Last December, two women launched an online petition asking the Metropolitan Museum of Art to either take down Thérèse Dreaming (1938), a Balthus painting of an eroticized girl, or “provid[e] more context in the painting’s description.” The request, which has garnered 11,604 signatures to date, was widely dismissed. Commentators wrote that the addition of even a brief warning would be “a concession too far” and that “if we remove the Balthus because it offends in the current climate, we pretty much have to remove whole wings of art from the Met.”
At first I was dismissive too, laughing it off as an absurd attempt to sanitize art history. But the more I’ve thought about it in the following weeks, the more I’ve found myself wondering: Why? I don’t think the Balthus painting, or any other artworks, should be removed from museums. I don’t think we should ban R. Kelly’s music or never screen Woody Allen’s films. But I do think the art world’s collective, swift rejection of even a simple trigger warning for pedophilia says some unpleasant things about us.
If the last few months of #MeToo have brought home anything, it’s that systems of abuse run deep: It only takes one person to commit the act, but many more will gladly ignore it or cover it up. Within such a larger scheme, the language on one label for one painting by a man who seems not to have physically abused anyone doesn’t make much of a difference. Yet that’s exactly why it matters so much. If we’re unwilling to rethink a bit of wall text because we’re scared of the precedent it might set, how can we expect to rethink the entire system that brought the painting that wall text elucidates into the museum?
Because that, in the end, is what #MeToo is really about: outing harassers and abusers, yes, but also reckoning with the power structures that enable them. The same networks that allow for harassment are the ones that land straight, white men in positions of power at museums, art magazines, and everywhere else. If we’re going to truly contend with #MeToo, we have to contend with that.
This means adjusting wall labels when relevant, which to me is when the artwork in question represents the artist’s offending behavior in some way. It also means reconsidering an exhibition or collections program to identify whose voices and artworks are overrepresented and whose overlooked, and why. It means addressing power imbalances in both the gallery and the office. It means working as an institution to promote equality.
There’s a kind of utopian sheen to the idea that museums should simply show whatever works their curators think have artistic merit, without needing to explain or justify their choices. But the logical conclusion of such a premise is that art gets made and displayed in a vacuum—which, we know well, it does not. Art is meaningful because it can take us out of ourselves, help us see the world differently or make us uncomfortable. But we’d do well to remember that being able to make and show provocative art without facing real repercussions is a privilege whose conditions are ripe for abuse.