No one argues that Balthus wasn’t a great painter. No one argues that the 1938 painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art isn’t a masterpiece. But that’s not enough to prevent demands for its removal.
The artist, Balthasar Klossowsi de Rola, or Balthus, had used the model, Thérèse Blanchard, the daughter of a neighboring Parisian restaurant worker, over the course of three years, making 10 paintings of her beginning in 1936, when she was 11. The image in question features her at 12 or 13, with her legs bent and slightly apart, her eyes closed, her thoughts seemingly lost to fantasy. Her skirt is hiked up to reveal a red lining and a pair of white cotton underwear.
Rather than rely on a description, the image speaks for itself.
A petition was begun by former art history major Mia Merrill to censor (though she doesn’t see this as censorship) this painting because it sexualized a child. Balthus painted something wrong.
On the face of it the petition, which quickly gained more than 10,000 signatures, seems like a parody of millennial agitation over the need for cultural protections. “When I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art this past weekend,” Ms. Merrill begins her call for support, “I was shocked to see a painting that depicts a young girl in a sexually suggestive pose.”
Over 11,000 people have signed the petition, falling short of its 12,000 goal (not that the goal number is of any significance).
Given the current climate around sexual assault and allegations that become more public each day, in showcasing this work for the masses without providing any type of clarification, The Met is, perhaps unintentionally, supporting voyeurism and the objectification of children.
I am not asking for this painting to be censored, destroyed or never seen again. I am asking The Met to seriously consider the implications of hanging particular pieces of art on their walls, and to be more conscientious in how they contextualize those pieces to the masses. This can be accomplished by either removing the piece from that particular gallery, or providing more context in the painting’s description. For example, a line as brief as, “some viewers find this piece offensive or disturbing, given Balthus’ artistic infatuation with young girls.”
To be clear, censorship is precisely what she’s asking for, even if she says she’s not. That’s not how words, or censorship, works. No doubt Merrill’s belief that her feelings are righteous justify her authority to scold the Met, not to mention Balthus, since it’s outrageous that he should paint something that offends her sensibilities. Yet, even the New York Times endorses the imposition of its transitory flavor of morality on art.
But the initial provocation gives way to an utterly reasonable demand, not for censorship or destruction or an idle trigger warning to shield the fragile from being discomfited, but rather for some provision of context, in the form of expanded text for instance, around a work of art that is rooted in the kind of sexualized power abuses we are now so aggressively trying to dismantle.
What this is supposed to mean is unclear. It’s a painting. The “masses” can see it and judge for themselves. Why would anyone need “some provision of context” to explain anything? Or is it just that censors can’t bear the idea that something that offends them isn’t somehow subject to their control, so they can tell the world how literally awful it is while assuaging their conscience that they’re not really censors.
To its credit, the Met has told them to suck eggs.
But a rep for the museum said it won’t remove the painting because art is meant to reflect many time periods — not just the current one.
“[Our] mission is to collect, study, conserve, and present significant works of art across all times and cultures in order to connect people to creativity, knowledge, and ideas,” said spokesman Kenneth Weine.
“Moments such as this provide an opportunity for conversation, and visual art is one of the most significant means we have for reflecting on both the past and the present.”
Art doesn’t become less art, or more problematic art, or unart, whenever someone’s feelings are hurt or offended by it. Demanding that it be qualified by the denigration of the shrews of the moment is just as much censorship as hiding it or burning it. If it’s offensive, then people will see it and find it offensive. No one needs a scold to tell them so.
Reaction to the Met’s rebuff has ranged from the bold and clear to the tepid and conflicted.
“The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) strongly supports The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s refusal to remove a painting that some critics believe depicts ‘the sexualization of a child.’ . . . The protesters’ claim that displaying the painting implies institutional approval of an unhealthy sexualization of young women . . . fundamentally misconstrues the role of cultural institutions, which is to facilitate a diverse public’s engagement with a rich array of cultures and objects by framing and contextualizing them. . . . NCAC applauds The Met’s refusal to bow to its critics.
“Especially in light of the Museum’s advance notice to potential viewers that “Some of the paintings in this exhibition may be disturbing to some visitors,” it would be inappropriate for the Museum to deprive all visitors of the opportunity to view the work and to discuss the issues it illuminates. This is particularly true during this “Me Too” moment, given the important public focus on pertinent issues, including Roy Moore’s sexual pursuit of young females.” — Nadine Strossen, NYLS lawprof and former president of the ACLU
I bet Strossen would feel a twinge of sadness as she watched a book burning. But on the bright side, if the pedo Balthus’ disgusting masterpiece Thérèse Dreaming was removed, it would leave an empty space to be filled with more appropriate art.
This feminist artist created a 12-ft tall neon vagina art exhibit that has a 27.6-second orgasm — and it’s incredible pic.twitter.com/3tgYqkBLtH
— NowThis (@nowthisnews) December 8, 2017