The great and the bad

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Life Drawing (Drawing of Blue King) (A2) 2018

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has indefinitely postponed a Chuck Close retrospective because of allegations of sexual harassment. The 77 year old paraplegic artist is alleged to have made inappropriate remarks about the bodies and sexual activities of women he invited to his studio to pose, allegations which he largely denies. Other museums, including the MoMA in NYC and the Tate Modern in London, are considering what to do about the works in their collections.

Recently, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston opened an exhibition of Egon Schiele’s work with new wall labels addressing the fact that Schiele was arrested for the kidnapping and statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl. He was acquitted but was eventually found guilty of “immorality” because the girl had seen some of his nude works in his studio. “Wall labels in the exhibition acknowledge that Schiele has been a part of the current conversation, and don’t shy away from these issues,” a representative for the museum told artnet News.

How far do we go with this? Picasso famously either adored women or treated them badly: one of his lovers hanged herself and his second wife shot herself. Caravaggio was a nasty piece of work by all accounts and we perhaps shouldn’t enquire too deeply what Gauguin got up to in Tahiti. Being a great artist doesn’t necessarily require you to be a nice person.

But should their work be taken down from the walls of the world’s museums? Before I get trolled out of existence let me stress that this is a serious question, and I struggle with the answer. It’s disappointing that Chuck Close, an artist I admire enormously, apparently felt the need to make smutty remarks to women he had invited to pose. The relationship between an artist and the model is a complex one that I’ve discussed before, but it doesn’t involve uninvited remarks about the latter’s sex life. But does that mean that we should never see his work again?

Schiele was acquitted and the immorality charge was allowed to stand, one feels, to teach the artist a lesson about the nature of his art.  I’m not sure therefore why the Boston museum needs to make Schiele “part of the current conversation” for a crime of which he was acquitted unless they feel that his sexually explicit drawings are somehow – what? – immoral or provocative in a bad way. A drawing by a man of a woman masturbating can be seen either as exploitative or a celebration of the woman’s control over her own sexuality.

This is a big and tricky topic that has been discussed in more detail elsewhere. However this is an art blog so I wanted to at least acknowledge it in passing. We hear so much now about the things that men in positions of power – whether running a movie production company or holding political office or celebrated as an artist – think they can do or say to women and it’s only right that they are brought to book for crossing over the line. In the end, however, we may need to separate the art from the artist otherwise our cultural landscape will start to look very barren indeed, especially if we include writers and composers as well as artists in the purge: surely we can still admire Chuck Close’s work while wishing he had more respect for the women he invited to his studio?

The drawing that heads this post is a recent charcoal drawing of the life model I’ve been drawing, both nude and clothed, for some years now. Personally, I find the relationship to be unique in its intimacy and its distance, and I would never dream of introducing any other element into that relationship. Allegedly, Mr Close felt no such qualms about blurring the lines but I’d still like to see his monumental pictures in our leading museums.

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34 thoughts on “The great and the bad

  1. I’ve struggled with this issue too. It goes beyond sexual issues; I saw the Pacino Merchant of Venice recently; he was brilliant but I had never recognised the racism that’s at the heart of the play: do we delete that from the Bard’s catalogue? We could say – ah but times were different then: which is what we heard from Winestein…

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  2. I sell almost all my bigger art, paintings, clay, and so on, and since I meet the people personally, selling at street shows and art in the park events as I do, I am sure they buy the experience of meeting the artist as part of buying the art, every time. I’ve had situations where I didn’t like the person looking at my art, though, and didn’t want to sell it to them; though it’s a mild situation always that I’ve dealt with, usually along the lines of: I want something blue to match my blue sofa (anything will do that is blue)…But still…I feel I’m passing on something of myself with my art, I want to be worthy of my work and I want the buyer to have a personal feeling for it. It is hard to take out the people element involved in the art, I think, maybe impossible. Your post brings up a lot of good questions. Thanks for writing it.

