From Cellini to #Metoo: A Replica

It was one of those experiences of reading that excited me so much that my Saturday awakening process was significantly shortened: Benvenuto Cellini, a representative of Mannerism, could be regarded as a prototype role model for artists in the Spacey category, according to Kia Vahland in the Süddeutsche Zeitung in an article. The feuilletonist short-circuit takes place by means of a concise thesis between papal Rome and the Hollywood of today. On the one hand, it thus provides a quasi-explanation of the current #Metoo debate, but on the other hand it unrestrainedly serves clichés.

Cellinis autobiography

In his autobiography, written from 1557, Cellini likes fantasies of omnipotence, ranging from violent assaults to multiple murders. In particular, he tortured and raped his model, Caterina. Historical sources confirm the assaults just as they show that Cellini was protected by the authorities and therefore had no legal consequences to fear. In my opinion, the connection between events of the early modern period and those of the present is problematic.

This is how the author writes

“This disgusting package from the Italian late Renaissance has some part in the modern idea that genius and crime condition each other.

The article also mixes the fundamentally different spheres of the film industry and the art world under the general topos of artistry. I find it unlikely that actors like Spacey have dealt with their role as artists in the context of their assaults. Nor do I think that the Cellini biography played a concrete role in this, as the article suggests.

I would also like to argue against the subsequent criminalization of an entire profession. In the course of the late 19th century, several links were established between mental illness, crime and the practice of art. This argumentation was reflected not least in the corresponding court proceedings handed down from the 1910s and 1920s. Several proceedings were brought against Otto Dix, for example, for “obscenity and immorality”. These trials fuelled a media debate in which the artists were criminalized. At the same time, they devoted themselves to the abysmal spheres of crime, the milieu, and the demimonde. At the same time, the art of the mentally ill and the art of children are being upgraded, which in turn influences the artists.

Looking at the exhibition and the action “Degenerate Art”, it is striking that the supposed danger is a main argument against incriminated art. Scandalous works from the 1920s are updated again. All that is inscrutable is expelled from art, while at the same time the cult of genius is promoted.

The cult around the – male – genius is a child of Romanticism, which is established in the 19th century and constantly reactivated. It was none other than Goethe who discovered the Cellini biography, translated it into German and thus introduced it into the discourse here. The artist’s autobiography was not published until the 17th century, for the author did not want to bear witness to himself during his lifetime as openly as it would appear afterwards.

With books like Cesare Lombroso’s Genio e Follia, the abysmal side of genius is emphasized. Artists like Vincent van Gogh, who were in psychiatric treatment during his lifetime, seem to confirm Lombroso’s thesis of the proximity of genius and madness.

I would like to refer to van Gogh’s choleric temperament

Violent clashes and even self-mutilation have been reported. The reason for the dispute, which ended with the famous cut-off ear, was the confrontation with Paul Gauguin in the artist’s flat in the south of France. While the commune failed, the latter left his family in Paris to live with underage girls in Tahiti. The suspicion of paedophilia also comes to the fore with Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. A more recent example is the Muehl-Kommune, in which systematic abuse was carried out, which would eventually have legal consequences.

Power dispositives are currently being negotiated in the #Metoo debate. Sexual harassment is rarely about sex, even less about eroticism, not about entering into relationships, but about the exercise and abuse of power. However, this constellation is cross-industry. Cellini and Gauguin exercised power over young models who were not socially equal to them.

It is true that the institutions that present art usually tend to ignore this sociological context and focus on the ideological content of the works. The artistic work is often viewed in isolation. Kia Vahland argues that the sphere of the exercise of art should not be regarded as a lawless space:

“Perhaps criminals, whether artists or not, should be judged with a legal sense of proportion. And don’t symbolically cut off their heads, as Cellinis Perseus does with the Medusa in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence. But to give them, like everyone else, a fair trial.”

In a liberal society with a functioning legal system, however, this should not be up for discussion. The question arises, however, what are the consequences of a critical view of art? Whether forms of censorship are the right way remains to be doubted – Vahland also pleads against it. But it is precisely this process of extinction that manifests itself in Kevin Spacey’s artistic identity, which by no means proves to be inviolable. More than Weinstein, who is a doer in the background, the person Spacey, who is a projection screen for the audience, is suitable as a target.

In contrast to historical incidents, only the current allegations of abuse are justiciable

A subsequent judgement seems problematic to me, since one has to get along with limited facts of the historical tradition. I plead for a differentiated evaluation and consideration of the individual case. It is precisely in the historical perspective that the historical anchoring and latency of patriarchal systems can be seen, on which contemporary society still has to work off.

#Metoo makes exactly that clear. The debate illuminates all facets of sexualized assaults, including violence. It shows how deeply sexist attitudes are anchored in our society. Despite all moral arrogance, the art world is characterized by chauvinism. Therefore, the primary task is to deal with the current problems. Historical perspectives can be illuminating, but they can also distract.