Thursday, April 22, 2010


Blaming the victim reaches new heights

The New York Times recently told us about a performance art exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Some of the works, by artist Marina Abramovic, involve nude performers in close proximity to the viewers, and some of the viewers are doing more than looking.

“He proceeded to slide his hand onto my ribs and back and then touched my butt,” Mr. Rawls said. “As he was passing me he looked me in the eyes and said ‘You feel good, man.’ ”

“I just turned and looked at the security guard and said, ‘This man is touching me.’ Then I looked back at my partner and left it at that.”

When his shift was over, Mr. Rawls said, he learned from a security official that MoMA had revoked the man’s 30-year membership and barred him from returning to the museum.

Another performer notes, “I didn’t think that would happen at all; who’s going to do something with all these people around?”

Who, indeed? Yet people think they can get away with pretty much anything, and always seem eager to try their, um, hand. And we best respond to that by calling them on it, and holding them accountable.

Others, though, respond differently. A few days after the article appeared, the Times printed a letter from a reader:

As a 57-year-old professional artist, I was amused by your article about the difficulties of being a nude performance artist at the current show at the Museum of Modern Art.

In my college days, and throughout my career (never achieving the lofty heights of those mentioned in your article), I have often run into performance artists with lofty ideas and ideals. But when the rubber hits the road, if you are going to stand around naked in a museum, you are going to get some unusual attention, and not all of it will be serious artistic consideration.

Humans are, after all, human.

If you can’t stand the heat, then put your clothes back on.

— H. James Hoff, Dallas


Mr Hoff is surely right that it’s not surprising that a few people will grope. But the answer is not to have the performers stop performing, to, basically, shut down the work of art.[1]

Furthermore, Mr Hoff implies that anyone going naked anywhere is essentially asking to be grabbed. And that’s just wrong. A bather, say, at a designated nude beach should feel safe from such attacks. For that matter, someone choosing to walk down Fifth Avenue unclothed should, in the time between starting his stroll and being arrested for it, be left untouched by the public.

Someone’s doing something that crosses one of your boundaries does not give you the right to violate his. Humans are, after all, human — not wolves.

[1] Whether it is art is, of course, as always, left to the opinion of the viewer, and I’m not addressing that here (though discussion of that in the comments is welcome). The museum considers it art, and that’s all that matters for these purposes.

1 comment:

Sue VanHattum said...

Yep. No one has a right to touch a person without consent.

On the crowded busses in Italy, I was repeatedly violated. It was ugly. On the crowded busses in Brazil, everyone kept trying to adjust to give each other a millimeter of space, and everyone joked about how tight it was. Sweet, and healing after my traumatic busrides in Italy.

On the other hand, the person who set this up knew there was potential for abuse and should have given each of the participants instruction/training on how to handle abuses. It's wrong, but be ready for it.