Chucking out Chuck Close for Allegedly Being Naughty

Chuck Close and his Self-Portrait acrylic painting of 1967-8.

The Claims Against Chuck:

Chuck Close is now believed to be a terrible person who has committed sexual harassment, in which case people further believe that his art should not be viewed. Allegedly, he uttered words like “pussy” and made lewd comments to females who he paid to pose for nude photos. He told one woman that her vagina looked “delicious”, and even TOUCHED another on the lower back with the tips of his fingers! Just imagine what he would have done if wasn’t in a wheelchair!

While Close says the accusations are lies, and claims to be against sexual misconduct, eight women have come forward with allegations, in which case it does kinda’ sound like Chuck might have crossed the line into inappropriate advances towards women under the guise of taking artsy nude photos of them. If true, he should have known better and exercised more self-control than Beavis and Butthead.

beavis550

More seriously, asking someone you are employing to take off her clothes sounds like a very clear case of sexual harassment, though it gets a little blurry when the employment in question is nude modeling. Even in that context, though, asking a model to play with herself, as one woman accuses, would be an abuse of power. If Close really did that, then that was a bad thing to do. But was it astoundingly bad?

One version of reality is that Close used ostensible job interviews as a modus operandi for getting women to undress before him while he ogled them and made sexual comments. Bad! The other is that in a half century of taking photos of models the worst case that could be patched together against him is a handful of women alleging he got a bit pervy but didn’t actually do anything physical. And this is happening in a feverish climate that might be getting a bit out of hand, as in the case of Garrison Keillor, whose career was ended with one accusation of him touching a woman’s upper back.

None of the women who have come forth with their stories say they felt at all physically threatened by Close. They were free to say, “No”, even if his power and authority intimidated them. He didn’t cause anyone bodily harm. There was no sexual contact. Nobody was under-aged.

We might all agree that there’s a spectrum of abuse in which sexual assault is worse than sexual harassment; and proven serial harassment including physical contact is worse than alleged, one-time, non-physical incidents. We may make a distinction between things we would never want to happen to us (murder, rape, assault), and things that wouldn’t be bad under ideal circumstances (someone complementing ones physique or making a tentative “first move”). Some of Close’s reported crimes would be mere flirting if both parties were interested. It still sounds like textbook sexual harassment, but not of Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey proportions.

If we are after justice, than we likely believe that the punishment should fit the crime and be fairly administered.

The Punishment:

Chuck Close is considered guilty and a pariah until proven innocent, which can’t be done because it’s his word against theirs, and we don’t believe him. Therefore the art world can and should take justice into its own hands, apparently.

A planned exhibition of his work at the National Gallery in Washington was postponed indefinitely. Seattle University removed a Close self-portrait from display, and the Broad in Los Angeles is considering taking down their art by Close.

And then, of course, he is smeared as a sexual harasser and immoral individual in the NYTimes, the Guardian, Artnet, the Huffington Post, Hyperallergic, and all over the web. Should the allegations turn out to be exaggerated, twisted, or opportunistic, then no harm has been done because even if some male artists are called out in error it is for the greater good of calling out all sexist male artists, I guess.

Who is Chuck Close?

Chuck accomplished an astounding artistic feat, which was to make portrait painting relevant and contemporary at a time when painting and portraiture were considered boring, backwards, and dead on arrival. His early, bigger-than-life, microscopically detailed B&W portraits immortalized himself and his circle as representatives of a late 60’s youthful American zeitgeist.

Chuck Close and his Portrait of Phillip Glass 1969.

More surprisingly, he continued to evolve his style of portraiture, keeping up with the times and remaining contemporary over generations. For example, he started incorporating color and moved away from excruciating detail to things like shapes within squares that only resemble a portrait from a distance.

Close working on a painting, creating abstract shapes within a grid system.

Close suffered a stroke in 1988, at the age of 48, that left him a quadriplegic, but he remained a bit of a figurative painting hero because he still insisted on making his own work. The fashion, starting with Warhol and picked up by the likes of Hirst and Koons, is to pay assistants to make your paintings for you, especially if they’re particularly tedious or you aren’t really capable of doing them yourself. Even with the perfect excuse for fobbing off the difficult painting process, Close continued to paint using a brush strapped to his wrist and an electric easel that lifts and rotates the canvas with the push of a button.

The most surprising thing about Close is that he was born with a neurological deficit know as “prosopagnosia”, which is the inability to recognize faces. Not knowing this until recently, my presumption has always been that he was a connoisseur of faces and if anything particularly adept at recognizing them.

He can detect that there is a face, but not recall it, and if the person moves, changes their expression, or there is any change the face is no longer recognizable. If he were to meet you today he wouldn’t recognize you tomorrow, and in elementary school he couldn’t identify any of his classmates. He once was unable to recognize a woman whom he’d lived with for a year. This is part of the motivation for painstakingly recreating a particular face straight on.

“Once I change the face into a two-dimensional object, I can commit it to memory. I have a photographic memory for things that are two-dimensional.” ~ Chuck Close.

He also has a form of dyslexia so severe that he can’t learn from directly reading, and has to hear language to process it.

Consider the Source:

Some of the sleuth-work here was conducted by Hyperallergic, and their findings were published as, Four More Women Allege Sexual Misconduct by Chuck Close. All four women’s stories were uncovered through their own correspondence, which may raise an eyebrow. I’m nearly as skeptical of material coming out of Hyperallergic as I am of content from Breitbart News or Alex Jones’ Infowars, though they are at the far opposite end of the political compass.

