Underpants In a Painting—Always About Sex?

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New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is now displaying a painting that some people don’t like. In fact, some 10,000 people have signed a petition to do SOMETHING about the damn picture.

It’s the 1938 painting Therese Dreaming by Polish-French artist Balthus. It shows a 12-year-old girl relaxing in a simple rustic room, eyes closed, looking away from us. One leg is propped higher than the other in a common, comfortable posture. Since she’s wearing a long peasant-style skirt, the viewer can see her underpants between her thighs.

As a consumer, I’m not a fan of painting. I prefer Bach to da Vinci, Shakespeare to Van Gogh, and Hepburn to Warhol.

But I know the demonization of art when I see it. That demonization is almost always about sex. And frequently about protecting children.

Mia Merrill’s complaint is a familiar one, tarted up with today’s politics. The painting is “undeniably romanticizing the sexualization of a child. If you are a part of the #metoo movement or ever think about the implications of art on life, please support this effort.”

“Shocked” to see the painting depicting a young girl “in a sexually suggestive pose,” she notes that “Given the current climate around sexual assault and allegations…in showcasing this work for the masses without providing any type of clarification, the Met is, perhaps unintentionally, supporting voyeurism and the objectification of children.”

Merrill says she doesn’t demand the painting be destroyed (how too too tolerant of her), she just wants it removed from view or paired with editorial comment. She’d be satisfied “if the Met included a message as brief as, ‘Some viewers find this piece offensive or disturbing, given Balthus’s artistic infatuation with young girls.’”

So to summarize:

• The picture needs “clarification.” Viewers must be told about the picture, rather than being allowed to consume it unaided.
• Displaying it supports “voyeurism” (“perhaps unintentionally”!). It’s wrong if art creates the wrong kind of response in consumers.
• The painting should be “removed from view” or paired with a message that “some viewers find this piece offensive.” So consumers shouldn’t have the chance to think about it or discuss it with others, coming to their own conclusions about its merit, meaning, or any larger issues.

Merrill’s worst statement is describing the subject in a “sexually suggestive pose.” Most people would just see a girl on a chair daydreaming next to her cat. Some would see interesting colors, lighting, shadows and textures. Apparently Merrill is one of those people who sees sex everywhere. Censors always do.

Where you or I might see casual affection between two male friends walking down the street, some see sex, and feel assaulted. Where you might ignore a tampon commercial, those uncomfortable with sex feel assaulted. Where you might be bored with a fart joke on late night TV, they feel assaulted. That’s a lot of feeling assaulted.

If you’re not obsessed with sex, you wouldn’t even consider these three things part of a single thread. You might casually observe “friendly people + health product + dumb joke.” But they perceive “sex + sex + sex.” And for them, it never stops; people who obsessively construct erotic imagery (which they claim they dislike) never have a nice day.

Like kids in a candy store or at a scary movie, people obsessed with erotic imagery are simply not emotionally equipped to ignore what they see. These people deserve sympathy, but they don’t get mine because they deal with their upset in such an aggressive way. They want to cleanse the public sphere of sexuality—and they imagine the public sphere as practically the whole world. It includes Greek statues in City Hall, radio ads for birth control, string bikinis on the beach, vanity license plates, lube in the drugstore—the list is almost endless.

Most of us want to end violence and exploitation, especially around sexuality. It’s difficult to know exactly how to do that, and so we sometimes reach out in odd, unproductive places. Like Merrill, we can resemble the drunk guy looking for his car keys at midnight under a streetlight. Is that where he dropped them? No, he dropped them over there in the dark, but the light’s much better here under the streetlight.

I’m tired of some people seeing sex everywhere, feeling threatened, and wanting to protect themselves (and everyone else) by stripping away and dumbing down the world’s art, fashion, words, products, and, ultimately, eroticism itself.

I’m also tired of people simplistically claiming that practically everything can lead to sexual violence, “the patriarchy,” or “rape culture.” In our attempt to be insightful about sexism and clearly against actual violence (both great steps forward), we’re speeding toward a Stalinist suspicion of almost everything: anything connected with gender, beauty, yearning, childhood, playfulness, courtship, pleasure, underwear, and yes, sexuality itself.

We can strip the world of The Wizard of Oz and Philip Roth, the Marx Brothers and casual Fridays, Taylor Swift and Janis Joplin, Princess Leia and Princess Diana—but the world would be far poorer than it is now.

More importantly, it would be no safer.

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