216 Nipples Later
A Controversy Over Censorship—or Harassment?—at Cornish
Courtesy of the artist
“Women and the Visual: The Influence of John Berger and Laura Mulvey,” panel discussion
Fri Nov 16, noon–1 pm, Cornish College Board Room
Ben Beres made the print you see above. It's 108 names of women artists in Seattle, each one with a pair of breasts. The breasts are basically, but not exactly, the same. None of the women were asked to participate or model; their names instead form a relatively comprehensive list of women artists who are active and well-known in the city. The artist Sharon Arnold curated an all-women show several months ago at Roq La Rue Gallery and "only got in 40 [women]. He did better than I did," she said.
Arnold selected Beres's print to be part of another group show, this time of all men. It's at Cornish, it's called Ils Disent, and it's a series of responses by male artists to the art and issues raised in Elles, the current exhibition of work by women artists at Seattle Art Museum. To promote Ils Disent, last week Arnold posted a detail of Beres's print to her Facebook page.
The following afternoon—Election Day—Arnold wrote on Facebook that the piece had been pulled from the show. She did not say why. She explained several hours later in a phone conversation: Two Cornish staffers, both of them among the 108 artists named in Beres's piece, had complained about having the print on display in their workplace. (The exhibition was not to take place in the basement gallery, where Susan Robb is having a solo exhibition, but in the building's lobby.) Beres also works at Cornish, teaching printmaking. At least one of the two women complained of a hostile work environment and asked for the print to be removed. Their identities and the details of their complaints have been kept confidential, and they have declined to be interviewed.
"I'm trying to figure out several things," Arnold said that evening. "One is that, obviously, if this were Microsoft, yeah, it would have to be pulled, but this is an art school. Ultimately, I don't really think it's right that the piece isn't in the show."
Sending a signal of solidarity, Arnold posted her segment of Beres's print—breasts with her name attached—as her profile picture on Facebook. There, a big discussion was under way. Some of it was about the fact that so-and-so's breasts were actually bigger than that, ha-ha. Most people were serious. Many of the women talked about whether they do, or should, want to be part of the piece. And if they do, whether they feel ashamed for wanting the attention. People asked what Beres intended, discussed whether censorship is worse than sexual harassment, whether the sagginess in the sketched breasts is empowering because it reflects real bodies rather than idealized ones, whether the attention-grabbing print raises the question of the general scarcity of recognition in Seattle whether you're a male or a female artist (as opposed to somewhere like, say, New York).
The most vituperative criticisms were reserved for Cornish. "Fuck Cornish," a commenter on Slog, The Stranger's blog, wrote.
"Art is supposed to be open to interpretation," wrote Seattle artist Shaun Kardinal, "and Cornish has decided to say, 'No, this is what it is.' And that's bullshit."
By the time the show opened Thursday night, a backlash was in full effect. A label on the gallery wall indicating the piece was removed—like Arnold's original Facebook post about the removal—lacks any mention of sexual harassment. Instead, it only describes "significant issues of censorship."
But word had begun to get out. Soon, anger turned directly toward the two women who complained. If those women had really wanted to be brave, they should have stood in front of Beres's print on the wall with a sign declaring they were not defeated, one wrote.
Michael Schorr, onetime Death Cab for Cutie drummer, wrote, "The funny thing is that this has more to do with people being pussies than it has to do with their tits."
Curator Arnold "liked" Schorr's comment on Facebook. Later, she explained over e-mail that Schorr is a close friend and she knows him to be "a very liberal progressive man who is very loudly on the side of women's rights."
Beres declined to offer an explanation of intentions or a reaction to the controversy, preferring instead to let the work do its work.
Over e-mail, he described the process of making the piece. The first names he came up with were artist friends; he added more names by searching Facebook and local gallery rosters. Their placement in the grid was random. He freehanded the breast cartoons and etched the names in reverse in order to make the print legible.
