Still #NotSurprised: #MeToo in the Dutch and Belgian art world

Door ENGAGEMENT ARTS, op Wed Mar 10 2021 13:00:00 GMT+0000

On International Women's Day this year, the F-Razzor fundraiser, a campaign featuring work by more than sixty international artists who studied at the Rijksacademie in The Netherlands between 2014 and 2018, will be launched. The participating artists thus confirm the need to raise awareness about sexism, inequality and abuse of power in the Dutch art scene. Despite the global #MeToo movement, bystander culture seems to still persist, not in the least in the world of visual arts. How is that possible?

The F-Razzor fundraiser collects money for survivors of sexual assault who are confronted with legal costs and costs for psychological counseling. Additionally, part of the profits will serve to support Engagement Arts NL, the recently founded sister organization of Engagement Arts in Belgium. This cooperation and mutual support is heart-warming, but the cause of these united forces is, as you often see, a collective trauma. Despite the global #MeToo movement, bystander culture persists in the world of visual arts and beyond. Which elements and structures keep that toxic ground fertile?

Engagement Arts NL was founded after an article in NRC, which described in detail how an artist could get away with transgressive behavior for years.

The reason for the establishment of Engagement Arts NL was a very serious and persistent situation of sexual violence in the Dutch art world. The case was made public when the Dutch newspaper NRC published an article that described in detail how an artist had gotten away with repeated transgressive behavior for many years, including assault and even rape. This fine piece of investigative journalism showed how the problematic behavior of an individual was structurally and systematically made possible. Various gatekeepers (art schools, galleries, and institutions) were aware of the behavior of this figure and time and time again there were no adverse consequences for him. Worse still, it often even contributed to his star status, projecting an image of the 'enfant-terrible', the 'artist-rock star'. Even the police appeared to have taken no action despite several complaints. Bystander culture at its finest. And seeing that written so clearly caused quite a stir. The article sparked a heated debate about structural violence against women and other oppressed groups in the arts.

In the case of the article in NRC, it is interesting to zoom in on the headline of the article: 'How an artist makes a career under persistent allegations of sexual assault and rape'. An artist. The name of the artist in question, which is mentioned several times in the article, is not made explicit in the title. That may seem unimportant at first glance, but it is in stark contrast to the prevailing tone in which such matters are usually reported: sensationalist, lacking nuance, and superficial. Rather than focusing on the individual case, it immediately emphasizes the fact that this case exposes a culture in which these kinds of situations are enabled and even encouraged over and over again. NRC thus opts for a strikingly different approach. It’s not just about a particular individual. It's about a system.

The protagonists change, the misogyny and sexual violence remain.

And the system was called to account: the internet sort of exploded. Instagram pages were created, statements were written and Google forms were filled with personal experiences. The hashtag #NotSurprised, which was created in 2017 in response to allegations against an Artforum co-publisher, reappeared widely. But that did not mean that everyone was applauding. Soon enough, the well-known 'trial-by-media' argument started to flourish again: this was a 'character murder in the press, without a chance of reply' – notwithstanding that the latter was offered to the artist but he refused. Opinion pieces were everywhere in the media – as is the case in Belgium with the Bart De Pauw case – and the polarization was complete.

What these opinion pieces often refer to is that everyone is innocent until proven guilty and that the media should not 'play the judge'. Yet the 'presumption of innocence' is not an absolute principle that applies in every context, as Professor Dirk Voorhoof, who specializes in media law and journalistic ethics, stated in Knack about the Jan Fabre case. According to him, journalists can, under certain conditions, report about cases that are not being investigated by the judicial authorities or of which the investigation is still ongoing. The media then play an important role in raising specific issues. He states that 'breaking into a person's privacy or reputation should be possible in the case of serious facts that lead to public debate'. According to him, it is socially more interesting to tackle these issues 'with education, change of mentality, awareness-raising and debate, including in the media' instead of throughcriminal law.

#MeToo remains

This individual case does not come out of nowhere, of course. Internationally, the #MeToo movement in the visual arts world was fueled by the open letter We Are Not Surprised, in which the behavior of the Artforum co-publisher was used as a starting point to shake up an art world that was asleep: 'We are not surprised when curators offer exhibitions or support in exchange for sexual favors. We are not surprised when gallerists romanticize, minimize, and hide sexually abusive behavior by artists they represent. We are not surprised when a meeting with a collector or a potential patron becomes a sexual proposition. We are not surprised when we are retaliated against for not complying. We are not surprised when [a co-editor] gropes us in the art fair booth while promising he’ll help us with our career. Abuse of power comes as no surprise.' The letter was signed by thousands of artists, including some famous names such as Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, and Jenny Holzer. This was followed by call-outs of numerous well-known figures in the visual arts: art collectors, gallery owners, visual artists, photographers ... The list is long. The protagonists change but the misogyny and sexual violence remain.

A Flemish study shows that in the visual arts 4,2 percent of the respondents faced coercion and 21,5 percent with (physical) harassment.

