What Every Sexual Assault Described At The Met Museum Tells Us About Rape Culture

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When Macushla Robinson, a New York-based writer and curator, typed the word “rape” into the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection database, the search returned 181 results. Entries include “The Abduction of the Sabine Women” by French Baroque painter Nicolas Poussin (1633-1634) and an ancient Greek amphora depicting the moment before Ajax, a mythological hero, raped the daughter of the King of Troy, Cassandra . There are also images that allude to rape in more subtle ways, such as Julia Margaret Cameron’s haunting photograph “Beatrice” (1866), a portrait inspired by the 16th century Roman nobleman, Beatrice Cenci, who was beheaded for having killed his violent father.

For a project that she calls “All Rape at the Met Museum,” Robinson went further, analyzing each entry to study how institutional cataloging and wall labels often obscure or downplay the impact of sexual violence, especially when it comes to victims. female.

“What struck me was how little it figures in the way labor is spoken,” Robinson told Hyperallergic. “I don’t think curators are deliberately avoiding discussing it, but I think the point is to examine how we use language and how the momentum of sacred and hallowed halls in museums creates hierarchy and structure. which normalizes that and romanticizes it.

Julia Margaret Cameron, “Beatrice” (1866), Albumen silver print from glass negative (via the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Prior to starting her doctorate in political theory at the New School, Macushla worked in the curatorial departments of museums including the National Gallery of Australia and the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where she wrote “God knows how many wall labels.” “. Now she is interested in examining the cataloging process itself.

“I wanted to deconstruct all the information that goes into a collection database. You have a form, you fill it out, it asks you for certain types of data, ”she said. “And something incredibly violent and difficult when a story suddenly becomes ordinary, you don’t talk about it as violence. I started to see a trend about what matters and what doesn’t.

Without modifying or adding to the Met’s cataloging data, which includes basic details like title, medium and dimensions as well as provenance details and contextual essays, she analyzed and rearranged the texts into poem-like stanzas to print in 181 individual books, one for each work. A gilded bronze patron from the Netherlands, which originally adorned one side of a horse bit, cites the brutal origin story of the European continent: In love with Princess Europe, the god Jupiter disguised as a bull l ‘kidnapped and raped her on the island of Crete. Robinson analyzed and reworked the museum’s cataloging text to emphasize the precedence of stylistic and formal aspects over discussions of the infringement invoked by the work.

“Why have we seen so many fantastic artists over the centuries remake this scene over and over again? There is something about the drama of the stage that allows these artists to perform, ”said Robinson. “The female body becomes a conceptual site to demonstrate the material mastery of the world around the artist.

A work in progress of Macushla’s upcoming book project, “All the Rapes in the Met Museum”. (courtesy Macushla Robinson)

The Met’s collection database is available to the public free of charge, and images of many of the works reviewed by Robinson are in the public domain. “One of the main reasons we have digitized our collection, which reflects more than 5,000 years of art, is to strongly encourage its study and to generate new reviews and responses,” said a spokesperson for the Met in Hyperallergic.

Robinson plans to distribute his books to visitors at the entrance to the Met as “alternative museum guides”; A Kickstarter fundraiser hit her goal, but she hopes to get more donations to further develop the project.

The number of entries she analyzed, Robinson notes, is “not a reliable count.” Most of the paintings that appear on the Met’s website are recreations of classics, such as scenes from Ovid’s poems; historical accounts from this time vary in their interpretation of the word “rape,” which in some cases could mean kidnapping. And some works of art that depict or suggest rape and gender-based violence do not necessarily refer to it explicitly or in their titles.

“Marriage Chest (Cassone)” (c. 1480-95) (via the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

A Quattrocento era cassonne, or marriage chest, represents the earth goddess Ceres in search of her kidnapped daughter Proserpina. Upper-class women, according to the Met’s essay, would “proudly display” these chests in the master bedroom, usually located in the center of a household to discourage them from socializing or spending time outdoors.

But “there is an indication that this is a romantic story,” Robinson told Hyperallergic. “It’s complicated, because you ask questions about what consent is. What does it mean when a woman cannot defend herself, when the consent belongs to her father or her parents? “

“I think we have to complicate the way we talk about sexual violence,” she said. “There is all this ambiguity. History has taught us, taught me, since I was a little girl, that being loved is like that.

Honoré Sharrer, “Susanna and the Elder” (1982-1983), oil on canvas (© Honoré Sharrer, used with permission)

Robinson’s research also revealed works by contemporary artists such as American painter Honoré Sharrer, whose canvases often criticized sexist narratives of mythology from a feminist perspective. His painting “Susanna and the Elder” (1982-1983), explains the Met’s catalog essay, reinvents a biblical story in which a woman in the bath is spied on by a man, shifting the agency towards its female protagonist. The composition is reminiscent of a painting by Thomas Hart Benton from 1938-1939, “Rape of Persephone”, but Sharrer “decentre the male gaze”.

“There are works [in the collection] who recognize rape, and for me the point was to open the lens, take the exhibit and see what’s there, ”Robinson said. “When you write a wall label, when you write adulation about a work of art and its incredible virtuosity, you might not be asking yourself these questions. “

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