Amy Costello: Welcome to Tiny Spark, a podcast of the Nonprofit Quarterly. We focus on what is required to build a more just society—in matters of race, health, the environment, and the economy. I’m Amy Costello. And today, we are going to broadly explore the topic of justice, and we’ll do that by looking closely at the female form.
Macushla Robinson: There have been so many important critiques of the nude in art history.
Costello: That’s Macushla Robinson. She’s a writer, curator, PhD candidate at the New School in New York, and she’s the founder of Interstitial Press. Macushla has spent much of her career as a curator at museums and art collections in the U.S. and in her home country, Australia. Lately, she’s been intrigued—and frankly, disturbed—by something. Namely, the way women’s bodies and experiences have been portrayed and described in arts institutions the world over.
Macushla was inspired to delve into this topic by a group of feminist artists called the Guerilla Girls. They formed back in 1985 and created a poster campaign that targeted the art world. It was a year after the Museum of Modern Art in New York held its International Survey of Painting and Sculpture. The exhibition included the work of 169 artists. Less than ten percent of them were women. Macushla was especially inspired by The Guerilla Girls campaign against the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City—or ‘the Met’ as it’s known—for excluding women and non-white artists from exhibitions and publications.
Robinson: The Guerrilla Girls’ iconic poster, which is currently on display in the Met Museum, is titled, Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get Into The Met Museum? And then it cites the statistics of how many women artists are collected by the museum in comparison to how many paintings of nude females there are in the museum. And that work, which has been around for decades, and which is just, you know, a really important and provocative question, I think has lived in the back of my head for a long time.
Costello: And so, have some other questions, which we are going to explore in today’s conversation with Macushla. And just a heads-up, some of that will include discussions about sexual violence in particular. Macushla decided to look at the way sexual violence has been publicly displayed and artistically praised even, and also how its depiction is described in museum catalogues. Macushla has aimed her focus on the Met, and her forthcoming book is called, Every Rape at the Met Museum.
Robinson: If you type the word rape into the Met Museum’s collection database, it returns some 181 results. The works range from large paintings and sculptures to print folios, ceramic plates, pocket watches, vases, snuff boxes and other decorative homewares. Only six of the total 181 pieces are made by women artists.
Costello: Macushla is reading a paragraph from the Kickstarter campaign she launched to raise money for her book. She plans to make 181 copies, one for each of the artworks she investigated. This winter, she hopes to stand outside the Met and distribute one of each to visitors who are walking into the Met—an alternative guide, as it were.
Robinson: Art history has traded on stories of rape to create drama, to set up opportunities to paint nude women, and to display the mastery of the artist over his subject. But these images, and the way that we describe them, shape how we think about women’s bodies and what can be done to them. Millions of people visit the Met Museum every year, the way that these images get displayed and talked about matters.
Costello: And while the Guerilla Girls’ campaign launched some 36 years ago, sexism persists in the art world to this day, of course. And that reality caused Macushla to reflect on a related set of questions.
Robinson: I also, I suppose, wanted to think about, perhaps why the art world has not responded, I think, as fast or deeply as it needs to, to the discussions around MeToo. And I think that, at some level, I do want to complicate this question of how women are depicted in these scenes of rape. It started really with noticing the way that a particular extended label, which is the small piece of text that sits beside the artwork in the museum, how that particular label spoke about and lent emphasis to the significance of a painting by Poussin of The Rape of the Sabine Women. It’s a very iconic piece. It illustrates the classical story of the Roman mythological story of the Sabine women being abducted.
Costello: And the first sentence of the label that accompanies this piece of art describes what’s going on. Could you read that first sentence on the label itself?
Robinson: According to Roman mythology, the neighboring Sabines were invited to a festival with the intention of forcibly retaining their young women as wives.
Costello: I mean, it’s incredible to me, this is called a festival when we’re seeing clearly a pretty disturbing image. How would you describe what’s going on? What are we seeing here?
