Casually flipping through the pages of the September 30, 2013 issue of New York, I reach the section known as "The Culture Pages". A few pages in (page 67 to be exact), I find a reproduction of one of the most disturbing paintings I have ever seen. Merely being confronted with it evokes a response that I would describe, possibly for the first time in my life accurately, as outrageous. This is one of those rare, honest "What the fuck?" moments. The article that surrounds this image is written by Jerry Saltz and is titled "The Painting the Metropolitan Museum Of Art Won't Show You." The image in question is by a man named Balthasar Klossowski, or as he would prefer Count Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, who is most commonly referenced simply as Balthus. The painting is called The Guitar Lesson.
Art is a difficult thing to write about. Art impresses, or moves, or outrages. Art connects in some way with the viewer. Fundamentally, art is subversive because it reveals not always obvious things about ourselves.
When my wife arrives home, I show her the picture. A look of distaste washes over her face.
"What if we had this hanging in the living room?" I joke.
"No," she responds with finality, "that is not going to happen." I try to draw out more of a response with no success.
I throw the magazine into my bag and take it to work the next day. At a moment when a handful of the guys are together at the end of our row, I pass it around and ask what they think about it. Most of the responses center around my need for further Sexual Harassment Training. One coworker predictably follows a train of thought about the vapidity of "Art" and what a sham the whole thing is. Then we discuss the very real possibility that possession of the article itself is almost certainly prosecutable in some areas of our state. After all, it is technically illegal to even purchase sex toys in our city, probably the most cosmopolitan and certainly the best educated in the 400+ mile stretch of Alabama.
A few weeks later I find the article on my desk at home. The revealing thing it triggers in me is a need to confront people with it, to confront people in general with their assumptions, my need to raise questions. This is not often viewed as an attractive trait. Not only do most of my acquaintances wish to remain settled in their thoughts, but when given these opportunities, I rarely feel satisfied myself. When Exit through the Gift Shop made the rounds, I fell in love with its complete subversion of art criticism. But with one exception, every single person I recommended it to only took it at face value.
The Guitar Lesson portrays a seated woman wrestling with a prepubescent girl bent face-up over the seated woman's knee. The woman pulls at the girl's hair with her right hand as she clutches the girl's exposed thigh with her left. The girl, whose dress is pushed up above her navel, has pulled the seated woman's right breast out of the dress, and appears to be in the process of pinching it. A guitar is discarded in the floor in front of the pair. Painted in 1934, Balthus intended the painting to be confrontational. He could not have been more successful. When it debuted it remained covered by a sheet in the back of the gallery. Only exhibited once more, in 1977, The Guitar Lesson soon thereafter found its way as a donation to the Metropolitan Museum Of Art, where it remained in storage for five years until MoMA's then president discovered it and immediately returned it to the donor. The reason for Saltz's New York article is because a 2013 exhibit at MoMA titled "Balthus: Cats and Girls" also neglected to include The Guitar Lesson, an omission that Saltz claimed missed a perfect opportunity.
In thinking about this, I cropped a section of the painting that only showed the woman's right arm and the girl's (covered) upper torso and head and posted it on my home node. My instructions: message me a response to the picture in 30 words or less. Several users responded. One user took the opportunity to create a writeup from it, treating it almost like a miniature brevity quest. Others messaged me responses ranging from a very dark and concise date rape tale to a pseudo-Norman Rockwell comparison. But the best comment was actually a follow-up to an actual response. After sending me her sentence, one writer added a postscript "Did I mention the picture is upsetting? It's upsetting."
Included below is a link to the full image on Wikipedia. This image is almost certainly NOT SAFE FOR WORK.
The Guitar Lesson
If you do take a moment to view it, there is the always ever present question, is it Art?