Essays

How the Art World, and Art Schools, Are Ripe for Sexual Abuse

The art world is structured in a way that enables abuses, and the problem is especially acute at art schools.

Edgar Degas, “Interior (The Rape)” (1868–69) (via Wikipedia)

This is not the first time I have written about sexual harassment, and it probably won’t be the last. In 1994, I published an account of my experience as a caged Amerindian, a performance I created with Guillermo Gómez-Peña. At the end of my cataloguing of the audience’s unexpected reactions to us, I detailed an experience that I had had at the age of 22. That encounter made me understand viscerally just how invested Europeans and Americans were in the racist fantasies that I had explored in the performance. Though that essay has been republished dozens of times and I receive requests for interviews about the performance to this day, no one ever asked me about the perpetrator. I hadn’t mentioned his name because he was still alive at the time and I worried that he might retaliate. He’s dead now.

I was sexually accosted by the renowned ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch, who is credited with having invented a better way to look at Africans. At that time he was in his 60s. I was in Paris looking for work and he invited me to a meeting that was supposed to be about a film job. Ironically, he found me by calling my mother in New York, who did not find cause to mistrust the request. Instead of taking me to a meeting with a producer at a nearby restaurant according to the agreed-upon plan, Rouch drove me over an hour away to his house in the countryside in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere. There, he proceeded to strip down to a thong that was partially hidden by his protruding belly, prance about his yard and grill a steak. He handed me a basket and told me to go hunt for nuts and berries as if I were a preindustrial nomad, and ranted on about how he wanted to act out his dreams with me. I stayed in his car, unwilling to join in his theatrics, but puzzled as to how to leave since I had no idea where I was or how to get back to Paris. Since I didn’t cooperate, he became antagonistic during the ride back, deriding me as naive, grabbing at me while he drove and eventually tearing my shirt before I opened the car door at a traffic light and ran off.

I had met Rouch at a conference at Harvard the year before. I was a senior in college at the time, interning with a documentary crew that was making a film about Laotian refugees in Rhode Island. The male film directors I worked for were very happy that I had caught the eye of the master. Rouch seemed impressed by my fluent French and said he wanted to stay in touch. My much younger self thought it was safe to give him a campus PO box for an address. I received a postcard from him about how he dreamed of me as an incarnation of André Breton’s Nadja that I did not answer. I thought he was crazy and my French lit professors had not taught me to contemplate the uses of Surrealism for seduction. But the following year, I was alone in Paris and frustrated by my inability to find the fulfilling work. Everywhere I went, I was subject to unwanted advances from men — in the street, on the metro, at interviews for jobs teaching English. I thought that I could keep Rouch under control if I met him in a public place, but he outsmarted me. Shortly after the incident with Rouch, I was sexually accosted by the sociology professor who was renting me a room. He came onto me one afternoon when his wife was out at work. At that point, I lost my nerve, packed my bags and returned to the US.

Back in New York, I went to work for artists who were part of the downtown scene of the early ’80s. I had just finished a degree in Semiotics, which meant I knew something about poststructuralist theory. At the time, “Theory” was all the rage and more than a few avant-garde artists were trying to wrap their heads around its dense language. I got invited to lots of art parties and recall bantering about Lacan and Derrida to the delight of male artists two or three times my age. At one party, a very famous Conceptualist took over a bathroom and offered lines of cocaine to women in exchange for blowjobs — I didn’t go in, but I knew others who did. At another, someone gave me a laced joint that knocked me out. I woke up with a male artist on top of me. I dragged myself out of bed in a stupor, grabbed my stuff, and stumbled out of the apartment in the middle of night, wandering near the Brooklyn Bridge until I found a cab. I knew that if I made a fuss, I’d pay a price or be blamed. Lucky for me I didn’t have suicidal thoughts or nightmares. I figured that this was the way things were in the art world. I moved on.

It has been quite interesting to witness the recent explosion of confessional narratives from women who have been the targets of sexual harassment, and the indignation expressed by arts professionals who seek to distance themselves from the status of enablers. The moralistic tone of the denunciations is so far from the libertine and libertarian attitudes that are usually expressed in the art world. I’ve been particularly observant of the way the art world has weighed in on this matter, knowing that this professional milieu is the perfect place for sexual predators. The art world’s most important business goes on in private and is hardly subject to public scrutiny. The art world is a largely unregulated industry in which the rich and powerful that dominate see themselves as being above the law. It’s a business that requires endless socializing, where deals are sealed over drinks, in expensive restaurants, swanky clubs and high-end hotels. Artists who want commercial success are supposed to humor and indulge their collectors — and that can include sitting in their laps when asked. It’s a professional environment in which beauty, allure, and the erotic function as currency and those who have it flaunt it. While airlines dropped the requirement that flight attendants look like models long ago, the art world has not done so for its gallerinas. It’s also a trade that celebrates big egos, narcissists, rogues, pranksters, and madmen, and defends blatant sexual exhibitionism as an art form. I’m not complaining — I’m just recognizing what is out there. Prudishness is usually laughed at. Dwelling on abjection was even written off years ago by art historian Hal Foster as a problematic no-no.

