Hey, art history, it’s OK to say #MeToo

Tate Modern/Courtesy
Guerrilla Girls, 'Guerrilla Girls’ 1986 Report Card,' 1986, Photo - © Tate, London 2018

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Me too. #MeToo. ME TOO. I dragged my fingers down the trackpad, scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed late one night in mid-October. The phrase, varied in style but always containing the same two words, was attached to posts written by my best friend’s mom, my seventh-grade teacher, that funny girl I had one class with in high school and the sweet one I used to share all my secrets with years ago. Every time I refreshed the page, there were more names, more memories and more pain. My head ran through the entire emotional gamut — everything from shock, to seething anger, to where it finally rested: on a stubborn sense of determination.

As a History of Art major, I’m subjected to hundreds of pages of readings about innumerable artists each week. Across time and geography, male artists and art historians are prioritized in narratives, movements and histories. There is no #MeToo movement in the art history field, no push for equality and recognition of sexual harassment and assault on a grand scale.

My experience as a student has been exceptional — six of the nine art history professors I’ve had are women. For my first two years at Berkeley, I was insulated from the realities of male dominance within art history by my professors’ overt attempts to integrate women into their syllabi. But scrolling through my Facebook feed that October night, I realized that while I’d read pieces like Linda Nochlin’s “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” —  in a class taught by a man —  I had never heard of a movement in the art history field that truly inspired wide-sweeping change.

Anneka Lenssen, assistant professor of global modern art at UC Berkeley, attributes this to the art world’s resistance to “act strongly,” partially because it is more difficult to “hold individuals accountable” in the art history field than in the entertainment realm. Because of the fact that most professionals within the study of art history are not unionized, she claims, they encounter difficulties organizing to prevent sexual assault and harassment within the field.

Two years ago, I sat in my first art history class, taught by a raging force of professorial womanhood: Darcy Grimaldo Grigbsy, UC Berkeley professor of European and American art since 1700. As I furiously scribbled notes, she spun the story of one of the most controversial figures in art history: Paul Gauguin. One of the originators of French symbolism, Gauguin was also a known pedophile who took a 13-year-old bride when he moved to Tahiti.

Last week, sitting at a small, shaded table outside Caffe Strada, Grigsby explained why Gauguin should still hold a place in the art history canon. While she vehemently expressed that if “there was a Gauguin right now, I’d be boycotting against him,” she claimed that it would be “untenable” to reject artists from the past who contributed to the practice. Grisby stated these artists “offer an invaluable way to access” noncontemporary moments. The individuals we still need to hold accountable are protected by the years elapsed since their passing, deemed untouchable because of an irreverent belief in the righteousness of the canonized art of the past.

This is the conundrum that lies at the heart of art history today. Should we redact offending artists’ names from the books and give up on any type of comprehensive history, or do we find a way to incorporate sexual miscreants in a way that is educational and cautionary? It seems that we really only have one option if we wish to present an art history that is as close to the truth as possible.

“We’re not going to be able to restore any of the victims of the past to some kind of power by rejecting the powerful, but (through them) we better understand the history of power,” Grigsby said. This change in the way we approach the sexual violence of the past starts with education, she claimed — via the panels, flyers and catalogues of any art exhibit that portrays works by artists posthumously accused of sexual misconduct.

A strong-armed style of education is also being employed by female artists themselves. The Guerrilla Girls, formed in 1985, is a constantly shifting group of women who remain anonymous by covering their faces with gorilla masks.

On a visit to the Tate Modern last fall, I experienced the group’s work for the first time. The relatively small “Guerrilla Girls’ 1986 Report Card” hung in a simple black frame surrounded by blank wall space. It reported on the number of female artists showed by 17 prominent galleries in 1986, with accompanying notes on their progress — or, more often, their lack thereof.

This, to Lenssen, is the most effective way to combat the patriarchal structures that still constitute art history as a practice. “(The Guerrilla Girls) are heroes to all of us who care,” she said. Heroes? Yes. Still marginalized? Also yes. The Guerrilla Girls’ work is powerful, striking and unforgettable. Yet it’s contained in one, nondescript exhibit in the Tate, surrounded by art made by men.

The art history field is too ensconced in hundreds of years of history, it seems, to be open to its own #MeToo movement. When a museum portrays only work by women, it’s a special exhibit. When it portrays only work by men, it’s a regular show.

Yet, through education methods that challenge the sexual violence-laced history of the field, through female professionals, through people willing to challenge the status quo — the future of art history does not need to continue its past.

Contact Keats Iwanaga at [email protected].