IS IT UNSAFE TO LOOK AT DISTURBING ART?
Over 7500 New Yorkers have petitioned the Metropolitan Museum of Art to remove a 1938 painting of a young woman with her underwear exposed. The reason given was the “current climate around sexual assault.” As of yesterday, the museum refused stating it won’t remove the painting because art is meant to reflect many time periods — not just the current one.
The painting, “Thérèse Dreaming” by the French artist Balthus, depicts a young girl in a skirt with her knee up on a chair. It’s not explicit, and any perversion or sexual discomfort is in the eye of the beholder. Balthus himself stated:
"The misinterpretation of my paintings resulted from this young girls issue. Because there are pedophiles, as they're called, whose feelings for children stem, undoubtedly, from a sick mind. Whereas for me, a young girl like Anna for instance, is untouchable."
Whether we accept Balthus explanation or not, the question is this: if the art were removed — what would we be protected from? How does it make us safer? Does removing the Balthus from the Met mean that fewer perverts would show up to cruise the museum? Are viewers thinking too much about underwear? Should we not see cats feeding on milk indoors?
In 2013, when the Met hosted the exhibit "Balthus: Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations," the museum put a plaque at the start of the show: "Some of the paintings in this exhibition may be disturbing to some visitors."
Disturbing the viewer is one of the valuable functions of art. Art can jolt your thinking, waking you from the safety of white-bread normality to something other than mainstream commercialized culture. Ever since 9/11, America has been frantically normalizing towards a safer culture. We are banning yo-yos and balloons for children. No ladders or flip-flops allowed in the office. Everybody wear a helmet. It’s the law.
Removing a work of art from view because it upsets someone is not just a form of censorship, it’s social conditioning. This is what psychologists call “compliance,” a social pressure that urges an individual to act in a particular way. There are many social factors (peers, location, etc.) that create pressures to comply. If everyone among your friends agreed the Balthus should be removed from the museum, you’d be more likely to publicly agree and go along with the crowd. You'd be weak and comply. This is human nature.
Does anyone in our culture have the responsibility to push back against the pressure towards normalization and safety? Yes, this is one of the things artists are supposed to do. Artists have made unsafe art from DADA to the Chapman Brothers. Go out today and make some unsafe art, before it’s against the law.