November 14, 2018

Male Hysteria

At a recent Shabbat dinner, my host launched into a diatribe over a “two-page story” in The New York Times which allegedly argues that Picasso’s art should be ripped from museum walls due to his treatment of women.

“That’s censorship!” my host declaimed.

He mixed in other metaphors to describe his feelings about the #MeToo movement, equating it to “burning down forests and cities.”

I’m not sure how a few men losing their jobs is the same thing as a forest fire, but I got the subtext of his symbolism: He’s panicked.

We’re only a few months into probably the most significant public reckoning over sexual misconduct in history and already we’ve heard alarms bells ring over a female-driven “sex panic.” More and more we hear people cautioning that the #MeToo movement has gone too far, even though few of the predatory and powerful men who have been outed and ousted from their positions of public honor have actually been charged with a crime.

Nevertheless, all these angry, vengeful women are steering society into very dangerous waters: I mean, censor Picasso?

“That’s what the worst communist and fascist regimes in history did to the art of their day,” my host said. “Is that what you want?”

When a newspaper article about one of the prevalent social issues of the decade provokes comparisons to Stalinist communism, I’d say such a reaction is a sign of male panic.

After dinner, I tried to look up the article in question, but couldn’t find it. “Picasso + New York Times” yielded a story about the portraitist Chuck Close, whose show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington was recently postponed due to sexual harassment allegations. That piece explored the question of what to do about the artwork of artists who have behaved badly — including Caravaggio, who was accused of murder.

But the article my friend was referring to —  “Shock of the Nude” by Holland Cotter — wasn’t an article about Picasso at all (which explains why I couldn’t find it) but an art review of the career retrospective of artist Carolee Schneemann.

In it, there are about five lines relevant to Picasso (his name is mentioned only once) in which Cotter muses:

“Which modern misogynist will be yanked from museums next? Gauguin? Picasso? I say, sure, why not? Let’s set them aside for awhile, give them a rest, make room for what we never see, which means art by almost any woman you can name.”

The rest of the article is devoted solely to Schneemann’s work, but let’s discuss that first paragraph: “Set them aside for awhile” is hardly a declaration of censorship. Rather, Cotter is suggesting we take a break from the artists we’ve worshipped for forever in order to make room for artists we’ve been unable or unwilling to see.

Without having read the article, I suggested as much at dinner but my host couldn’t hear it. His hysteria over the changing tide caused by the #MeToo movement blinds him to the truths being revealed.

The only reason there isn’t a female Picasso is because she was ignored, spurned, ridiculed, marginalized, not given the opportunities of her peers and relegated to the dust bin of (art) history. As Amanda Hess wrote in a different article for the Times, “[Male artists’] offenses have affected the paths of other artists, determining which rise to prominence and which are harassed or shamed out of work.”

While it is true some outstanding female artists managed to break through in that man’s world — including Frida Kahlo, Mary Cassatt, Louise Bourgeois, Marlene Dumas and, indeed, Carolee Schneemann — far too many more lived, and continue to live, in obscurity.

It is mostly the art of men that adorns the walls of the world’s great museums — from the Louvre to the Prado to the Uffizi — even as the bodies of women are splashed onto their canvases and offered for the viewer’s pleasure.

These realizations don’t have to be threatening. No one is saying, “Burn Picasso’s paintings.” They’re saying, let’s use this unique moment to take a break from our patriarchal myopia to see and celebrate something new.

And I say, sure, why not?