Monday, Feb 19, 2018
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S. Amjad Hussain

#MeToo comes to the art world

  • CORCORAN-GALLERY-OF-ART-CHUCK-CLOSE-PRINTS

    Chuck Close's "Self-Portrait 2000."

    Courtesy of the artist and Pace Editions, Inc.

  • BTN-Amjad-15

    Dr. S. Amjad Hussain.

BTN-Amjad-15

Dr. S. Amjad Hussain.

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The #MeToo movement has now reached the core of the art world. As was reported recently, the celebrated American portrait artist Chuck Close was accused of making lewd comments to some models who had posed for him in the nude. Mr. Close is paraplegic and uses a wheelchair to get around.

There has been a knee jerk reaction to the accusations by some in the art world. The Washington’s National Gallery of Arts has indefinitely postponed the forthcoming exhibition of Mr. Close’s work. The Seattle University, fearing a backlash from students, faculty, and staff, has removed his piece “Self Portrait 2000,” which was on display in the university library.

The recent revelations about the artists have put museums in a difficult situation. Basically there are two choices: succumb to the cacophony of demands and remove the art from display, or separate the personal behavior of the artist from his art and leave the art on display. It is not an easy call. In the latter case, are the museums setting up a dual standard for the same behavior?

Since the fall of Harvey Weinstein, the dishonor roll has been growing. So far Matt Lauer of NBC’s Today show, Garrison Keillor of A Prairie Home Companion, playwright Israel Horovitz, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, and Charlie Rose, veteran journalist and co-host of CBS This Morning, are among those who have fallen.

Charlie Rose was a thoughtful, well-informed interviewer and broadcaster. Matt Lauer had a storied journalistic past and was an affable host of the NBC’s Today show. Their behavior was deemed unacceptable and, thus, they were fired.

While it is comparatively easy to cast aside the people mentioned above, what do you do with the artists who have created masterpieces but lacked strength of character? If we start scrutinizing the art world, we would find many surprises. What to do with the art created by the likes of Chuck Close, Pablo Picasso, or the French painter Balthus, to name a few. Should the monetary and artistic value of their work enter into such decision-making?

Chuck Close is a talented artist whose massive photo-realistic paintings hang in public places and museums around the world, including the Toledo Museum of Art. His paintings have commanded up to $4.5 million.

Pablo Picasso was a misogynist who infamously said that for him there are two kinds of women: goddesses and doormats. He also said that women are machines for suffering. Should his misogynistic attitudes dictate how we treat his art 45 years after his death even though his attitudes about women were not a secret during his lifetime?

Balthus, who died in 2001, painted a young neighbor girl in her early teens in a provocative and suggestive pose. An online petition was started asking the Metropolitan Museum to either remove his painting, “Therese Dreaming,” or add a disclaimer to the painting noting the artist’s infatuation with young girls. The museum has rejected the request.

Michael Jackson was widely believed to be a pedophile. By his own account, he liked young boys and showered them with attention, even having some of them sleep in his bed. Should his behavior dictate how we assess his music? What about the widely known misogynistic behavior of Frank Sinatra?

What we need is a clear definition of sexual harassment. Every male gaze, wink, or suggestive smile is not sexual harassment. The area between legally defined crimes, like assault and rape, and lewd language or boorish behavior is a vast one.

To succumb to societal pressure and start censoring artwork because of the flawed personality of its creator is a slippery slope. If museums start on that path, then they will end up with abundant gallery space but not enough storage space. And the public will be deprived of viewing some exquisite and beautiful art.

An artist friend of mine said that all the hoopla about lewd behavior of some artists aside, what we need is a national conversation about the issue of sexual harassment that does not lead to setting a criterion for censorship.

S. Amjad Hussain is an emeritus professor of surgery and humanities at the University of Toledo. His column appears every other week in The Blade. Contact him at aghaji@bex.net.

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