When I was in third grade, I developed a slight obsession with Greek mythology. It was during this time that I learned about the Muses — the goddesses of literature, science and the arts. Artists and thinkers were supposed to rely on the Muses for their creativity and wisdom.
In modern English, “muse” is used to describe the source of a creative person’s inspiration. An artist can draw inspiration from virtually anything. Many are inspired by their interactions with other people. The relationship between an artist and their muse is an intimate one. Unfortunately, this closeness can sometimes lead to a power imbalance in which an artist sees their muse as a powerless object that exists only for their creative benefit.
Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix comedy special, “Nanette,” attracted press this summer for her unwavering criticism of the abusive culture that lets artists become famous on the backs of their subjects. She specifically mentioned Pablo Picasso’s mistreatment of a 17-year-old girl, Marie-Thérèse Walter, who was the subject of some of his works. She quoted Picasso, who said the relationship was perfect as he and Walter were both in their “prime.” Given that Picasso was 45 years old when he met Walter, this relationship was far from perfect and was, in fact, punishable by law.
Despite his reprehensible behavior, Picasso is still viewed as a passionate artist who was able to transform his genius into brilliant art. Gadsby responded to this by saying, “Our mistake … was to invalidate the perspective of a 17-year-old girl because we believed her potential was never going to equal his.”
Picasso’s statement, “Each time I leave a woman, I should burn her. Destroy the woman, you destroy the past she represents,” perfectly epitomizes the entitled and often misogynistic manner with which some artists view their subjects and partners.
This abuse has continued into the present day. Nobuyoshi Araki, a renowned Japanese photographer, has been been accused of misconduct by his models. One such model, KaoRi, said that at one point in their relationship, she “started to feel like he was treating me as a toy that would make him feel better.”
According to KaoRi, working with Araki caused her to fear for her life. Due to the sexual nature of the photographs she modeled for, she was subjected to harassment and stalking by strangers and admirers of Araki’s work. She said Araki “took no responsibility for her safety” when she came to him with concerns. After she sent him a letter in 2016 demanding he improve her working conditions, he canceled all of her future shoots. An excerpt of a letter he sent her reads, “It’s all up to me. If not, my art won’t work. So it’s impossible that I overdid it.” Araki’s remarks make it clear that he prioritized his art over the comfort and safety of his model and muse.
Shortly after the allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein came out, U.K. publication The Telegraph revealed a leaked email from media group Condé Nast International — which publishes magazines like Vogue, GQ and Vanity Fair — announcing that the company was cutting ties with fashion photographer Terry Richardson.
Many models have accused Richardson of making explicit requests and pressuring them to be photographed in ways they weren’t comfortable with. One model, Rie Rasmussen, confronted Richardson at a fashion event in Paris, saying, “He takes girls who are young, manipulates them to take their clothes off and takes pictures of them they will be ashamed of. They are too afraid to say no because their agency booked them on the job and are too young to stand up for themselves.”
There is nothing inherently wrong with being inspired by someone to create art. However, as an avid consumer of art in various forms, I believe it is important to hold artists accountable for their actions. No amount of “creative genius” should give anyone the right to mistreat or abuse their subjects.
Annick Tabb is a junior double-majoring in political science and English.