There’s controversy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Thousands of people have signed an online petition demanding that the museum remove from display a 1938 painting in its collection called “Thérèse Dreaming” by a French painter known as Balthus. Those who want it removed call the painting of a young girl “sexually suggestive” in an inappropriate way. The Museum has responded by saying it’s not going to remove the work, but that the affair represents “an opportunity for conversation.”
The New Yorker magazine’s Peter Schjeldahl, one of the most perceptive critics writing today, while acknowledging Balthus’ unquestionable skill as an artist admits that he can see both sides of the issue. Because there are in essence two valid frames of reference involved, he correctly notes that at this point “any decisive resolution, one way or another, can be neither moral nor aesthetic, only political.”
There’s a great deal of insight in that remark. The point is that our reactions to art can often (correctly but perhaps surprisingly) be classified as political in nature, and reactions of this sort are often more visceral than our either educated or intuitive impressions of artistic validity.
Visceral because it goes to the root of who we are. Aristotle tells us that man is by nature a political animal: no one except the lawless are beyond that identity. His remark means that we only exist in community with each other and that the highest order of questions we face are those that address the way of reaching the greatest good for the greatest number of those in the community.
Furthermore, the largest communities (I’m thinking here of countries like the United State, China, France) arrange their politics toward the greatest good that the members regard as being the foundation for others. For some countries, order is the most important characteristic to a society, and in those places individual freedoms are relegated to a much lower value.
In the United States, by contrast, freedom has long been understood to be our primary way of attaining the good life and so is the idea around which we shape our politics. Art can either contribute to, or detract from, that basic of life.
As if to underscore the point, New York’s Galerie St. Etienne currently has an exhibit up called “All Art is Political” featuring the works of two women, Kathe Kollwitz and Sue Coe. Kollwitz was born in Prussia in 1867, lived through two World Wars, was threatened by the Gestapo in 1936 and died just before World War II ended. Much of her work highlights the plight of workers, peasants, and those ravaged by war: in short, her work is naturally political. Sue Coe by contrast was born in England in 1951. But in highlighting both workers’ rights and society’s cruelty to animals, her work is no less political.
You needn’t share Coe’s opinions to be moved by her art. Schjeldahl recently noted he was, as he put it, “tumbled into empathy with views that are alien to my own.”
Such empathy is a wonderful byproduct of the freedom the artist enjoys in our society to create, and of the freedom of the curator to display the art that he or she reasons most needs to be shown. One doesn’t have to try too hard to find a political lesson here — it illustrates a point to make in today’s political landscape marked by politicians all too eager to pit an “Us” against a “Them.”
Empathy is a critical component of a society built on freedom. Like few other things, art can give us a simultaneous exercise in both.