In Flanders, on the other hand, the media remained remarkably silent about #MeToo stories in the visual arts scene. However, a study by Ghent University shows that in the visual arts 4,2 percent of respondents had to deal with coercion, 21,5 percent with (physical) harassment, 29,4 percent with infantilization, and 20,1 percent with transgressive behavior in communication. The archive of Engagement Arts seamlessly complements these figures with testimonies that unfortunately go far beyond the anecdotal: a teacher in higher art education invites several students as nude models to subsequently try and seduce them; a teacher makes inappropriate comments about the physical appearance of students; a gallerist refuses to return artworks to an artist, makes misogynous statements and threatens her; an artist is told by her gallerist that she better not start having children; an established artist takes young female artists under their wing and then bluntly informs that he wants something sexual in return ...

A structure out of balance

The basis for this structural sexism has grown historically. Linda Nochlin wrote 50 years ago that there are no 'Great Women Artists' because there is simply no environment in which female artists can grow. That is little different today. rekto:verso published the article 'Sexism in the visual arts in figures' in 2019, which showed that the price for the work of top female artists rarely exceeds half the price for top male artists. Auction prices for paintings made by women are 48% lower than prices for men. In recent years, only 24% of the work exhibited at Art Brussels was by women with the remaining 76% by men. The 95 art galleries listed in the Flanders Arts Institute database represent an average of only 15% female artists. This has financial consequences: male artists in Flanders between the ages of 45 and 54 have an average annual income of € 24.000, whereas for women that is € 13.500, about half of their male colleagues. Women are thus under-represented in galleries, at art fairs, and in the international auction industry. It is these figures, these realities of exclusion that lie at the heart of sexual transgression and abuse of power in the art world.

Institutions often only take responsibility when public opinion compels them to do so, and rarely on the basis of testimonials from individual artists.

Breaking the silence around sexually transgressive behavior and violence is a challenge for any professional sector. Still, the visual arts scene faces some obstacles specific to the discipline. First of all, the practice of a visual artist is strongly focused on the individual. Although nowadays there is an increasing urge for co-creation and collectivity, the solo studio practice is still the most common form of work. People often face it alone, both in artistic practice and in professional conflicts. In addition, visual arts of all disciplines are the most subject to the laws of the free market and visual artists have the lowest income in the cultural field of any group (according to research by Delphine Hesters / Kunstenpunt). This reality contrasts with the myth of the extremely successful einzelgänger who is part of the cultural and economic elite. This leads to a bizarre financial reality with a divergence between the visual artist who travels the world as a rock star or millionaire and easily makes capital thanks to manipulable auction logics and the vast group of artists who find themselves stuck in precarity.

This isolation, combined with the importance of gatekeepers and a precarious economic reality, can make it more difficult for an individual artist to speak up about negative experiences. Moreover, institutions often only take responsibility when public opinion compels them to do so, and rarely on the basis of testimonials from individual artists. What do you do if an interested gallerist makes an inappropriate comment about your body or sexuality, for example? For many, the opportunities to exhibit their work are so small that the decision is quickly made. Confiding in colleagues who are also competitors due to the market reality – let alone setting up a collective organization with them – becomes even more difficult.

Towards change

The structure of the sector creates an atmosphere in which abuse of power has free rein. Practice shows that transgressive behavior is almost automatically connected to that. The question is of course: what do we do about it? First of all, there is a need for structural corrections to counteract the imbalance. Quotas are an effective tool for this. In the Netherlands, there are already three museums, the Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Museum Arnhem, and the Fries Museum, which use quotas when purchasing artworks. In Copenhagen, the Visual Arts Council has also installed gender quotas. The Baltimore Museum of Art has decided to only purchase art made by women for one year. This not only ensures innovation in art historiography but also offers breathing space to female artists. It is of course important that these quotas are intersectional. The fight against inequality in the arts is far from being just about gender. Other discriminating factors such as color, body type, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc. must also be included. The collection director of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, for example, is committed to collecting work by artists who have been historically marginalized.

In the Netherlands there are already three museums that use quotas when purchasing their works.

It is also important that art institutions and schools work on a clear complaint procedure and a code of conduct. This helps in combating a culture of silence and a culture of bystanders. It's a direct way of saying as an institution, 'This is what we stand for'. In addition, installing and making a complaint procedure transparent is an essential first step to creating a safer environment. But these formal interventions are far from sufficient. It is also, and above all, about taking responsibility. Gallerists and gatekeepers must be held accountable for which artists they show, who gets the stage and what their role is in it. As long as problematic behavior is concealed, minimized, or even idealized, a complaints procedure on paper will never be the antidote to a toxic work environment.

It is precisely because of the layered nature of the challenge of change that collective and peer-to-peer initiatives are crucial. By connecting these initiatives internationally, by sharing knowledge and exchanging organizational strategies, a network of resistance is created on which we can build. But a safe(r) and (more) inclusive art world can only emerge if responsibility is also taken by those in the most powerful positions. Until that happens, these collective platforms will have to be the weight on the conscience. The more and the louder we say that we are still #NotSurprised, the more difficult it becomes to walk straight ahead undisturbed.