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The Questions We Need to Ask About the Arts in the #MeToo Era

October 29, 2018

 For those who have been living off the grid for the past year, the #MeToo Movement is a viral campaign to address sexual harassment and assault. The campaign encourages and supports survivors of sexual assault and interpersonal violence who come forward with their stories, and has exposed the long unspoken reality that sexual abuse is rampant in our society. The epidemic of assault has affected the personal and professional lives of an unspeakable number of people. The #MeToo Movement has changed the way that we discuss sexual assault and harassment in every facet of our society. As artists, audiences, and administrators, we have a responsibility to face the abuse within our own community—both past and present—which means asking ourselves, and each other, difficult questions. There are no easy answers to any of the challenges we face, and this discussion leads to more questions we must  examine within the world of art and in our society. Though it is difficult and intimidating, we need to open a dialogue with our colleagues and our audiences about sexual assault and violence in order to confront it.

 

I should preface this article by clarifying that I am not interested in having a conversation about whether or not we should be changing how we teach, program, and experience art in response to #MeToo. Everything I have written is predicated on the belief that we have a responsibility as artists to bring this conversation to the public light, and to respond to allegations of sexual assault and violence by believing and supporting survivors. I believe that we can use art to change our society. We owe it to ourselves, our predecessors, and to the future to have this conversation, and to do something with it. We need to be active in our response to sexual assault and abuse. It is our duty to use our tools as artists to advocate for real societal change.

 

How do we engage audiences in a dialogue about sexual assault, violence, and abuse without alienating them from the art they love and recognize and the artistic experiences that they want?

 

Art by its very nature challenges us. It changes how we think about the world, process trauma, and tackle difficult subjects. As artists and programmers, we have a unique ability to tap into serious topics, to affect how people think about the world, and to inspire conversation. There are many beautiful and poignant artworks, shows, and pieces that address the personal and societal trauma of sexual assault and abuse. So how do we take this knowledge and apply it with a historical perspective? What do we do when the most viewed pieces at our museum or the most respected artists in our catalog are perpetrators of violence?

 

Not every art experience needs to be about sexual assault—nor should it be. It is not the responsibility of every organization and program to be about a history of trauma. We need to be rounded in our programming, respectful of the fact that not everyone wants (or needs) a lesson in a lesson in sexual violence and trauma. However, we can no longer hide the reality and the history of sexual assault in the artistic community. Not every work created by an abuser needs to have a “this man was a rapist” disclaimer, but at the same time how can we call ourselves people of integrity if we let the works of perpetrators stand in peace without the disclaimer: “this man was a rapist”? Can we reconcile that not every artist can be blacklisted and left in the dust while simultaneously advocating for change?  

 

How do we balance providing recognizable, desirable, culturally significant content with the knowledge that creators of that content were abusers?

 

When we look back at the figures of art history— in music, visual arts, theatre, literature etc —we see a long list of abusers. However, many of those same men are people who changed their artistic discipline. These men are in museums because they challenged cultural conceptions of art; these names are known for their long lasting historical influence. Often this is art that audiences like, want to see, and will pay for. As curators, programmers, and artistic directors, we have to consider what will get people to engage with our organization. But how do we maintain our artistic and human integrity when we promote and uphold the work of abusers?

 

This is also a question we face when we talk about the history of misogyny, racism, colonialism, and classicism in ‘high art’ or ‘good art’. There are ways of addressing this issue, even if they are not always popular. If we diversify our artistic catalog—rather than continuing to privilege the works of white, cisgender, straight men—then we can begin to address these overlapping issues in our galleries, theatres, and concert halls. This means changing how we teach, discuss, and advertise art so that audiences are more willing to engage in the unknown. It means we stop excusing ‘great artists’ for their abusive and violent behavior on the basis of their artistic merit.

 

Can we ever divorce the actions of the artist from the art itself?

 

The idea that a man’s merit—as a person, an artist, a professional, or whatever else—excuses his behaviors is frankly, sickening. As a culture, and particularly as artists, we like to believe that art should stand alone without context. We would all like to believe that ‘good art’ is not about artist, but about the piece itself. Maybe to some extent it’s true that art belongs first and foremost to the audience.

 

But there are consequences when we let someone get away with reprehensible behavior because we value their work. So often our culture prioritizes the career, reputation, or potential of a man over the people he hurts. This is why we see a culture of abuse by powerful professionals; they know they can get away with it. When we allow famous artists, living or dead, get away with perpetrating sexual assault, we feed into the culture that lets young men walk away from rape cases undamaged, allows the exploitation of power, and forces survivors to live in shame and fear if they come forward.

When living artists are accused of assault there are concrete steps we can take as an artistic community. We can break contracts, remove paintings, or cancel gigs. Repercussions can be enacted in real time. But you can’t blacklist a dead man. You can never retroactively create consequences. Is it worth making an example out of someone who can no longer be affected by our changing culture? Is it possible for us to curate and program in a way that also pays respect to the experiences of survivors of sexual assault

 

How do we recognize and respect the experiences of survivors of sexual assault past and present when we are trying to tell an artistic story that is not about sexual assault?

 

When allegations of violence come to light, we have to ask: how can we address accusations? How do we make it known that the creator of the work is a perpetrator of violence in a way that honors the experiences of survivors, and does not relegate their lives afterthought? The performance artist Emma Sulkowicz (most recognizable for her Mattress Project at Columbia University) rightfully points out that “an asterisk is such a small punctuation mark compared to the magnitude of how sexual abuse affects these women”. If we turn the experiences of Close’s victims, or Gauguin, or Dali, or Ginsberg (the list is endless) into just a footnote in a man’s career and reputation, what does that say about how we are responding to the women coming forward today about their experiences? We know what the result of actions like this have been, and will continue to be, in our own communities and in our society.

 

What does this look like across artistic disciplines?

 

When we consider this issue from an arts management perspective, it’s almost easier to first approach it by thinking about the works that we display. Much of the material written about the art world’s response to #MeToo, both with contemporary and historical figures, is based around what is displayed in museums. But ‘art’ is more than what’s hanging in a gallery. So what does this conversation look like across artistic disciplines? What does it mean for a theatre, an orchestra, or a publisher to broach the subject of sexual assault perpetrated by content creators with their audience? Audience engagement in conversation within the performing arts— particularly in classical music —is already a challenge for many arts organizations. How do we broach the subject of sexual assault with audiences when we already struggle to include them in conversation?

 

What role do we as artists and arts administrators play in changing our contemporary landscape? How do we do this given the widespread abuse within the artist community today?

 

The conversations about how we create change and open dialogue internally, externally, and historically are interconnected. The way we talk about art and treat other artists shapes how arts organizations are run, how they function within communities, and how audiences engage with us. We know that art has the power to inspire and challenge the status quo. We need to ask ourselves as professional community what we reflect to the people who engage with us? How do we create structures within the artistic community to uplift and support one another as the #MeToo movement reaches our professions?

 

So what does the #MeToo movement mean for the past, present, and future of the arts?

What are we making it mean? As artists, audience members, survivors, allies, and administrators, what are taking from the #MeToo movement? How is this cultural shift going to shape how we teach, program, create and share artistic experiences? What are the conversations we are having as a result, and how will these conversations impact art and culture?

 

 

Abigail Karr is a junior at Miami University majoring in violin performance and arts management with a minor in women and gender studies. Abigail is interested in the intersection of arts and activism; she currently serves as the Social Activism Chair for the student organization Feminists Working on Revolutionary Democracy, and is an intern at the MU Performing Arts Series, and the Peace and Justice Studies Association.

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