Sunday, February 11, 2018

Censorship of Art

Years ago in France I remember an 1866 painting by by Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) was shown behind a curtain because it focused on the private parts of a nude model. Its title, The Origin of the World is in its own way factual, and forces one to think of the painting differently… but what was really in the mind of the artist?  Some people will believe they know ...

In December last year a human resources manager at a New York financial firm circulated a petition on line requesting the removal of a 1938 painting by Balthus (1908-2001) from the walls of the Metropolitan museum.  Titled Therese Dreaming, it depicts the artist’s 12-year-old neighbor fully dressed but in a pose that shows her underwear. The petition called it pedophilia and received 100,000 signatures.  Strange thing is, though I have known the painting most of my life and understood it was suggestive, I never thought of that description.

More recently the Manchester Art Gallery in Manchester, England removed from view their painting called Hylas and the Nymphs by Joseph William Waterhouse (1849-1917), which represents a Victorian erotic fantasy.  Why? The reason given was “… to prompt conversations about how we display and interpret artworks in Manchester’s public collection.”  If it is in the museum’s opinion an important work of art representing a moment in history why do they need to ask the public?  I thought the work of a curator and director was to educate the public, not take their guidance. And how is the public supposed to have an informed opinion about what they cannot see?

You can’t please all of the people all of the time. The Metropolitan museum decided to keep the Balthus on view. The Courbet started out at the Louvre and today resides at the Musée D’Orsay and, as far as I know, has always been on view. 

A famous living artist, however, who critics and public alike have appreciated for half a century, has been denied a planned exhibition due to allegations of  sexual misconduct. I cannot say I know the artist Chuck Close but his gallery was in the same building as mine and when I had the chutzpah, to open a contemporary department in my old master gallery Mr. Close came, in spite of his wheelchair, to the inaugural luncheon we arranged.  Coincidentally, he had kids at the same schools as I did so I would see him there regularly attending to his children.  From what I have read he spoke inappropriately to his models who have complained as they have every right to do.  I might advise my daughter not to model for him or, at least, not listen to him.  She in turn might start a movement depriving the artist of models and thereby dampening his career.  But, what has happened as a result of the recent complaints?  The distraught artist insists he has done nothing wrong  but The National Gallery in Washington D.C. cancelled  a show of his work drawn mainly from its own collection. denying the public access to the work in an act of outright censorship unprecedented for the institution.

The Artist

This is, of course, a direct result of the #metoo movement which is a positive empowerment of women to call out lewd or indecent behavior. But we still have a legal system and, I hope, a belief in the concept of innocent until proven guilty!

“Every day, thousands of commuters pass by a series of 12 mosaics by Chuck Close, recently installed in the new 86th Street station of New York’s Second Avenue subway line. The murals, are 9 feet tall and depict a cross section of New York City cultural icons — Close himself among them,— all rendered in his signature style, photo-based images transposed with meticulous care onto psychedelic grids. They are a reminder both of the diversity of the art world here and of Close’s stature within it.  Here is the mosaic of British artist, now living in New York, Cecily Brown and another one of Close himself: an artist’s artist, at 77 years old.“ (from the New York Times)

What is the National Gallery afraid of?  Is it not strong enough to withstand criticism as the Metropolitan Museum did regarding their Balthus. It goes beyond censoring images to suppressing the body of work of an artist on the basis of accusations about his behavior.  Does our National Gallery now bow to the politics of the day like the rest of Washington D.C.?

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