Without any asterisks

What about when artists have histories of abusing women? Should we care? Should museums care?

When the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery was preparing the wall text in 2014 to accompany an image of the boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr., the museum decided to note that Mr. Mayweather had been “charged with domestic violence on several occasions,” receiving “punishments ranging from community service to jail time.”

Such context is common for controversial subjects in art. But far less so for artists themselves — centuries of men like Picasso or Schiele who were known for mistreating women, but whose works hang in prominent museums without any asterisks.

Now, museums around the world are wrestling with the implications of a decision, by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, to indefinitely postpone a Chuck Close exhibition because of allegations of sexual harassment involving potential portrait models that have engulfed the prominent artist in controversy. Mr. Close has called the allegations “lies” and said he is “being crucified.”

It’s a quandary. If the allegations are false, the postponement is unfair to Close. If they’re true…then what? Should we decide it’s just about what’s on the canvas?

It is a provocative moment for the art world, as the public debate about separating creative output from personal conduct moves from popular culture into the realm of major visual artists from different eras and the institutions that have long collected and exhibited their pieces.

“We’re very used to having to defend people in the collection, but it’s always been for the sitter” rather than the artist, said Kim Sajet, director of the Portrait Gallery, which has a large body of Mr. Close’s work. “Now we have to think to ourselves, ‘Do we need to do that about Chuck Close?’”

It partly depends on what the allegations are, I think. If we’re looking at paintings of people who were abused by the artist, I want to know that. (Balthus’s young neighbor in Paris for instance: we wondered what he did to her.)

“How much are we going to do a litmus test on every artist in terms of how they behave?” said Jock Reynolds, the director of the Yale University Art Gallery, which collects Mr. Close’s work. “Pablo Picasso was one of the worst offenders of the 20th century in terms of his history with women. Are we going to take his work out of the galleries? At some point you have to ask yourself, is the art going to stand alone as something that needs to be seen?”

But one is tempted to think that’s easy for him to say.

Whatever museums ultimately decide to do about Mr. Close, some say they can no longer afford to simply present art without addressing the issues that surround the artist — that institutions must play a more active role in educating the public about the human beings behind the work.

“The typical ‘we don’t judge, we don’t endorse, we just put it up for people to experience and decide’ falls very flat in this political and cultural moment,” said James Rondeau, the president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago, which has Close works in its collection.

Maybe so, but then again this political and cultural moment could have it all wrong – it could be a moment of moral panic and overreaction.

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