After 10 years, we are still the only museum in the world dedicated to celebrating girlhood. The baseline of our work is pro-girl, to advocate for her and present her point of view as best we can. This isn’t easy; girls are one of the most marginalized groups, and society is ambivalent about them. They fall through the cracks, landing in the grey areas of traditional feminism. Because we have spent so long fighting against the infantilization of women, we forget the opposite happens to girls: they are looked at as older and more mature to give their mere presence credibility. For feminism to be truly intersectional, it cannot be bad, wrong or less than to be a girl.
In the art world, trying to get more women recognized and showcased as artists is vital to changing the meta-narrative of the white male genius, but in order to dismantle the system propping them up, we must review the objects in our collections, their content, and interpretation. I use a girl-centered approach to my work, meaning that “her” voice is prioritized rather than the artist. I also use the lens of #MeToo, which considers violence against girls and women and the power of speaking out about it. Looking at artwork and art history through these viewpoints calls out the realities of the often highly sexualized and grossly imbalanced power dynamic in art production.
In October 2019, I was interviewed for the The New York Times article, “Is it Time Gauguin Got Canceled?” While I stand by my statement that Gauguin was an arrogant, overrated, patronizing pedophile, I feel my point has been lost in the conversation. We as art historians and audiences are trained to uphold white male artists as if they are above reproach and separate from their art. The journalist, Farah Nayeri, asked me if #MeToo had gone too far and would lead to censorship of great artists? I don’t think any of that is true. I don’t think that Gauguin is a great artist, nor that he will ever be censored. And I don’t think the #MeToo movement has gone nearly far enough.
As an example, France is one of a few countries in the EU whose laws do not automatically consider underage non-consensual sex as rape. There must be “violence, coercion, threat or surprise.” (Doezema) Last year, the defense of a 28 year old man who raped an 11 year old girl was that she didn’t fight back…and she was almost 12 years old, so not “a poor little faultless goose.” (Doezema) These laws have barely changed since Gauguin’s day, so the argument that morals have evolved holds little sway. With so many contemporary examples to choose from, we can see male artists continue to behave the way they always have and are still given a pass. Plenty of public outrage has been displayed, on all sides, but there has been little actual change or accountability.
From a museum perspective, choosing to showcase men like Gauguin does, in its own way, support rape culture. I have received MANY responses to my comments in the article—most attacking my intelligence, my right to have an opinion, and wish some sort of violence upon me. All of this proves my point that even talking about Gauguin puts toxic masculinity on display.
Gauguin needed these girls to make himself a legend, because without them, he’s average. If they have been adults, he would be recalled as a philanderer. But he purposefully and consistently made the choice to exploit and assault young girls. Considering someone’s character as a precursor to calling them an artistic genius changes the whole art world ecosystem. But art history needs to address these issues even if it complicates our traditions and messaging. With Gauguin’s Tahitian period work, some see beautiful paintings, but I see sexual violence. These assessments come from differing value systems—one where beauty justifies brutality and the other where humanity is more valuable than art.
We have big choices to make—be passive and let the status quo stand unchallenged, or proactively lead with deeper and more complex inquiries and narratives. I don’t see how publicly funded institutions can avoid being socially responsible now that audiences can easily discover online they have been lied to by omission or fed rose-tinted platitudes. I never said to ban Gauguin, or any other artist. But we do need to take more seriously and holistically what we present and what is presented to us. Our work needs to invest in visual literacy and social history alongside interpretation.
History cannot be changed, but we can change how we tell it—which includes who we choose to celebrate and how we do it. We only know the first draft of history—the men’s story. Through the glaring absence of the voices of women, children, and people of color, we are conditioned to doubt the validity of their experiences in history. Working on the second draft—our story—is vital to ending the patriarchal rape culture we live in. We have every right to say it wasn’t and still isn’t good enough, and we must make it better for ourselves and our girls going forward.
-Ashley E. Remer, Head Girl
Source: Doezema, Marie. “France, Where Age of Consent Is Up for Debate,” The Atlantic, March 10, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/03/frances-existential-crisis-over-sexual-harassment-laws/550700/ (accessed August 16, 2019).