Art, inherently, is manifested by individuals seizing the opportunity to harness their creative processes. It reflects the artist’s subjectivity—and, therefore, an individual’s talents and flaws. When an institution chooses to exhibit art, its priorities are also on display. Nearby works of art and didactics encourage viewers to grapple with what they’re viewing through thoughtfully considered contexts and frameworks deemed important by museum professionals. Once art is made available for public viewing, however, the work becomes part of an expanded dialogue. It is no longer a dialogue between artist and art, nor between institution and art, but an open platform to explore art through the lens of the public’s diverse interests and values. And rightly so.
No one understands this better than those who lead tours and engage visitors with art. Museum educators are experts in articulating connections between art and visitors’ lives—not through a lecture model of learning that privileges one viewpoint. Best practice in museum education emphasizes gallery teaching that is conversational, guided by tourgoers’ viewpoints and reflections. This pedagogy enables works of art made at any time in history to be relevant in the current moment on any given day.
In our current moment, a groundswell of abused, formerly silenced voices are finding agency through the collective #MeToo movement and are confronting their abusers, individuals who have perverted their privilege and power for malevolent aims. It is a time of reckoning.
How should the art world reckon with artists accused of sexual harassment? Should institutions deinstall art by all of the Paul Gauguins of the world? If so, they would be mitigating the opportunity for dialogue with audiences at a time when the space to discuss pressing issues is urgently needed. In the case of Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings, I believe that now is the perfect time to talk about how patriarchal and colonialist privilege enabled the artist to undress, exploit, and marry Tahitian girls, an artistic and real-life fulfillment of his vision of “primitive” island life, one that was at odds with the reality of a Christianized, westernized Tahitian society. Some art historians would argue that such discussions take away from appreciating the work for its own merits. But that argument strips the work away from one of the contexts in which it was made and privileges another context—one that prioritizes subject and technique over historical trauma. The reality is that there is room to discuss both contexts.
That said, this logic cannot be widely applied without thoughtfully evaluating each example on a case-by-case basis. Depending on a large number of complicated factors—including the egregiousness of an individual’s actions, proof of guilt, and whether due process has been given to claims—simply providing opportunities for open dialogue might not be a sufficient argument for making works by accused harassers available for public viewing. The National Gallery of Art appears to agree, as evidenced by its recent decision to postpone a Chuck Close exhibition in the wake of his accusers’ accounts. The entertainment industry has made similar decisions—for example, Louis C.K.’s forthcoming film, I Love You, Daddy, was pulled from theaters after he admitted guilt.
Although Close did not admit guilt (rather, he acknowledged his use of crude language to describe women’s bodies), both he and Louis C.K. are at the center of controversies stirred up by recent accounts. The wounds are raw. But I don’t believe it is simply the passing of time nor sensitivity to living victims of sexual harassment that makes it acceptable to continue displaying and discussing paintings by Paul Gauguin and problematic to proceed with a forthcoming exhibition focused on Chuck Close.
There are often higher stakes if the accused and the accusers are living. If a museum pursues a future exhibition of a living artist, then it is consciously choosing to enhance the artist’s visibility and status within contemporary society—not just through the display of work, but also through related marketing, publications, and gift shop items. Because power and entitlement enable sexual harassers to dominate others, further solidifying an accused harasser’s privilege and power is problematic. Whether or not due process has been given, it would appear, if not intentionally, that the institution is taking sides or dismissing serious allegations. Such a choice could have damaging consequences on people’s lives, and the likely possibility of public outcry would drown out any good intentions for open dialogue.
Since the entertainment industry has not historically been concerned with facilitating public conversations, audiences are left to their own devices to contend with the imprint of their viewing experience. Television and film, inherently, provide a platform for displaying an artist’s physical body, an unavoidable and constant reminder of the human who is as capable of harm as it is creativity. In the case of Louis C.K., his comedy lays bare many of his sexual missteps in self-effacing ways. To watch a Louis C.K. standup routine or film now is to be incessantly reminded of his real actions and their serious consequences, while simultaneously increasing his net worth.
When a work is already available for public viewing, the decision to keep it on view should be weighed based on whether the work and the institution have the capacity to elicit productive discourse. Could such discussions help us engage with art in multi-layered ways, revealing societal and cultural contexts in addition to individual artistic pursuits? Can art help us better critique historical narratives or current society, and by extension, lead to a more nuanced and critical understanding of our world? If so, educators and other frontline staff should be given strategies to manage conversations derailed by incendiary comments so they can navigate discourse back to a constructive place in which visitors feel safe.
I believe it is essential to make space for difficult conversations that honor diverse viewpoints if museums are to be valued and respected by their communities—but only if we can do so safely and thoughtfully. In these instances, we cannot avoid the story of the abuser. If we do, we also avoid the story of the abused and the opportunity for that silenced voice to be heard. This is especially true when those abused will never have the chance to speak for themselves if we don’t share their stories as respectfully as we can.