How should art institutions, and society in general, respond to the art of figures whose creators or subjects are now seen as in some sense morally reprehensible? This was the question faced by the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco when they unveiled their exhibition Casanova: The Seduction of Europe earlier this year. In an unpredicted coincidence, the exhibition opened its doors just four months after #MeToo first appeared online, and hence amidst a flurry of discussion about sexual assault and harassment.
Giacomo Casanova, the notorious figure behind the exhibition, was an adventurer, writer, and womanizer from 18th-century Venice. Although he has often been characterised as a dashing and charismatic romantic figure, some of his behaviour constituted sexual assault and rape. Hence, inadvertently, the exhibition provided an opportunity to discuss art and morality. How, if at all, should we present such exhibitions? Since Casanova himself is not the creator of the works of art displayed, is it misguided and unnecessary to make him the focus? Are we in danger of romanticising misogyny? Curator Melissa Buron comments, “Casanova is a complicated figure—there were things he did in his lifetime that were scandalous, certainly illegal in our current climate, but I don’t think it does anyone a service to whitewash or rewrite history, especially as a museum.”
The museum decided to try to incorporate these darker elements into the exhibition instead of shying away from them by inviting academics to give talks to provide historical context to the exhibition. Art critic Monica Westin, although suspicious that this approach might constitute museums “trying to have their cake and eat it too”, agrees that troubling historical events and figures such as Casanova cannot simply be ignored or excised from history; “they bookmark an entire set of histories and understandings about the world that we have inherited and must deal with.” On the other hand, such discussions about “rewriting history” raise questions about the nature of what we call “history”. To argue that de-centring certain figures or voices constitutes rewriting or whitewashing history assumes that history as we know it is a seamless and unified truth, rather than one particular narrative we have pieced together. The past, and indeed the present, can of course be seen from multiple perspectives. Julia Bryan-Wilson, for example, a professor of modern and contemporary art, argues that museums should be making an effort to present a variety of diverse voices.
Applicants for History of Art should think about the question of morality in art. Do we have a duty to de-centre art, music, or films by figures of the past or the present who we deem to be morally reprehensible? Can art ever be separate from society and transcendent of morality? Students wishing to study History should think particularly about the nature of history itself. Is history objective? What does it mean to “rewrite history”?