Following accusations of sexual misconduct, Washington’s National Gallery of Art has indefinitely postponed an upcoming exhibition of Chuck Close, one of this country’s most celebrated portrait artists and Seattle University removed his “Self-Portrait 2000” from display citing concerns over “potential student, faculty or staff reaction.”
The anger directed at men like Close, who are alleged to have abused their power to abuse women (Close acknowledged he made crude comments about women’s bodies in the past and apologized for doing so), is not surprising. The outrages of the old regime have been exposed for all to see. The people are marching on the Bastille of male privilege. But it is one thing to call for the punishment of men who may have committed despicable acts, and quite another to condemn their art to oblivion.
There have long been moral monsters among artists, much as we don’t like to think about it: Leni Riefenstahl yielded her integrity to totalitarian power when she celebrated the Nazis, Ezra Pound spread virulent anti-semitism, DW Griffith produced racist epics. Artists have often used and abused their wives, lovers, and models. They have murdered and betrayed.
And yet they have produced art that audiences have found inspiring and thought-provoking, often beautiful, sometimes sublime. Would that villains were only capable of villainy.
In 2016 there were protests over two exhibitions in Washington DC associated with Bill Cosby after he was accused of sexual assault. Both shows went on as planned. But 2018 is different. The categories are starker; the middle ground? Gone.
Is it an inconvenient time to take a step back and think more carefully about the consequences of this purge on the culture at large? Many may say that, in the middle of a revolution, as we bring down abusive powerful men, we cannot afford to dwell on ambiguities. But, if that is true, it also means that we don’t need art – because the very essence of art (as opposed to political propaganda) is to do just that.
To remove art because it is tainted by the sins of its maker sets an impossible standard for art institutions, a standard that would demand they act as enforcers of moral orthodoxy. The work of every artist whose life was morally tainted by today’s standards would be approached only through the lens of that taint – and, if they fail the test, their work would need to be removed.
No more marveling at Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro, his lovely and sensual young models. (The artist’s favorite model is apocryphally known to be “his owne boy or servant thait laid with him” and, to add to his sins, he was also, probably, a murderer.)
No more Picasso, who lived up to his infamous slogan “Women are machines for suffering”; no more of the tortured expressionism of Egon Schiele who was accused of sexually abusing his teen models; no more Eric Gill, who produced sculptures for the stations of the cross in Westminster Cathedral, but also sexually abused his daughters; and so many more. Museums will need more space in storage than in galleries.
As the revolutionary narrative goes, the newly bare walls would be filled by the work of those who have never found their proper space in powerful art institutions: women (unless, like the rising American art star Dana Schutz, they have dared approach a racially sensitive subject), people of color (unless they are Raghubir Singh, the celebrated photographer who has been accused of rape), or artists that are transgender or gay … unless they are Caravaggio?
Individuals must face the consequences of their behavior. But if the art they have made transcends the squalor of their misdeeds – and so it must since it has been so meaningful to so many – it should remain accessible.
In these politically polarized times, we need to value art institutions as places where we can think about complexity – including about how artists of such creative gifts can be such awful human beings - rather than treat them as churches obligated to issue judgments about who merits salvation and who doesn’t.
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