He brought the censored print to The Stranger's offices, and in person, the print has a warm, worn look that diverges from the repetitive format of the grid; he explained the plate was old and has been used many times. Each set of name and breasts is about the size of a thumbprint. The whole grid is 9 by 12 inches. Beres made mistakes: He spelled a few names wrong, drew one "z" backward. The errors emphasize his hand and presence, the fact of him almost caressing each represented person, which might be creepy or might be welcome, depending on who you are.
Asked if he considers himself a feminist, Beres responded, "Of course I am. I'd like to quote a friend who said, 'Anyone who has common sense these days is a feminist. It's about human decency.'"
Arnold, the show's curator, also describes herself as a feminist.
Of course, calling yourself a feminist is easy; what matters is how you act it out (obviously). So: We are all feminists here. Check. Next question: What does a feminist do?
How about making room for the possibility that other people feel differently than you do, and that they might be right, too?
"Throughout the years of my being here in Seattle, there's not really been any conversation about male privilege on the part of male artists," says artist Mandy Greer in a phone conversation. She has mixed feelings about Beres's print—she's one of the 108. "It really was an almost completely laid bare example of male privilege. I felt like Ben Beres was really intentionally exercising it. Like he was aware of it, and he is saying, 'Look, this is what I get to do as a man. I get to portray you like this without asking.'"
And how about allowing yourself to think in complicated ways? Greer kept fleshing out her response, turning unexpected corners.
"It made me think of the 15-year-old girl who committed suicide recently after a man sent a picture of her breasts around on Facebook," Greer continued. "As a feminist, I'd like to be seen as a whole person, but we're just not there yet. Our bodies have been literal battlegrounds. I don't feel okay with saying, 'Well, I'm okay with it, so you should be, too.' I saw someone comment [on Beres's print] on Facebook, 'Well, I'm a victim of rape and I'm still okay with this image,' and it's like, well, yeah, everybody digests that experience in a different way. And statistically speaking, if you're going to look at an image of 100 women, 33 of them have been sexually assaulted—so there's going to be a lot of variety of reactions among the women pictured. I don't feel okay telling anybody how they should react to this."
And sometimes I think a little old- fashioned calling-out is in order.
To "pussy"-insult-slinger Michael Schorr and any other "very liberal progressive men very loudly on the side of women's rights": Fuck you for publicly yelling hate speech at women you don't even know. (Pussy = weakness = hate speech.)
While this one piece by a dude should not steal a season about women in art, Beresgate is presenting a chance for conversation across gender about gender in the art world. When I saw Beres's print, what came first to mind was my series on Slog "Good Job Whatshertits," which is my way of singling out female artists for attention while also pointing out the objectification that comes with being a female artist in the first place. The title is a cynical reflection of the reality of the way female artists are treated, but one I intend as a weapon by writing extensively (not reductively) about each artist.
Of course, different phrases mean different things when they come out of different mouths. By reducing women to their names and their breasts, Beres is reproducing the lamer, creepier effects of focusing on art by women—and calling attention to it—when the ultimate goal of feminism is the full humanization of all genders.
Like "feminist," "censorship" has to be interpreted in context. Censorship really has two effects: symbolic and actual suppression of material. Since Beres's print became a cause célèbre after it was censored, it is not being actually suppressed, only more widely circulated. It probably will eventually be displayed. Maybe it will be a successful sales item. ("That thought gives me the creeps," says Paul Margolis, another Seattle artist, and Mandy Greer's husband, who points out that it's hard to come forward about sexual harassment. "I have been sexually harassed on two different occasions in my workplace, and I was not comfortable or brave enough to come forward and say something about it. I simply avoided the work site where the harasser works.")
As for symbolic suppression? Beres is successful already—this Cornish show is small potatoes for him. He has formal gallery representation (formerly at Lawrimore Project, now at Davidson), which is more than most of his list of 108 have. He is part of the established, Genius Award–winning trio SuttonBeresCuller, who have been awarded a MacDowell Colony residency and won many commissions. Beres graduated from Cornish years ago. All things considered, he's doing fine.
