The Met’s defense of a suggestive painting of a young girl reminds us what museums are for

Image: Reuters/Keith Bedford
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American art lovers have their knickers in a twist with one painting hanging at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Thérèse Dreaming by the Polish-French painter Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski de Rola) depicts 11-year-old Thérèse Blanchard sitting carelessly, lost in deep thought. The oil painting has been exhibited in various museums around the world—from London to Tokyo—without causing a big stir. It was donated to the Met in 1998 and now hangs in its modern and contemporary art gallery.

At a time when the US is besieged by an almost daily update of famous sexual aggressors and the people behind the #MeToo movement were named TIME Person of the Year, Balthus’s painting stirred one outraged viewer to petition the country’s largest public art institution to remove the painting. “I was shocked to see a painting that depicts a young girl in a sexually suggestive pose,” wrote Mia Merrill in her online petition. “It is disturbing that the Met would proudly display such an image…The Met is, perhaps unintentionally, supporting voyeurism and the objectification of children.”

Thérèse Dreaming (1938), Balthus
Thérèse Dreaming (1938), Balthus
Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Merrill, who heads the HR department at a finance start-up, suggested that Thérèse Dreaming be replaced by a work created by a female artists in the same genre. She later published an update saying that she would settle for an explicit warning written on the wall text.

Despite pressure from social media and 10,500 signatures backing Merill, the Met is keeping Balthus on the wall.  In a press statement emailed to Quartz, the Met’s chief communications officer Ken Weine defends their curatorial decision:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s mission is to…collect, study, conserve, and present significant works of art across all times and cultures in order to connect people to creativity, knowledge, and ideas. 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.

Weine’s statement is a timely reminder of the museum’s purpose in daily life. There’s something that’s gone awry with how many Americans “consume” museums. With more institutions catering to the multi-tasking, social media-savvy generation, going to a museum today has become a drive-by excursion. How often do we catch ourselves spending more time with the wall text than actually looking at the art? It’s heartening that Merrill was so bothered by Balthus’s painting to take action against it. Presenting difficult and provocative ideas is part of a museum’s purpose.

In some eyes, Balthus’s canvas is simply a picture of freedom, of that precious age before crippling self-consciousness takes hold of a young woman. “She is at home in her youth. She has the countenance of someone who knows other things are coming, eventually,” Jen George writes in the Paris Review last year. “When asked about the provocative poses of preadolescent girls in his work, Balthus said, “It is how they (young girls) sit.”

Asking museums to post disclaimers on the wall can drown viewers in information and contextual caveats. Too much information robs us of the opportunity to have strong ideas about a work of art, like Merrill did.