This Is [Not] All Wrong: On Censorship and Meaning in Museums

Recently I have been reminded of how individuals are shaped by their experiences, and, in turn, how an individual’s reaction to those experiences are shaped by their character, their personality. What makes us individual? What factors determine how we react at any given moment? What, for example, do we do in the face of bullying? More specifically, how are we shaped by bullying and how do we react to it? And why?

First of all, a person’s character is shaped by their collective social framework, i.e. beliefs, ethics and accepted standards of behavior as determined by society as a whole. Our family, culture, religion, education, customs, friends, the media and more. Beyond culture, we are shaped by our genealogy and our physiology (biological psychology). In other words, feelings and behavior have a biological and physical origin. Thirdly, we are shaped by our experiences. People’s present lives are shaped by events in the past, i.e. we react based on an analysis of the outcome of similar events previously experienced or witnessed (social learning theory). So, for a child who is bullied for years, being mistreated by their peers becomes a normalized state. Previous experience has taught them that the best way to react is a) putting their head down and taking it b) ignoring it or c) becoming aggressive in the hope of turning the tide. The most likely response will be whichever has worked best in the past, mixed with the influence of other factors (social framework and biology/genealogy).

Now let us imagine this person growing up into their teens and finally finding themselves standing at a crossroad. New avenues open: a different school, a different environment, a new group of people. How will that person’s previous social interactions with their peers influence their reactions and behavior at the time of possibility? Fight or flight? Return to old patterns, subconsciously react or change their circumstances?

The interesting thing is, whichever we choose, fight, flight or reactive response, an individual’s path can be mapped out by exploring the previously mentioned factors. Because whether we choose to live by the rules or rebel against them, we are still reacting to a set of predetermined, subconsciously understood (or unknown for those on the ‘outside’) rules.

The above rudimentary overview of various psychological, philosophical and educational theories serves as a useful background to my current museological interest. How do museums react to adversity? In the face of movements such as #MeToo, and generally increasing demands for social inclusion and sensitivity, how do museums deal with public criticism? There is a whole body of museological publications which deal with this issue, including several works by Richard Sandell on social justice and socially engaged practices and Janet Marstine who focuses on ethical issues. What I am interested in here is this reactive response to adversity.

Recently the Huffington Post published an article titled “In The #MeToo Era, Do These Paintings Still Belong In A Museum?” where they discussed a painting called Therese Dreaming (1938) by the French artist Balthus, displaying a prepubescent (11 year old) girl, leaning back in her chair, revealing her underwear.

Image result for balthus therese dreaming

Balthus, Thérése Dreaming

The newspaper article is a response to a petition filed online by Mia Merrill, who makes the valid observation that the work is disturbing in light of public discussions on sexual assaults and numerous allegations against many public figures. Without further clarification, Merrill writes, “The Met is, perhaps unintentionally, supporting voyeurism and the objectification of children”. So far, the petition has over 11,000 signatures, being close to its 12,000 signature goal.

This is an example of public vs academic views on the social roles and obligations of the museum. More specifically, it demonstrates how the fundamental purpose of museums (i.e. communicating the many meanings of art, history and nature, however difficult they can be) can be understood differently depending on the above discussed factors: social background, experiences, physiology and such.

How does the museum, as an institution, react to these situations and why? In this case various experts, including art critic Jerry Saltz, have taken a firm stance against Merrill’s petition. If museums removed all objects and art that might cause offense, most galleries would be empty. The Met has publicized a well-reasoned response, taking a stance against censorship of difficult issues, in favor of sparking conversation. How can we continue our cultural evolution without an informed discussion?

But the matter does not end here, because Merrill wants the museum to display the work alongside the following disclaimer: “Some viewers find this piece offensive or disturbing, given Balthus’s artistic infatuation with young girls.”

This disclaimer, in my view, dictates preconceived notions on what meaning to draw from the piece. Immediately audiences are made to think of current ethical concerns regarding young girls and explicit sexuality, consent concerns and male dominance. These are important issues and I consider it vital that museums take part in these debates, as with other social, ethical, political, cultural and historical issues and discussions. Yet, should current dominant discussions overpower original intent and time-appropriate norms to the point of requiring removal from public spaces? Removal of the audience’s right to choose their own interpretation of art, history and culture? Is it the job of the museum to give audiences the right answer or to give them a space in which to reflect on the issue, exposing them to different interpretations and connections?

The ‘coming of age’ aspects of the Therese paintings by Balthus are striking and they feel, to me, truthful. He captures the private moments of a young girl, who does not yet have complete self-awareness. She is comfortable in her own skin, slowly getting awareness of her own body and other people’s reaction to it. It’s in the same category as Lolita, another controversial literary work that has sparked many subcultural groups, ethical, social and cultural debates and more. Art can be powerful, why moderate those that have the power to influence us decades later? The reactive essence of this case is therefore multi-fold. We have the negative reaction of those who morally object to the painting, based on current dominating ethical/moral discourse. The academic views of art experts and the museum staff. The historical perspective of the artist and his reaction to public responses to his art at the time of creation. And the perspective of the girl in the painting, Therese herself. Finally, we can transpose that to the views of all young girls on the cusp of womanhood. The audiences’ reactions to this work of art change based on their experiences, social and educational background, country of origin, culture, biology, their role as a visitor at the time of viewing the artwork (i.e. who are they with and what is their role in that context), their immediate reality and more. Exploring those reactions is surely more interesting that limiting the viewer to one.

Finally, I would like to shortly expand on the Met’s reaction to the negative media discussion. The intention of a lot of art is to expand what is appropriate, the norm, to push boundaries. As such, their reaction was expected, you cannot push boundaries if you censor possibly offending art. Yet, that is very frequently the result. There are numerous examples to draw from. For example, the Barbican’s cancellation of Exhibition B because of protests due to accusations of racism and exploitation. For me, this was a missed opportunity to have an honest discussion between actors, artists, protectors and exhibition/theatre makers.

The controversial exhibition also features a woman half dressed with a chain around her neck (pictured)
The Barbican, Exhibition B


A further example is the removal of Hylas and the Nymphs, by Waterhouse from the Manchester Art Gallery. The painting shows five bare breasted, prepubescent women in a pool, tempting Hylas to his doom and death. The painting was temporarily removed by curators to promote public debate, however after public outrage of the museum’s censorship of art it was put back on display. Setting aside the questionable method of promoting discussion, the image itself is subject to the same debate as Barthus above: It features prepubescent girls in questionable poses. Yet these are not helpless victims of male dominance, these nymphs aim to drown Hylas so that no one else can have him. Should audiences here be warned or allowed to experience the subject without prejudice?

Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse (1896)
Hylas and the Nymphs, John William Waterhouse (1896).  Image taken from: The

This is a sensitive subject. It’s personal and difficult because it speaks to the ugly side of the human condition. Exploitation, hatred, abuse, power. I would like to believe that museums provide the optimal spaces to include all these different voices, allowing them in without giving in to censorship demands. Why should we NOT be insulted and horrified while at the museum? History does not have to be pretty or comfortable, it can be horrendous and distasteful. People’s reactions to being exposed to changing social norms should be fostered, not prevented. Bring on the horror, the sensational and the difficult. Museums don’t need to be a safe space, they can be experimental, difficult and hard. Standing at those crossroads, will you fight, take flight or subconsciously react without critical thinking of the possible outcome of your choice? You are not a helpless victim of bullying. This is your decision to make.

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