Pop Culture
Dec 11, 2017, 10:19AM

Criticizing Balthus Isn't Censorship

The public has the right to ask the Met for accountability.

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Imagine that a painting—say, a 1938 painting by Balthus hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York—was revealed as a forgery. Nothing has changed about the painting except that it isn't authentic. The curators decide to remove it from the museum's wall. Is this censorship?

Just about everyone would answer this question negatively. Curators are expected to evaluate the historical and aesthetic quality of the work they put on their walls. Museum space is limited; you can't show everything, or even everything in the collection, all at once. Deciding to take down a painting if new information becomes available about its provenance is a non-controversial decision.

The Balthus painting in question, Thérèse Dreaming, is not a forgery. But many people have argued that it should be taken off the Met's wall. Mia Merrill is a New Yorker who started a petition asking the Met to consider removing the painting—or provide additional context in the wall text. The petition has garnered some 9000 signatures.

Merrill is hardly the first to criticize Balthus, who "devoted a career to obsessively depicting female pubescent sexuality," as art critic Christian Viveros-Fauné saidThérèse Dreaming shows a young girl in a sexualized pose, allowing the viewer to look up her skirt. The girl in question was Balthus' neighbor, who was 12 or 13. It's a voyeuristic image; the artist and the viewer conspire to spy on a girl who doesn’t know they’re looking, and doesn’t intend to display herself. You, as the viewer, know what the girl doesn’t—that she’s sexual, and is on display. It's an image that trades on power differentials; you're supposed to be excited, as an adult taking advantage of a young girl and as a viewer taking pleasure from the unwitting object of your gaze.

There are ethical issues with sexualizing young girls for the entertainment of an adult audience, but the Met condescendingly refused to address these in its response. Instead, it said in a statement that its mission was 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."

That’s hardly responsive. Of course the Met presents work from all times and cultures. But it doesn't present every work from every time and culture. My stick figure drawings aren't in the Met. Someone decided that Balthus was especially valuable. The petitioners are questioning that. The best the Met could counter was the insistence that "Moments such as this provide an opportunity for conversation." It's true; conversations about childhood sexuality and childhood sexual exploitation are important. But is a shot of an underage girl the best way to provoke those conversations?

None of this is to say that the Balthus painting should be removed. Merrill herself doesn't argue that it should be. She says she'd be happy if the Met included a note beside the painting acknowledging that Balthus' art often sexualized young girls and pointing out why that might be a problem. The Met presumably wouldn't (or at least shouldn't) hang Nazi anti-Semitic cartoons on its walls without providing curatorial context. It's not out of line to suggest something similar could be helpful here.

And yet, people have run to the ramparts to defend the Balthus painting from the free speech of its critics. Nora Pelizzari, spokeswoman for the National Coalition Against Censorship, worried about "the escalation of the culture of outrage" and insisted that "Everyone is allowed to react to art in exactly the way they naturally do"—which, again, would be a funny thing to say about Nazi propaganda or blackface caricature. For that matter, it would be an odd thing to say if the Balthus painting were a forgery. Would Pelizzari chastise the Met for removing a fake on the grounds that people should be allowed to view paintings sans context and make up their own mind if the painting is real or not?

No doubt Pelizzari would insist that these are different cases. But they're not that different. Art is placed on the walls of museums because someone decides the art is valuable. That evaluation of "value" is based on lots of factors—historical importance, formal qualities, subject matter. All of those go into an estimation of aesthetic worth, and a decision about whether to show this and not that. Merrill is using her right to free speech to say that she thinks the Met got that decision wrong in this case. How is that different from criticizing a book or a film—or from saying, "This film is so bad it shouldn't have been released"? If you say Suicide Squad was a piece of crap and that it's so lousy it doesn't even deserve a video release, are you engaged in censorship? How is that distinct from what Merrill is doing?

Part of why it's distinct is sex. Sexuality has been heavily policed throughout history, and non-normative sexuality has in particular faced government and public scrutiny. It's reasonable to be concerned about the consequences of stigmatizing sex. But it's also worth pointing out that unthinkingly linking sex and freedom in all cases has historically led to an ideology in which "liberty" often means "liberty for men to do what they want to women without consequences." Who is free in that Balthus painting? The girl supposedly exploring her own sensuality? Or is it Balthus and the viewer, who are free to look at a sexualized child, enjoying the illicit charge?

