BALTHUS: PARABLES OR PEDOPHILIA

There’s a new exhibition, awash in epiphanies and euphoria we’re assured, titled Derain, Balthus, Giacometti: An Artistic friendship. It’s at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and it runs through October 29th, 2017.

Balthus is a controversial artist. His 1934 painting Guitar Lesson for example depicts an adult female, presumably the guitar teacher, mutually masturbating with a pre-pubertal female student.

Does Guitar Lesson fit the prevailing federal standards for child pornography as depicted in United States v. Dost? A compelling argument could certainly be made that it does. That argument alone however is hardly decisive.

A recent review of the exhibition published in the New York Review of Books calls Balthus [one of] the most powerful minds and imaginations of twentieth-century art. [He turned landscapes, still lifes…nudes…] into haunted dreamscapes, by turns strenuous, serene, and ecstatic.

Art perforates reality, soaring to metaphorical peaks or devolving into abstractions. The controversy with Balthus however is not about the limits of his imagination. It’s about his relationship with the young female models that he eroticized. To now lament that Balthus has been misunderstood as a chic pornographer (whatever that means) is facile at best.

Did Balthus use pre-and post-pubertal female models? The evidence suggests that he did. He had, in fact, a sexual relationship with one these teenage girls. Even approaching the age of 90 Balthus was still taking nude Polaroid photographs of a young female model that posed for his paintings.

Why would an adult man eroticize a pre-or post-pubertal girl? The most common answer is pedophilia.

Does artistic talent mitigate pedophilia? If male doctors, lawyers, Congressmen, police officers, teachers, priests and Prime Ministers can be pedophiles, artists can be too.

Photographs and paintings of nude children are the detritus of pedophilia. They serve as enhancements to masturbation and facilitate the solicitation of sexual abuse victims. Though we often presume that child pornography must depict adult-child or child-child sexual intercourse, United States v. Dost demonstrates otherwise.

Was Balthus a pedophile? It seems plausible. Keep in mind that there are also economic reasons to reject the epithet, fearing perhaps that his paintings would drop precipitously in value.

Whether one considers Balthus’s paintings to be sublime or disjunctive is ultimately irrelevant. People have reason to despise Balthus; others focus squarely on the art.

Both perspectives are nevertheless imperatives; they are the engines that drive perception. To diminish one side or the other makes a mockery of the evaluative process.

Seeing is believing. Some people however can’t believe what they see.

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SCREWING AROUND WITH SEX: A Disquisition by Ursula del Aguila and Commentary by Paul R. Abramson

 

Paul R. Abramson, a UCLA psychology professor, is a rare man. A prophet no less. I don’t mean in the biblical sense, a self-sacrificing nomad placed on earth to banish endemic sorrows. I don’t mean as the leader of a nefarious cult either. He is, instead, oddly enough, a self-described skeptic, rarely impressed and easily bored. He rises to the level of a prophet however through the wisdom of his words, notably in his new book, Screwing Around with Sex.

The book is built upon an edifice of 40+ years of teaching sexuality and testifying as an expert witness in sex-related litigation. A dilettante, he is not. Abramson earned his wisdom the hard way, unremittingly defending our sexual rights, and striving, in courthouses throughout the United States, to rectify sexual harms by helping to incarcerate perpetrators, while simultaneously championing the needs of victims. Throughout his long career Abramson’s aim – as a teacher, as an author, and as a singer and lyricist no less – has been to protect all of us from sexual harm while fighting for sexual rights as a preeminent example of human rights.

This book is not however a pleasant romp through all matters sexual. His cases are often devastating. One could easily be discouraged reading some of this material, wondering about the ethics of humankind itself. How can sexuality, a source of enormous pleasure, be so dangerous too?

Abramson’s voice thankfully still retains a strong positive depth, perhaps it’s the measure of his soul. He never strays too far from reinforcing the viability of a healthy, beautiful, amazing sexuality either, despite the sexual corruptions that regularly besiege us. I truly believe he is right, and I wish a lot of other men would think and act like him.

UdA: Saying yes versus affirmative consent: what’s the difference?

PRA: Men are lousy interpreters of sexual cues. Subtle not being part of their playbook. If a woman smiles at a man, that man often thinks she wants to go to bed with me. It’s even worse in the throes of sex itself. If a woman consents to kissing and genital touching, many men also believe that it constitutes a green light to sexual intercourse. There are even men who claim that a woman consented to sex despite an appalling struggle that included rape.

Unlike consent per se, or giving a generic yes beforehand, affirmative consent means that both partners in a sexual encounter must affirmatively consent to each step prior to engaging in any sexual act.

Think of it as a ladder where each step represents a sexual behavior. Every step, née behavior, would then need affirmative consent prior to stepping on it. Affirmative consent is largely designed to protect women, young and old, from the misinterpretation of sexual cues. It makes it very clear that without specific consent to a specific sexual act – no consent has been provided. Even, for example, if the partners have just engaged in oral sex, it does not mean that consent has been provided to sexual intercourse – or any other new sexual act for that matter.

Affirmative consent is obviously more critical in beginning relationships, with teenagers especially, where exploration is the name of the game. Keep in mind that a large percentage of sexual assaults come from sexual partners known to the victim.

