the aesthetic alibi in the age of #MeToo

Photo Credit: Wanderlust Photography ©2014-2018

Photo Credit: Wanderlust Photography ©2014-2018

the artist and his art

The New York Times reported last week that the National Gallery of Art decided to indefinitely postpone an upcoming exhibition of artwork by Chuck Close, a prominent American painter and photographer, due to allegations of sexual misconduct. Not surprisingly, art and controversy go hand-in-hand, like peanut butter and jelly, and so too, does the romanticized relationship between the Artist and his Muse. That unequal power dynamic, which has existed in this space so naturally for centuries, was sure to shatter under the weight of #MeToo.

We collectively agree that Harvey Weinstein is reprehensible. That Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K. and James Franco and the ever growing list of perpetrators are accountable for their actions, on screen and behind the scenes. There should be consequences for their actions and abuses of power. Some of the most influential artists of history have backgrounds riddled with sexual misconduct, yet their work hangs with reverence in the most prominent museums. Response by curators and museums has been mixed and lukewarm at best. The debate between separating the art from the artist continues to plod along.

They scoff, “Are we to take down the Picassos too?”... I say, “Why not?”

The art world has been predicated by the sale, objectification and even sexualization of the female form by the male artist. The male artistic perspective has controlled what we see and learn about as art. Male artists dominate the history books from the earliest inklings of cave paintings to present day. Can you name famous woman artist? If so, how many? A staggering statistic from the National Museum of Women in the Arts highlights that women artists comprise only 3–5% of major permanent collections in the U.S. and Europe. Additionally, less than 4% of the artists in the Modern Art section of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are women, but 76% of the nudes are female. The male gaze and the curation of male artistic dominance has permeated every significant art movement and art venue, flourishing unchecked throughout history.

With such influence and control, how can we separate the artist from the art? Their power, their experience and their perspective is profound in everything they create.

Photo Credit: Wanderlust Photography ©2014-2018

Photo Credit: Wanderlust Photography ©2014-2018

the artist and his muse

When exploring the relationship between the Artist and his Muse, many art models have been lured by the promise of a portfolio, enamored by the reputation of a star, and seduced by the immortality of a portrait. In this context, the role of the Artist equates to that of an Employer, holding power over the Employee (the Muse and the Model). The power dynamic is clear and unequal when characterized in these terms. That contract should be treated with the professionalism like any other work for hire arrangement. Sadly, it is a dynamic which has created a fertile ground for abuse when a female body becomes nude.

My perspectives have been shaped by similar personal experiences. While serving on the board of directors for an arts organization, a male artist engaged me in conversation alone on the street immediately following a board meeting. He was much older than me and a painter of some renown in the local community. We were discussing specifics of the meeting when suddenly he pivoted - he asked me to pose nude for a series of his paintings, showering me with flattering words about my appearance and my body. I was shocked since our current discussion was one of a professional nature, unrelated to any mention of modeling, much less nudity. I politely replied that I would think about it. I was completely unprepared on how to respond to this man, an artist, and a person with a respectful position and reputation. Uncomfortable, I quickly made excuses to leave when he reached over, grabbed my arm, and pulled me in to kiss me on the mouth. Shock was replaced by horror and I exited away from the street and away from him as quickly as humanly possible. I felt ashamed and powerless as a consequence of his actions - just one of the many #MeToo moments that millions of women experience on a daily basis.

I applaud the National Gallery of Art, but let's not stop with half measures. Let's not lose the #MeToo Movement to a moment of what’s trending.

Let's not have to protest this shit again in 20, 40 or 60 years.

We can contextualize inappropriate behavior and sexual inequality as a sign of their historical time, but when a living artist is accused of sexual harassment or sexual assault, we should be keen to demand the truth and rightful accountability. A hard line needs to be drawn, not just in the sand, but in the mother fucking bedrock!

If indeed, the allegations against Chuck Close prove to be true, he should not only be denied from exhibiting, his work should be shunned, banned and removed. Artists that use their position to victimize others are shameful. Their perspectives are flawed and wrong. And yes, if Picasso was an abuser of women, perhaps he too should be scrutinized under the same lens. Perhaps his work and his contributions become less exceptional and visionary when confronted with the truth of his humanity.

If the artist's message and vision supersedes their personal conduct and we allow them a seat at the table of history, how do we answer to the abused and the victimized? As a democracy and defender of inalienable rights, how can we defend a position that elevates abuse of power?


