National Coalition Against Censorship and PEN defend Met’s showing of a “controversial” painting

Four days ago I reported about an attack of the Pecksniffs on a painting at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art: Balthus‘s Thérèse Dreaming”, created in 1938. Here it is in the gallery:


A New York Pecksniff, one Mia Merrill, launched a campaign to have the painting removed (one call was simply for a “trigger warning”, but the petition—as of this writing signed by over 11,300 Pecksniffs—was to remove the painting. Merrill’s beef, as I said in my previous post, was this (from her petition and her emphasis):

When I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art this past weekend, I was shocked to see a painting that depicts a young girl in a sexually suggestive pose. Balthus’ painting, Thérèse Dreaming, is an evocative portrait of a prepubescent girl relaxing on a chair with her legs up and underwear exposed.

It is disturbing that the Met would proudly display such an image. They are a renowned institution and one of the largest, most respected art museums in the United States. The artist of this painting, Balthus, had a noted infatuation with pubescent girls, and it can be strongly argued that this painting romanticizes the sexualization of a child.

Rather than cave to these leisure fascists, the Met refused to take it down, with Ken Weine, the Museum’s chief communications officer, saying this:

“Moments such as this provide an opportunity for conversation, and visual art is one of the most significant means we have for reflecting on both the past and the present and encouraging the continuing evolution of existing culture through informed discussion and respect for creative expression.”

So the painting stayed up, as it should have. Now two other groups have come forward to defend exhibiting the painting. As Time Magazine reports, one is the National Coalition Against Censorship (see their own article here), which said this:

“The idea that this painting suggests that the Met supports, on some institutional level, an unhealthy sexualization of young women misunderstands the role of a cultural institution,” Nora Pelizzari, a spokeswoman for the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), told Newsweek. “Attacking art is counterproductive to the open discussion necessary for us to confront the realities of sexual harassment and abuse,” the NCAC had said in an earlier statement.

The anti-censorship organization applauded the Met’s decision to keep the painting on view. To their mind, said Pelizzari, “Hiding potential sexualizaiton of young girls throughout history does not help…the current conversation around sexual harassment.”

. . . Pelizzari is disturbed by the “escalation of the culture of outrage, as well as the move towards threats of violence as a means of stifling artistic expression and artistic display.” The Whitney’s decision to keep Shutz’s painting up was, in her view, precisely right. The museum engaged in discussions with the protestors and other artists, allowing for “a wider conversation on our interaction on race and history and grappling with our history as a society.”

From the NCAC’s perspective, “the removal or silencing or erasure of art is never good.” That, she said, includes the works of individuals who have sexually harassed or assaulted others, like Louis C.K., although she emphasized that the viewers’ decisions about whose art to consume and support financially is of course up to them.

“Everyone is allowed to react to art in exactly the way they naturally do,” she said. “Where we intervene is when you try to impose your reaction to a piece on others’ ability to see it.”

The other organization was the estimable PEN, dedicated to furthering literature and free expression (do remember, though, that some of its members objected to PEN giving an award to Charlie Hebdo). In its defense of the painting, PEN said this, as quoted by Time:

PEN America, which works to protect literary and artistic expression, agreed. They see such petitions as part of a troubling trend. “We are alarmed about what seems to be a rising tendency to turn to artistic censorship as a way to express social, political, or other grievances,” PEN America said in a statement to Newsweek. “Some advocates seem to have decided that artists and art institutions represent soft targets, more vulnerable to public campaigns than are the actual power structures that perpetuate the ills these campaigners are fighting against.”

Pelizzari is exactly right in her last statement: these kinds of calls or demonstrations—like black activists blocking people’s view of a painting of Emmett Till by a white artist—do nothing to solve problems like pedophilia or racism. They are not attempts to create a dialogue, but to keep people from encountering viewpoints that the activists don’t like. Seriously, does the painting above foster pedophilia and contribute to the sexualization of young women? I don’t think so. It stimulates dialogue, like the kind we had on my post. And does a sympathetic and graphic painting of Emmett Till in his casket, body battered by white racists, somehow promote racism because it was painted by a white woman? You’d have to twist your logic pretty far to conclude that. In fact, demonstrations to prevent people from seeing or reading things just create the “Streisand effect,” making people want to see them all the more, and arouse hostility towards the censors.

