Last month, several women came forward to accuse acclaimed artist Chuck Close of sexual harassment. The news sparked a debate about whether museums should continue to display Close’s work in light of these allegations.
It’s a divisive issue, with some arguing that art ought to be separated from the artist, while others contend that continuing to display such works breeds complacency.
Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery, points out that some of the most celebrated artists in history had reprehensible pasts. However, he argues that it doesn’t make their work any less significant from a creative standpoint.
“How much are we going to do a litmus test on every artist in terms of how they behave?” Reynolds asks. “Pablo Picasso was one of the worst offenders of the 20th century in terms of his history with women. Are we going to take his work out of the galleries? At some point you have to ask yourself, ‘Is the art going to stand alone as something that needs to be seen?’”
Indeed, Picasso once famously declared women as “machines for suffering.” Not only was he unfaithful to the women he was with, but a lot of the nude portraits he painted came at their expense.
It’s a common theme throughout art—women serve as the focal point of a highly-regard piece, but seldom do they benefit from it. In fact, sometimes they are chastised and disowned if they pose nude for a piece.
“Women who were available to serve as artist models were almost always considered sexually ‘compromised,’” says Rebecca Zorach, an art history professor at Northwestern University. “They didn’t have even the modicum of leverage some women might have against sexual assault.”
But just because that’s how things have always been, that’s not necessarily how they always have to be. The National Gallery in London, for example, had planned to feature several of Chuck Close’s works at an upcoming exhibition. However, upon learning of Close’s alleged sexual misconduct, The National Gallery decided to cancel the show.
Tom Eccles, executive director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, applauds the decision.
“It [The National Gallery] has enormous symbolic authority and power as an institution,” Eccles told the New York Times. “This is a time when sending messages is very, very important, particularly for national institutions. Their message is: If you’re accused of these acts, you will not get an exhibition at the National Gallery.”