saying. Yes, some people will overreact. But given how mild the consequences are – we recently witnessed an accused rapist (Kobe Bryant) and an accused domestic abuser (Gary Oldman) win Oscars at a ceremony otherwise overflowing with paeans to diversity and equality – it’s clear that the worry is mostly unjustified. That broadcast alone should assure all but the most committed reactionaries that reports of a new age of puritanical repression and mob justice have been greatly exaggerated.

And for all the righteous support, when it comes to the artworld itself, equivocation reigns. On the one hand, there are the shameful curators, gallerists, and publishers – Jens Hoffmann, Anthony d’Offay, Gavin Delahunty, Knight Landesman, and almost certainly more to come. Their transgressions have mostly led to swift actions by institutions and general approbation by onlookers – and rightly so. With every bit of news, a longstanding underground “whisper network” surfaces, breathing a collective “d’uh, he was notorious.”

But when it comes to artists, the reaction has been markedly different. This difference doesn’t necessarily emerge from a reluctance to believe accusers – but rather from a deep-seated resistance to the idea that an artist’s personal life should color our perception of his work. (I use the pronoun advisedly, of course.) And when I say “resistance,” I mean, in fact, hysteria; yes, the word originated as a way to designate a woman’s uterine-determined, purely emotional overreaction, but it seems perfectly apt to describe the (largely male) panic arising at the moment in some quarters of the artworld.

The artworld comes by this response honestly – the idea that genius absolves all sins of character is a foundational concept of Western culture, an idea that no amount of feminist critique has managed to dislodge. (N.B.: this absolution works only for male artists; try to name the female equivalent of Carl Andre, or other artists who have been added to the art-historical pantheon despite their criminality. It’s more or less impossible; Artemesia Gentileschi only killed people in her paintings, and look how long it took us to pay attention to her!)

In the wake of revelations that a Republican candidate for US Senate was an accused pedophile, protesters circulated a petition in December about a painting by the decidedly B-list creep Balthus, hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Formerly reasonable supporters of women’s rights went ballistic. Never mind that, save for a click-bait title, the petition only asked the museum to change the wall label to de-naturalize Balthus’s seductive portrayal of his schoolgirl; furious opponents anticipated that such demands were a slippery slope inclined towards taking down pretty much every piece of canonical art hanging on the walls of encyclopedic museums in the West. Art critic Philip Kennicott wrote in the Washington Post that even including a short line about Balthus’s decision to take photographs of and paint young girls in overtly erotic situations would be “a concession too far.”

“What about Michelangelo? What about Caravaggio? What about BENVENUTO CELLINI?” The New York Times saw fit to make this anxiety the subject of an article, in which Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery, laments “Pablo Picasso was one of the worst offenders of the 20th century in terms of his history with women. Are we going to take his work out of the galleries? At some point you have to ask yourself, is the art going to stand alone as something that needs to be seen?” When I read this, I laughed, thinking of a wall text I’d recently seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for one of Picasso’s particularly angry portraits of his beleaguered wife, Olga Khokhlova. It described her as a jealous shrew – it actually used the word “shrew” – instead of acknowledging that we were seeing her petulant husband’s depiction of her as a harridan, not an unmediated reflection of her being. But apparently noting the role of representation would be “a concession too far.”

In January, the Manchester Art Gallery actually took down John Williams Waterhouse’s painting Hylas and the Nymphs (1869) – a work so kitschily benign that it would probably get by Facebook’s censorious algorithm, which recently began blocking images of the Venus of Willendorf. The museum wanted, it said, to provoke a conversation among gallery-goers about what happens when contemporary mores intervene in curatorial decision-making. It was a move that they probably thought was clever and thought-provoking, but struck me as punitive and cynical – daring the public to complain too much, lest our favorite soft-porn be confiscated forever.

Slippery-slope arguments always puzzle me. Why should it be assumed that all slopes are perfectly slippery: that there are no obstacles or friction (such as common sense, or curatorial judgment, or judicious use of didactics) that might forestall the worst possible outcome?

But I’ll also admit that I’m up for riding the slope: I wouldn’t mind seeing what might happen to our sense of art history (and of culture and power in general) if we did put Michelangelo, and Caravaggio, and Benvenuto Cellini in storage, and pulled out the stuff that never saw the light of day. Would civilization collapse? I have a sneaking suspicion that nothing much would change, beyond our eyes opening to a whole lot of wonder that we’ve been missing. And perhaps that’s exactly the persistent fear: that life would go on, that we would still have the capacity to make art and understand history and engage in deep thought even if all the problematic pillars of Western culture got mothballed. Our view of the world might – heaven forfend – even get better. Shouldn’t we find out?

Make no mistake: your favorite Renaissance bad boys are not going to be banished. The slope will, for better or worse, never get quite that slick. But the reality is, museums will have to deal with the questions that #MeToo raises – in part because their own staff, made up largely of women, are eager to do so; and in part because the protests urgently require a response.

