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The Predatory Men Who Hide Behind 'Art'

28/10/2017 2:27 AM AEDT | Updated 29/10/2017 7:08 AM AEDT
David Wolff - Patrick via Getty Images

Terry Richardson, a fashion photographer who has been accused of sexually assaulting multiple women over the last decade, was finally blacklisted by publishing company Condé Nast International, The Telegraph reported on Monday.

Many domestic Condé titles like Vogue had reportedly stopped working with Richardson as far back as 2010, after rumors of his explicit behavior with models made industry rounds. In an email to HuffPost on Tuesday, a U.S. representative confirmed that “Condé Nast has nothing planned with Terry going forward. Sexual harassment of any kind is unacceptable and should not be tolerated.” Several other brands have since followed suit.

The notorious artist, who goes by the nickname “Uncle Terry,” has shot everyone from Kim Kardashian to Miley Cyrus to Barack Obama. He also photographed model Charlotte Waters, allegedly ejaculating in her face after licking her naked body, as well as Jamie Peck, who said Richardson groped her breasts during a shoot and “strongly suggested” she give him a hand job.

Richardson’s aesthetic has been described as “sleaze fashion.” His photos feature nudity, sexual innuendo and not-so-inventive uses of popsicles. The photographer, a wiry 52-year-old who’s often seen in thickly rimmed hipster glasses and flannel shirts, leans into his “pervy” reputation, projecting a certain male fantasy of a nerd-turned-horndog. In the artist’s words: “I was a shy kid, and now I’m this powerful guy with his boner, dominating all these girls.” Some of the artist’s mantras are far more unsettling, such as his now infamous 2007 quip, “It’s not who you know, it’s who you blow. I don’t have a hole in my jeans for nothing.” He’s described his artistic process as “people collaborating and exploring sexuality and taking pictures.” Waters described her experience working with Richardson as “disgusting,” leading her to feel “completely paralyzed and freaked out.”

Richardson has long shrugged off accusations of sexual assault as prude misunderstandings of his divisive artistic methods, characterizing “such rumors” as a “disservice [...] to the spirit of artistic endeavor” in a blog that appeared on HuffPost’s contributor’s platform in 2014. Richardson’s representatives proffered a similar defense once again on Tuesday, releasing a statement to BuzzFeed News in response to a leaked email announcing Condé Nast’s decision to blacklist the photographer: 

Terry is disappointed to hear about this email especially because he has previously addressed these old stories. He is an artist who has been known for his sexually explicit work so many of his professional interactions with subjects were sexual and explicit in nature but all of the subjects of his work participated consensually.

PATRICK KOVARIK via Getty Images
Paul Gauguin's "Te Nave Nave Fenua (The Delighful Land)."

In the fashion and art worlds ― realms that have historically celebrated bohemian, subversive and amoral ideas ― reportedly predatory behavior like Richardson’s can get covered up by a veneer of glamorous transgression. Artists like Richardson are cast as renegade heroes, able to pierce through societal niceties and politically correctness to capture something raw and true. As Purple editor (and Richardson defender) Olivier Zahm claimed in an interview with The Cut, “You’re not exploited in front of an artist, you’re exploited when you have to work in a boring job.”

Models (mostly female) have been posing in front of artists (mostly male) for years, their bodies readily available to painters, sculptors and photographers, amounting to a long and still under-examined record of imbalance. “One of the first things you do in art school is draw a naked young woman,” artist and writer Christen Clifford told HuffPost. “The young female body is always the object. You are literally taught that in art school.”

Museums are lined with images of undressed, often passively posed women depicted by (mostly white) male artists. And intimacy is often accepted as part of their artistic process; Pablo Picasso famously said that for him, art and sexuality are the same. In Paul Gauguin’s case, this intimacy turned into abuse when the artist’s underage, Polynesian muses reportedly became his “sex slaves.” Today critics look back uneasily on Gauguin’s oeuvre, understanding the predatory behavior that accompanied his work. Still, that work is shown in museums, taught in schools and ultimately admired. 

In response to allegations of abusive behavior, men like Richardson often evoke the names of these erotic icons past, glossing over issues of non-consensual model-artist relations by pointing to the annals of art history in their defense. “Like Robert Mapplethorpe, Helmut Newton, and so many others before me, sexual imagery has always been a part of my photography,” Richardson has said. He makes no mention of whether Mapplethorpe or Newton used their positions as artists to exploit their subjects in the process of making these sexual images. Of course, the “but I’m an artist!” defense fails to acknowledge the connection between the transgressive ideas artists cherish and the potentially damaging behavior involved in bringing those ideas to life.

Andrew Burton via Getty Images
Emma Sulkowicz carries a mattress, with the help of three strangers who met her moments before, in protest of the university's lack of action after she reported being raped during her sophomore year at Columbia.

