A petition to cease displaying a provocative painting by a major artist on the walls of New York’s Metropolitan Museum has struck a raw nerve at a moment when US society is publicly, painfully grappling with issues of sexual harassment and misconduct.
New York resident Mia Merrill launched a petition on care2 earnestly if verbosely titled “Metropolitan Museum of Art: Remove Balthus’ Suggestive Painting of a Pubescent Girl, Thérèse Dreaming.” The petition’s aim is not entirely clear, since Merrill goes on to say that she is not, despite the title, actually asking for the 1938 painting to be removed from the collection, but that the museum “more carefully vet the art on its walls.” Nor is Balthus’s fascination with young girls really news (1934’s “The Guitar Lesson” is especially notorious): it’s such a central part of his work, in fact, that his widow gave an extensive interview on the topic in 2015. Still, the petition seems to be resonating and has thus far amassed more than 8,000 signatures out of its goal of 9,000, with the assertion that, “Given the current climate around sexual assault and allegations that become more public each day, in showcasing this work for the masses, The Met is romanticizing voyeurism and the objectification of children.”
The Met has declined to stop displaying the painting. Museum spokesman Kenneth Weine told the New York Post that, “[The Met’s] mission is to collect, study, conserve, and present significant works of art across all times and cultures in order to connect people to creativity, knowledge, and ideas. … Moments such as this provide an opportunity for conversation, and visual art is one of the most significant means we have for reflecting on both the past and the present.”
On Monday, the National Coalition Against Censorship issued a statement in support of the museum, arguing that, “The protesters’ claim … fundamentally misconstrues the role of cultural institutions, which is to facilitate a diverse public’s engagement with a rich array of cultures and objects by framing and contextualizing them. … Art can often offer insights into difficult realities and, as such, merits vigorous defense.”
In a year that’s already seen major controversies about the political implications of what works museums seek to display (the Whitney Museum faced an uproar when artist and critic Hannah Black called for Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till in his casket, featured in its biennial, to be destroyed; the Guggenheim removed several significant works from its major exhibition of contemporary Chinese art after outcry from animal-rights protestors), the petition is another sticky web of important questions about representation and hard ones about censorship.