Prudish or Impertinent? Viewing Old Art in the Context of New Headlines

I’m old enough to remember when everyone hated Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center for putting warning labels on music. Those prudish squares! How dare they tell us we have to be over 18 to listen to Prince, Cyndi Lauper, and Twisted Sister (not that anybody listened to Twisted Sister).


Kids and college students railed against those fuddy duddies, decrying the far religious right (although ringleader Gore was a Democrat) and their new Victorianism. Well, the New Vics have a different face these days. It’s young, it’s on social media, and it’s frequently from the left.

Mia Merril has petitioned the Metropolitan Museum of Art to remove or somehow provide a warning label on Balthus’ “Thérèse Dreaming”. The museum has refused. The petition has garnered nearly 11,000 supporters from around the United States and the world as of this writing.

Merril initially wanted the Met to take the painting down, stating:

“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.”

The choice of language is interesting. She says the Met is “proudly” displaying the painting, rather than merely displaying it like all the other art there. One wonders where she got the impression that the display is proud. In the signage, does it say, “BOOYAH, people. We got us a Balthus! MIC DROP”?


While Balthus has indeed painted images bordering on pornographic (do NOT google “The Guitar Lesson” at work…or maybe ever), “Thérèse Dreaming” requires the viewer to actually know about Balthus’ more alarming work to find it offensive. Compare it to Norman Rockwell’s “Girl at the Mirror” or “Before the Date”, which might seem provocative to some if they knew nothing about Rockwell.

But Merril says:

“I am not asking for this painting to be censored, destroyed or never seen again. I am asking The Met to seriously consider the implications of hanging particular pieces of art on their walls, and to be more conscientious in how they contextualize those pieces to the masses. This can be accomplished by either removing the piece from that particular gallery, or providing more context in the painting’s description. For example, a line as brief as, ‘some viewers find this piece offensive or disturbing, given Balthus’ artistic infatuation with young girls.’”

At worst she wants the painting removed, at best she wants a warning label. On art.

Remember when Republicans objected to Serrano’s “Piss Christ”? Remember how well that went? Ultimately, it was the Australians and the French who physically attacked the work, but the Republican objection was to using public funds to subsidize it. Serrano received $20,000 total from the National Endowment for the Arts — tax payer money.


Merril wants the Metropolitan Museum of Art to put context around a painting that your average viewer would not even intuit. Looked at with the eyes of Joe Museumgoer, “Thérèse Dreaming” depicts some young broad on a hot day. You have to have one of two things to find this painting offensive:

  1. An inherently filthy mind, which is not in short supply these days
  2. Knowledge of Balthus, which…let’s be honest, today is the first time you even heard of Balthus, probably.

The petition goes on to say:

“Ultimately, this is a small ask considering how expansive the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection is (they can easily hang up another painting), how overtly sexual the painting is (the Met’s description of the piece provides no background on Balthus or his reputation), and the current news headlines highlighting a macro issue about the safety and wellbeing of women of all ages.”

The current news. Like the sexualization of women or even children is an issue the human race has only grappled with in the last two months. Like Balthus is the only artist prone to painting like this. Like art is meant to be viewed in the context of breaking headlines instead of anything else.

New York’s Pix11 asked Met attendees their thoughts, reporting they believe “art has always been about individual interpretation and they believe ‘Thérèse Dreaming’ should be here.” Met spokesman Ken Weine agrees, stating:


“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.”

But the New Vics want to provide the context for you. You could walk past the piece and disregard it as boring, ugly, and bland — or be enraptured by the way Balthus’ captured sunlight. Instead, the New Victorians want you to stop and be warned that you should be offended by this painting because of other paintings that you cannot see and probably have no awareness of at all.

Merril rightly cites a Guardian article about the Met’s 2013 exhibit “Balthus: Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations” which “put a plaque at the start of the show that reads: ‘Some of the paintings in this exhibition may be disturbing to some visitors.’”

The difference being, of course, that it was an entire exhibit which ran the gamut of Balthus’ work—an exhibit that specifically focused on his more provocative pieces (as the name implied).

But Merril draws the conclusion:

“If The Met had the wherewithal to reference the disturbing nature of Balthus for this exhibit, they understand the implications of displaying his art as a part of their permanent collection.”

Well, Harvey Weinstein is a despicable subhuman predator, as is half of Congress. Do I now denounce “Kill Bill Vol. 2” and any laws I don’t like? Should there be a giant sign outside the Capitol Building warning of potential gropings? (Probably.)


The point is, art throughout the ages depicts things beautiful and moving and awful and off putting. The moment we start telling people how to interpret and feel about art, we become, as Jonathan Jones said in the Guardian, fascists.

He sums up my feelings on the more gross works in human history by saying, “It is right to criticise art, question it, argue over it – but forbidding it should be left to the fascists.” I would add you can even hate it and be triggered by it, but should you be told to? No.


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