#MeToo Work at Art Basel Offers Cautionary Tale About Political Art
The Los Angeles artist Andrea Bowers made a monumental artwork that she hoped would support the #MeToo movement and presented it, with the help of four galleries, at the prestigious Art Basel fair in Switzerland. Three imposing walls of text and photos made up of 167 red panels retold the stories of men and women who had been accused of sexual misconduct or harassment since the movement began in 2017.
But if the intent of her work, called “Open Secrets Part I & II, 2018, 2019,” was to raise awareness about insensitivity to women, it seemed to backfire when Helen Donahue, a woman who said she had been abused complained on Twitter last week that photographs of her were used without her consent, and another woman, Abby Carney, said her name had been used without her consent. In a highly unusual move, Ms. Bowers extracted the panel in question, and issued an apology for having used the photographs.
Ethics scholars said the incident at the fair, which runs through Sunday, offered a case study in the complexity of creating political art. What rules apply for appropriating images and stories previously posted on personal social media accounts, or allegations made in a journalistic context? As socially-conscious art has become increasingly popular, and these works enter galleries and other commercial settings, should moral lines be drawn?
“This is a whole new set of questions,” said Prof. Griselda Pollock, director of the Center for Cultural Analysis, Theory and History at the University of Leeds in Britain. “Artists have a right to quote from the world, and they have authorization to present it as their art. But if you use materials that come from one context of use, with its own inherent ethics and politics, into another one, then we find that there are people who are challenging it.”
Ann Demeester, director of the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, the Netherlands, who is an authority on ethics in contemporary art, said that Ms. Bowers’s work enters ambiguous territory because it makes artwork from personal images and material that was originally presented in a media context, without significant fictionalization or alteration.
“I don’t know of any ethical written standards for artists, not even for curators,” she said, “but there’s a common understanding that you try to be as respectful as possible for any human person that you involved in an artwork. But sometimes when a work is activist, some people fall victim.”
Protests erupted in 2017 at the Whitney Biennial when the artist Dana Schutz made a painting based on photographs of the mutilated body of Emmett Till, an African American teenager lynched in Mississippi in 1955. His mother had made the photos available to selected media after his death to illustrate the extreme brutality of his murder. Protesters objected to the fact that Ms. Schutz, a white artist, reused it for her own work.
The legal aspect at stake is a principle called “fair use,” which typically applies when an original is transformed by being incorporated into art. The limits of fair use have been tested in lawsuits against Richard Prince, who has appropriated images posted on social media for his artworks and has sold them for millions of dollars.
In this case, there is no lawsuit, but Robert Penchina, a partner at the law firm Ballard Spahr who specializes in copyright, trademark and media law, said that the fair-use principle could apply here. Including Ms. Donahue’s photo “in an artwork where the artist is putting it into context, combining it with 170-odd panels, is telling a particular story, transforming it by building upon it,” he said. “I think it is a good candidate for fair use, and potentially defensible on that ground.” The panel of the installation that contained the photograph was removed.
Charles Krause, founding director of the Center for Contemporary Political Art in Washington, said, “This incident at Basel is probably a useful cautionary tale” for artists who make political art, and for “the gallery owners and fair promoters who are their editors.”
“What about the accused?” he said in an email exchange. “How many of them have been found guilty in a court of law, as opposed to the court of public opinion and political expediency? Can we trust Andrea’s work is accurate with regard to them, or shouldn’t we concern ourselves about the actual facts of each individual case?”
The panel of the installation that was removed concerned the freelance writer Michael Hafford and allegations made in 2017 by fellow journalists and former girlfriends in an article in Jezebel, an online magazine.
Ms. Bowers, who declined to be interviewed for this piece, seems to have based her panel largely on that article, in which four women described physical or sexual mistreatment by Mr. Hafford. One of them, Ms. Donahue, told Jezebel he had caused her physical pain — and bruising — during intercourse that went beyond “rough sex.” Another, Abby Carney, said he had raped her, ignoring her requests to stop having sex one night in 2015. Ms. Carney wrote on Twitter, “TFW you find out someone turned your rape into “artwork” at Art Basel???”
Neither woman has filed formal charges against Mr. Hafford. Mr. Hafford, reached by phone and email, did not respond to questions emailed to him by The New York Times. Neither would he comment on the allegations in Jezebel.
In her artwork, Ms. Bowers incorporated photographs of Ms. Donahue’s bruised face, chest and shoulders that were originally posted on her Twitter account, and were also used in the Jezebel article; Ms. Carney’s full name was written into Ms. Bowers’ text.
Ms. Donahue protested on Twitter that use of her image in the work was “exploiting us for ‘art’.” She added, addressing Ms. Bowers, “Do you know how [expletive] insane it is to find out my beat up face and body are on display as art rn for rich ppl to gawk at thru a stranger’s instagram story.”
Ms. Bowers “absolutely realized that that was a mistake,” said Susanne Vielmetter, the owner and director of Vielmetter Los Angeles, one of the four galleries that collaborated to bring the artwork to the fair. “We all agreed it should be taken down,” she said.
After they removed the offending panel from the installation, Ms. Bowers contacted Ms. Donahue, and tried to explain the nature of her work and her intentions, Ms. Vielmetter said in an interview.
The artist, in a public statement sent to The New York Times by her gallery and published on Twitter on Wednesday, said: “I, Andrea Bowers, would like to apologize to the survivor whose image was included in my piece,” adding “I should have asked for her consent.”
Ms. Bowers is known for her drawings, videos and installations that focus on social issues ranging from workers’ rights to immigration to victims of harassment, including transgender women. Her artworks, in the collections of the Hammer Museum of Art, in Los Angeles, and the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, have reused text from protest posters and activist slogans.
The galleries that brought “Open Secrets” to Art Basel, which also include Andrew Kreps, Kaufmann Repetto and Capitain Petzel, also issued an apology, adding “We stand by Andrea Bowers and her work and support the conversation that has only just begun.”
In an interview, Ms. Carney said that she had never been contacted by the artist for any participation in the project and she had not received an apology from Ms. Bowers., nor was she contacted by the artist
“Part of the retraumatization is that it’s a half story or a poorly told version of the story,” she said in a telephone interview. “I’m trying to conclude that chapter, and to be known for my career successes and not for that.”
The gallery owner, Ms. Vielmetter, in an interview at the fair, said that “this piece is showing how widespread this problem of abuse is, and how the cultural dialogue of what is and what isn’t acceptable sexual behavior is changing right now.” She added, “The last thing that we wanted to do was to do more harm to one of the survivors.”
Ms. Vielmetter confirmed that the original asking price of the installation was $300,000 but added that the galleries who presented the art have now decided not to offer it for sale “out of respect for the ongoing conversation between Andrea Bowers and the survivor.”
Ms. Carney said that she has mixed feelings about the fact that the single panel was removed, because she supports the idea of a discussion about this topic.
“I believe she probably has good intentions,” Ms. Carney said of Ms. Bowers, “but when you’re telling someone else’s story, if you’re not careful, you can make it too general because you haven’t really taken the time to understand it.”
She added, “My upset is not so much that I hate having my name out there, but more about getting a chance to talk about it. We are all writers and journalists, and we have powerful voices of our own.”