Robinson: What you’re seeing here is an array of men and women in a state of conflict. You see particular women in the foreground who are lifted up by men. They’re very sort of strikingly posed with their arms flailing in the air and their feet off the ground. There is another woman over to the right of the composition who is laying on the ground and being kind of pushed over by a male figure who is holding aloft a knife. There are two babies laying strewn on the ground and an old woman with her hand to her head, who is kind of lamenting and looking on in horror. In the background, there are a lot of men with swords fighting. There’s a man on a horse, and sort of presiding over all of it is this figure of Romulus who has effectively staged this event. He’s, in the story, in the mythology, he has created this festival invitation, this ruse of bringing all these people from the neighboring town over to their space and then abducting the women and taking the women as wives. And it’s really a very orchestrated and political decision. He feels that there are not enough women in his jurisdiction to provide wives to his men. And it’s a kind of planned mass abduction, which is often described in titles as rape, and it’s a scene of incredible violence. When it was taught to me in art history, in several different courses over the years, because it is really an iconic piece, most of what we addressed, most of what was talked about, was the kind of question of what’s often called the Serpentine line. This very, very dynamic quality of the image, the way that the women create these almost S-shapes and the treatment…
Costello: …with their arms, with their bodies…
Robinson: Yeah, you can see the way…
Costello: Yeah, the bodies kind of, please, go on.
Robinson: So, the dynamism of the scene has made this an incredibly beguiling and oft repeated image throughout art history. And the way that the label talks about it, I was particularly struck by this line: This dramatic story gave Poussin the opportunity to display his command of gesture and pose and his knowledge of ancient sculpture and architecture. And you can see in the background to the right there is this very classical, very still building. It lends a kind of structure that foregrounds the kind of violence and motion and movement of the scene that’s going on in the foreground.
Costello: And you point out in your book that this line, the one that speaks directly to the work itself and the artistry of it, does not in any way talk about the violence against the women that’s going on here, but rather talks about his command of gesture and pose and his knowledge of ancient sculpture and architecture. Talk to me about this omission that you saw as you went through these 181 works at the Met. What is not said here, like when we look at this painting, when we read the five-sentence label that accompanies it…
Costello: What’s missing here to you?
Robinson: Well, I think what’s missing is the gravity of the scene and the story. It’s really striking to me the ways in which rape is simply taken for granted. And a lot of the labels and the collection database material that I draw on, because this book, apart from my introduction, comprises entirely text from the museum that is searchable on the website. A lot of that material either completely sidelines the gravity of the title and of the scene, or it sort of speaks about this compelling display of mastery of the female body and how these women, they really become sort of ciphers for this idea of pity. And they become tools, not only for the artist to display mastery, but also for, kind of art history and classicism to talk about the ways in which women’s vulnerability of this particular kind has been a political tool. And that, to me, speaks to the ways in which violence against women has a strong political cadence in the way that we tell stories about it. And this isn’t simple, like this is very, very complex, particularly, I think, along racial lines. And perhaps we can get to this in more detail later. It’s not something that I particularly analyze.
Costello: Well talk to me, but I’m interested in that. Talk to me about the racial lines. What are you talking about?
Robinson: So, the first thing that I want to say here is that I’m really indebted to the poet Robin Coste Lewis’s poem and accompanying sort of imaginative essay The Voyage of the Sable Venus. And her poem catalogues, I think she looks at 115 different collecting institutions. So, it’s kind of a different project, and she pulls out all of these texts about the depiction of Black women, and what her poem fundamentally reveals is the ways in which Black women throughout this vast collection of art history have existed in the margins. They’re really, really sidelined. They become things like chair legs. They sit in the background of paintings of, sort of, seductive White women. They live on decorative arts objects. They are invisible-ized and yet present everywhere, and yet not centered, and whose suffering is taken for granted, but not in the heroic way. They are never, or very rarely, cast as the prime subjects. And so, in looking at the word rape, there’s a kind of having your cake and eating it too, with the invisibility in the way that we talk about this violence and what it really means and its gravity. And yet, at the same time, the kind of proclaiming of it in the titles and in the labels, the way that these women and their vulnerability to sexual violence is really centered is incredibly racialized. The vast majority of them are White women, especially in the near classical and classical depictions throughout the museum, and they’re cast as very sympathetic characters and characters for whom you ought to feel pity. And what I can’t help but keep thinking about is the complexity of, the way that imperiled White femininity has been used, especially in America, I think, especially in the context of, of race.
