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Those who have been following the recent news from the art world may feel, as Hanno Rauterberg recently wrote in DIE ZEIT, "that one has to fear for artistic freedom." Much of the news in question has come from New York City. In spring, artist Hannah Black initiated a protest against the Whitney Biennial’s exhibition of a painting by Dana Schutz, Open Casket (2016), that depicted the mutilated corpse of Emmett Till, a black youth whose gruesome 1955 murder helped inspire the civil rights movement, on the grounds of cultural appropriation and the exploitation of black pain.

Over the summer, the Guggenheim was the target of protests over its decision to exhibit several works that exploited animals, including a video by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu called Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other (2003), which features eight pit bulls on eight treadmills, snarling and bristling with the palpable desire to rip each other apart. And at the beginning of December, a visitor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art named Mia Merrill circulated a petition, which collected more than 11,000 signatures, asking for the removal, or at least the recontextualization, of Balthus’s Thérèse Dreaming (1938), arguing that the painting objectifies women and romanticizes the sexualization of children, and that the museum’s failure to acknowledge these problems affirms or even celebrates them.

A Legacy of Oppression

Many voices have risen to condemn the protestors and to laud the museums for refusing to listen to them or, in the case of the Guggenheim, which ultimately declined to show the controversial works, excoriating them for bowing to pressure. But it's worth taking a closer look. One has good reason to be wary of calls for censorship, no matter where they come from. In these cases however, the calls for censorship arise not from intolerance, hate, or prudishness, but from protestors who seek to address long and undeniable legacies of sexism, racism, and other forms of injustice in art, whether historical or contemporary, and in a contemporary art world that has done very little to correct them.

For this reason, we must be wary of too quickly and easily dismissing calls for justice in the art world, especially those that come not from authority – governments, museums or influential critics – but from the victims of it. In the three examples above, the protestors are either minorities (women and people of color) or speak for beings that cannot speak for themselves (animals).

Panic over Protests that Remain Powerless

Mia Merrill’s petition against Balthus’s painting, a historical rather than a contemporary work of art, seems to have inspired a particularly strong reaction: "Spare us the moral hysteria that threatens a new age of censorship," Rachel Cooke wrote in the Guardian. Cooke opposes the "moral hysteria" of the protestors, but at first glance, the headline could be interpreted to mean something very different. Balthus’s painting has not been censored. In fact, Merrill’s petition, with its more than 11,000 signatures, was dismissed by the Met out of hand. Is it not, in fact, more indicative of moral hysteria to claim that a few minority voices that have largely been dismissed by art institutions will lead to a police state in the art world? The press that Merrill’s petition received is actually more disturbing and dangerous than the "threat" to the painting itself.

Let’s take a closer look at the Balthus case. Thérèse Blanchard, a favorite model of the French artist born in 1908 as Balthasar Klossowski, was about 12 or 13 in 1938, when the painting was made. In Thérèse Dreaming, as in other paintings and photographs he made of her, the young girl is portrayed as both innocent and sexy: Her skirt rides up as she leans back, eyes closed, apparently heedless of the strip of white underwear exposed between her legs. Before her, a cat laps at a saucer of milk. Balthus himself denied anything sexual in these works, repeating until his death in 2001 that it was only prurient viewers who found such content in them.