Still, it would be nice if the work could function fully by being exhibited somewhere. Artist Nola Avienne (one of the 108) offered a compromise: "Show the print, off of Cornish property, and provide little black bars so if you are offended you can cover up your own nipples or name." (Expedient expression of one conundrum of being a woman: to cover one's nipples or one's name?)
Acts of censorship can take the body of the artwork and not only make it the center of attention, but also the thing seemingly in need of protection and defense. But does Beres's print need protection? Is it even comparable to the famous recent censorship case at the National Portrait Gallery's first-ever exhibition of artworks expressing same-sex desire, in which the needless removal of a video by David Wojnarowicz was a replaying of the homophobic abuse the artist experienced in life and death?
And yet (another corner to turn): What message does the removal of the work send to Cornish students? That's not so easily answered.
The open-endedness of art gives us the chance to consider the conflicts openly. It's easier to yell about the suppression of an art object than to talk about the objectification of actual bodies. How could it not be? Who among us doesn't have super-charged, super-mixed feelings and experiences on the subjects of objectification, intimidation, rape? This is our opportunity not to be sidetracked by what's easiest.
Discomfort is put forth by curators and artists as an important goal—art should "unsettle" people, "break" boundaries, "push" envelopes. If Cornish students are looking for lessons from this episode, they might do best by adding to the top of their reading lists Maggie Nelson's 2011 book The Art of Cruelty. It provides an invaluable, unexpected, frankly life-changing look at the violence of the metaphors that underpin our assumptions about good art—weaponized metaphors ("unsettle," "break," "push") that descend from the specific history of the avant-garde. If in order to be good, art has to break and push you—it couldn't possibly be kind to you—then the only way to make something good is through violence, through acting out tired avant-garde tactics as retrograde as any other early-20th-century politics. Nelson's book is a demonstration that other legacies are possible. (Coincidentally, Nelson is speaking with Eileen Myles at Benaroya Hall on Thursday, November 15, at 7:30 p.m.)
We might use Beres's print as a test case. What happens when the art disturbs the viewer so much that it runs up against real-world systems put in place to protect the vulnerable? If Beres intended his piece as a critique of the dehumanizing effects of women being grouped together by crude physicality, as in Elles, then on some level wouldn't he appreciate that the print's removal is an implicit empowering of the two individual women who are standing out from the other 106?
The piece reminded Seattle artist Britta Johnson of British artist Tracey Emin's 1995 installation Everyone I Have Ever Slept With. The piece was a tent with 102 patches bearing the names of those who had shared her bed (including two fetuses). At the time she made the piece, Emin was not famous yet, and her then-boyfriend, a curator, cajoled her to make bigger art in order to become more famous; the tent was her response. Journalists wrote things like "She's slept with everyone, even the curator!" The piece was bought by Charles Saatchi, the advertising mogul/alpha collector who once did work for Margaret Thatcher; Emin had publicly denounced both Thatcher and Saatchi, and now this piece was in his possession. In 2004, it was destroyed in a London warehouse fire where it was being stored. Emin has refused to re-create it.
"Because of her gender and place, she's much more vulnerable in that piece than Ben is in his—in a way, her situation is more like that of the named women, or at least those who might enjoy the validation," Johnson wrote in an e-mail. "In Tracey's, as a viewer you have to decide whether or not you assume her sexual self was part of her climbing, and what your decision about that says about you, and whether it's at all damaging to the named men..."
Johnson is a fascinating and rising Seattle artist. I'd asked her what she thought of the print, which is why she responded to it at all. She didn't even know that she is one of the 108—and she didn't ask. After pressing send on her e-mail, making her nuanced voice heard, she returned to her studio, where she'd been all along.
This article has been updated since its original publication.