Costello: As visitors to the Met hold your book in their hands and walk through the famous halls there: what, what do you hope they’ll think about differently, what questions do you want to have going through their minds as they walk through the Met with your book in their hands?
Robinson: I think what I hope is that they’ll turn an eye to what has largely been taken for granted. I am not trying to say that we should take these works off display necessarily, in many ways, what I’m trying to say is we should add a lens to how we look at, think about, display, and valorize these works. I do think that museums have an opportunity right now to look at how we contextualize this work for the public—the public broadly conceived—and being of curatorial extraction, I suppose you would say, I’m also really interested in the spatial dynamic, in the way that the museum categorizes and displays things in space, the way that things tend to get grouped by historical period and to a certain extent, materiality. So, you enter the museum, there are American paintings, European paintings, and they tend to be grouped by kind of eras, by time frames. You know, what I’ve always found curating is that a lot of it is about how objects activate and speak to one another and what they draw out of one another. This sounds very esoteric, but I really feel that this is an enormous, unspoken part of curatorial work. When you put things alongside one another in museum spaces, they do draw out different meanings. They activate things in sometimes unexpected ways. And I think that a lot of this work in the museum could mean something very differently and could reflect on the history of how we’ve imagined sexual violence and the ways in which it has changed really productively. The other thing that I just, I think, and I hope, I guess, this is the primary sort of switch in perspective that I hope the book will trigger, which is just simply to say how enormous and ubiquitous this topic is, how it’s everywhere. And I mean this is where the conceit of the work gets tricky because I have titled it Every Rape in the Met Museum and I’ve stuck to that title, but really, all it is is every work that turns up in the search of the word rape, which is a really loaded and complex word. You know, when people have written about this project very kindly, Hyperallergic wrote about it, but it was interesting that they changed the titling subtly. And they talked about sexual assault, not rape. So, there’s also a question around the meaning of that word, how it’s been folded into mythologies and how it’s disappeared in plain sight, you know, these works are boldly claiming a lot of the time, they use the word rape. When in contemporary parlance and discussions of sexual violence happening now to real living people, we tend not to use that word. And that’s partly…
Costello: What does that, what does that tell you?
Robinson: I think that tells us, I’m not entirely sure. I don’t feel qualified as yet to draw a singular, firm conclusion. But I think that part of what it tells you is that we really have complicated productively, and I think powerfully, what the word rape means, and we sort of have these questions around sexual violence, degrees of violence, scales of violence and lines that are not crossed. So, I have to be very careful here, because I suppose if I can reflect on this from a really personal perspective for a moment. As a young woman in the art world and all women, I think to one degree or another, live their lives in acute if often unconscious, internalized awareness of particular kinds of violence. And as a young woman in the art world, it was just commonplace to be harassed and kind of victimized or turned into the butt of jokes. It is an incredibly misogynistic environment, historically. Even though women make up a statistically large portion of people who work in curatorial environments, there’s still this real legacy of a kind of boys’ club that really treats the female body and the young women that work in these environments as a resource of all kinds. I really want to long term complicate the idea of the muse. I’ve started talking about Muse work some years ago, because I think that there’s this complicated way in which, that old line of ‘you should be flattered,’ has been an incredibly pernicious tool in the art world where actually being the subject of leering sexual commentary and a sense of degradation and really constant threat.
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Costello: Yeah, I mean, I saw that you wrote about your personal experience, you said, I think we have to complicate how we talk about sexual violence.
Costello: There is all this ambiguity. History has taught us, has taught me, from when I was a little girl that to be loved, looked like that.
