Women have played the role of artistic muse for millennia, serving as the objects of desire, lust, and love in paintings that offer depictions ranging from fully clothed to stark naked portrayals of the female persona.
Did these women pose willingly? Maybe. One cannot be sure.
Did some women suffer sexual assault or harassment from male artists who wished to portray their figures? Undoubtedly.
In the midst of the #MeToo movement which has spread an awareness of the magnitude of sexual assault and harassment via social media, museums must ask themselves how they fit into such a movement.
Most recently, Chuck Close has been accused of predatory behaviors toward his female subjects, but these accusations also stem back to ancient Greek pottery and painting, Manet, and even Picasso.
So how do we, as museums, deal with the uncomfortable imbalance of power that so often occurred between artist and subject throughout history?
Some might say remove the art- as protesters against Balthus’ work at the Met did, but censoring the exploitation of female subjects, would be censoring a lot of classical work, from Roman murals to the Renaissance to Impressionism, and in a sense would be censoring a large part of human history.
The artwork themselves are not a crime, but the stories behind the inspiration and the relationships between artist and subject may have been,
Museums should acknowledge these heinous acts within their actual context, and discuss the difficult history that surrounds such works. If there is a problematic story surrounding a work, tell it. Celebrate and honor the subjects and the humanity of the works, not the illicit artist.
Furthermore, to throw the buzzword relevance into the mix, museums would do well to tie these past examples of exploitation to current movements against oppression, gender inequality, racism and misogyny. There must be a learning dichotomy for these works that contextualizes the political, social, and racial scenes of these paintings, the problems with the scenes, and a call to action about what we can do today to eliminate these types of power structures in modern day history .
Therefore in addition to social media, #MeToo should be able to find another platform within museums through which difficult topics can be discussed within context, and the stories of those subjected to the acts of corrupt and debauched artists can give voice to those who have been oppressed and silenced by such acts.