I can’t think of a single instance when the censorship of literature or art that doesn’t violate the law (e.g., blatant child pornography) has helped society progress. On the other hand, I can think of plenty of cases in which attempted censorship has been an impediment, as in the unsuccessful case to ban Ulysses. And it goes on. Here’s just a small list of works of literature that schools or libraries have tried to ban in the last hundred years (see more here):

The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
The Catcher in the Rye
The Great Gatsby
The Grapes of Wrath
Invisible Man
The Jungle
Our Bodies, Ourselves
The Words of Cesar Chavez

If you know anything about these books, most of them are actually about oppressed people and explicitly sympathetic to them. It’s insane that people try to keep them out of the hands of others.

Remember three things about censorship.  First, it doesn’t work to suppress art or words that you don’t like. Second, trying to censor something just arouses interest in it, as well as resentment towards those who try to tell others what they can or cannot see. Third, exhibiting art or recommending that students read a book does not mean an endorsement of the image or contents.

But don’t expect Pecksniffery to abate any time soon, at least in America. It goes hand in hand with Authoritarian Leftism (why do you think they call it “authoritarian”?), and Authoritarian Leftism shows no signs of abating. But if we all stand up against those who try to censor things by playing on our guilt—on our liberal sympathies for underdogs—that ideology will eventually wane.

Guilt is the great weapon of the Authoritarian Left, and we must resist it when it comes to endorsing free expression.

h/t: cesar


  1. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted December 9, 2017 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Virtually ALL calls to censorship are motivated by someone’s world-view or ego being threatened by the work.

    • BJ
      Posted December 9, 2017 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

      Which is exactly while I’m still disappointed by the statements of the organization opposing them here. In every statement, they feel the need to first gives credence to their ideology. The same was not done when museums and other organizations protecting and promoting art were hounded by Christians in the 70s and 80s.

      The response should be along the lines of “freedom of speech and artistic expression is sacred, we don’t see anything wrong with it, and your attempts at censorship will not gain traction no matter your reasons. Your demands will not be entertained.”

  2. Posted December 9, 2017 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    My question to would-be censors is ‘can you give an example of censorship in the past that we can all look back on and agree that it was a pretty neat idea?’

    I’m pretty sure those who censored Ulysses, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, EC horror comics, Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, ‘video nasties’, The Life of Brian, The Satanic Verses and The Last Temptation of Christ all thought they were saving civilisation from going to hell but the bans all look ridiculous in retrospect.

  3. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 9, 2017 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    “leisure fascists” — Nice one (especially since Mussolini’s Italy had an official National Fascist leisure and recreational organization.)

  4. Jenny Haniver
    Posted December 9, 2017 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Way back in the 1980s — over 30 years ago, I did archival work at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, and one point they were wooing Alice Walker, trying to get her literary papers. They invited her in to discuss acquiring them — fell all over themselves to give her the goddess treatment (I shamelessly eavesdropped on what transpired) — the elitists who ran the place were so obsequious, it was shameful and hilarious at the same time. I went to great lengths to stifle my guffaws. They gave Walker a tour of the place and she haughtily informed them that a 19th c. painting prominently displayed in the reading room, which depicted a white soldier wounding a Native American, was racist and disrespectful to Native Americans, and must be removed. (There might have been one or two others her goddessness objected to.) The TBL muckety-mucks were so taken aback and shamed that they removed the painting(s).

    Ironic that someone whose books were banned turns around and dictates to others what sort of art is acceptable. As far as I was concerned, they were all fools; and her papers went to Emory.

  5. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted December 9, 2017 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    If you know anything about these books, most of them are actually about oppressed people and explicitly sympathetic to them. It’s insane that people try to keep them out of the hands of others.

