One of the direct consequences of the recent sexual misconduct and sexual harassment revelations concerning men and power, be it in Hollywood, Washington D.C., and elsewhere, is that now, it seems, men of all walks of life, and professions, are feeling pressurized to step forward and say what they know, when they knew it, to confess and repent. Even when it comes to the matter of art criticism, male critics do not feel safe. Whose art you choose, and how you choose to frame your criticism, could reveal you as being complicit in patriarchy and sexual exploitation.
To wit, Julian Barnes and Peter Schjeldahl. Both art critics, though the former makes his living as a fiction writer, Barnes, in the January 4 2018 issue of the London Review of Books reflects on French Impressionist Edgar Degas and his representation of women, while Schjeldahl glosses his relationship with the Surrealist Balthus in The New Yorker, and that artist’s obsession with pubescent girls.[i] The differences between the two critics could not be starker, and their relationships with artist, and their reading publics. Both speak to the scrutiny that the recent #MeToo movement has brought to men’s actions and words towards women: at least, if they are listening (the Golden Globes being a shining example, it would seem, of men not being tuned in).
But what is the proper response to artists – dead artists, who cannot explain nor defend themselves – that some people accuse of producing work that relies heavily on voyeurism and sexual objectification for its effect, and even the artist’s achievement? Barnes quite intelligently, and skillfully derides, those who claim that Degas was a pervy onlooker, an artist who used models and real-life situations (the ballet, laundresses, horse-races, brothels) to debase women, and art along the way. Barnes puts it thus: “But has there ever been a major artist whose portrayal of women has received more abuse that Degas? […] Degas’s work has been held to be an offence against both art and women, and against society’s understanding of them.”[i] Degas himself stated that he wanted to watch women as if through a keyhole, Barnes points out, adding that “in many of his nudes the model’s face is turned away from us. Keyhole – voyeur – perv – obliterator of women’s individuality; so runs the easy, moralizing elision.[ii] So what does Barnes really think?
We’ll get back to Barnes on Degas, but let us now dispatch or Schjeldahl and Balthus, in particular the Met’s Thérèse Dreaming, an always controversial painting and one that, in the current political climate, that thousands of people have called to be removed from public view. The reason? As Schjeldahl puts it, “because it brazens the artist’s letch for pubescent girls – which he always haughtily denied, but come on! The man was a creep. The subject sits with head turned, eyes closed, and a knee raised to expose her panties.”[iii] Now perhaps I have been inured to nude and/or erotic paintings by years of museum of gallery and museum going. I get it. This painting by Balthus, and others, eroticize young girls, not even close to adulthood. Other painters do this, sculptors as well, many of them who have also been ostracized as sexist and exploitative. Does this devalue the work of art? At what point does the painting’s notoriety, and the painter’s lack of moral compass, or interest in battling inequality, become decisive factors. Certainly, Balthus comes off as a perv in some paintings. But, then as well, he was a Surrealist, and part of their project was to shock the bourgeoisie. What better way to do that than to eroticize the middle class’s daughters? Not that he would be the last: Madison Avenue has been making money off of this tactic for decades now. Its seems that Balthus’ main crime is to do so in the name of high art. Balthus’ genius, albeit a creepy one, lies perhaps in the fact that his fame rests on paintings that eroticize the underage, cementing his notoriety, while allowing him to spend hours in the company of young models.
As for Degas, Barnes goes on to point out – and anyone who has seem much of his work, for example at the Orsay, Norton Simon, Met, Jeu de Paume and other museums – can see that the “keyhole” paintings he chose to make were, more often than not mundane, not particularly erotic, often empathetic portraits capturing intimate, yet unremarkable moments, and focusing – as Impressionists were wont to do – on line, color, shadow, composition, light and atmosphere. Why nudes? Again, the artist’s bread and butter, and how you were trained. Nothing more difficult than to paint and draw the human musculature and form, in different light, in different poses, that expresses not only the artist’s skill and eye, but also reveals the personality and social setting of the sitter(s). Was Degas a perv because he seemed to repeatedly go for ballerinas and washerwomen? Perhaps, but again, agreeing with Barnes, there is nothing particularly pervy about the paintings. The dancers, while healthy enough, also look lean and taught – he catches their athleticism and grace, without leaning much at all towards the erotic.
The fact that both authors, Barnes and Schjeldahl, publish these pieces now is in itself a scream for attention, a mea culpa for past crimes. The #MeToo campaign has gotten under their skin, and they both obviously feel a need to speak out, inasmuch, as it affects their careers. But Barnes proceeds to demonstrate that no crime was committed: the jury of public opinion was to blame, a jury which misunderstood Degas. As for Schjeldahl, his review, much shorter, is pretty much a straightforward apology for past support of the artist, but still supports the painting being exhibited. Balthus committed no crimes that we know of, or that he was ever convicted of, so why you would pull his paintings is beyond me. Was he a creep? Looks very possible. Can we prove it? No. He’s dead. His paintings live on, whatever you think of them. Let’s concentrate on the living: they are the only ones whose behavior towards others that we can change. Men need to support changing the behavior of other men who think it is okay to harass women, and to sexually abuse them. Its not. But outing dead artists and their paintings? There’s more than enough living Weinsteins and Spaceys to occupy ourselves with.
In other of my writings, I have commented on a film with a the dual burden of critical claim and condemnation, Last Tango in Paris. Maria Schneider's character Jeanne undergoes sexual humiliation at the hands of her sometimes lover Paul (Marlon Brando) while being treated as a object to be toyed with my her would-be fiancee Tom (Jean-Pierre Leaud). She emerges as a scarred survivor in the end, a metaphorical triumph over a failed patriarchal agenda. Schneider, after the film alleged abuse by Bertolucci and Brando, but given her aberrant behavior in public in the following decade or so, people we unsure as whether to believe her or not. Since her death, Bertolucci has acknowledged that he was responsible for setting up a situation on the set that pivoted upon fictionalized sexual abuse that also included elements of it on the set. Brando said nothing during his lifetime. Should we boycott the film? It has enduring historical and cultural significance, not just as a daring and controversial film, but one that also is based on misogyny. Having seen the film many times, the singular aspect that sticks with me now in the film is Schneider as a survivor, standing out despite all, while Brando now just appears as a worn-out cipher in a trench coat.
[i] Barnes 12.
[iii] Schjeldahl 72.
[i] [i] Julian Barnes, “Humph, He, Ha,” The London Review of Books, 4 January 2018, pp. 11-13. Peter Schjeldalh, “Points of View: The Balthus Conundrum and the passions of Käthe Kollwitz and Sue Coe,” The New Yorker, January 1, 2018, pp, 72-73.