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    • Thanks for your comment, Claudia. You’re a good person and your art stems from who you are. I’m sure Close isn’t a bad person but has possibly made some bad choices. I’m sure you – and I – see our creative side as perhaps our better side. That remains whatever we do in our daily lives. If I kick my neighbour’s cat my art isn’t any better or worse.

      The truth is out there, as The X Giles had it!

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      • Yes, I have thought about this idea, art as a better side. I have quite a few friends now from 25 or so years of art shows, we have traveled together and so on all this time, and I have thought about the connection between the art I see and the art maker, which every time reveals a side of the person that maybe is not apparent in everyday life. I have pondered this and wondered what my own art is revealing…

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  3. Tricky, without knowing exactly what went on. Not sure I agree with taking his pictures down. I wonder if any of the old masters and most highly regarded artists we have in our national collections ever blurred the lines with their models, we know a lot of them did! We could end up with bare walls in the galleries. Lovely charcoal drawing Michael , delicate but powerful at the same time

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  4. I think it is important to have this discussion. I admire the art of people who were all too human in many ways. I believe that making art is part of expressing our humanity and that we are all fallible. So lets look at the art and put it in context which will help us understand the artist, model and culture in which they exist. Thanks for another wonderful post.

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  5. I applaud your entry into this highly volatile topic. I, too, am confused by it all. I was horrified to learn about conductor, James Levine’s fall from grace. And there was recently a ballet master who was caught up in a similar scandal. As the #metoo movement first blasted on stage, I read a blog post from an angry young woman who claimed to have been fondled by no less than Eli Wiesel, the acclaimed concentration camp survivor who dedicated his life to hunting down Nazi criminals. There was a similar uproar about George H. Bush, having fondled some young thing from his wheelchair. And Kevin Spacey’s fall from grace was equally devastating. His work, his talent…poof…gone. (For now, at least.)

    The whole #metoo movement makes me nervous on many levels. First of all, I know women have been oppressed and controlled for eons. I fully support arming women and young, vulnerable girls with everything they need to avoid becoming victims. But secondly, I also know that women are not always innocent victims in the games of sex and power. Having a 35 year career in what started as a completely male dominated environment, I’ve observed all sorts of things, from both sides of the arena. And then, ultimately, why, when sex is involved, is it okay to convict first and prove later?

    It’s all baffling to me.

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  6. The lines of this drawing seem to me at least to represent a state of angst as it seems the woman is in with her hands in her hands. The fluidity of her body in an almost fetal position is quite lovely.

    As for the issue you bring up, I think we must look at the culture of the times when making these determinations. My sister-in-law refused to let her sons watch “Tom Sawyer” because of the racist depiction of a Native American character. I do not believe Twain was a racist but was describing the culture of his time. Likewise I always thought my father was a sexist because of the words he said. Yet, as I looked at his actions he always treated me (my Mom, grandmothers and my sister as well) with utmost respect. His actions were anything but sexist. For example, he insisted on me going to college when other families only sent their sons to universities; the daughters were supposed to get married and be cared for.

    It is a difficult call as to where lines are drawn (no pun intended!) especially when artists lived in cultures where sexism and racism was rampant.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, LuAnne – I hoped the drawing fitted the message in the post to an extent.

      You’re so right, of course. We’re moving forward at quite a pace and the values of yesterday can be an embarrassment today. The lines are moving constantly. We can try to keep up, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we are never perfect, whatever perfect may mean.

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  7. Pingback: How Far Should We Go? | scribblah

  8. Very interesting post and comments. I think the art should be shown and discussed on its own merits, regardless of the character of the maker. That aspects of an artist’s behaviour is questionable, or even illegal is something that should be discussed and reflected upon in relation to the art they produce but should never preclude the exhibition of their art. If the art were to be removed, it would simply be censorship, and would eliminate the opportunity to discuss sexism, harassment, improper use of power, in the context of the present day and the time it was produced etc etc and in a fascinating context. I don’t see it being any different if the artist is still living as the choice is there for the public to no longer support them through buying their work. Later on history can decide on the merits of their output, once again in the context of the type of person they were.

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