An Etching Scandal in the Internet Era

Guest-contributor, Leona Christie, an artist and professor based in the Hudson Valley, NY, participated in an Elles-related gallery exhibit in Seattle. She is not, however, named in “Mamelles.”

Social media amplifies even the quietest of art forms, as shown in the recent story of “Mamelles” (French for “teats”).  A controversy arose over this etching which pitted free expression against the rights of those who were offended by its exhibition.  This contemporary etching scandal testifies to the ongoing power of the graphic, meaning both the visual and the explicit, and extends the concept of the viral into the realm of printmaking, whose nature has always been both reproductive and re-circulating, though to varying degrees.

At the low end of the graphic virality scale is Rembrandt’s tiny, but highly detailed etching/drypoint from 1646, The Monk in the Cornfield.

The Monk in the Cornfield, Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-1669), Etching and drypoint, 1646.

Under 2” x 3,” seldom exhibited, and printed in a very limited edition, the etching depicts a monk fornicating with a milkmaid in a field, as a farmer swings a scythe in the background.  The salacious and sacrilegious subject matter is likely to have created a reluctance on the part of collectors and curators to exhibit the print, guaranteeing it a long but quiet life. The British Museum acquired it in 1848, but apparently didn’t exhibit it publicly until 2006.

In contrast to this reticence, much of the print-collecting culture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was fueled by deliberate provocation through caricature and satire. In London, those who could not afford to buy their own prints settled for peering at new prints through the publisher’s shop window, as pictured in James Gillray’s  etching, Very Slippy-Weather.  It benefited printmakers and their publishers to choose controversial and timely subject matter to draw bigger crowds and larger circulation.

Very Slippy-weather (detail), James Gillray (1756-1815), Hand-colored etching, printed and published by Hannah Humphrey, 1808.

In the case of Mamelles, the etching at the center of current scandal, one could say that the Internet is the new print shop window, and the artist, Ben Beres, is successfully playing the provocateur. Less carnal than Rembrandt’s monk and milkmaid, but further up the scale towards currency and notoriety, Beres’s print indexes the names and cartoony breasts of 108 female Seattle artists in a hand-drawn grid formation.

 Mamelles (detail), Ben Beres, hard ground etching with chine collé,  9” x 12”,  2012.

The story begins in Paris, with an exhibition of the permanent collection at the Centre Pompidou, elles@centerepompidu, re-telling the tale of modern art, with work exclusively made by women. This fall, the show was exported to the Seattle Art Museum, supplemented by a regional focus on exhibiting and recognizing the work of female artists, under the general banner of Elles: Seattle. Beres’s print was to make its first appearance on November 7th, in an exhibition curated in response to Elles, called Ils Disent (meaning “they (men) say”) at the Cornish College of the Arts,  where Beres also teaches printmaking.

Before opening night,  Mamelles was taken down by Cornish administrators, due to complaints from two of the women named in the print, colleagues of the artist at the school. It was not the imagery that caused the print’s removal, but rather the naming of names, that led to complaints of workplace sexual harassment.

Once censored from the gallery walls, the print gained a second life online as self-identified supporters of Beres appropriated their etched text/breast “portraits” as Facebook profile pictures. The print was also reproduced in the Seattle paper, The Stranger, in print and online, as the imbroglio was dissected in 216 Nipples Later: What We Talk About When We Talk About Women, Men, Sex, Violence, Art, and Censorship by art critic Jen Graves. In the article, Britta Johnson,  a Seattle artist specified in Mamelles, astutely contrasts the gender power dynamics of Beres’s piece with those of Tracey Emin’s 1995 sculpture, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, which also names names.

The work has been interpreted by some Facebook and blog commentators as a light-hearted institutional critique of the categorization of artists—or any workers—by their sexual characteristics, known as “gender reductionism.” Alternately, Beres has been critiqued for reducing the representation of women to pairs of breasts, as opposed to, say, individualized faces. Even the aesthetics of the breasts themselves has been evaluated, as either unidealized (good) and unflattering (bad).  The print is frequently compared to graffiti, and one frequently-raised argument in defense of its removal from the Cornish show is that it is legally equivalent to scrawling a female co-worker’s name and breasts on the bathroom wall of the men’s room at their shared workplace.

Either way, Beres’s print holds up a funhouse mirror to feminism, distorting and reflecting it at the same time, to real consequence. “I realize I put the curators and Cornish into a difficult spot regarding workplace ethics but art should be about asking questions and putting these difficult topics forward. I am not a pastel landscape artist,” writes Beres, interviewed by email for this article.  If Beres had made an etching poking fun at the sexual hypocrisy of clergy, as Rembrandt did in his etching, it is unlikely that any notoriety would have ensued, and he would be—for the most part—preaching to the converted. But historical and social context is an important element to any work of art.  Just as the virtue of the clergy was orthodoxy in Rembrandt’s society, gender equality is an accepted concept in the art world, if not always in society at large, and in principle, if not consistently in practice.  Likewise, the context of using etching technology, for Rembrandt, meant innovation, as he developed new ways of using grounds, acids, and tools to make a kind of fluid drawing not seen in intaglio before his time, harnessing the power of the new. For Beres, on the other hand, etching is “old media,” and he is using the look of etching—the scratches from an old re-worked plate, the visible and industrial weight of pressed metal– to confer his image with a pedigree of timelessness.

“I love the fact that print can be distributed–so 20 prints versus one painting does make a difference, but it still would have caused the same amount of kerfluffle if it were a painting or a drawing,” writes Beres. “I do think a medium that is well over 500 years old still being used to cause a stir is pretty fascinating.”

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Categories: Critical Discourse

4 Responses to “An Etching Scandal in the Internet Era”

  1. Deb Taylor says:

    For me, it’s not the medium or the process that is in question in both examples but the imagery. And the more interesting aspect in both regards is the issue of censorship. I don’t much like Beres print – I think it is a lazy image /idea in the context of his other work (which I found far more interesting) that I checked out on
    however it is back of the toilet door stuff and doesn’t deserve to be censored. That said did he have the courtesy to ask his colleagues if they minded being depicted in that way and if they were then happy for the work to be exhibited publicly? If not that’s just plain bad manners and quite naive in the context of his workplace relationship to the artists that complained.

  2. Danny James says:

    Agreed, and is it possible he’s most inspired to do this because of Ray Johnson’s Correspondence Invites? The resemblance is…

  3. aaa says:

    What a stuff of un-ambiguity and preserveness of valuable familiarity regarding unpredicted emotions.