So what’s all the indignation about now? Who is really surprised about sexual harassment? I’m old enough to recognize that not everyone in the art business thought that sexualizing business transactions was so terrible, not so long ago —  like last year. Those skeptics are the silent majority. Yes, there is a certain degree of power in numbers — those who doubt the veracity of the accounts of sexual harassment are less likely to publicly attack the accusers in the current climate, and fear of negative economic consequences has pushed industries to disassociate themselves from accused perpetrators — for now. But I harbor doubts about this display of moral outrage and I suspect it will be temporary. Even though thousands signed the Not Surprised letter (I did too), some people, including some women, disagree with the notion that the scenarios being described by purported victims actually constitute sexual harassment. Younger women in the art world who may enjoy the erotic attention they receive or imagine themselves as empowered by it often have the most difficulty conceiving of themselves as victims — I know I did in my 20s. The idea that women ask for it, or that the sex is actually consensual, or that it is not really harmful to anyone, or that the so-called victims are using the moment to take men down and elevate themselves has always been there and will remain. At some point, when the art world is done with its current display of righteousness, I imagine that a famous and filthy-rich art world personage who is accused of sexual harassment will hire a kickass lawyer who will make it so risky, so costly and so humiliating to challenge him that he will effectively put an end to the hollering.

While it has been mentioned in many articles that sexual harassment scenarios often involve victims who are young and unknown and victimizers who are older and empowered, the concerns about sexual predation in the art world thus far have not focused on art school. This to me is a strange omission, given that art schools are by their very nature full of young people who are mentored by older and predominantly male people in authority. Art schools are laboratories in which students not only learn to make art but also how to behave like artists. And at top- tier schools, where the ties to the art market are most pronounced, students learn quickly that their professional success is linked to their willingness to play by the rules — including exchanging sex for access to power, money, and important people. I’m not trying to say that art schools are the only educational institutions where this happens — there have been more than a few articles of late about beleaguered graduate students in other fields who have been sexually harassed by mentors. But there are peculiarities to art school that make the harassment difficult to identify. Some factors have to do with how students themselves perceive what they do. Others have to do with how men bond to protect themselves from scrutiny and how educational institutions seek to shield themselves from scandal and litigation. The last key factor I will point to is the misogynistic way that female whistleblowers are punished so as to destroy them professionally without revealing the underlying causes of the attacks against them.

Art schools are places where students spend hours drawing naked people and occasionally disrobe in classes, their studios and exhibits. In class, art professors, myself included, teach them that sex is a legitimate subject matter with a long and venerable history, and that even most feminists are not anti-porn. I don’t have to dig too deep into the history of performance art to find documentation of artists wanking off, playing with sex toys, having sex with strangers or talking dirty — and I have never thought I should hide those works from students. We may, from time to time, warn students about the potential repercussions of sexually aggressive content in their work, but I would have trouble shutting them down.

Unlike their nerdier counterparts in the humanities and sciences, who work at computer stations and in libraries, art students spend endless unsupervised night hours in studios where “work” is mixed with hanging out, partying, and visits from older artists. Prominent art schools are full of arts professionals who are not career teachers — they drop by as visiting artists, critics, and curators who don’t necessarily look at students as students, just as young artists — or even as prey. Exchanges are deeply personal, and students are often quite emotional and vulnerable. In MFA programs, most interaction is one-on-one and goes on behind closed doors where are there are no witnesses. Even though the studio doors are closed, however, news travels. Some students wear their sexual trysts as badges of pride. Neighbors notice little things. When this or that student suddenly gets invited to show in a gallery, sells a piece or is chosen for a special meeting with an influential curator, rumors fly.

It’s not as if what I write here is news to those who work in art schools. There are some administrators who act swiftly when they hear about a guest or an adjunct that has crossed the line — it’s easy to get rid of them and look holy. At my first full-time teaching job I was asked to plan a panel discussion and reached out to a local curator, only to discover when I turned in my list of speakers that he had been banned for a dalliance with a student. But things get a bit more complicated when the perpetrators are faculty with some form of job security and seniority. Not only is it an arduous process to force them out of their jobs, but their relationships with students are far more complicated, which often shields them from accusations. In addition, bonds among male professors who want to protect not only their male colleagues but also themselves from public humiliation, are reinforced by the defensive strategies of powerful universities that seek to avoid scandal and fend off men’s rights advocates who threaten them privately with legal action for giving credence too easily to the accusations of purported victims. That may explain the hilarious measures taken at some universities to reign in the misbehavior of tenured faculty — at one place where I taught for several years, there was lots of lore about humanities professors whose office doors had been removed to prevent them from groping students. I once served on a faculty senate “task force” on sexual misconduct, and soon discovered that the underlying goal was to persuade us to recommend that accusations from alleged victims not be taken on face value, precisely to diminish the threat of litigation from men’s rights groups.

