History cannot be read backward. People of earlier times did not have our standards.
It is, however, equally disingenuous to disregard the contemporary lens through which we see and evaluate those times.
I was reminded of this when I attended a lecture on “Casanova’s Europe: “Art, Pleasure and Power in the 18th Century” – related to the exhibit that’s on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston through Oct. 8. In this entertaining lecture, sponsored by the Greenwich Decorative Arts Society, Thomas S. Michie, the museum’s senior curator of decorative arts and sculpture, noted that he and the MFA team had to be mindful of #MeToo in the text accompanying the story of the engaging yet still exploitative libertine that was Casanova.
This was particularly true of the text for Nathanial Hone the Elder’s “Portrait of Catherine Maria ‘Kitty’ Fisher” (1763-64). The subject was a British courtesan and Casanova acquaintance who was famous for being famous. Fisher would ultimately marry well, and her portrait would seem to fall into the category of exhibit paintings of women who may have enjoyed sex more than they were willing to let on in polite society. Certainly, Kitty gives nothing away here. Her expression is noncommittal, while her gilt-edged shawl conceals her pearly décolletage even as it draws us to it. The fishbowl, a play on her name, symbolizes her life as an early celebrity. But Michie also pointed out the window reflected in fishbowl, which reveals two men gazing at her.
Her portrait, then, underscores what she was to men, regardless of her fame, wealth and influence – an object for their gaze and use.
Along with works about women considering their virtue as a commodity or pretending to fight off ravenous lovers, Kitty’s portrait raises a fascinating question: Do these studies of sexual ambivalence reflect the nature of women – or the fact that these paintings were made by men, who have often viewed women as sexual teases? Had women had the opportunity to paint such images, they might have been different. Artemisia Gentileschi, the Italian Baroque painter who was herself a rape victim, often portrayed women in sexual peril – the biblical heroines Susannah and Judith – triumphing over their tormentors. There’s lots of male decapitation in Gentileschi’s works. You don’t need to be Sigmund Freud to get the castrating reference.
Then again, women have tended to absorb the values of patriarchy. Many women uphold them today. How many women, for instance, have dismissed Brett Kavanaugh’s alleged attempted rape of Christine Blasey Ford as a “touch” between teenagers at a time that is now ancient history?
There’s another question to consider here that is also relevant to the arts today, particularly the popular arts: Do they contribute to the continuing treatment of women as sex objects? Chances are the classical arts – to the extent that people are familiar with them – are not going to do that. But what about certain rap songs, movies or photographs? Do the creators of these contemporary works have a responsibility to be respectful of women – or does “art” transcend morality?
I would say art does transcend morality but, at the same time, it has a psychological truth that would acknowledge that for women, sex has never been a level playing field. We might say the same of the experiences, sexual and nonsexual, of other oppressed minorities.
And that’s why we have to err on the side of the much-maligned political correctness as a way to calibrate our sensitivity to those who have been marginalized throughout history.