Robinson: Yes. Yeah. And so, from when I was a little girl, it predates the art world, right? It’s everywhere. Like all women, I’ve had my share of detrimental encounters, but I think one thing that has been really striking. I had a particular experience as a teenager with a pretty, relatively famous artist. And then a decade later, in the museum where I was working, his art became the subject of a lot of focus in an exhibition, and it was everywhere. His images were in the, built into the email signatures that I sent every day, reproductions of his work were in bus shelters across from my apartment. And what I found myself struggling with was the contours of the encounter really came into focus in a way that I suppose I hadn’t processed in that time. Immediately when something happened in my own mind, but also in my social world, people just kind of went ‘Don’t talk about this because it will make you a troublemaker. It will affect your future.’ To be clear, I wasn’t sent there by the museum, but what was really striking to me also was the way that I found myself speaking about it in the museum context. I found myself really unable to maintain professionalism. To be honest, I’ve always been a little bit more heart on my sleeve than could be really called professional, but to put that aside for a moment like, to wrestle with that encounter in the professional space really brought out that ambiguity and that complexity because the first sentence that I would bring up, the first thing I would say to anyone, to my boss, to the curator who was working on the show was, ‘It wasn’t rape. Just let me be very clear. It wasn’t rape.’ It was frightening. It had all these consequences. It was orchestrated. There were other men involved who were sort of arranging and facilitating this, the way that is often the case with sort of more privileged men, and men who are considered talented in various ways. And that defensiveness, that kind of mitigating of the experience has really stuck with me. I find myself incredibly anxious talking about this now, incredibly anxious to qualify how I talk about the experience. And that’s partly because, especially in Australia, there’s an incredibly litigious culture around the MeToo movement, but it’s also just this sort of, this sense of self-doubt that comes with it. I don’t have a neat, tidy conclusion for you here. I just have this interest in the way that this language lives in classical art history and lives on the walls of museums. I’m still asking, what does that mean? How do we talk about this now? How do questions of consent function differently, especially since so many of these stories are looking at times when perhaps what was called a rape was also a woman marrying without her father’s permission or her family’s permission. You know, there’s just an enormous amount that we need to unpack. I don’t believe that unpacking is in any way a diminishment of the gravity of the experience. I think it’s a really necessary phase that we’ve reached in being very, very clear about the degrees and cadences of different kinds of coercion and violence and how much they live in everyday experiences. And I think also because, it’s very clear to me that in the art world at least, and I’m assuming in many other professions, but also in the home, which is really the site of statistically the most sexual violence, the complexity of love and the idea of love and the idea of the domestic, gets really tangled up with sexual violence in ways that make it really hard to contend with. It’s an intractable problem, in part because we are told this is a form of love. I mean, that’s what abuse is, right? It’s the complexity of how we imagine forms of coercion as coming from a place of love, and the complexity of human commitments and emotions. It’s really odd to talk about this coming out of like this critique of the museum and Classical Painting and Sculpture, it can seem like a bit…
Costello: Why is it odd?
Robinson: Well, I think it seems like a reach because we treat the museum space kind of like it’s a sequestered, exceptional zone. But I think…
Costello: And I think you’re trying to suggest that it is not.
Robinson: It is not. It is not because these stories are everywhere. These images are everywhere. The earliest, you know, my passion for art and art history is deep. I was really, really invested in art from the earliest age. I remember insisting on museum visits for my 10th birthday visiting Ophelia, the painting by John Everett Millais in the Tate in London. I was very obsessed with and committed to the woman who modeled in that painting. And it’s really extraordinary to me looking back on that, how much I aspired to be the subject in the painting. Now Elizabeth Siddall, who was the model for that painting, got very, very sick. I mean, the candles went out in the bathtub that she was floating in in the winter in England, and as she got really sick, she lay in the bath for 12 hours and she wound up dying. It’s actually kind of hard to tell from consumption or suicide. It’s all contested, but she’s just this, we aspire to be these women. Like, I was really like, ‘That’s, that’s the, that’s the goal, right?’ That’s what it means to be loved and to gain some kind of protection. And this is complicated by family history. It’s complicated by complex intergenerational relationships between women, mothers and daughters. It’s just so telling to me that that was my goal. That was my ambition. To be loved, to be loved, in a way that meant, lying in a bath for twelve hours, to be beautiful in suffering and in retreat. Yeah, sorry, I’m trailing off here, but…
Costello: No, that’s OK.
