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Too Close for Comfort

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Too Close for Comfort

Tenuous accusations of sexual harassment against a portrait artist suggest that #MeToo has become a war on men. January 8, 2018
Arts and Culture
The Social Order

Two hit jobs last month on the portrait painter Chuck Close show that the #MeToo movement has now moved into primal territory: an eruption of the age-old revulsion toward the flesh. But whereas medieval ascetics had the integrity to don a hair shirt or enter a monastery or nunnery, today’s feminist scourges maintain the prerogative of their own sexual liberation, while reverting at will to the status of disembodied self in order to flagellate males for their carnal selves.  

Chuck Close is a darling of the contemporary art world; his massive, photography-based portraits have exhibited at virtually all major contemporary art venues. In 2005, he met a painter, Delia Brown, at a chic Hamptons dinner party. He said that he liked her work and asked her to pose for a photo in his studio. Brown immediately conveyed the invitation to one of her patrons, who was also a guest at the Hamptons party, as a sign of her election to the modern art-market firmament. When she phoned Close the next day to arrange the visit, he said that he wanted her to pose topless. This was hardly a novel proposal: Close’s photographs of male and female nudes are a known part of his output. Brown was insulted, however. She told Close over the phone that she needed to think about it. She then decided against the invitation. “I came to the conclusion that I was not being photographed as an artist but as a woman,” she told the New York Times. “You shouldn’t expect just because you go into an artist’s studio that you will be compromised. You should be allowed to have that experience, just like male artists who have that experience.”

Brown was not insulted enough, however, to forego trying to arrange a visit to his studio anyway. When she called a few weeks later to schedule such a visit, Close acted like he did not know her, she said.

Close had sexually harassed Brown, according to the New York Times and the Huffington Post. Indeed, so searing was the experience, in the Times’s view, that it led with one of Brown’s quotes at the top of its page in boldface: “My heart sank. I thought, ‘That’s not how he photographs artists.’ I immediately felt a little bit insulted.” The unusual graphic format signaled that Brown’s condition of feeling insulted should strike readers with a redoubled sense of outrage at the patriarchy.

Let’s review the key details here. Close and Brown are not in any type of hierarchical employment relationship; he has no power over her, besides that generated by her own desire for a career boost. They were in each other’s physical presence only once—at a dinner party. Subsequently, they spoke twice by phone: she called him to arrange a visit, then again to arrange another visit. He never touched her. Indeed, Close is a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair, so his physical reach is limited. There was no hint of a carnal quid pro quo, or even a carnal quid: their interaction was about modelling, not sex. Brown was free to decline his invitation to model, which she did, without repercussions.

So what makes this a case of “sexual harassment”? Brown came to the conclusion that she was “not being photographed as an artist but as a woman.” She felt “insulted.” And she wasn’t “allowed” to have the experience of going into an artist’s studio without being “compromised”—the “compromising” consisting of being photographed “as a woman.”

For a self-proclaimed artist, Brown has a remarkably Puritanical view of the male gaze. Craftsmen and artists have been depicting the female body since representation developed tens of millennia ago. The fact that an artist sees someone as body rather than incorporeal mind is not harassment; it is part of his craft. Nor does feeling “insulted” constitute harassment—at least until recently. The idea that it is “compromising” to be seen as a female form misunderstands art as thoroughly as does the current campaign against “cultural appropriation.” Is there an erotic component to the artistic male gaze? Undoubtedly so. Get over it. As long as we inhabit flesh, Eros will never be definitively excised from the public realm, including the artist’s studio. But according to the Times and the Huffington Post, not only is it “compromising” to have an artist notice your body; it is also sexual harassment.

Brown’s eagerness to gain entry to Close’s studio after the alleged sexual harassment recalls campus rape “victims” who go on to have sex again with their alleged assailants, such as Emma “Mattress Girl” Sulkowicz, who sent fawning texts to her “rapist” after her alleged rape. In the 1985 Ms. survey that sparked the campus-rape industry, 42 percent of supposed victims had intercourse again with their alleged assailants. Either the harassment and rapes were not as traumatic as the victims and survey administrators alleged or females are so lacking in personal agency that they cannot protect their interests on their own.

In another “harassment” incident from 2010 highlighted by the Times and Huffington Post, Close asked a second female artist, Langdon Graves, to pose nude for him. She was flattered and agreed. While she was disrobing in the bathroom, he allegedly recounted sex acts to her that he performed with a local waitress, asked her invasive questions about her personal grooming, and complimented her boyfriend on his luck. She felt “this profound disappointment,” she said, and told Close that she was not going forward with the modelling session. Close wheeled himself back to his easel, and she let herself out.  

Close clearly inhabits the raunchy end of the decorum spectrum. A more circumspect person would steer clear of any sex talk during a modelling session. But just because Close should have been more professional in his choice of conversational topics does not mean that he was sexually harassing Graves. As with Brown, there was no hierarchical power relationship, no pressure for sex, no physical contact, no repeat interaction, no consequences for voluntary and unimpeded exit. It is our fate in life to encounter people, usually males, who think it is funny or fun to inject sex talk into conversation. Up through the first half of the twentieth century, traditional standards of propriety kept such people mostly in check. Now, however, in a pop culture awash in sex, and with traditional norms derided as uptight and retrograde, it is no surprise that individuals with particularly bawdy senses of humor feel uninhibited about unleashing their sensibilities on the world. If their interlocutors are not amused, however, #MeToo has now given those interlocutors the power to destroy a career, as federal appellate judge Alex Kozinski belatedly discovered. (Kozinski resigned last month under charges of “sexual harassment” for indulging in juvenile innuendo with his female clerks, which he undoubtedly found hilarious but his clerks did not.)

The #MeToo movement may have begun as a justified backlash against grotesque predatory behavior and its institutional support, but, predictably, it soon evolved into a war on men and a moral panic over the male libido. Sexual harassment has become an infinitely expandable concept to take down difficult leaders, but history has been made by driven males; they created casualties aplenty but left the rest of us with art, intellectual advances, and the exploration of the unknown. The #MeToo movement will result in a new wave of quotas for females and the marginalization of men. No amount of political and social reengineering, however, will solve the problem of taming and integrating Eros in a world that denies male-female differences.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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