Sex and Censorship at the Met
06/12/2017 § 2 Comments
There’s a painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, called Thérèse Dreaming (1938) by the artist Balthus. It’s been in the Met for a number of years, and this week has become the subject of a petition calling for its removal from the gallery.
The petition, started by a woman called Mia Merrill, objects to the painting on the grounds that it shows a young girl sitting in what she considers to be a “sexually suggestive” pose, with her underwear showing. Ms Merrill thinks that this is a problem in light of the recent sexual harassment scandals that have engulfed pretty much everyone in the last few weeks, from the catalyst revelations about Harvey Weinstein, to the allegations of pederasty surrounding the politician Roy Moore, by way of the #metoo campaign which showed that the vast majority of women have been subject to sexual harassment, at work or elsewhere, at least once in their lives.
Readers of this blog, and anyone who knows me, won’t be remotely surprised to learn that I think Ms Merrill is misguided in her approach to this painting.
If a painting of a young woman that has her sitting in a way that shows her underwear makes you feel uncomfortable, you have almost certainly internalised a way of looking at women and girls that sees them as sexual objects. This masculinist view of the world, where men subject women to a “curious and controlling gaze” and women learn that they are being looked at and modify their behaviour accordingly, has been an acknowledged fact in art history, film criticism and visual culture since John Berger published Ways of Seeing in 1972. The painting is a problem for Ms Merrill and the 9k people who have signed her petition because they are looking at it in the way our culture has taught them to look at women.
If the painting makes you feel uncomfortable, it’s doing its job. Art is meant to provoke a response. And while I’m sure that Balthus’s feminist credentials are as questionable as the next man’s, the point is not what the artist’s intention was (which is something we can never really know anyway) but how the work is received by those who see it. If you look at women as objects, you are complicit in the misogyny that positions women as makes them objects in the first place. To see Thérèse Dreaming as an example of the sexualisation of women is a testament to your own view of women, and any discomfort a viewer feels when viewing Thérèse Dreaming is an acknowledgement of the ethical problem of one’s own complicity in the misogyny that shapes the lives of all women. The subject of the painting is entirely unselfconscious in her reveries, and any erotic connotations in the work come from the mind of the viewer. If seeing her underwear makes you uneasy, you need to think about how you view women and girls in the first place. What assumptions did you bring to the gallery that made you see Thérèse Dreaming as erotic?
That the world is a misogynist place, and that women are the subject of sexualisation that denies their subjectivity from puberty to menopause, is one of life’s inevitable truths. What we do about it is another matter entirely, but given that the second-class, sexualised status that women are awarded has been a part of Western civilisation for, literally, millennia, I am not convinced that retrospectively censoring selected works of art because a viewer has decided that a particular piece is a problem for women is going to be helpful for anyone, least of all women.