Almost no one argues that the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements weren’t long overdue, and that the cause of aggrieved women is a righteous one, supported by men who agree that many of their gender egregiously misbehave in or out of the workplace.
But like any movement, particularly ones that have gone viral in this social-media-driven new day, an excess of righteousness can creep in along the fringes. Not every perceived offense, or even actual offense, should draw the penalty of a ruined career or irretrievable reputation.
A recent example deserves some pushback.
The National Gallery of Art announced that it is indefinitely postponing an exhibition by Chuck Close. The reason? Several women said the acclaimed artist asked them to disrobe and that he made inappropriate remarks. Some complained that he offered money as they left his studio.
The problem — aside from lack of due process — is that Chuck Close is an artist best known for his portraiture, but also for his nudes. A woman invited to an artist’s studio to audition as a model should not be shocked if he asks her to take off her clothes.
Evidently, the women who complained about his behavior complied. We know this because they also said he remarked about one or more of their body parts. One woman quoted him as describing her vagina as “beautiful.” She also said he looked at her from uncomfortably close proximity.
Such accusations are rampant in the #MeToo torrent — many, if not most of them, supported by the sheer number of women complaining about the same behavior by the same offender, most notably movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.
Women felt intimidated into submitting. Those who did not are also justifiably outraged — particularly if such powerful men get away with it for years, if not decades.
But what makes the Chuck Close case very different — aside from the expectation that nudity will be involved — is that the artist is a quadriplegic who uses a wheelchair. An offended woman could simply get dressed and walk out, or decline to undress at all.
Close is powerless to stop them, much less overpower them physically. Could he ruin their careers as models? Perhaps. But then if they’re unwilling to pose nude, is there a modeling career for them in fine art? Further, artists generally pay models. It’s a stretch to suggest his offer to pay these women was intended to silence them.
The National Gallery of Art show was to open in May and has been delayed for at least a year. Is the museum just waiting for the furor to die down?
For a better example of how to handle this controversy, we turn to Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The current Chuck Close exhibition there, a touring show organized by the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, where it was launched in 2015, remains open until its planned April closing date. Meanwhile, academy students and faculty are assembling an adjoining exhibit tracing the history and anticipating the future of gender issues.
Works by Close, who long maintained a studio in Bridgehampton, are in the permanent collections of the Parrish and the Guild Hall Museum in East Hampton. A Close piece was on display at Guild Hall until a show from its collection closed Dec. 31 — just as complaints about his conduct surfaced.
Artists have drawn, painted, sculpted or photographed nudes throughout history — even longer if you count cave etchings. If museums took down masterpieces by every long-dead male artist who ever mistreated a muse — Picasso, Gauguin and Caravaggio come to mind — or worse, committed rape, murder or pedophilia, gallery walls would be denuded of nudes. What’s next? Banning offending art books from libraries?
Steve Parks, now retired, was an arts writer for Newsday.
Correction: This article has been updated to clarify that The National Art Gallery is not part of the Smithsonian Institution.