FAN 171.1 (First Amendment News) Met Refuses to Remove 1938 “Offensive” Painting — Free Speech Advocates Rally to Museum’s Defense

Throughout his career, Balthus rejected the usual conventions of the art world. . . Prime Ministers and rock stars alike attended the funeral of Balthus. Bono, lead-singer of U2, sang for the hundreds of mourners at the funeral, including the President of France . . . and others.  Elisa 47

Moral panics often inspire demands for censorship and this is no exception. The MET absolutely made the right decision.  Robert Corn-Revere

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Thérèse Dreaming (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Censorship is never a safe haven for art, be it paintings, photos, poems, films, or music. Could art, as we know it in our constitutional government, exist if it could not be offensive at times? After all, safe, sanitary, and uncontroversal art is never in need of First Amendment protection. The 1791 guaranty is there to protect art that sometimes offends, that sometimes angers, and that sometimes even trades in taboo. Or so goes the creed of the defenders of free expression who came to the defense of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s refusal to remove a painting that some critics believe depicts “the sexualization of a child.” That painitng is Thérèse Dreaming, a 1938 work by Balthus.

Here is how the Met describes it: “With closed eyes, Balthus’s pubescent model is lost in thought. Thérèse Blanchard, who was about twelve or thirteen at the time this picture was made, and her brother Hubert were neighbors of Balthus in Paris. She appears alone, with her cat, or with her brother in a series of eleven paintings done between 1936 and 1939.”

Others see it differently.  As reported by Natalie O’Neill in a story in the New York Post: “‘The artist of this painting, Balthus, had a noted infatuation with pubescent girls and this painting is undeniably romanticizing the sexualization of a child,’ writes Mia Merrill, 30, a New York City entrepreneur who started the petition. ‘Given the current climate around sexual assault … The Met is romanticizing voyeurism and the objectification of children.'”

→ See petititon: “Metropolitan Museum of Art: Remove Balthus’ Suggestive Painting of a Pubescent Girl, Thérèse Dreaming” (10,995 supporters). Here are a few excerpts from that petition:

  • “When I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art this past weekend, I was shocked to see a painting that depicts a young girl in a sexually suggestive pose. Balthus’ painting, Thérèse Dreaming, is an evocative portrait of a prepubescent girl relaxing on a chair with her legs up and underwear exposed.”

(From online petition)

  • It is disturbing that the Met would proudly display such an image. . .  The artist of this painting, Balthus, had a noted infatuation with pubescent girls, and it can be strongly argued that this painting romanticizes the sexualization of a child.”

Removal or Trigger Warning Urged

  • “I am not asking for this painting to be censored, destroyed or never seen again. I am asking The Met to seriously consider the implications of hanging particular pieces of art on their walls, and to be more conscientious in how they contextualize those pieces to the masses. This can be accomplished by either removing the piece from that particular gallery, or providing more context in the painting’s description. For example, a line as brief as, ‘some viewers find this piece offensive or disturbing, given Balthus’ artistic infatuation with young girls.‘”

Ms. Mia Merrill

 Mia Merrill Twitter message: “I put together a petition asking the Met to take down a piece of art that is undeniably romanticizing the sexualization of a child. If you are a part of the movement or ever think about the implications of art on life, please support this effort.”

Met Responds

As reported in the Post, Kenneth Weine, spokesman for the Met, stated:“[Our] 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.”

Free-Speech Advocates Defend Met

  • “The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) strongly supports The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s refusal to remove a painting that some critics believe depicts ‘the sexualization of a child.’ . . . The protesters’ claim that displaying the painting implies institutional approval of an unhealthy sexualization of young women . . . 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. . . . NCAC applauds The Met’s refusal to bow to its critics. We will continue to support cultural institutions that allow members of the public to make up their own minds about what is ‘offensive.'”

“Great museums don’t need to be lectured about the supposedly baleful impact of their exhibitions; in each generation, they need to be protected from well-meaning but art-threatening ning censors who seek to substitute their notions of morality for artistic judgments about what to paint and what to display.” — Floyd Abrams, Senior Counsel, Cahill Gordon & Reindel

— “Especially in light of the Museum’s advance notice to potential viewers that “Some of the paintings in this exhibition may be disturbing to some visitors,” it would be inappropriate for the Museum to deprive all visitors of the opportunity to view the work and to discuss the issues it illuminates. This is particularly true during this “Me Too” moment, given the important public focus on pertinent issues, including Roy Moore’s sexual pursuit of young females.” — Nadine Strossen, John Marshall Harlan II Professor of Law, New York Law School

 “The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been forced to respond to would-be censors since the 1880s. The claim of harm to children was always the easiest to make. During the era in which Comstock Laws were enforced most broadly, reproductions of nudes exhibited at the Met were deemed obscene, burned and destroyed, while the originals were held to be art, and therefore not subject to suppression. Claims were made by Comstock and his employers about the ways in which the particular effects of originals ameliorated their ‘bad tendencies’ but in reality this responded to the political problems raised by questioning the morals of wealthy donors. Bravo, Met, once again.” — Amy Werbel, Associate Professor, Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York and author of Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock (forthcoming 2018)

Woodhull Freedom Foundation does not support censorship in any form, especially when it comes to works of art that raise troubling themes. We do support high standards for interpretive materials and believe that at their best they should reflect the most current understanding or knowledge about an artist, issue, historical era, or work of art. While coverage of this petition has focused on the call to remove the work, we do note that the author of the petition offers a choice, where providing better interpretive material would facilitate the display of the work in question.”  — Elizabeth Wood, Senior Strategist, Woodhull Freedom Foundation

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1 Response

  1. Amy Werbel says:

    The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been forced to respond to would-be censors since the 1880s. The claim of harm to children was always the easiest to make. During the era in which Comstock Laws were enforced most broadly, reproductions of nudes exhibited at the Met were deemed obscene, burned and destroyed, while the originals were held to be art, and therefore not subject to suppression. Claims were made by Comstock and his employers about the ways in which the particular effects of originals ameliorated their ‘bad tendencies’ but in reality this responded to the political problems raised by questioning the morals of wealthy donors. Bravo, Met, once again.