Robinson: There’s something of…Yeah, I have not yet unpacked it. I would like to emphasize that this book is kind of one phase or stage in a much larger project, long-term of thinking about uncomplicating this, and having a complex relationship to the idea of beauty and to the idea of love. You know, those women led terrible lives…
Costello: Which women?
Robinson: The women who, often the women who were the models for these paintings, but also the women who are the subject of these paintings, fictional, non-fictional, there’s some kind of romance, and they weren’t suffering for their own art, they were suffering for someone else’s.
Costello: In some of your other scholarly work, you have taken a broader view of women in the art world, and in an article you wrote in Runway Journal entitled Labors of Love: Women’s Labor as the Culture Sector’s Invisible Dark Matter, you describe the many ways that women are exploited in the art world, whether through their lack of representation as artists in galleries, whether through the well-documented pay gap that women experience in so many sectors of society, and you also talk about the more hidden ways, what you call the undocumented ways that women are exploited in the art world. You said: ‘It happens in the realm of interpersonal relationships, in the studio, the gallery, or late at night on a laptop in bed. In long unaccounted for hours and work brought home from the office on maternity leave.’ You go on to say: ‘It happens in conversations and meetings where women must appear subtly more humble, more efficient, more dedicated than any of their male counterparts. Such labor cannot be accounted for by statistics alone.’ That was quite a visual, visceral description of women’s work. And I’m wondering, what impact has this invisible labor by women had on the art world? And I’m also just kind of wondering where you think the art world would be without the uncompensated or under-compensated work of women?
Robinson: It would be nowhere. I mean, I hate to sound militant, but it really would be. I don’t know how the art world functions without that labor. And that’s why the title of that piece was taken from a line from a Hito Steyerl essay, The Invisible Dark Matter, that she talked about as women’s labor. It just really struck me when I read that essay, because I don’t know and I didn’t know then, how to measure the kind of work that I was doing, and the kind of work that I was doing was incredibly privileged in some ways. But because incredibly privileged, because there’s this also very complex history of the curatorial class as an upper-class pursuit, it tends to be very underpaid at a certain level, and that old idea of the glass ceiling, it remains in place. So, these really key decision makers, they’ve just not been women, and they make all kinds of decisions about what gets acquired and what gets displayed. And yet underneath them, there’s this enormous infrastructure of women who are really very often curatorial assistants and assistant curators. There were people in the museum where I worked, who were older women who had been assistant curators for decades, they’d never advanced in their careers. Now, I don’t want to make an example of any one person. There’s lots of reasons for that. But the truth of the matter is that we all just worked much longer hours and, wittingly or not, the men who were in power, some of whom I’m incredibly fond personally, had incredibly healthy boundaries with their work that relied entirely on the unhealthy boundaries of the women who worked for them and beneath them. You know, I have memories of waking up in the night, checking my email at 2:00 in the morning, having an email from an international lender, signaling a real crisis in a major exhibition, and just being up all night until it was considered an appropriate time for me to contact my boss. And at this point, I was an assistant curator and he’d been a senior curator, but like the head of a whole portion of the museum for a long, long time. And I simply internalized the idea that his time was valuable, but I had to prep to use his time the most effectively. Now it’s one example among many. The other part of that really is emotional labor, and this is just harder to quantify. How much you internalize things as your fault. How seriously you take certain issues and the interpersonal relationships part of it is complex as well because part of what I was trying to talk about in that essay was not just women who work within the institution in some kind of professional capacity, but also the wives and the long-term girlfriends and the partners of many artists. And we think of this as a very old-world thing, but I’m in my thirties. Many of my contemporary male artists have wives and girlfriends who run their studios, who really like physically make the work. I have physically made the work for men in my life who are seemingly perpetually in crisis. I have seen so many of the women that I love put so much energy into the output of partners. It just eats away at you, you know. It’s not like there’s a singular example, it’s cumulative to see these hidden women. It’s just the normal thing. A studio assistant will often be a woman, somebody who is deeply involved in the production of work, who’s deeply involved in discussion and conceptualization of the work will be a woman. Or somebody who, I suppose I would like to introduce a caveat here about gender rather than sex, and the gendering of particular roles. I mean, I wrote that essay, despite it sounding very, maybe polemical, and distanced, I’ve wrote it from an incredibly personal place at the end of a relationship, where I just felt like I had drained every resource I had and that it had really gone unseen. And I just know so many women whose work and whose practices are diminished in one way or another. And that’s really important. It’s not just important to foreground that experience, and to ask that that experience be changed, but it’s important because of the kinds of stories that are being told, and I suppose that’s how it links back to also the way in which these paintings are displayed, and this history is foregrounded in the museum. The stories that we’re familiar with and that we empathize with still continue to be the stories of men. Now that’s changed a lot in recent years, but the weight of history is enormous. And when you’re in museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that history is the vast majority of what you see. I think I do want to just take a minute to also say that there are women artists in the Met, and there are women artists who I’ve referenced, you know, a very small portion of them, but those women artists have also used the thematic of rape to complicate and speak back to this history, and they speak back to this history from within the museum. It’s just that it’s a really, really small amount of space.