 

The Disrespect of Our Sex

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thoughts on the imbalance of power

I read another tragic account of the Weinstein crimes this morning in the New York Times. This one candidly written and bravely shared by Lupita Nyong’o. Her description and her words brought me to tears. My tears are a recognition of that feeling and that moment when another human being (men in my experience) forcibly and unapologetically took away my power because of my sex.

Each of our experiences with sexual discrimination, harassment and assault are unique, our threshold and tolerance for such abuses different, but one aspect is the same: the feeling of powerlessness. My independence, my passion, and my desire for life, dreams and experiences were traits that defined me, gave me confidence and pushed me forward. All of that was diminished in an instant when a man decided to knowingly take away that assurance in an abuse of the social power dynamic with a comment, a leer, a grope, and every invasion of my body, my sex and my self.

No one taught me how to say no. No one shared with me what to do in that moment, what to say, or how to keep me safe. Consent was just a footnote in the collective conversation. It was often just implied. Never explicitly asked for or given

Each of our stories rip my heart every time. Each of those encounters, however minor, are wounds reopened, gushing forth red. Red - the shade of pain, embarrassment and shame that I feel for being so small, so unprepared, so violated. For too long the silence has held back the flood of truth. We suffer an epidemic of sexual inequality in our society, our country, and our world. Until we, as women, control our sex and sexuality - embrace it, own it, demand it - we will never be equal. 

Respect begins within. It begins with our acknowledgement of the ugly truth. It begins by breaking our self-imposed bonds of silence and recognizing that our lack of comfort in speaking and acting on our sexuality stems from what we were taught, not who we are. It begins by embracing our sisters who have suffered. It begins by demanding change.

I dedicate the evolution of Respect Her Sex to every woman who has suffered disrespect because of her sex.

In the Nude

thoughts on nudity, art and identity

Historically in art, the female nude has been revered on canvas, in marble and on film - an inspirational muse channeling the artist’s innermost desires. By contrast, in modern society, the nude female body is either censored, sexualized, or vilified. These contradictions can empower  self worth and also lead to personal shame. At this intersection identity, nudity, and art collide.

The female body is central to many of the themes of the Femme Project. Ideas about body image, feminine identity, female sexuality and the right to control our bodies are important concerns to me personally, artistically and socially. Growing up, I had a natural comfort with my nudity, despite a fairly religiously conservative upbringing. I had no frame of reference for normal or different, only art and pornography as my education. 

Art taught me that a woman's nudity was powerful, intoxicating and elegant. My form and my curves were divine, so long as they fit a mold that could be reworked to idealism in paintings and airbrushed to perfection in Photoshop. Beauty was not granted to all, only reserved for a special few, but all women are held to a standard which expects them to aspire to a form of flawlessness.

Where art idolized the female nude, pornography corporealized it. Lips, breasts, vaginas and other secret regions of the female body were captured extremely close-up and, these days, in high definition. Pornography is  sensual and raw, erotic and grotesque. It said my nudity was an asset to be used, displayed, and consumed for the pleasure of others. However, though porn shows us everything, it essentially tells us nothing. Or perhaps worse, it tells us the WRONG things.

Surprisingly, today, female nudity remains a source of controversy. Nipples are inappropriate and censored; vaginas are misunderstood and misrepresented and almost never shown in their natural state. Nudity in art is tolerated, as long as it doesn't make you feel uncomfortable. Nudity in porn is expected, as long as it exudes sexuality and desire behind closed doors. As women, we are told that we need to love our bodies but we are taught to hate our bodies if they don’t meet an impossible standard. We hide and expose based on expectations of propriety. It is ok, in fact encouraged, for women to reveal their bodies without ever really understanding what it means to be women, what it means to be nude, and what implications may come from sharing our nude selves.

Nudity is our natural state. It is diverse, non-conforming and essential. To embrace our nudity is the ultimate leap of faith. When nudity is no longer taboo, we are free to explore an infinite world of possibilities. My journey as a woman has taught me that our nudity is something we need to own. It should not be the domain of male artists, frustrated or driven by their own desires. Nor should it be the domain of pornographers who seek to earn money by objectifying our bodies for the pleasure of others. And neither should it be something that politicians and religious leaders condemn as morally inappropriate for the safety of our society. These various players have tried to take possession of women’s nudity, to own it - every one of them using it to further their own needs or agendas. Their actions, words and characterizations marginalize women, making the struggle for true equality for women formidable. 

WE are the OWNERS of our nudity and in that conviction, we will eliminate the shame, embrace our identity and persevere in equality.