Maybe Egon Schiele was a bad egg, and maybe not. Maybe I watched too many Frankenstein movies as a kid, because whenever people get out the torches and pitchforks I find myself sympathizing with the “monster”. What if he’s just misunderstood? I tend to think it’s better to be the person weighing the stone in your hand and not hurling it, to err on the side of protecting the guilty rather than punishing the innocent.
We should all be grateful, I guess, that someone did the tedious sleuth-work and connected the dots for us, which we couldn’t have done ourselves — Egon Schiele was pervy! Now, if you go to a 100 year retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, there will be a placard explaining:
“Recently, Schiele has been mentioned in the context of sexual misconduct by artists, of the present and the past. This stems in part from specific charges (ultimately dropped as unfounded) of kidnapping and molestation.”
I know what I am supposed to take away from this, which is that Egon was a misogynist and we should probably boycott the museum for putting on a show of his immoral artwork. We should SHUT IT DOWN and put up a show of conceptual art, installation, video, and performance work by marginalized artists which deconstruct the systemic patriarchy, imperialism, and white supremacy of the art institution. We’ve heard it before, so you just need a short memory to know the rallying cries.
However, I can’t miss the literal meaning. The sign says the charges were unfounded. In another context I’d have read the same sign and thought it was about the public persecuting eccentric artists on false charges in order to to banish them, kinda’ like when 80 people signed a petition to remove Van Gogh from Arles shortly before he died. But I’m culturally aware enough, perhaps just barely, to recognize that in this instance the apparently false accusation is intended to herald the final demise of the artist.
As Russel Smith wrote in The Globe and Mail:
I suspect Schiele’s star will fall as attitudes toward lecherous art and artists change. In time, he will occupy a lesser space in museums. There are going to be fewer naked women in galleries generally, and fewer sexy Egon Schiele posters on undergraduate residence walls. The canon is not irremediably fixed, not written in stone; artists fall out of it and soar into it as the years go by.
Down with lusty artists! [Please consult the latest conclusions by social justice advocates as to what kind of sex is and isn’t OK before doing anything, assuming it’s OK to do anything.]
There are other charges against him. According to Smith’s article, “He wasn’t arrested for sleeping with his 17-year-old model, Walburga Neuzil, when he was 20, but we know they lived together.” So, about 107 years ago an artist lived with a model fully three years younger than himself. This same girl had previously modeled for Gustave Klimt and was suspected to be one of his mistresses. I don’t know what the age of consent was in Austria back then, but today it’s 14 (I just looked it up). I think we’ve gotten better over time with raising the age of consent, so, I kinda’ doubt it was illegal for a 20 year old to sleep with a 17 year old in Austria 107 years ago. But, we can still punish the artist today! [Note that we are also going to have to SHUT DOWN KLIMPT!]
HEY HEY, HO HO, KIIMPT AND SCHIELE HAVE GOT TO GO!
HEY HEY, HO HO, MISOGYNIST ARTISTS HAVE GOT T0 GO!
And that brings us back to the story about the 13 year old girl. Though the charges were dropped, the artist was charged with “exhibiting erotic drawings in a place accessible to children”, which can just mean having anyone under a certain age in his studio at all. How do we know that he wasn’t falsely accused for merely having teen-aged kids in his studio. According to Wikipedia, because his studio “was in the capital, [it] became a gathering place for Neulengbach’s delinquent children”. It is more than remotely possible that we are trying to destroy an artist’s reputation in 2018 because of false accusations made against him in 1911.
Mind you folks that I well know that women and girls have had a tough lot in this world and have been subjected to abuse and cruelties on all levels that men largely escape (though men get blown to bits in war, perish in coal mines, etc.). I’m against anything that subjugates, oppresses, harms, or belittles women. That should go without saying, but sometimes people assume the worst about you if you insist on compromise and holding your fire.
At the time of his arrest, the police had seized over a hundred of his drawings, and the judge burned one of them over a candle flame in court. In the past, we might have sided with the artist and railed against the pigs for confiscating his art and destroying a drawing. Today we side with the judge and clamor to burn them ourselves! [Here, if you don’t know what’s been going on of late in the art world, a sculpture by Sam Durant was destroyed, and there were demands to destroy a painting by Dana Schutz because they were determined to be unconsciously white supremacist…]
I’m not defending Schiele’s behavior. I have no idea whatsoever what it really was. I can’t imagine his life in another country in another century. If I were to accept the interpretation that I know I am supposed to – that he was a perverted misogynist – than I would find his behavior today to be offensive and boorish, if it did not indeed cross the line into illegal behavior. But I’m not comfortable judging someone who died a hundred years ago by contemporary standards. A person is largely a product of his or her time and place (though not entirely), and the outcry against Schiele is as predictable as was his behavior in his time.
I rather suspect in the future we will look back and think it was a bit over-the-top to place a placard on the wall of an artist’s 100 year retrospective denouncing him for a crime he was absolved of at the time. Call me old fashioned, but I still believe someone is innocent until proven guilty, not guilty even after being found innocent.
As for Smith’s prognosis that Schiele’s reputation is going to recede into oblivion, I’m as uncomfortable judging the future by today’s paradigm as I am the past. Schiele’s art has already survived a century, and the perhaps just a tad overzealous moral framework in which contemporary and classic artworks are censored, removed, and even destroyed may fall out of fashion much sooner.
I know this protest is supposed to be done in the name of progress and morality, but there’s just a whiff of something sinister about it, something 1984. That’s probably just my age speaking. I’m used to the liberalism that is about tolerance, freedom, giving people the benefit of the doubt, and protecting art. I think that’s now considered Fascist.
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