Choosing to hang Balthus at the Met isn't a neutral commitment to aesthetics and freedom. It's a particular choice with particular meanings. Asking the Met to clarify those meanings on its walls isn't an imposition. It's asking for marginal accountability. Why does the Met think this is great art and not a fraud? Why is this worth looking at? The Met should include text that attempts to answer that. And if it can't, maybe it should take the picture down.

  • Dear Noah Berlatsky, nearly all figurative images (and even some abstract ones) trade on "power differentials," if I get your meaning correctly. But while I am clearly for speaking frankly about Balthus intentions and the potential impact of his artworks on audiences--see your quote of my 2013 VVoice article "Old Dirty Master"--I am not for straw polling works at the Met or any other museum on the basis of the last public outrage to hit online petitions. "Therese Dreaming" is a terrific picture that deserves to be seen at the Met without warning labels or trigger warnings for years to come precisely because it is disturbing and irreducible to slogans, pro or con. What´s next? Should we entertain online petitions about whether to republish Nabokov´s "Lolita" or William Burrough´s "Junkie"--after all, the latter appears to glorify drug addiction. Why not trust people to make up their own minds about complex or even simple and filthy artworks? Back in the 1980s, Tipper Gore lobbied hard for putting Parental Advisory Stickers on albums by Prince, Madonna, Sheena Easton and, yes, 2LiveCrew. It was rightly decried as censorship by these and other artists. Is this really what you want for museums now? Think about it. Yrs, Christian Viveros-Fauné

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  • As usual, "trust people to make up their own minds" means, "trust me, the speaker, to know what's best and everybody else should shut up."// Someone decided to put that on the wall instead of someone else. If you think that decision is inviolate and never to be questioned, you're not telling people to think for themselves. You're telling them to agree with you as to what should be given a platform and which art is most arty and important.// You're happy with the status quo, and so you present the status quo as freedom and virtue. It's just the usual reactionary babble repackaged as revolution that you always hear. Shrug.

  • The main reason that museums shouldn't cave to the outraged is that the outraged will be given momentum to then go after all kinds of works of art. They're so stoked on their own virtue that they can't be trusted to be reasonable, so they must be given no quarter.

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  • Slippery slope arguments are a slippery slope. "We must give no quarter or all will be lost" is a purity argument, and ignores that there may be downsides to *never* listening to public input. If you instantly leap to silence and reject all voices that aren't institutional, then you're de facto supporting the status quo and silencing folks who have been excluded. How does it support freedom to slavishly cosign the work of people in power? Is the record of people in power really so spotless that they should never be questioned? Why is "the elites know best, never question them" supposed to be an argument for liberty?

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  • If the zealotry were not there, the slippery slope argument would be less valid. It's a self-created problem by the left. From my POV, it's not worth the risk, from a cost/benefit perspective. I can handle that Balthus painting hanging if that's the bulwark needed.

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  • Ridiculous on every front. Firstly, I don't work for the Met and when I wrote the piece you so blithely quote I was adversarially calling out the museum curators for dancing around the obvious if difficult sexuality in "Therese Dreaming," other pictures by the artist and Balthus' own troubling history--precisely for the sake of context. Never would it have occurred to me, nor does it still, to issue a trigger warning about the picture, mainly because I don't trust the museum, much less folks like you and the absurdly narcissistic writers of the petition, to impose your narrow torch and pitchfork morality on this or any other picture. As for my being reactionary: what a hoot, considering I'm arguing against exactly the moralizing logic of censorship the right has historically embraced, except with an alt-left face. Unreasoned, self-righteous and purportedly anti-status quo arguments like yours are exactly where the extremes meet today in American politics. I, for one, can't wait to see the back of arguments like these when Trump goes and this country regains its partial sanity.

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  • "I don't work for the Met"—what? Who said you did.// You sound unhinged, man. Take a deep breath or a walk or some weed or something.

  • Didn't take very long for you to go ad hominem, my man--the last resort of an unreasoned argument. The clear implication in your response to my response is that I represent the "status quo," whatever that may mean in your febrile pseudo-anti establishment imaginings. If you don't see that, or pretend not to now, that's on you. In any event, unlike you, I clearly take the issues of artistic freedom and expression seriously. If you don't, and there's plenty of evidence in your comments and original article that you don't, stick to something you do know: Wonder Woman, for example. See you on the ramparts, fella.

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  • "You're not worth talking to" doesn't mean "you're amazing arguments have stumped me." it means you're not worth talking to. Take care.

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  • Like they say, never read through comments.

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  • *the, not through

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  • Your bizarre use of quotation marks says it all. Featherweight.

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