I’m sure Hyperallergic considers themselves not only objective but a vanguard of progress, and I’m confident they would agree to the following [because they hammer home these points ad nauseum]: all art is political; only progressive art matters; conservative art is irrelevant or deplorable; the larger goal is to raise social consciousness and bring about universal equality or equity; the biggest problem in the West is whiteness; the art world is white supremacist and patriarchal; and Hyperallergic is politically on the far left and takes pride in being “radical”.

In short, they have a far-left revolutionary agenda in which art is subordinated to politics as a tool for presumed positive sociopolitical change. Because of this I have some pause in accepting their reportage as factual, as their conclusions may reflect a bias and conform to preexisting and overarching beliefs.

I’ve read enough of their articles to recognize the same paradigm of art as I was indoctrinated into in grad school, which filters all art through politics, through specifically left wing politics, and via a Postmodern/Cultural Marxist/Identity Politics belief system. They are likely committed to dismantling the white male cannon of art history, and overturning the cult of white male genius, in which case Chuck Close is something like an enemy in rhetorical warfare, and toppling him a high five affair. On the other end of the spectrum, incidentally, would be something like Prager University, with their conservative agenda, which I also consider dangerous, myopic, and an eye-roller. On either side of the coin there is one-sidedeness and half-truths accepted as absolute truth – we are 100% right and they are 100% wrong.

At the bottom of the article is a statement, which also appeared on an earlier article about Close, and before that in other articles, and is probably how they received their new allegations: “Hyperallergic is committed to reporting on sexual harassment in the art world. If you have a story about personal or institutional abuse in our field, please write to Claire Voon at claire@hyperallergic.com.” [A little research reveals Voon graduated with a BA in Journalism and Art History in 2015. Not exactly the qualifications I’d trust for collecting, evaluating, and publishing accusations of wrongdoing against artists.]

Here an online art magazine has appointed themselves the role of fighting sexual harassment and reporting on artists when there are allegations. How critical they are of these allegations, and what responsibility they take in assuring they are not participating in slander or damaging an artist’s career is up to their own good judgement.

A consequence of this kind of reportage from politically motivated art critics can be punishment inflicted on the artist, and this is also meted out by the art world, sidestepping the Criminal Justice system.

We go directly from accusations to prosecution to punishment with no defense, no cross-examination of witnesses, and no jury. The art world is the judge and determiner of punishment.

Recently we’ve seen the destruction of a sculpture by Sam Durant, and demands for the destruction of a painting by Dana Schutz, as well as the closing of one of her shows, all stemming directly from within the art world (the latter on what I believe are spurious charges of white supremacy and inciting violence).

[See my article: Censoring and Burning Art in the Name of Progressive Morality]

How Else Could This Hot Potato Be Handled?

Before we pass judgement, shut down the artist’s show, irreparably tarnish his career, and make him a target of resentment and possibly hatred, we should consider him innocent until proven guilty. We know that false accusations have been made historically out of spite, vengeance, attention seeking, self-promotion, or prejudice.

We should attempt to look at his side with some openness, and be skeptical of allegations until we have solid evidence to support them. It may matter, for example, that he’s a quadriplegic, can’t recognize faces, and has other disabilities. Those are extenuating circumstances that may color ones behavior.

The sort of sexual harassment attributed to Close is, of course, very unpleasant and should not be excused. If it turns out to be true then that may alter the way I think about the man, but not necessarily much his art, in the same way I wouldn’t judge a juggler’s juggling by his or her morality. I’m not comfortable with that level of oversimplification of art and compartmentalization of artists. I also have too much respect for unbridled reality to accept easy answers as a finished job.

If a crime was committed it should be reported to the proper authorities who at least have a system in place to go through the motions of a fair trial. If no crime was committed, than what are we getting so upset about?

I’m not sure the sort of vigilante justice the radical left wing of the art world is practicing isn’t as dangerous as Alex Jones taking justice into HIS own hands, nor that it isn’t itself at least potentially if not actually pernicious.

I discussed this with my girlfriend over dinner and finally realized, and then said, “I know you would never do this, but if I were to become a recognized artist you could just make up allegations that I was physically abusive and everyone would automatically believe you.” She agreed. There’s no filtering process to prevent false accusations from ruining someone’s career.

The women may very well be telling the painful truth, without exaggeration, in which case they should be respected for doing so. However, without evidence, and without the accusations being all that terrible (it depends on how extensive the behavior was and whether it was a pattern of abuse) I’m not going to jump to assuming the worst about the artist.

I wasn’t there, and I don’t know any of the players. I don’t have a political agenda to speak of – unless it’s being against the dangerous ideologues on the extremes – so am not heavily invested in his guilt or innocence. Whichever way it goes, if we ever find out for sure, I will adjust my coordinates accordingly.

In the mean time, activists in the art world have decided Chuck Close is a bad person, and are prosecuting him to the full extent of unaccountable, vigilante, frontier justice.

~ Ends


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3 thoughts on “Chucking out Chuck Close for Allegedly Being Naughty

  1. Excellent post Eric! And what about Picasso, he was historically known to be abusive as was documented in the book ‘Life with Picasso.’ I don’t condone nor have I participated in sexual harassment, either as an artist or business owner, but perhaps it’s time to put this in proper perspective and move on.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      In the case of Picasso the abuse is at least confirmed, and his treatment and perception of women are both suspect. Here there can be a potentially interseting critique of how he represents women (all his artist and model stuff gets a bit dreary), though that is only one aspect of his art.

      I can get behind feminist critics of obvious male chauvenist depictions of women, but when it comes to destroying someone’s career based on unproven allegations or highly debatable interpretations of their art (Dana Schutz), than the art world has not just incorporated revolutionary politics, but has been overtaken by them, which is not surprising when one considers that revolutionary politics have a goal, and believe in their cause.

      Liked by 1 person

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