Today, that connection is still blurry. Free expression, the ultimate prerequisite for artistic creation, not only permits contemporary artists to act without inhibitions but rewards risks and transgressions. When that permission and those rewards are granted mostly to men in powerful positions, unbridled freedom can come at the expense of the less powerful ― including women. “It’s kind of like the way the term free speech has been appropriated by the alt-right to legitimize violence,” performance artist Emma Sulkowicz told HuffPost. “Sure, it’s freedom [of expression]. But freedom for whom?”

Sulkowicz is best known for her performance “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight),” in which she carried a 50-pound dorm mattress everywhere she went on Columbia University’s campus to protest the college’s mishandling of her rape. While at Columbia, she also curated a fictional exhibition comprised entirely of male artists accused of sexual assault. “I wanted to show films by Woody Allen and Roman Polanski and work by Terry Richardson,” she recalled.

There’s a marked difference between abusing a woman’s body and exploiting her image. However, for Clifford, who moderated a discussion titled “Art and Sex” at an all-women’s gallery in New York in October, the night before we spoke, the two acts are hardly unrelated. “The idea that a man can take a woman’s sexy Instagram photos and put them out as his own work is very related to rape culture,” she said. “It’s the belief that a man has ownership over women’s bodies.”

Clifford referenced contemporary artist Richard Prince who, in 2014, took screenshots of Instagram photos showing a variety of 20-something models, artists and social media stars in sexually suggestive poses and printed them onto canvases, which he then sold for up to $100,000. The women, who are not only featured in the images but often shot the original photos themselves, received no compensation ― nor did they give Prince permission to appropriate their work.

Critic Jerry Saltz called Prince’s move “genius trolling,” and praised the artist as “a real wizard of his tastes; as honed to his needs as Humbert Humbert was to where Lolita was in the house.” Artist Audrey Wollen, whose photo was featured in the series, was not quite so moved. “An old, white, successful, straight male artist feeling entitled to the image of a young female body is not surprising,” she told i-D. “Maybe I’m idealistic, but I don’t think art should simply reiterate the status quo.”

Leah Schrager
"Infinity Selfie or SFSM (Safe for Social Media)" by Leah Schrager.

For artist Leah Schrager, art history is largely the story of male artists like Prince and Richardson profiting off female sexuality. “Sexual women are stripped of their power unless their sexuality is bestowed upon them through the hands of a man,” she told HuffPost. “Those may be the hands of Richard Prince or Harvey Weinstein. Women must be handed on a platter to the masses through the hands of men.” 

Schrager previously worked as a model but now prefers self-portraiture, creating sexy images over which she has full economic and creative autonomy. But she says she still has trouble being taken seriously as a self-described “sexy woman in the art world.” Along with being condescended to and overlooked by men in the industry, she recalled multiple instances of being groped and verbally harassed. On one occasion, which she described as “the worst,” she says an unnamed gallery director sexually assaulted her. 

“A very well-known art dealer called me on the phone,” Schrager said. “He proceeded to tell me that my selfies were embarrassing and that I was making a fool out of myself with my art. At the same time, while he was talking, it was very clear he was masturbating and coming to my pictures.” (Schrager also shared a story of being groped by a woman in her field.)

Since an alarming number of women have come forward accusing movie producer Weinstein of harassment and abuse earlier this month, women in fields outside of Hollywood have followed, shedding light on the confounding pervasiveness of predatory behavior in nearly every industry. There were allegations lodged against Amazon Studios programming chief Roy Price and director James Toback, as well as magician David Blaine, Vox media director Lockhart Steele and ArtForum publisher Knight Landesman.

Sulkowicz shared her hope that, following the Weinstein reports and subsequent backlash, predatory men in every field would finally be recognized for what they are. “With Harvey Weinstein, we are literally seeing a change in the way we use the English language,” Sulkowicz said, citing the ideas of theorist Stuart Hall. “We have a new term, and that term is Harvey Weinstein. We can now say: ‘he is a Harvey Weinstein,’ as in a man who has a powerful role in an industry and takes advantage of it to have his way with women. Once something has entered into the popular consciousness in that way, it demarcates a huge shift.”

But for Schrager, a related problem still plagues the art world, and that’s a widespread fear of female sexuality on its own terms.

“The art world either supports asexual images of women or sexual images of women authored by men,” she said. “I think the saddest thing that could happen from all this is women being pushed to be more asexual, more hidden, more nun-like. I think that’s moving backwards. The other option, truly the only real option, is for women to own their sexuality and get power from it. If women could be respected for presenting their own images, that would be revolutionary.”

Richardson’s allegations have been public for years, long before stories of Weinstein’s behavior prompted powerful institutions everywhere to reevaluate the powerful men that run them. Today, women in the art world are not only calling foul on the “but I’m an artist” dodge, but pointing a finger at an imbalance of power that makes it difficult to suss out where creative direction ends and coercion begins. Beyond Richardson’s behavior, criticism lands on an art world that demands female sexuality be manufactured and sanctioned by men ― a world that shirks away from giving women the power to control their image.

Representatives for Terry Richardson did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.  

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