From #MeToo to What Now?: Coping with Sexualized Violence in Art History

Gallery discussion: Art History in the #MeToo Era

 

From #MeToo to What Now?: Coping with Sexualized Violence in Art History

Author: Nicole Scalissi, HAA graduate student

In mounting This is Not Ideal: Gender Myths and Their Transformation the curatorial team wisely produced a slate of public programming to create space for community processing, discussion, dissent, and response to the challenging and often difficult content in the exhibition. The first of these events was an open discussion for us—students, instructors, curators, artists, and members of the public—to talk about what it means to engage with artworks that show gender-based and sexualized violence in the era of #MeToo.

In 2017, #MeToo became a viral hash-tag following high-profile and celebrity disclosures of sexual abuse, and spawned a public referendum on sexualized violence. Me Too was originally founded by Tarana Burke and had been helping survivors, especially women and girls of color, find pathways to healing since 2006. Our open discussion was intended to be a space for offering up questions and sharing knowledge about how can we rethink how we (or do we) include—in our galleries, research, and classrooms—artworks that directly engage with gender-based and/or sexualized violence in the Me Too moment? With contributions from Sylvia Rhor, Curator and University Art Gallery Director, and artist Sarika Goulatia, the discussion was provoked by the sophisticated curation process of the Museum Studies students who produced This is Not Ideal, and it’s a big question that some museums, artists, and universities are only starting to grapple with publically. 

On the one hand, that seems like an over-due question: isn’t it about time? On the other hand, this is a profoundly difficult question to take on for people who curate, teach, or learn about art history: throughout time, and especially in the Western tradition, the history of art is full of images of naked women and scenes of their victimization—sexual and/or otherwise. Women’s bodies have been pressed into service not just in but asnational histories and identities, myths and cautionary tales. Thinly veiled as “allegory,” women’s bodies have been made vulnerable, exposed, restrained, and consumed as art history. So, how then, are we as students and instructors, curators and artists, to deal with a culture of images that so often takes the female body not as subject but as object—i.e. not as people but as things—as a material, form, or concept to be mined and manhandled, gazed upon and fetishized? If we understand #MeToo or #TimesUp to be a reckoning, a cultural point-of-no-return where survivors, especially women—anatomically and not, cis-gendered and otherwise—can speak up and be believed, then what do we do with works of art that illustrate or are the real world product of actual gender-based violence or oppression?

We panelists got the conversation started with our own research and concerns. As the historian on the panel, I wanted to get a few things to the surface and sketch out the recent national dialogue surrounding sexualized violence, especially as it has intersected with the universities and art world since over the past 5 years: 

  • controversial changes to Title IX under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (more ‘protections’ for those accused of sexual assault, closeddoor adjudication processes) [1]
  • remember Emma Sulkowicz, who carried a 50lb mattress around Columbia University campus for their 2014 senior year in artistic dissent of how CU (mis)handled their rape case? [2]
  • a listing of men’s names, including artist Chuck Close, who have been publically shamed and/or fired—or should be—for sexual misconduct [3]
  • and on the day after the portentous midterm elections and just days after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony in the US Senate (that the nominee to the Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her), it was right to note the ways in which we have recently witnessed what are perhaps the highest stakes for this nation’s understanding of sexualized violence and its ability, or inability, to believe its bravest survivors. [4]

Sylvia and Sarika shared with us how presenting Prosecuterix, an interactive exhibition based on real disclosures of sexualized violence, in a university setting impacted upon their work as curator, artist, and as citizens. Sylvia showed us how wading into the difficult territory of public display and sexualized violence produced new questions, ethical considerations, and the building of empathy and support networks, and how that experience shaped how she imagines an audience and her work most broadly as both a educator and curator. For example, how to envision and install an exhibition that allows for varying levels of engagement with problematic content, or how to loop in the Title IX office to support viewers and student curators at different levels in the exhibition process. Even still, the question arose again of how to handle problematic or potentially triggering images in the classroom.

The discussion was built and shaped by members of HAA at all levels, undergraduate students in HAA and/or Museum Studies, graduate students, and faculty—including the Chair of the department. Undergraduate students who co-curated This is Not Ideal shared the debates they had in selecting objects and writing wall captions, and making decisions about which images would represent the exhibition to the public—issues that emerged from close—and sustained looking in this current social context. Most important, they provided feedback to the instructors in the room about what they felt would help them grapple with such images in the classroom, including what has worked and how they felt they could be better supported. (For this, we are grateful.)

As new ideas emerged, so too did new questions: if content warnings are utilized on the walls of the UAG to support a diverse audience in navigating the difficulty in This is Not Ideal, might we also use these at the start of lectures, on a syllabus? How specific a warning? How to do we prepare as a learning community to handle unforeseen, unwarned triggers that emerge in a class? How can we help our students beyond the “warning,” how can we direct them toward survivor resources, and build a community of support that outlasts the class? How can we as a university community embed this in our culture, not just in specific lectures that engage with this content? 

Maybe it is not just warnings and support, but enriching our content. For example, if we teach Alexandre Cabanel’s Birth of Venus (1875), or any of the thousands of female nudes in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, then perhaps we must also teach The Guerrilla Girls Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met Museum? (1989)—and also that the Met does not own it or any work by the Guerrilla Girls.[5] If we teach the paintings of Chuck Close or Pablo Picasso, ought we also teach about the multiple allegations of sexual misconduct made against them, and the art made in response such as Emma Sulkowicz’s nude performances in front of their paintings at the Met and MoMA? 

Sylvia and Ellen Larson, Curatorial Assistant at the UAG, convened a panel surrounding a knotty and difficult question, one that is perhaps not answerable in one, final way. A way to begin answering it, however, and to continue the reckoning #MeToo set into motion is something like this discussion: it is navigating this terrain together, responding to the question with more questions, drawing on ideas from other fields, and dialoguing as a community across and through different roles at the university. 

 

[1] See Megan Cerullo, “Betsy DeVos Proposes Sexual Misconduct Rules that Would Protect Alleged Offenders,” Los Angeles Times (August 29, 2018), https://www.latimes.com/ny-news-betsy-devos-sexual-misconduct-rules-20180829-story.html

[2] Note: Sulkowicz has used gender-neutral pronouns publically since 2017. See Soraya Nadia McDonald, “It’s Hard to Ignore a Woman Toting A Mattress Everywhere She Goes, Which is Why Emma Sulkowicz ss Still Doing it,” The Washington Post (October 29, 2014)https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/10/29/its-hard-to-ignore-a-woman-toting-a-mattress-everywhere-she-goes-which-is-why-emma-sulkowicz-is-still-doing-it/?utm_term=.3b684c7e19fb

[3] Claire Voon and Jillian Steinhauer, “For More Women Allege Sexual Misconduct by Chuck Close,” Hyperallergic (January 16, 2018), https://hyperallergic.com/420538/four-more-women-allege-sexual-misconduct-by-chuck-close/

[4] See published transcript, “Christine Blasey Ford’s Opening Statement for Senate Hearing,” npr.org [National Public Radio] (September 26, 2018), https://www.npr.org/2018/09/26/651941113/read-christine-blasey-fords-opening-statement-for-senate-hearing

[5] As the Guerrilla Girls pointed out in the artwork—which surely seemed overdue in 1989, too—“Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections [of the Metropolitan Museum] are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.”

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If you feel you are a survivor of sexual harassment or assault, the University of Pittsburgh has support resources, some of which can be obtained anonymously. For more information and to report, see the Office of Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Education (SHARE) https://www.studentaffairs.pitt.edu/share/

 

 

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