What is a museum to do in the face of this reality? The answer is hardly cut-and-dried. How, for example, should the Met Breuer have responded when its recent exhibition of Raghubir Singh opened, and the artist Jaishri Abichandani went public with allegations of having been sexually abused by the famed Indian photographer decades ago, staging a public performance on the museum’s sidewalk? Perhaps feeling that it was too late to react, the Met did nothing. (The Royal Ontario Museum, which is the next stop on the exhibition’s tour, has already reached out to Abichandani to discuss appropriate ways to contextualize Singh’s transgressions.) When the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. announced that it would cancel upcoming shows of the work of Chuck Close and Thomas Roma – the former an artworld icon who is alleged to have lured young women artists to his studio under professional pretenses in order to pressure them to perform sexual favors, the latter a well-connected photographer who is accused of terrorizing students at Columbia’s School of Fine Arts for years – reactions were mixed. Some welcomed the move, while others feared that curatorial decisions would have to include a morality sniff-test from here on out. The Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts chose not to cancel their show of Chuck Close prints, but the director, Brooke Davis Anderson, announced an impromptu accompanying show titled The Art World We Want, which grappled with the question of gender equality and sexual violence. The New Museum, whose staff, as far as I know, has not been directly affected by #MeToo allegations, has come up with the most interesting response to the zeitgeist by far: they’re holding a series of information sessions for cultural workers, regarding their rights and options for ensuring safe, harassment-free work environments.

We’re in the midst of what I see as a “sex-panic panic:” a general terror that women’s refusal to tolerate inequality in the workplace will usher in a draconian prohibition of pleasure (never mind the fact that the complaints chiefly advocate for better – because consensual – sex.) But this panic sidesteps the real issue at stake in #MeToo: not simply sex, but women’s ability to participate fully in the artworld and other professional spaces. Our exclusion, despite being overrepresented among cultural workers, is becoming increasingly clear. And of course, the flipside of #MeToo is the alarming rash of firings of powerful women recently: Olga Viso at the Walker Art Center, Laura Raicovich at the Queens Museum, and, most recently, Helen Molesworth at LA MOCA. Paranoia about the potential excesses of #MeToo must be held in tension with the actual punishments being doled out in the artworld.

Sometime in December, a cartoon circulated on Twitter: a weight on the end of a string that had traveled halfway through its long arc (“all of history”) with a little blip of the upswing (“since #MeToo started in September”) and the caption: “The pendulum has swung too far.” The implication is two-fold: that we’ve got a long way to go to make up for centuries of sexual injustice, and that we haven’t even really had a chance to get started. There are a lot of kinks to work out, including how to weigh the relative transgressions that are coming to light, which range from antisocial disrespect to violent assault. But here, at the beginning of this moment of heightened recognition, the artworld has the opportunity to stop operating purely reactively, and instead imagine new ways of being and doing, in order to recreate our professional spaces. I suggest that instead of clutching our collective pearls over the worst-case scenarios of addressing gender equity, we strap ourselves in for an overdue bumpy ride: the momentary destabilization of a sexist status-quo has the potential to offer new and better vistas.


  • Rosemary says:

    Very interesting comment on the debate. Thank you.

  • Tony Just says:

    I want to say that just because you haven’t heard of any women artist being called out for me too/abuse of power doesn’t mean that there are no examples of it. For the same reasons abused women don’t speak out are also similar for abused men. When you write what you wrote you are adding to the narrative that women don’t behave badly or inappropriately and or abusively. Please for everyone’s sanity stop the generalizations and speak to the truth.

  • Andy Patton says:

    “I wouldn’t mind seeing what might happen to our sense of art history (and of culture and power in general) if we did put Michelangelo, and Caravaggio, and Benvenuto Cellini in storage…”

    1. Why is Michelangelo listed here? He seems to have been much more devout than people imagine and maintained deep friendships with men and women across periods of many years. He was very supportive of both Sofonisba Anguissola and Vittoria Colonna. I understand the argument against Caravaggio, but why M?

    2. I don’t want to have the works in storage; I want to be able to see them. I’m not concerned with whether the maker was or wasn’t an ethical person by today’s standards. I find it interesting to know something of the person, but I’m dubious that the person’s qualities make the work better or worse. Pasolini, for example, found much to value in Ezra Pound’s poetry—though Pound was an explicit supporter of Fascism and an anti-Semite.

  • Steven Holmes says:

    I think the most potent text in this piece is the reference to “the decidedly B-list creep Balthus.” Why? Because the author is addressing the artist’s work qualitatively – assigning value to the work itself. Leaving aside if Balthus’s work is B grade (I’d tend to agree), the comment that the work is ‘decidedly’ so, makes the point that assignments of value are often collective, presumptive, historically specific, and therefore highly mutable. Caravaggio was B grade until quite recently.

    All of this, to me, points to a very good outcome of a #metoo for the art world. In the quest to determine who stays and who goes, and in the quest to find equity, we will inevitably see ‘bad’ artists shown and ‘good’ artists in storage. The bumpy ride the author advocates will be a very good thing. It will spark not just equity, I hope, but a return to evaluating work in a way that broadens the discussion beyond an artist’s biography to look at what is, and is NOT, “decidedly B-list.” This will be good for all of us.

    A decidedly great read.

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