Costello: I think you mentioned five women artists.
Robinson: Yes. Yeah.
Costello: Of the 181 that you critique.
Costello: I’m wondering, has the Metropolitan Museum of Art responded to your critique?
Robinson: They did. I believe the journalist who wrote for Hyperallergic, reached out to them for comment, and there was a comment back that was generous in saying: That’s exactly why they’ve made all of this material available. And the Met is, I think, a leader in making this material available. A lot of the images that they have of their collection are available for any kind of use. They don’t use copyright as a way of compressing the kinds of conversations, and I believe the comment was something along the lines of that’s exactly why we’ve made this material available, and we invite this kind of critique. So, I think there is a lot that can happen in the museum space. I do see efforts within that, that are interesting. It remains to be seen how they respond to me showing up out the front with my alternative guide. There’s no simple answer to this. And I also want to just again, perhaps quote actually from the Robin Coste Lewis. This is actually the dedication at the front of my book, she writes, “Instead of the intellectual propaganda we call art history, the more honest, simple and accurate narrative of art, of perception, of projection, in short, the development of our visual subconscious, was hiding right there in plain view, not however, in the imagery, but simply in what the image is called within the signs, within the words.” That’s been taped up above my desk from when I began this project in March of this year. She’s a poet, she’s a wonderful poet and she’s not a museum professional, and I found in some ways it was that little gem of a quote, that little fissure that opened onto the museum space that allowed me also to dislocate from my own visual subconscious, I suppose, and my own museum training and art historical training and training as a really a woman to take certain things for granted and allow them to recede from a site, if that makes sense.
Costello: Macushla Robinson, writer, curator and Ph.D. candidate based at the New School in New York and author of the forthcoming book Every Rape at the Met Museum, I so appreciate our conversation today and your incredibly detailed attention to this very important topic. Thank you so much, and I and I want to thank you for sharing some deeply personal parts of yourself with me today, and for sharing what you did with me about the artist. That’s very painful territory and very highly personal territory, and I’m grateful that you were willing to talk to me a little bit about it today.
Robinson: No, I want to say my pleasure. It’s…pleasure is the wrong word. But I think that it is so ubiquitous and so common and so important to speak about these things. Really that’s the consequence of the idea of the personal being political. Yeah.
Valentina Di Liscia, “What “All the Rapes in the Met Museum” Tell Us About Sexual Violence in Art History,” Hyperallergic, September 1, 2021.
Macushla Robinson, “Labours of Love: Women’s Labour as the Culture Sector’s Invisible Dark Matter,” Runway Journal, Issue 32.
Guerilla Girls, “Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum?,” The Met Collection.
Dan Chiasson, “Rebirth of Venus,” The New Yorker, October 12, 2015.
Katie White, “The Tragic ‘Ophelia’ Epitomized Pre-Raphaelite Beauty. Here Are 3 Facts You Might Not Know About the Mesmerizing Painting,” artnet, October 6, 2020.
Tiny Spark Podcast: “Museums Must Open Doors to Today’s Realities,” October 9, 2018.
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