    It is unpleasant, but not insane. It’s a calculated act by people wanting to suppress the idea of objecting to oppression – both by the oppressed and the oppressors.
    I’m sure there’s a lot of “me-two”-ery in the majority of such campaigns and campaigners, but the people who instigate the idea know what they’re doing to try to suppress debate.

  6. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 9, 2017 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    I recognize there are space limitations, but left off your short list of banned books were those of Henry Miller — especially Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn and the Rosy Crucifixion Trilogy (Sexus, Nexus, and Plexus). Are people no longer reading them? For a several generations of Americans (and Europeans, especially the French), those works served as touchstones of personal and artistic liberation.

  7. Heather Hastie
    Posted December 9, 2017 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    The Evangelical Christian practice of forbidding their children from reading the Harry Potter books is another ridiculous ban.

    I suppose being taught that Bible stories are real makes these children less equipped to tell fact from fiction. (There are studies showing that to be the case.)

    It used to be a crime punishable by death to read the Bible in the vernacular. A priest had to read it to you in the Church’s Latin Vulgate translation and interpret it for you. It was heresy to even question what the priest said.

    The Da Vinci code was another. It’s fiction FFS! What was the Church so worried about? People realizing there were holes in their arguments?!

    • Posted December 9, 2017 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      What was the Church so worried about? People realizing there were holes in their arguments?!


  8. dd
    Posted December 9, 2017 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    “Guilt is the great weapon of the Authoritarian Left, and we must resist it when it comes to endorsing free expression.”

    Because it’s a religion….secular fundamentalism.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted December 9, 2017 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

      Oh, guilt can be used to salubrious effect in the pursuit of justice. It’s what Dr. King was appealing to, in part, when he spoke of there being “insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation” while recounting his dream from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

      It is not the use of guilt per se, but the authoritarians’ goal of suppressing speech that is odious.

  9. Jon Gallant
    Posted December 9, 2017 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    Jonathan Haidt has argued that the campus phobia of unsanctioned thoughts and words—the cries about speech as “violence”, the fuss about “trigger warnings”, and so on—was a psychological consequence of the students’ overprotection in childhood.

    Maybe so, but I presume many of the 11,000 Pecksniffs who signed the anti-Balthus petition were well on in years. Similarly, the silliness about “cultural appropriation” comes in some cases from individuals well past the student age. Other recent instances of the inflation of cultural trivialities into big deals could be catalogued.

    So, there appears to be an epidemic of cultural hypochondria among much of the chattering class today. An epidemiogical inquiry into how it started, and how it spreads, would be worthwhile.

    Yes, I know, it is spread by the internet. My question pertains to the psychology of its spread. If hypochondria is related to narcissism, is Western society in the grip of a particular tendency toward narcissism? If so, why?

  10. nicky
    Posted December 10, 2017 at 12:40 am | Permalink

    “Seriously, does the painting above foster pedophilia and contribute to the sexualization of young women? I don’t think so.” I don’t think so either. Even if Balthus actually was an ephebophile, it changes nothing.
    The ‘perversion’ is in the eye of the beholder, I mean, only someone who is an ephebophile could or would be ‘triggered’. This notion throws a different light on the deep caves of darker thoughts in the pecksniffs’ minds.

  11. Dale Franzwa
    Posted December 10, 2017 at 12:42 am | Permalink

    In a post sometime back, I discussed a documentary on the history of the bra and used the word “boobs”. Somebody politely informed me (I’m a male) that the “correct” word was “___” (I forget the word). Anyway, a nice fellow came back and defended me (for which I am grateful). I mention this only to show that attempted censorship is everywhere, even here.

    • Filippo
      Posted December 10, 2017 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

      I find myself contemplating the possible negative consequences of a public school teacher, in response to a student’s question, reasonably-enough reflecting in class on the etymological connections of “Mamma” and “mammal” and “mammary.”

      • Dale Franzwa
        Posted December 11, 2017 at 12:20 am | Permalink

        Even self censorship rears its ugly head.

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