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  • Oct 31, 2017

Women in the Art World Condemn Sexual Harassment

Over 5,000 people have signed a letter condemning sexual harassment in the art industry. The letter was sparked by the allegations of sexual misconduct levelled against Artforum

“Abuse of Power Comes As No Surprise.” These simple words, printed in black capital letters on a blood-red background, comprises Jenny Holzer’s vitriolic, feminist artwork, made in 1982. On October 30, the powerful mantra also inadvertently became the poster image for the fight against sexual harassment in the art industry, as it was shared among cultural workers, along with a letter that condemned the abuse, intimidation and infantilization of women, trans and gender non-conforming people.

The letter, which is roughly 11 paragraphs long and written in first-person-plural, lists the recent allegations against ex-Artforum-co-publisher Knight Landesman and his ensuing resignation on October 25 as the impetus for its existence. The text states: “The resignation of one publisher from one high-profile magazine does not solve the larger, more insidious problem: an art world that upholds inherited power structures at the cost of ethical behaviour. Similar abuses occur frequently and on a large scale within this industry. We have been silenced, ostracized, pathologized, dismissed as ‘overreacting,’ and threatened when we have tried to expose sexually and emotionally abusive behaviour. We will be silenced no longer.”

The letter, which can be found at not-surprised.org and was published on The Guardian website on October 30, has been signed by over 5,000 people. The signatories include: the 2016 Hugo Boss Prize winner Anicka Yi; Indian multimedia artist Bharti Kher; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s curator of contemporary art, Eungie Joo; Beirut-based, multimedia artist Marwa Arsanios; and Berlin-based Korean artist Haegue Yang. Due to the overwhelming volume of responses, the volunteer-organizers of the letter have closed their list to further signatures as of 12 am PST on October 30, 2017.

The outpouring of women coming forward about their experiences of harassment marks a chipping away at a patriarchal, hostile environment that has ruled the cultural and media industry since its founding. Since early October, actresses, models and news anchors have been sharing their stories on social media about the Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, adding weight to the heavily circulated features detailing allegations of Weinstein’s sexual misconduct published by The New Yorker and the New York Times. On October 13, the American rock band Real Estate admitted to having fired guitarist Matt Mondanile in 2016 due to his alleged history of inappropriately touching women without their consent. A few days later, artist Liam Neff posted on Instagram Live: “Harvey Weinstein, Matt Mondanile . . . so when are we going live on Knight Landesman?” essentially incriminating not just Landesman but also those complicit in his actions. Shortly after on October 24, artnet.com ran the first story that stated the long history of allegations of sexual misconduct made against Landesman, who as of 2017 had worked at Artforum for 35 years. The report unfolded into a saga, ultimately resulting in Artforum’s then-current editor-in-chief Michelle Kuo stepping down from her position, galleries reassessing their advertisements with the magazine, and staff members publicly criticizing their superiors’ egregious handling of Landesman’s situation.

The two-pronged attacks—with evidence first gathering attention on social media, and then being amplified by traditional media, or the other way around—suggest a seismic change in the way social justice is being deployed on individuals who have grown accustomed to abusing their hegemonic power. Although most of the signatories of the letter were artists residing in or from the US and Europe, similar cases have arisen elsewhere in the world in the past few years. Last year, the chief curator of Seoul’s privately run Ilmin Museum of Art, Youngjune Hahm, resigned from his position after accusations of sexual harassment emerged on social media, written by women. In 2015, a protest broke out on the campus of College of Art in New Delhi as the result of authorities refusing to address charges of sexual harassment leveled against a faculty member by a student. However, no doubt a significant number of women outside of the dominant art streams in the US and Europe are still to come forward and unite in their stories. There is still much work to be done to destroy the first barrier of silence. 

Ysabelle Cheung is the managing editor of ArtAsiaPacific.

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