Taking Whatshertits to Another Level: Ben Beres's Print Is Cut from a Show at Cornish
by Jen Graves
on Wed, Nov 7, 2012 at 12:44 PM
This post has been moved up because that's the kind of whatshertits that I am.
Part of a print by Ben Beres. The print features 108 names of women artists in Seattle, each with a pair of breasts.
Well, it seems we've got a little censorshipgate in Seattle art this week.
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, according to curator/artist Sharon Arnold, form instead a relatively comprehensive list of women artists who are active and well-known in the city. In organizing an all-women show several months ago at Roq La Rue Gallery, Arnold "only got in 40. He did better than I did," she said. Beres hasn't responded yet to a request to talk about what's going on or what he intended with the piece.
By Tuesday afternoon, Arnold wrote on Facebook that the piece had been pulled from the show. I spoke to her around 6 pm, and she told me that a couple of Cornish staffers among the 108 women whose names Beres listed had complained about having the print on display in their workplace.
"It became an HR issue," she said. "I'll never be at liberty to say who, but I did have a chance to talk to them. ... I'm trying to figure out several things. 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."
Arnold and at least one other artist posted their segments of Beres's print as their profile pictures on Facebook. There, a big discussion was underway. Some of it was lighthearted, about the fact that so-and-so's breasts were not to scale. More was serious, about whether female artists do or should want to be part of the piece (and if they do, whether they feel ashamed about that), whether it represents the "male gaze" or some more critical POV on Beres's part, whether Cornish should have given this piece the publicity that comes with censorship, whether the lack of perfect symmetry in the sketched breasts is empowering to the realities of women's bodies, whether it raised the question of the general scarcity of recognition in Seattle whether you're a male or female artist (as opposed to somewhere like, say, New York).
I'd also really love to hear what the two women who would prefer not to have this print be a part of their working day have to say. I'm hoping they will contact me. Even anonymously, their perspectives are invaluable to the conversation.
And while I don't want this one piece by a dude to steal a season about women in art, this episode is presenting a chance for conversation across gender about gender in the art world, which is great.
When I saw Beres's print, what came first to my mind was my Slog series "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.
Of course, different phrases mean differently when they come out of different mouths, and jokes made by women about women are simply different from jokes made by men about women. Is this print a joke? Beres almost always uses humor in his work. I have a hard time believing it's not both a joke and serious, but I'm not sure exactly how on either side, and maybe that's okay, too. By reducing women to their names and their breasts, he's doing the same thing as the lamer sides of Elles—but what does it mean for a male Seattle artist to do this rather than the French national museum or Seattle's largest museum, or a female Seattle artist?
Maybe we shouldn't get sidetracked too much by the censorship. I spoke last night to gallery director Cable Griffith and Cornish interim provost Jenifer Ward, and they both said it was a torturous decision, involving a lot of wrestling between Cornish being an art school that prizes freedom of expression and a workplace that respects the boundaries of its employees, especially in issues of sexual harassment.
So what if a few people can't walk through the gallery and see the piece itself? The Internet has a far bigger audience than any gallery, and the discussion has begun, both about gender in Seattle art and about conflict within institutions. You can't censor that.