Most students are aware of what’s going on when professors are having sex with students, and they also know they are not supposed to talk about it in public. Few want to risk falling out of favor with the men who wield power over them. If they are attending private art schools, they are likely to be heavily in debt and more susceptible to promises of sales and shows from professors and visitors who are trying to get in their pants. Others don’t want to be seen as prudes, or as jealous if they are not the objects of affection. They don’t want to become pariahs. Some don’t think it’s wrong at all. Still others believe that a good way to deal with the matter is to make art about it. I remember when I paid my first visit to an Ivy League art school in the mid-1990s, I visited the studio of a female student who proceeded to tell me once she shut her door that she was having an affair with a professor. She explained that circulating that rumor constituted the “performance” that was her thesis project. When I left the studio, the professor in question was waiting for me outside her door to tell me that he had an attorney to defend him against the allegations and that the student was lying. I honestly didn’t know how to respond or what to think of it, other than that sex between professors and students was sufficiently integral to art school culture to have become the stuff of art.

That professor sought to defend himself with an attorney, but most male professors I’ve dealt with choose far less direct means of guarding the privilege of being able to engage in sex acts with students with utter impunity. They placate students with favors, maintain stories at the level of deniable rumor, and attack whistleblowers mercilessly. They promote their student paramours and endear themselves to everyone by lowering the bar on grades to “if you have sex with me I like your work and you pass.” Occasionally, they get exposed — I once worked in a school where the rumors flew about a professor who had allegedly been sued for sexual harassment by a student — apparently, he was dumb enough to leave a paper trail of sex-crazed emails. He had not only held on to his job but had been promoted and, rumor had it, continued to pursue students. Not surprisingly, he was not the only male professor who was the subject of rumors about carrying on with students — word on the whisper network was that the majority of them were, and they protected each other. Years before I got there, a female faculty member had tried to alert the administration to the sexual misconduct of one of the guys, and she subsequently found herself terminated for failing a professional review. Of course, the review was all about how her professional performance was substandard. The guys knew just how to stir students up enough to get them to say nasty things on evaluations — all they had to do was strike up conversations over beers with a few of them about how horrible or boring or mean the teacher was, and the next thing you knew the whole gaggle of them were checking the “baddie” boxes. My female colleagues and I knew about that whistleblower and why the guys went after her. And we knew what would happened if we talked. Once, upon hearing the umpteenth story about a male faculty member using studio visits for quickies with a female student, I asked a law professor if there was anything I could do and he said to keep quiet because that was hearsay and talking about it would be my undoing.

This is where I diverge from the position that film-studies professor Laura Kipnis takes regarding sex between faculty and students. She argues that college campuses have become overwhelmed by sexual paranoia, seeing all encounters as exploitative and thereby perpetuating myths and fantasies about power.  She waxes nostalgic for the “good old days” when professors and students were ok about having sex, saying it was just about them and nobody else got hurt. While I agree with Kipnis’s desire to ensure that universities honor the goal of educating students in critical thinking, I cannot agree with her rosy characterization of the pre-Title IX past or her view that there are no deleterious effects when professors feel free to sleep with students. The good old days she refers to are ones I also lived through as a young adult fending off sexual predators. I have peers from that era who felt compelled to have sex with their dissertation advisors to get those coveted recommendations, and others who kept silent about being sexually accosted out of fear. It wasn’t pretty. What’s more, it didn’t just affect them. The rest of us knew we were not being judged in the same way. We were not being valued for our work, but for our attractiveness. We knew that a good grade, a recommendation, or even a job could be obtained by other means. The clandestine but rampant culture of sex between students and professors degraded the learning atmosphere and distracted us. We can’t sue for damages because of that but it was hardly what we went to school looking for.

Things got worse when I became an art professor, a woman professor in a milieu dominated by men who were ready to fight tooth and nail to maintain their art school version of Animal House. Once upon a time, I was stupid enough to complain when male professors would tell students to skip my class in order to attend their openings — I just could not believe they were so in need of adulation that they would step on me to get it. The students are the weak link in such a scenario — they are unlikely to challenge people who traffic in professional favors, share their drugs and booze, and take them to high-profile openings as a way of “teaching” them about the world of art. Steamy sex scenes in the studio are just an extension of the broader culture of hipster bravado that the students are taught to adapt to. By contrast, my female colleagues and I had the temerity to ask them to read and that did not sit well — with the students or the male professors. If we weren’t going to join the party, then we were supposed to accept a minor role as hand-holders for the more insecure students and nothing more. I will never forget an exchange I once had with a male boss rumored to be a serial predator who told me that he had studied the MFA Handbook and could find no indication that students should have to read or write anything to get a degree. At that point, I knew my days were numbered. Some might argue that sex with students doesn’t necessarily lead to the implosion of educational values. Based on what I’ve lived through, I beg to differ. There is a respectful distance that is essential to maintaining a pedagogical culture of fairness and ethical treatment of students, over whom we as teachers wield power. It pains me to know that I work in a milieu in which many of my peers try to find ways around that.

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