The current controversy around Balthus’s scandalous 1938 painting Thérèse Dreaming, which shows a prepubescent girl in a sexually suggestive and unguarded pose, began last December when two millennial feminists, Mia Merrill and Anna Zuccarro, initiated an exquisitely passive-aggressive online petition with the aim of forcing the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which houses the painting, either to remove it or furbish it with a note accusing both the artist and the painting of exploitative immorality. Speaking out of both sides of their mouths, the petitioners deny asking “for this painting to be censored, destroyed, or never seen again,” even as they propose “removing the piece from that particular gallery, or providing more context in the painting’s description.” The Met’s response was unambiguous, declaring that the museum will neither remove the painting, nor add any “trigger warning” wall text. Several mainstream publications commended this decision, and The New York Times discussed the matter at length in a December 8 column, which was illustrated with three images: one of the offending painting, and two poised portraits of the activist sisters.
This petition is remarkable because it involves one of the preeminent cultural institutions in the world being told how to handle their operations by what we may politely term “amateurs.” It is less surprising, however, if we consider that it comes in the wake of an all-pervading, open-floor discussion of sexual morality and ideological purity. Some commentators have already pointed out the irony behind the current agreement between hypersensitive millennials and conservative evangelicals over the issue of censorship. Tempting as it is to generalize about the growing intolerance of various hermetic subcultures, the truly urgent issue of this moment is the embarrassing dumbing down of the conversation about art. To judge by the debate around Balthus, we have succumbed to historical amnesia. The discussion resolutely ignores art history, aesthetics, and visual studies. Forget such subtleties as the phenomenology of picture theory! Even the common sense of differentiating paintings from what they represent is out of the window: when signs and the referents they denote are so hopelessly confounded, it is small wonder we find ourselves witnessing politically motivated attacks on art disguised as moral arguments.
It is ironic that Mia Merrill holds an art history degree from NYU. To Merrill, the Met’s display of Thérèse Dreaming, without a corrective “contextual” wall-text that would warn the visitors (or “masses,” as she calls them) about the allegedly predatory sexual content of the painting, is “romanticizing voyeurism and the objectification of children.” This claim is wrong in at least two ways. First, it is predicated on the long-debunked equivalence between a painting and its subject matter. Second, it assumes that viewers are too simple-minded to cope with unpalatable visual art without textual intervention from the morality squad.
The first mistake is remarkable coming from an art history major, who should have been taught to distinguish between imagery and visuality. The discipline of art history has long insisted on the difference between the visual and the communicative aspects of paintings. This distinction was broached at the dawn of art history, in the mid-1870s, when Konrad Fiedler developed the theory of “pure visuality.” For Fiedler, an artwork constituted an entirely autonomous entity that existed in a world “besides and above the real one, a world free from early conditions, a world in keeping with [its] own discretion.” Far from reflecting the external world accurately, art actually opposes empirical reality, creating and inhabiting its own, independent domain. And Fiedler was only the first in a long line of art historians, thinkers, and critics who analyzed art in such terms: Jacobson, Imdahl, Goodman, Danto, Bryson, Mitchell—the list goes on.
Merill’s second mistake reflects a moralizing and politicizing of art under the guise of protecting “the masses.” Such stratagems have repeatedly proved unproductive, if not outright destructive. Merrill is right to say that paintings need to be seen in context, but that should not mean imposing our contemporary moral and political assumptions upon them. If anything, Balthus should be understood in the context of interwar European figuration, which is replete with sublimely visualized evidence of human monstrosity. One might even argue that his work helped the “masses” cope with the trauma and cultural betrayal of the Great War. To apply anachronistic judgments to the subject matter of Balthus’s paintings without considering their content, which hinges heavily upon their disregarded visuality, is nothing but ideological pandering.
The petition claims to advocate for the “masses,” who are apparently in need of an accompanying wall text to explain “how overtly sexual the painting is,” thus forcing the Met into compliance with “the current news headlines highlighting a macro issue about the safety and wellbeing of women of all ages.” This is not only comically opportunistic; it is also offensively patronizing. It presumes that the viewer is too stupid to see the provocation of Thérèse Dreaming and react to it accordingly. The petition’s poorly disguised arrogance is made clear when we consider the art critic Dave Hickey’s brilliant observation about the British nun and art historian Sister Wendy Beckett’s take on risqué Old Master paintings:
. . . it’s interesting to know how a cloistered nun likes a sexy painting—that she likes it the same way we do. She thinks it sexy (sex happens), but she also assumes that we are moral animals. Thus, in Wendy’s view, having seen this sexy painting, we are not necessarily compelled to flee the museum and indulge in a disgusting, hot-Wesson-Oil three-way at the local swingers club. This distinguishes Wendy’s theology from that of the professors of Cultural Studies. It also frees us, as students, to acknowledge what we see and what it does, and what we decide to do about it.
In sharp contrast, Merrill proposes to deny viewers the right to decide how to see an artwork, or to decide what to do about it. Ignoring the hundred-and-fifty-year-long discourse within the discipline that was her major, this NYU graduate is determined to keep in step with the “current news headlines,” so she can help to protect “the masses” from making their own decisions. The quest for ideological purity in art is always futile, because it cannot be achieved outside propaganda, and propaganda is not art. Cultural artifacts should be allowed to outlast the “current news headlines.” As Peter Schjeldahl’s latest New Yorker article on the Balthus controversy wisely observes: “decisive resolution, one way or another, can be neither moral nor aesthetic, only political.” Will we be able to keep politics out of curatorial decisions? The twentieth century offers enough cautionary lessons to suggest that we should at least try.