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This Saturday, November 3, artist Michelle Hartney stealthily redecorated the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a series of plaques wielding feminist messages about artistically heralded but morally dubious male artists like Pablo Picasso and Paul Gauguin.
“I didn’t know if they would arrest me or ban me,” Hartney told Hyperallergic. “But if that’s a consequence, I’m willing to face that.”
“The Me Too movement gave me the push to start incorporating justice for women within the art world,” she explains. She says that while her work has always taken influence from feminist ideologies (including underacknowledged realities like the devastating maternal mortality rate) she felt discomfited by what she considers the art industry’s general dismissal of the cultural reform the increasingly popular movement called for.
Rather than censoring the artworks or banning their creators, Hartney says her goal is “contextualizing these pieces for people who are coming to the museum and learning about these artists for the first time.”
“We have to leave these [paintings] up so we can learn from them,” she affirms.
Beside Picasso’s “The Dreamer,” Hartney affixed a label explaining her “Performance/Call to Action,” with a quoted excerpt from Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix comedy special, Nanette. Gadsby condemns Picasso for his illegal affair with a 17-year-old girl, Marie-Thérèse Walter, saying, “Picasso suffered … the mental illness of misogyny … He said, ‘Each time … I leave a woman, I should burn her. Destroy the woman, you destroy the past she represents.’”
French post-Impressionist painter Paul Gaugin, in his adulthood, married several teenage girls native to the South Pacific after moving to the region. Next to his painting “Two Tahitian Women,” Hartney sampled an excerpt from an article by Roxane Gay on predators’ legacies, called, “Can I Enjoy the Art but Denounce the Artist?”
“There are all kinds of creative people who are brilliant and original and enigmatic and capable of treating others with respect,” Gay writes. “There is no scarcity of creative genius, and that is the artistic work we can and should turn to instead.”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art told Hyperallergic the museum has opted not to make a statement, but that the labels were removed as soon as they were discovered. Hartney says she has not been contacted by the museum.
The artist told Hyperallergic that earlier this year she staged a similar protest-performance at her alma mater, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which was displaying a painting by Balthus, a painter and photographer known for depicting pre-pubescent girls in sexualized positions.
Inspired by a 2017 petition by Mia Merrill called, “Metropolitan Museum of Art: Remove Balthus’ Suggestive Painting of a Pubescent Girl, Thérèse Dreaming,” which asked the Met to “more carefully vet the art on its walls,” Hartney titled her performance, “Correcting Art History: How Many Crotch Shots of a Little Girl Does It Take to Make a Painting?” She says the school threatened to revoke her alumni status, but the plaques remained up for four days.