The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have become integral to shaping the way sexual assault is viewed and dealt with on an individual and institutional level. From Harvey Weinstein to John Kricfalusi long known and newly outed rapists are being ostracized in droves. Workplaces are making a concerted effort to address and reduce sexual violence because they recognize the way harassment can negatively impact people. Yet the art world struggles to keep up with other industries. Common justifications for the presence of known abusers claiming that the art is good enough that it doesn’t matter what its creator did, or that viewers need to separate the art from the artist. This brings up the vital question, why is committing sexual assault, in most cases, not damaging to artists’ careers and legacies?
A major factor in the way abusive artists are treated comes down to how art itself is treated. Mary Devereaux says that one can view art in one of two ways. One view is of art as inherently political, and should be subject to criticism based on the values it promotes. The other is that art has an intrinsic value, and we as a society are obligated to protect art from “government and other forms of outside interference.” The latter view becomes problematic when it is paired with the assumption that criticism of an artist or artwork is an attack on free speech rather than another expression of it. The goal of this kind of criticism isn’t to make moralistic value judgments of an artist’s body of work based on their actions. Such judgments can and have been used to censor artists, as was the case with Robert Mapplethorpe in 1989. Instead the goal is to take into consideration how the presence of abusive artists and their artwork effects survivors of abuse and sexual assault.
To someone with no experience or concern regarding sexual assault it may seem inconsequential for someone like Pablo Picasso, who had sex with underage girls, to be hanging in museums without commenting on his past. However, the fame of an artist like Picasso speaks multitudes about the value of victims of sexual assault, mostly women, in the art world. By viewing art as unimpeachable and the artist above criticism and accountability we as a society are teaching people, particularly young men, how to become sexual abusers by glorifying rapists and excusing their actions. But that is only one part of the issue. Sexual assault is described as “a model of controlling women and keeping them in a state of perpetual fear,” meaning that sexual assault is not about the perpetrator gaining sexual satisfaction, but in reality is “an act of domination,” meant to keep women “in line” in a sense. Historically sexual assault has not been considered a crime against the victim of the assault, but rather a crime against the victim’s guardian or spouse. The inability to see the victims of sexual assault as the true victims leaves a void when women stop being property. The figure society saw as the victims of this crime have disappeared, and the crime with it.
The Truth On Assault states that “Rape is the final state of abuse, and so all the stations of abuse that approach it fall under the shadow of rape,” meaning that sexual abuse is not just the physical assault but the words, actions, and relationships that lead up to the assault. Extending this logic, by doing something to enable another person to commit assault, one is also engaging in said assault. By allowing known abusers into art institutions and by giving them recognition, those institutions and the individuals are tacitly approving of the abuse and will alienate the victim from engaging in art spaces where the abuser is present.
In effect allowing abusers into these spaces forces their victims out, and sends the message to other potential victims that their safety is secondary to the abuser’s career. That alienation, whether done consciously or subconsciously, is exactly what many of these abusers want. As was previously stated, sexual assault is a method of control, and intimidation. Famous artists use the cultural capital gained from their fame to “assert hierarchical superiority,” over less privileged members of arts communities. But if these artists already have all this power and capital, what purpose does pushing women and other victims of sexual assault out of art spaces have? Jennifer Doyle posits that these men are simply threatened. Men, particularly affluent, white, cisgender, and heterosexual men feel the need to protect the spaces they believe to be theirs, and theirs alone. Their poor treatment of women, and many other marginalized groups underrepresented in art spaces, comes from a place of anxiety of the “erosion of white men’s sense of entitlement,” if it becomes a fair race for everyone they become concerned that they may not come out on top anymore.
The easy answer is kicking known abusers out of the scene. Stop giving them shows, stop giving them features, stop funding their work. But many find the waters much muddier when it comes to abusers in art history, as highlighted in Emily Wilson’s article on the subject. Many art historians feel that the outright exclusion of anything made by an abusive artist would ultimately be erasing large swaths of art history. As individual artists and consumers of art we too can take action. Throughout many social and professional circles in and outside art whisper networks are formed out of necessity. They function as a way of warning others against abusive or dangerous individuals. We can bring these whisper networks out of the shadows and shout to all those around us what we say everybody knows. Name those abusers, refuse to attend their shows, and do anything you can to make sure that no unsuspecting person unknowingly becomes their victims.
We can’t undo the damage those artists did, but we can reframe their work. It is still a disservice to victims of sexual assault to erase these artists without a word. Instead we should use them as examples.
On an individual level we can look at the artwork we consume, and who might have been hurt in its making, and decide for ourselves whether or not we’re still okay with what the artists did and who they may have hurt. On an institutional level we must leave those personal feeling aside in order to foster a safer environment for everyone. Instead of glorifying abusive artists we can highlight the way the consequences of their actions were excused in the name of art. We can still learn from these artists, though not in the ways we once did.