A failed petition to remove a controversial Balthus painting from the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the latest worrying attempt to censor a work of art
In 1989, Republican senators Jesse Helms and Alfonse D’Amato launched an attack on artistic freedom. They railed against Piss Christ, a photograph by Andres Serrano of a inexpensive crucifix in a tank of the artist’s own urine. The red and yellow tints of Serrano’s piss give this modern Baroque artwork a spookily spiritual quality, redolent of the sun in old churches, yet for these culture warriors of the conservative right “its just” a desecration and an insult, exhibited, outrageously, using fund from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Their campaign took off. Museums came under pressure to cancel a suddenly “controversial” touring exhibit, The Few moments, which surveyed the photographs of the recently deceased Robert Mapplethorpe, including his images of sado-masochist sexuality. One museum director was even charged with indecency for refusing to cancel the show.
Helms was a pioneer of the various kinds of divisive right wing culture politics that were later to bring Donald Trump to the White House. Now, simply over a year after Trump’s election, people are once again calling for art deemed offensive to be removed from a museum. Yet “its not” Trump or the religion right setting up as censors this time.
When New Yorker Mia Merrill recently started an online petition demanding that the Metropolitan Museum of Art remove Balthus’s 1938 painting Therese Dreaming from its showings, she promptly assembled more than 6,000 signatures in subsistence. Almost as quickly, she got a repudiation from the Met. Merrill puts her example squarely in the context of the wave of whistleblowing, disgust and avowed reform that has swept the arts since the exposure of producer Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behaviour. As the petition argues 😛 TAGEND
” The artist of this paint, Balthus, had a noted infatuation with pubescent girl children and this paint is undeniably romanticizing the sexualization of a child … Given the current climate around sexual assault and allegations that become more public each day, in showcasing this work for the masses, The Met is romanticizing voyeurism and the objectification of the rights of children .”
Back in 1989, liberals knew where they stood: unequivocally on the side of artistic freedom. While museums wrestled with the right’s pressure to close the “obscene” Mapplethorpe exhibit, the left were protesting on the street outside, projecting Mepplethorpe images onto buildings to elude censorship.
Some will say it is a lot more complicated today. When it comes to banning art, I disagree. It is not complicated at all. Throughout history people have found reasons, which seemed perfectly good to them at the time, to condemn works of art. In Reformation Europe works of art were destroyed for being Catholic. In Nazi Germany modernist art was classed as “degenerate” and museums were was necessary to take it off opinion. Do we really want modern liberalism to ape such illiberal precedents?
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