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Artists’ models are real people – we mustn’t forget this when we look at art

14 February 2018

In this #MeToo moment, the Culture Wars of the 1990s have returned with new protagonists. Those urging censorship today – of the likes of Balthus, Chuck Close, and Woody Allen – are not arch-conservatives or members of the Christian right, but progressive women protesting gender inequality and sexual abuse. Freedom of expression, which triumphed over calls for censorship in the 1990s, today seems strained and shopworn – not the solution any more, but part of the problem.

This is clearly another teaching moment in the history of aesthetics. Think back to 1990, when the curator Janet Kardon testified under oath that a photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe of a male model urinating into the mouth of another male model was a work of art, on the grounds of its ‘beautiful diagonal’. Kardon showed us formalism in its death throes. Mapplethorpe’s photograph cannot be disjoined from the real-life event it documents. That is the case, arguably, for any figurative art. When Cézanne insisted that he painted not souls but bodies, and enjoined Ambroise Vollard to pose ‘like an apple’, his relation to his model became part of the meaning of the portrait.

Figure-painting, portraiture, and the photographic arts record relationships among real people. They begin with an interaction between artist and model, and then draw in a host of actors: curators, viewers, critics, historians. No matter how keen our formalistic eye, these human interactions are part and parcel of the art, and so are the ethical concerns they entail.

The model is a prime example of this entailment: a real person who in the studio simulates an art object, Cézanne’s apple, in the stillness of her posing. Whether in exchange for money or not, under gruelling conditions or not, sexually victimised or not – the model suspends her animation to present herself as to-be-seen, in service to an artist’s need. In this way, she is part person, part artwork, and the artist’s image of her is in part his appropriation of her and in part her recalcitrant selfhood, which he cannot or will not bend to his desire.

Real viewers replicate the artist looking at the it/her of the model. Does her image look back, multiplying the mirrors and paradoxes? At once real and virtual, subject and object, the model conflates and confuses ethics and aesthetics. As a result, the viewer, caught in the blur, becomes hyperaware of those categories. We value the endless relays of looking in art, which legitimise a viewing without check or scruple and permit an examination of our moral checks and scruples. Model-based art places ethical interactions in high relief: everything from cruelty and exploitation to empathy, equality, and love.

In times of moral turmoil such as ours, the invitation to look without check and to observe ourselves looking may be threatening. The millennial women protesting the presence of Balthus’s Thérèse Dreaming at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York reported shock at seeing this painting of a young girl in a sexually suggestive pose in the artist’s studio. Their petition insists on the ‘crucial distinction between art that imagines or documents exploitation and art that is actually engaged in producing it’. We ban snuff films and model-based kiddy porn on just these grounds. What is the difference in this case?  To arrive at Balthus’s image, a real girl below the age of consent had to sit in a seductive pose day after day, watched by the artist. The painting provides no insight into her thoughts or feelings on the matter. She is just a sexualised apple. In 2014 a German museum cancelled a show of Balthus’ works, referred to in national newspaper Die Zeit as ‘documents of paedophile greed’. The petition addressed to the Met calls for the removal of Thérèse Dreaming from display, or failing that, the addition of context to the accompanying wall text.

The Met refused. In doing so, asserts New York Times critic Ginia Bellafante, the museum ‘contradicts the ethos of an age in which we have increasingly sought to understand the moral framework in which nearly everything we consume has been made’, from free-trade coffee to humanely slaughtered chickens. This analogy between Balthus’s painting and ethically sourced products may not alter the Met’s position – and do we ‘consume’ art? But there is nothing new about joining art to moral judgment. In 1435, Leon Battista Alberti called for the inclusion of a figure in paintings whose function would be to indicate an appropriate response in the viewer: ‘I like to see someone who admonishes and points out to us what is happening there; or beckons with his hand to see; or menaces with an angry face and with flashing eyes, so that no one should come near; or shows some danger or marvellous thing there; or invites us to weep or to laugh together with them. Thus whatever the painted persons do among themselves or with the beholder, all is pointed toward ornamenting or teaching the istoria.’

Though the istoria in question was typically a biblical episode or mythological allegory, in our secular, documentary era, the same demand for moral ‘pointing’ has surfaced in trauma reportage. Jina Moore’s article, ‘The Pornography Trap: How Not to Write about Rape’, cautions: ‘Trauma stories have an agenda: they call to the reader to witness, to agree with the writer that “This should not have been.” If there is no agreement between reader and writer, or if the writer fails, the story is an exercise in voyeurism.’ Compare the Met petitioners’ assertion that ‘in showcasing [Thérèse Dreaming] for the masses, the Met is romanticizing voyeurism.’ The terms here may require more scrutiny: some would argue that ‘romanticising voyeurism’ is the crowning achievement of figurative art. But Balthus’s defenders can be equally unenlightening. The National Coalition Against Censorship argued that ‘[a]rt can often offer insights into difficult realities and, as such, merits vigorous defense.’ What insight, we might ask, does Thérèse Dreaming offer into the ‘difficult reality’ of paedophilia?

This question should not remain rhetorical. One obvious insight is simply that paedophilic desire exists, and further, in the case of an artist such as Balthus, that the awkward, semi-unconscious seductiveness of young girls is an archetype of beauty. (Lolita presented that insight unforgettably, even incorporating the moral judgment against it.) What we do with such insights – such facts – is up to each of us. At the very least, we think about them and note our own response. Are some viewers reinforced in their paedophilia by seeing Balthus’s painting, or worse, drawn into abusive behavior as a result of seeing it? Hard to say. For all we know, endless acts of inhumanity – or kindness – arise from visits to the Met.

In Chile at the moment, obesity has become so epidemic that the government has banned the seductive packaging and advertising of sweets. With Tony the Tiger – mascot for Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes – expelled, Kellogg’s is suing the government for infringing its intellectual property. The government is unmoved. It is true that no one has demonstrated conclusively that packaging causes obesity, but it might, and the need to do something about the obesity crisis is outweighing the loss of expressive licence. Will the urgency to do something about paedophilia and other forms of sexual abuse outweigh the censorship of controversial art? Only time will tell. But it is safe to say that when we emerge from the latest Culture Wars, aesthetics and ethics will be more ineluctably entwined than ever.