A petition containing over 11,000 signatures has surfaced demanding that the Metropolitan Museum of Art remove a painting by the famous French artist known as Balthus from public display. The Met is standing by the painting. It should.
Made in 1938 and titled Thérèse Dreaming, the painting is creepy. A young woman lounges, leaning backward, one foot on the ground, another raised on a stool so as to hike her skirt high enough to glimpse her underwear. Nearby a cat laps a bowl of milk. Some have suggested the folds of fabric are labia. Others that a man should never make this kind of work, so sexually uncomfortable. The petition states “Given the current climate around sexual assault and allegations that become more public each day, in showcasing this work for the masses, The Met is romanticizing voyeurism and the objectification of children.” The petition’s author, Mia Merrill, goes on to propose that the work be replaced with another by a female artist of the same period.
Balthus has long been singled out for protest. The Guitar Lesson, a painting of a clothed woman with one breast exposed seeming to strum a splayed-legged naked young girl’s exposed vulva was shown, covered, for 15 days in 1934 in Paris at Galerie Pierre. It appeared for a month at Pierre Matisse’s 57th Street gallery. It has never publicly been exhibited again.
Of course, Balthus is not alone in this. Modigliani’s nudes were similarly singled out for protest in the teens; his only solo exhibition caused a scandal for its depiction of female pubic hair. The great outsider visionary Henry Darger has given us his world of Vivian Girls — many naked, most sporting penises. To say nothing of Picasso’s vivisections of female forms where anus, breast, eyes, mouth, vulva, and face is seen all at the same time, all on the same plane.
But Balthus’s Thérèse Dreaming is somehow even more complicated — it places us at the nexus between banality, innocence, nascent sexuality, guttural taboo, flinching recognition, and something more than casual. We do live in a culture that sexualizes young women; a man did make this; and the work can be read as titillation. But so can many other similar images of young people, including many that we now view as so canonized they may even bore us. For centuries the explicitness pictured in Michelangelo’s tremendous Sistine Chapel was painted over and censors more than once tried to paint over it completely. Caravaggio’s naked young man Cupid looks directly at us with an invitation to pleasure. Bernini portrays rape and female masturbation; Degas gives us unprotected teenage ballerinas totally exposed, dressed so that the structures between their legs become the foci of paintings — to say nothing of his portrayals of young girls in bordellos. The most famous painting of the 20th century, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, portrays five naked prostitutes blatantly offering themselves.
It is true that all of these works were rendered by men — who until the last century were virtually the only ones allowed to practice art — and as such all may be called privileged, chauvinistic, and even one-sided. And protest of art should come as no surprise; in many ways it is a sign of art’s complexity that it generates a wide variety of responses. In fact, the disinclination, distrust, fear, offense, or even hatred of images, words, and ideas is as old as art itself. People have been burned at the stake for it. Botticelli paintings were deemed too pleasurable and went up in Savonarola’s bonfire of the vanities in 1497. Countless naked statues have been smashed to smithereens over the centuries. Especially in the West, sex has been highly charged contested territory since the fourth century after Christ. (Although this is not to say that protest is always the bourgeois against the libertine — there have been protests against the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, rap, rock-and-roll, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Andres Serrano, or Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary.)
Balthus is a tricky artist. And in our particular time, more unsettling. But I don’t think that is enough. I’ve written that Balthus can be “obnoxious, cheesy, and stiff.” His surrealism implies sadomasochism and erotica. Personally, I don’t love Balthus’s work. But I grant that his art is Modern without being abstract and that it’s charged with some half-human hair-raising overweening need, rage, frustration, and restraint. What makes a work like Thérèse Dreaming worth defending is that every person brings something different to it at a different time and that there’s no one correct read of it, no matter “the current climate.” Like all good art, Thérèse Dreaming presents a paradox; it is about more than one thing at the same time. Even in our rush to protect the innocent, curtail creeps, and assume the moral high ground, art can never abandon paradox. Unlike pornography, which we know it when we see it, Balthus throws us into a nether region of being unsure of what we’re seeing at all. Even if it’s only coy, that’s still not all that it is.
And in the long run, if we remove the Balthus because it offends in the current climate, we pretty much have to remove whole wings of art from the Met. The art of India, Greece, Rome, and Africa is rife with bestiality, orgies, blatant nakedness, and sex. Much of the art of Oceania depicts exaggerated phalluses and vulva. Japanese art flagrantly breaks every taboo. Numberless Rococo paintings give us masturbation, exhibitionism, voyeurism, young girls using dogs in suggestive ways, trysts with every age. Titian’s ravaging masterpiece Venus of Urbino (1534) depicts a young woman wearing nothing, immodestly looking at us, her hand creeping toward her sex. Goya portrayed full-frontal nakedness with pubic hair, executions, the rape of children, and cannibalism. Van Gogh and Gauguin’s teenage nudes, most of Impressionism, German Expressionism, Klimt, Munch, Egon Schiele, and much of Picasso and Matisse would fall under suspicion. All of this art can be read as sexually transgressive. One of the things that makes art so rich, infinite, and all-embracing is that there’s always something to offend someone somewhere sometime. When that ends, so will art.