Arguing over art is right but banning it is the work of fascists | Jonathan Jones

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?

Therese
Therese Dreaming by Balthus, born Balthasar Klossowski de Rola. Photo: Thomas Urbain/ AFP/ Getty Images

The case for artistic freedom is as clear cut now as it ever was. It needs to be stated unequivocally: censor arts and you shrink the shared heritage and future of humanity. Who assaults art? ISIS in Palmyra, that’s who.

Merrill’s petition confounds acts and images in a way that is deeply dangerous. Art and life are associated, but they are not the same. A paint is not an assault. It’s just a painting- even when the content and style seem utterly offensive, you can walk away, leaving it to gather dust on the museum wall,

There are great works of art that portray actual assaults. Titian’s 1571 canvas The Rape of Lucretia, in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, UK, is a lurid, lifelike and shockingly ambivalent image of rape. So is Matisse’s painting Nymph and Satyr in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Other famous paintings take it for granted that women are sex objects. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in the Museum of Modern Art presents prostitutes in a brothel being offered up as wares to the male client in whose posture the spectator of the painting stands.

I am not suggesting anyone gets up a petition against these paintings- but nor am I saying they are beyond criticism. It can quite legitimately be argued that many of the world’s most revered masterpieces are relics of sexual oppression. That’s the problem. If you want all art that has ever been made to conform to today’s ethical standards, you may as well empty all museums right now.

Balthus of course may seem a special case. I wholly share Merrill’s discomfort with the route he illustrates girls of 12 and 13. Elaborate defences of what looks very like paedophilia are pointless. Yet it is very easy to show how banning his strange art would open the floodgates to further censorship.

As it happens, Balthus was a friend of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan who, as well as patronising his art, owned Gustave Courbet’s voyeuristic masterpiece The Origin of the World. It hangs today in the Musee d’Orsay. Should it? For it is intensely objectifying.

Of course it belongs in the Orsay, just as Balthus belongs in the Met. Sometimes liberal banalities are a necessary bulwark of civilisation. It is right to criticise art, question it, argue over it- but forbidding it should be left to the fascists.

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