The Metropolitan Museum of Art has made the right decision, to reject the demands of an online petition calling for the removal of an erotically charged work by the Polish French artist Balthus. The 1938 painting, “Thérèse Dreaming,” shows an adolescent girl sitting on a chair, with one leg raised to expose her undergarments. The petition, which has gained more than 9,000 signatures, argues that the painting “romanticizes the sexualization of a child.”
There is a difficult and emotional conversation to be had about Balthus's works, which frequently depicted adolescent or pubescent girls in a sexualized way. No serious exhibition of Balthus, who died in 2001, can avoid confronting those issues. But the petition goes wrong when it argues that the painting should be removed from view now because of the larger and still unfolding scandals of sexual abuse in the media, entertainment, arts and political worlds. Now is precisely not the time to start removing art from walls, books from shelves, music from the radio or films from distribution. The focus should be on the social structures that perpetuate abuse and the people, mostly men, who commit it.
We must deal with sexual harassment and sexual abuse without losing all that was gained during the sexual liberation of the last century. And we are at a critical moment in that process. Men who would lose everything if their past abuses come to light would love to see this cultural firestorm snuffed out before they are exposed. But there are forces, particularly on the academic left, that reflexively resort to censorship as a quick and easy solution to social oppression. The danger in the wings is a new Puritanism that would only increase the shame surrounding sexuality (a convenient weapon wielded by abusers) while undoing the painful, 20th-century process of deregulating sexuality from religion and heterosexual male power.
The works of Balthus, especially his surreal and sexually transgressive paintings, were part of a many decades-long effort to look at and explore sexual desire. In the last century, this took myriad forms. Sigmund Freud schematized sexual development and constructed an elaborate architecture of the unconscious and desire. Sociologists attempted to bring rigor to the study of sexual behavior within communities. The surrealists used poetry, literature and the visual arts to depict the outer reaches of erotic fantasy. The artistic and intellectual mapping of this frightening new territory had consequences, for good and ill, in the real world.
Symbolism and decadence in late 19th-century poetry and literature gave men such as Oscar Wilde a language for talking about desires that had previously been brutally silenced. But a 2015 exhibition at the Hirshhorn, “Marvelous Objects: Surrealist Sculpture From Paris to New York,” revealed the dark side of this in excruciating detail. The show pulled together a cartographic overview of erotic and imaginative liberation among the surrealists, culminating in a 1932 work by Alberto Giacometti, “Woman With Her Throat Cut,” which seems to show the agony of a skeletal female form flayed upon the floor.
It’s no surprise that the Balthus painting at the Met is from around the same time as Giacometti sculpture. And it’s no surprise that when it came to mapping the erotic underworld, heterosexual men would pursue their fantasies more diligently and explicitly than the fantasies of women and the rest of the population that doesn’t define itself by the prevailing codes of straight male power. And now, well into a new century, it’s no surprise that many of those works offend us.
The challenge now is to define codes of behavior without throwing out the maps that got us to the place we are now. This may be particularly painful in the arts world. As scandals engulf leaders within the performing and visual arts, there will be a necessary reckoning with the fact that many people are drawn to these cultural milieus because they are perceived as socially freewheeling and permissive. Historically, the subject matter of the arts has pushed at the limits of what is acceptable behavior within society. For well over a century, the arts have been perpetuated and transmitted through deeply intimate forms of teaching and mentorship, relationships that are easy to abuse. Balthus himself was mentored by Rainer Maria Rilke, the great poet, who dedicated a poem called “Narcissus” to the phenomenally talented adolescent painter: “His task was only to behold himself,” he says to the 16-year-old artist. And yet narcissism of a different sort is the root of much sexual abuse.
The author of the petition, a New Yorker named Mia Merrill, has said she doesn’t want to censor or destroy the work, and would be happy with a warning label that said: “some viewers find this piece offensive or disturbing, given Balthus’s artistic infatuation with young girls.” But even that would be a concession too far. By that standard, the museum might have to include hundreds, if not thousands, of warning labels, and not just for works made by heterosexual men with an erotic interest in girls.
More problematic is how that kind of label dilutes the danger of the work. “Thérèse Dreaming” isn’t disturbing because of Balthus’s fixation on adolescent girls. It is dangerous because it appeals to the desires of many people who are looking at it today. The challenge isn’t to contain the work as a symptom of Balthus’s psychology, but rather to change how people, especially those with power, objectify other people as sex objects. This painting shows us the shoals of that danger.
Censoring Balthus, whose work is disturbing but not pornographic, makes no sense. Removing his work from view would not eliminate the desires he animates and it would probably lead to the loss of other work, which explored other horizons of the illicit. We would lose much of the imperfect progress we made away from shame and silence about desire.
There, of course, real people involved in the creation of sexualized imagery, from the prostitutes who modeled for 19th-century French painters to the actors who participate in the creation of pornography today. And there was a real person, a neighbor of Balthus named Thérèse Blanchard, who modeled for this painting. Little can be done about the disempowerment of women who were the models for painters a century ago. A great deal can be done about how women are depicted in contemporary art today, and the access they have to the resources of the art world. We fix the world we can.