Araki at The Museum of Sex
Photography by Sydney Wilson
“The Incomplete Araki: Sex, Life, and Death in the Work of Nobuyoshi Araki” is showing at the Museum of Sex from February 8, 2017 – August 31, 2018. Holden Taylor questions the platform it has been given.
We were surrounded by dimly-lit walls covered in photos of nude Asian women. They were variously bound, suspended, gagged and touched: their forms fully on display, their eyes gazing perhaps with power, perhaps in submission. The images are beautiful, mostly black and white with shadows and light that focuses an audience toward specific points on the models: their navels, their breasts, their necks wrapped in rope and in such emphasizing their objectification and compelling one to consider notions of dominance, eros, complicity, and subjugation.
My editor asked, as we looked upon a particular photograph of a young model in a Sailor Moon schoolgirl outfit — with pigtails and penny loafers, she was suspended by thick dark rope tied around her midsection and left thigh such that her legs were ajar and her white underwear and her crotch were exposed and focal for a viewer — “When can we comfortably consume art that’s simultaneously so erotic and violent?”
Nobuyoshi Araki’s retrospective at the Museum of Sex — which, as the New York Times’ Jason Farago labels it, is the institution's “boldest effort yet to present an art exhibition up to international museum standards” — is understandably, given the moment and the artist, draped in controversy. The curators — Maggie Mustard and Mark Snyder — do not shy away from this. To grant the show nuance and dynamism and to allow the audience their own moral autonomy, they’ve included video testimony by some of his long-standing models (albeit on screens small and dwarfed by larger images of their nude bodies). What’s more, as you begin in the dark first floor, they address in text on a wall an accusation of sexual misconduct made by a former model-subject (who asked the museum to maintain her anonymity out of, as Mustard described, “a fear of repercussion”): the incident took place at a commercial photoshoot in 1991, the model was nineteen. This sort of rhetorical recognition at one glance appears to do what the curators intend: it allows an astute museumgoer to determine, within themself, whether the exhibit fits into their moral code. Even more, it compels discussion and discussion (buzz) — what a retrospective like this seeks.
And accordingly, the discourse has unfolded: Priscilla Frank at HuffPost, in a piece aptly titled “Will Nobuyoshi Araki Be Photography’s Last Legendary Dirty Old Man?,” first notes that it is indeed a weird moment for such an exhibit, then invokes the power dynamics at hand as she wonders, “If [his models] ― even those who initially consented to a project ― felt a line was crossed at any point during a modeling session, would they have felt authorized to say so?” But eventually, she concludes that the exhibit, because of its “careful curation,” is “a timely meditation on an artist whose work is at once seductive and disturbing, controversial and deep-rooted.” And in this sense gives a thumbs up, however nuanced, to the exhibit and the platform that props it up.
For Vice, Julian A. Jimarez Howard similarly begins his review by noting how reasonable it is to “question whether we really need another exhibition devoted to a male photographer known for sexually explicit images of women.” Howard moves on to discuss very legitimate concerns over the racial fetishization inherent to a Western, largely-white crowd consuming images of bound, subdued and hyper-sexualized Asian women. But then, similar to Frank, commends the curators’ emphasis on nuance and ends on a contemplative moment of neutrality: “ ...this work is truly mercurial, combining beauty with a toxicity that can never be entirely dismissed; his photos reflect the subjectivity of the viewer.” In this non-position, similar to Frank, he condones the exhibit and recognizes its legitimacy
Both of these writers ask a question — is this okay? — and then allow their passivity to give answer: they let the reader, the person who might see the exhibit, arrive at their own conclusions — they defer. From these reviews and the curators themselves we get a throughline thesis: Not only is it beauty, but morality as well that resides in the eye of the beholder.
I asked, as we walked with Mustard (who gave us an incredibly in-depth tour of the show), whether she and the rest of the curating team had thought at any point of scrapping the show in its entirety, especially considering the new allegation of misconduct. She said that, certainly, “it was an option.” I asked then at what point they would have gone ahead and canceled the show: How many allegations would it take to tip the scale? Here, she sort of obfuscated and replied that it was “extra-complicated” because, as opposed to Chuck Close’s now unshown work, Araki’s canon directly deals in sexuality and erotic deviance: explicitly it pushes censorial boundaries. She concluded that as an art historian she has a “real problem with censorship winning out over conversation." And, of course, this exhibit has sparked conversation. She quickly then mentioned that Balthus painting at the Met and the whirlwind of protest around it.
But here she was invoking a common — and tired — misconception: that questioning the merits of giving someone a platform is akin to censorship. That Araki is a problematic figure is really not up for debate — we can recount the reasons why: beginning with the allegation of his former subject then moving to the nature of his relationships with his models (he has sex with most all the models he shoots), then to his refusal to engage criticism or discussion around his work concerning consent, exploitation or power dynamics (a habit made more insidious by the explicit and copious ways in which he has profiteered off of these very dynamics); then there are the disturbing remarks made in public (presumably to further his aura of unconcerned genius provocateur): for one, when he advises a young photographer on Vice that to get “lustrous photographs” like Araki’s he “should have sex with them! [laughs] I’m serious,” he goes on: “It helps a bit if you do that.” A quip which he quickly follows with the very Trumpian: “With me, I immediately get a hard-on if I touch a girl, you know?”
The debate isn’t about whether we can allow censorship to win out (if you google “Araki” results of his work will still pop up), rather it hinges upon what and who it is we choose to amplify when we have the power of platform.
Whose work we show is a reflection of whose success and profile we co-sponsor and, then, whose we choose to ignore: it is inherently non-neutral. Even if an exhibit details every last instance of misconduct, addresses each concern, illuminates the voices of potential victims and depicts an artist as problematic as he or she may evidently be, by having their retrospective — particularly if they are alive and still working (discourse on platforms given to dead artists differs) — the institution is not only giving them exposure but is signaling that their behavior — however corrupt, immoral, deviant — is okay, that their artistic accomplishments (their provocative genius) render their ethical failures (and their subsequent victims) a footnote. In this then the Museum of Sex’s emphasis on nuance and discourse and their insistence in allowing a viewer to be morally determinative is shoddy, is lip-service, is virtue-signaling and a deferral of moral obligation: they are complicit in actively perpetuating not only abuse but the systems that inform abuse. That they do address these issues makes the exhibit’s presence all the more morally bankrupt.
To return to my editor’s question: When can we comfortably consume hyper-violent and hyper sexual art and imagery? Perhaps it is when we are comfortable, first, with the art-subject’s autonomy and consent and second, with who is profiting and profiteering off of our consumption of the material: when we are okay with the behaviors we are condoning, with the sort of priorities we are latently emphasizing, and with the systems at work that we are choosing to confront or perpetuate we can consume transgressive, unsettling, even grotesque imagery and be settled with ourselves. Platforms, like the artists and art that they display, are subject to critique and, in such, we are obligated to critique them.