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Art History and #MeToo: Genius is No Excuse for Sexual Harassment

Art History and #MeToo: Genius is No Excuse for Sexual Harassment

There needs to be a system, there needs to be a continuous validation and and protection given to victims.

As news of artist Subodh Gupta's stepping aside created ripples in the media, the #MeToo testimonies became one of ifs and buts and uncomfortable confessions and admissions.

If one has to go by the timing of #MeToo in the world of Indian contemporary art, one thing stands out clear and strong and that is the timing of the Scene and Heard descriptions: Riyas Komu, Binoy Varghese and Subodh Gupta at the cusp of important events - the Kochi Muziris Biennale, the Kerala Flood Show in Delhi and the Serendipity Arts Festival.

Some say it looks like sabotage and there are a number of art world whispers about someone powerful being behind the remote controlled series of events. However, too many tales with similarities can't be wiped away and women need to be heard and listened to no matter what their age.

This is a good time to go back to art history and take a look at the enfant terrible Pablo Picasso and his multifarious affairs. It is also the right time to recall the words of the great artist Louise Bourgeois who took a stand so many years ago.

"Women are machines for suffering," Picasso told his mistress Françoise Gilot in 1943. Indeed, as they embarked on their nine-year affair, the 61-year-old artist warned the 21-year-old student: "For me there are only two kinds of women, goddesses and doormats".

In those words of Picasso we see that women in the #MeToo movement are coming out and voicing an invasion of intent and body. Women no more want to be subservient or silent.

Art history shows a mirror to male artists through time -- they have drawn obsessively and productively on the faces and bodies of their wives as well as mistresses and lovers. But history also tells us that none used and abused his women quite like the greatest artist of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso.

So when you see Picasso's works flying off the figures in auction dramas you wonder, has Picasso's disgustingly visceral love affairs hit his market? No, in fact, I don't think anyone is thinking about his abusive lifestyle at all. Auction figures show there is no connection, whatsoever.

How will the Indian market respond to Subodh Gupta who sits at the head of the market table as an uncrowned prince, we shall have to wait and watch. While I have no words of kindness for men who think young girls can be at their whim and fancy in terms of the let me touch you language, there needs to be a fine line drawn between what is sexual and what is a little flirting in the fragments of work associations. It will be interesting to watch both market and media in the light of the recent tirades.

Then there is the brilliant and ingenious Louise Bourgeois, known for her spiders; her giant spiders when put into public places have the power to stun you and make you stand and stare. In interviews, she revealed that the imagery in her sculptures were almost wholly autobiographical. She often confided to the world that she obsessively relived through her art the trauma of discovering at the age of eleven that her English governess was also her father's mistress.

She said of her work: "The subject of pain is the business I am in. To give meaning and shape to frustration and suffering. The existence of pain cannot be denied. I propose no remedies or excuses."

Her writings reflected her symbolism as much as her materials. "I came from a family of repairers. The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of a spider, she doesn't get mad. She weaves and repairs it," she wrote.

"What modern art means is that you have to keep finding new ways to express yourself, to express the problems, that there are no settled ways, no fixed approach. This is a painful situation, and modern art is about this painful situation of having no absolutely definite way of expressing yourself," said Bourgeois.

To everyone who reads and watches and follows the narrative in this world of the #MeToo era I would say, take heart from the words of Bourgeois. "I'm afraid of power. It makes me nervous. In real life, I identify with the victim. That's why I went into art."

The #MeToo debacle says women of the world must unite, and what of the men?

The men in the art world need to stand up and also become a part of the dialogue and do something for the voiceless in the art community. Is it enough to just sign a campaign? Public laments are just a lame excuse and they are not apologies.

There needs to be a system, there needs to be a continuous validation and and protection given to victims. A strong message needs to go out about zero tolerance, galleries and workplaces and artist studios need to come into the realm of honesty in the work space and a new set of paradigms for young interns. If the wolf in the working space is the artist himself, indeed the artist's studio becomes the den where the wolf is all hands.

Being a genius is not an excuse for sexual harassment.

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first published:December 26, 2018, 16:36 IST