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Exposing Exhibitions: How Sexual Assault Revelations are Shaking up the Fine Art World

The #MeToo movement that has swept through Hollywood has begun to enter new cultural spheres, most recently making its way into the world of fine art. Perhaps the most prominent example is the six women who have come forward to accuse celebrated artist Chuck Close of sexual misconduct. In response to these allegations, the National Gallery of Art cancelled an upcoming exhibition of his works. Many have regarded this move as a dangerous form of censorship, while others have celebrated the National Gallery’s decision as a means of promoting safer and more diverse exhibitions. It is unsurprising that the time of reckoning for the fine arts has come, though these debates will likely do little to clarify the complicated question about how to view the work of artists who have been accused of misconduct. Freedom of expression is a core tenant of American political, social, and cultural life, and since controversial artwork can incite essential dialogues about politics and society, we should contextualize the work of controversial artists without banishing them from galleries entirely. Artists accused of sexual assault certainly should not profit from exhibitions and shows, but as long as no further harm is done to the victims by displaying the work, the show must go on.

It is impossible to discuss photorealism without mentioning Chuck Close. Educated at Yale’s Art and Architecture School, Close was considered by the 1970s to be one of America’s best contemporary artists. He is also one of the world’s richest artists, with an estimated net worth of $25 million. Close has been widely acknowledged and praised by political figures: He was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2000 by Bill Clinton and served on the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities under Barack Obama.

In December 2017, Julia Fox and another woman who has chosen to remain anonymous, separately came forward to the Huffington Post and described lewd remarks Close had made to them. In 2013, Close invited Fox to his studio and asked her to model for him. Upon her arrival, he asked her to strip. Caught off guard by the famous artist’s request, Fox complied. He then approached her and made crass remarks about her body. Fox alleges that, as she hurried out of the studio, Close tried to hand her $200.  The other woman recounts an eerily similar event that took place in 2007. As of January 2018, four more women have accused the artist of sexual misconduct.

Though none of the women have said that Close touched them, his sexually charged comments left them feeling uncomfortable and exploited. Close had leverage over these women: They each recognized the opportunity the famed artist could offer them. Yet Close abused his position of power and violated the standard protocol that exists between models and artists. In a statement to the New York Times in December, Close said, “Last time I looked, discomfort was not a major offense.” He has apologized for making women feel uncomfortable, though he qualified his apology by saying, “we’re all adults.”

The National Gallery’s decision to cancel Close’s May show is an unprecedented move in the art world. All mention of the exhibition has been removed from the National Gallery’s website, burying the contentious work entirely. This sets a dangerous precedent: Censoring artwork reduces opportunity for conversation about the art—or about the people who made it. Other museums have not followed its lead. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, and the National Portrait Gallery all continue to display Close’s work. By choosing to cancel the show, the National Gallery is making a statement about the artist’s relationship to his art—that art cannot be separated from its artist.

But can this relationship be severed? Can great art exist on its own? Yes. People have been appreciating fine art for centuries for its aesthetic qualities and political messages, despite the character of the people who created it. While it is impossible to engage with a comedian such as Louis C.K.’s work without also engaging with Louis C.K. as a person, visual art can be viewed separately from the person who created it. Though the artist can never be fully detached from the work in a metaphysical sense, the work itself exists in a manner that is materially separate from the person. Regardless of the creator’s moral worth, the artwork as an object exists relatively autonomously.

Pablo Picasso once said that “women are machines for suffering” and that there are two kinds of women: “goddesses and doormats.” The personal life of Picasso is troubling for a variety of reasons. He is known to have physically abused his partners, many of whom served as muses for his masterpieces. Yet his material works exist in such a way that people can distance the artist from the art. People appreciate Picasso’s art and his enormous contribution to the art world, despite his misogynistic behavior. Given that Picasso passed away over 40 years ago, many argue that a certain statute of limitations has passed, allowing us to display and appreciate his works without guilt. Though more difficult, it is still possible to find the same value in contemporary art, regardless of the artist. By reducing a piece of art to its abusive creator, the intrinsic value of art is being undermined. .

Given that the National Gallery is funded by the federal government, further questions have been raised about the state’s role in censoring art. While the US government has generally tried to remain neutral in debates about freedom of expression in the art world, museums can no longer remain impartial and act solely as vehicles through which work is displayed for the enjoyment of viewers. Curators and museums have a social responsibility to inform the public about what they are seeing and the context behind its creation. For any piece, the creator of a work of art includes more than a name, and museum-goers are entitled to that information. Understanding the multiplicity of factors that may affect a final product is a crucial aspect in understanding the work itself. The socio-political climate in which a work was created, as well as the personal history of the creator influence the meaning and aesthetics of artwork. To isolate specific aspects of a painting, photograph, or other form is to glean only partial understanding. Nothing can be fully understood in isolation; context influences content. Only after viewers are given access to a more complete and nuanced history of the artist and the art can they make a decision about the value of the piece—historically, socially, aesthetically, and politically.

Chuck Close’s personal history should not be swept under the rug, but neither should his art. Politics and art are inextricably linked, and museums have a responsibility to bring controversial subjects to the fore. Museums, along with the art displayed within them, have the ability to foster important discourse about important topics such as the #MeToo movement. To best utilize their position, museums should prioritize putting art in context, rather than censoring the content itself. Photo

About the Author

Annie Lehman-Ludwig '20 is a Staff Writer for the World Section of the Brown Political Review. Annie can be reached at anna_lehman-ludwig@brown.edu

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