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The Challenges of #MeToo and the Morally Compromised Artist: A Conversation

On February 13, 2019, ARC in collaboration with the National Coalition Against Censorship- NCAC and PEN America presented The Challenges of #MeToo and the Morally Compromised Artist at the College Art Association annual conference in New York City. Chaired by PEN’s Director of Campus Free Speech Jonathan Friedman, panelists Svetlana Mintcheva (NCAC’s Director of Programs), Pamela Sneed (Poet, Artist, Activist, and Teacher) and Judith Shulevitz (Journalist, Editor and Culture Critic) discussed the relationship between art and artist in the #MeToo era and examined difficult questions on one of the most controversial topics in the contemporary art world.

The event was supported by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

JUDITH: I don't think it's possible to separate the dancer from the dance, and I think the question is just what are we going to decide is acceptable and unacceptable? Are we going to decide that the immoral behavior of an artist is going to render the work unacceptable? Are we going to make that our top critical criterion or not? And I think that's the question.

PAMELA: There's something about the system of celebrity. I have to look at that with regard to analyzing some of this, whether somebody's a celebrity or they're not. I really feel that when they are celebrities, that we become accountable in a certain way. That there is this cannibalistic -- “oh we want your art, we want your art, we're putting you on this pedestal, you are God.” And then these guys abuse that power, and then it's like, whoa wait a minute, you've abused your power, how dare you? So somehow there that has to be factored in. So I'm interested in the system of celebrity. I'm not so interested in looking at this as the morally compromised artist. I'm interested in the system of patriarchy and basically how patriarchy and how capitalism has created this gender imbalance, has basically a violence toward women intrinsically, that it destroys all genders, and that basically as long as we're working within that system, there's going to be tons of corruption. On a certain level, it's interesting to look at individual cases, but I think that it does become a situation of a very medieval kind of punishment, and we're all judging and all of that, but we're not looking at the ways that we're all implicated in a system of patriarchy.

SVETLANA: We've had a lot of cases recently where work is taken down, books are not published, or books are not taught in schools, because of what the author -- the real person, the author -- has done, and that's where context comes in. Because, to me, it's not just about reader and author, and implied author, it is also about the culture at large. And the way I see art is as something that belongs not to a particular individual-- I mean, in our individualistic capitalist economy, yes, this is the art of the individual-- but it's a cultural tradition. No art comes up out of from an individual; no art is completely original. So we have a cultural tradition here, we have works that belong in a way to all of us, and no individual should not be responsible for what they do. So we could penalize the artists; they're not above critique. But in removing the work, you're also affecting the audience; you're penalizing the audience.

On whether creative products of an artist can be separated from their personal conduct:

On censorship:

PAMELA: I was thinking about this being an era of trials, that basically every hour, every era of America we're invested in public trials, and that concerns me. The spectacle nature and the participatory nature of it, the arena, and that we're all called to be judges, and who has the right to judge? … I don’t agree with censorship per se, and I think that that’s always a problem. I feel like, we should have a discussion around the work, definitely, we should talk about it. But once you start to take things away, I worry about that. But then there was something interesting with the Dana Schutz painting at the Whitney, and she did Emmett Till... and there were some protests by some Black artists around it, and they were saying, “Destroy the painting” which I took as very rhetorical, you know, I didn’t see as literal. But it was interesting that like the entire world came out to say to these Black artists, “You mustn’t censor her!” Right? And it was very condescending as if they hadn’t like thought about it as if they hadn’t been, you know, Black artists in the world--no one even listened to what they were saying. And that there’s intrinsic censorship that happens to Black artists, in print, that happens in the galleries, you know? We don’t even get there, you know, to have our work critiqued. You know what I’m saying? So there’s intrinsic censorship in the system.

SVETLANA: I want to say how strongly I agree with that: the court of public opinion and public outrage, especially in the age of the internet and the quick endorphin rush that you get from signing a petition to remove something and where public opinion is easily manipulated, as we know from the last election, and where allegations are sometimes enough to make somebody guilty, where innocent until proven guilty is not quite a standard. So it is, you know, making this court of public outrage, putting it into cultural practice I find potentially extremely, extremely dangerous.

JUDITH: I think that behavior belongs in the realm of the justice system. If we are unhappy with the justice system, let's fix the justice system. Let's not remove work from circulation… We can create standards of behavior and enforce them in the realm of behavior, but we should not censor the realm of the imaginary. That's my hardline position on that.

On whether colleges and universities have a unique role to play in dealing with morally compromised artists:

SVETLANA: The practical problems that we encounter in terms of censorship have to do with the institution because there are many pressures upon institutions, art institutions as well as universities, college art museums, to choose their role in a way, because they say that their role is to have difficult conversations, to be a safe space for unsafe ideas, but there's this pressure for them to assert a type of moral values--specific moral values. We think of those moral values as good ones, but it's also the pressure to assert a type of orthodoxy, and I'm personally very wary of orthodoxies of all kinds. And I don't think that that orthodoxy is like-- if we purge the bad man and the racists-- is it necessarily going to lead to diversity?... It's a kind of position of principle. Do we admit a kind of heterogeneity of ideas, of pluralism, of even ideas we don't like and have those conversations, both in the university-- that quintessential marketplace of ideas as the Supreme Court said-- and in the museum? Or do we ask those institutions to take the role of the justice system and distribute justice and cut voices that we think go beyond the pale right now? … That's I think what the crux of the matter is right now: the role of the institution. To me, I think purging bad actors from institutions is only going to lead to more digging for personal sins. . . . You dig more for personal sins, you demand more purity, and ultimately you get more self-censorship on the part of institutions that are fearful. What we're trying to do is give institutions the wherewithal to have a discussion, to not bury the issues, to talk about systematic racism, to bring people that are not in the museum into the museum, but not do it through suppression and saying, “okay this goes away.”

PAMELA: The bottom line is that already these institutions are failing or come in from a censored position because they don't have equity in terms of women, they don't have equity in terms of people of color, they don't have equity in terms of class. So how does the institution become this yardstick or this measuring stick for what is correct and what is morally right? Again that comes back to this patriarchal capitalist system that it’s already, you know, compromised…

JUDITH: I was thinking of Chuck Close, who has been accused of sexual misconduct in the sense of asking women to pose who are his peers, who are artists to pose for him either topless or nude, and commenting on their bodies in incredibly inappropriate ways. And after these accusations, there were three responses: one by Seattle University Library, they removed an artwork that they had hanging on the wall, the National Gallery postponed an exhibition, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts left an exhibition up, but added a show of women artists and gave viewers post-it notes to post next to the works to express their views. So obviously you have the suppression model, you take something down, you don't allow something to go up, or you add more. . . Rather than taking away the people who instigate interesting, important, necessary conversations as Svetlana says, you just add more. You add more speech. There's bad speech? You add more speech, you correct it with more speech.

On how those in the art world can approach the challenges of the morally compromised artist:

JUDITH: Human beings are complex. We have to factor that into the production of works of art, as well, and our readings of works of art and the way in which we incorporate the biographical material of the artist into our interpretation of the work. If we demand zero tolerance, we're gonna back ourselves into corners.

PAMELA: I would say consciousness-raising, education, and re-education around gender, are some of the clues.

SVETLANA: I think listening across lines of disagreement, listening to those we may hate because they're on the other side of the political divide. Courage to both listen and hear uncomfortable things for all of us, and the value of complexity.

Transcript edited for brevity and clarity by Juliann Nelson.  

Jonathan Friedman, Svetlana Mincheva, Pamela Sneed and Judith Shulevitz
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