The downside, it’s been said, is that affirmative consent ruins the art of seduction. I can’t help but wonder however whether this art ever treated men and women equally.

When we fly today we go through airport security. Shoe bombers and airplane hijackers have made it a necessary burden. The same is true of affirmative consent. Rapists and sexual assaulting men have harmed so many women under the guise of consensual to sex that affirmative consent is the necessary corrective.

Talking about sex beforehand, in a forthright and explicit manner, has advantages too. It creates intimacy and establishes recognizable sexual boundaries.

UdA: Are there more protocols today to protect young people against sexual harm?

PRA: No – just the opposite. Sex education, particularly for teenagers, is usually limited to knowledge of the body, reproduction for example, and the transmission of sexual infections. Rarely do we teach young people about the necessity of obtaining consent prior to every step in a sexual encounter, whether it be kissing or beyond. We also do very little to encourage the reporting of sexual harms, regardless of age, status, or familiarity with the perpetrator.

Without established rules for sexual consent, and clear protocols for reporting sexual harms, young people are largely clueless. We owe it to every victim of sexual harm to create better sex education for young people.

UdA: You seem to have a naïve hedonist vision of pornography, in which women are equal to men and both play by the same rules. We know that’s not true, despite the fact that there have been female directors of porn for almost 30 years.

PRA: I’m naïve about many things, perhaps my vision of pornography too. I write about it, however, from two perspectives only.

The first is based on my work as an expert witness in the late 1980s and early 1990s for a porn company called Knight-time Entertainment. That name is a pseudonym. This particular company wanted to produce pornography that was appealing for every category of sexual orientation, including gay and straight women. It was a marketing decision. Perhaps that perspective was the exception, but it was certainly true of this company.

The federal government, I learned, didn’t care about discrimination in the pornography industry. Their position instead was that porn had no value. Without value it was legally obscene and thus a criminal act.

The focus of my expert witness testimony was to challenge that argument. Many prominent gay male organizations, for example, were encouraging masturbation to pornographic movies as an alternative to risky sex.

The second thesis I proposed was related to the freedom of speech. Extreme graphic violence is endemic to American movies. Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino and The Piano by Jane Campion are cases in point. Both movies premiered during time I served as an expert witness for Knight-time Entertainment.  Both films are extremely violent, including depictions of rape. The Piano nevertheless received an academy award.

If the government wants to eliminate pornography because of the graphic portrayal of sex, the government should also eliminate the graphic portrayal of violence. Murder should never have an advantage over sex.

Though obviously ludicrous in execution, the pleasures depicted in porn – if void of harmful elements like violence – also have value. Porn is the ballast for the dismal affirmations that populate the Bible, and other fundamental texts, whereby sex is limited to reproducing heterosexual married couples.

UdA: I understand the dangers of exceedingly moralistic views on sexuality, and how problematic it can be to legislate sex, but it now seems that the prevalence of pornographic images are so ubiquitous that it’s very difficult to protect children from exposure. Have we opened up a Pandora’s box of criminal harms? What’s the missing link in your work between child abuse and pornography?

PRA: My expert work has included many sexual crimes against children, horrific ones in fact. It’s so ever-present in my life that I applaud most sexual choices by consenting adults, incest being an exception, because of the obvious psychological harms.

When it comes to protecting children however I bring out the sledgehammer. Child pornography and the sexual assault a child are atrocious crimes, and they should be prosecuted according.

UdA: How can we still protect children against globalized sexual harm, particularly on the Internet?

PRA: Many years ago, I worked as an expert witness for the telephone company, Pacific Bell, in their dial-a-porn litigation. The primary concern, once again, was protecting children. If a minor had access to calling a dial-a-porn phone number, 976-fuck for example, that minor was then exposed to a very sexually explicit message.

Pacific Bell however took several steps to protect children from this kind of harm. The first was to create new telephone lines so that, if asked to do so, Pacific Bell could block access to 976 numbers in any home in California.

When Pacific Bell eventually migrated all of their dial-a-porn accounts to 900 prefixes, those calls could not be made without a credit card. Since minors don’t have credit cards, this was another effective measure to limit access.

Keep in mind that these are relatively low-tech fixes to the problem.

I do not believe that Google, facebook, or others are incapable of remedying this problem in the digital world. If they figured out how to put a computer and a camera into a cellphone, they can figure out how to protect children from exposure to sexually harmful material.

The failure of these companies to do so, I assume, is economic. It will affect their profits. Limiting access to sexually harmful material for children should be a win-win for everyone.

UdA: What do you think about Trump and the risks for sexual freedom?

PRA: It’s very telling that our former director of the FBI said that Trump is a liar. Trump, as we also know, is very slippery with facts, scientific and otherwise. Anything that doesn’t serve his financial agenda has the potential to be mitigated, sexual freedoms included. If he is willing to sacrifice other constitutional rights, there is no reason to assume that he won’t compromise constitutionally protected sexual rights too, gay rights for example.

I’m also very concerned with how Trump made light of sexual harassment and sexual harm. Sexual assault is one of the worst kinds of thefts imaginable. It is the theft of something extraordinarily valuable and extremely personal. Sex is how we create intimate relationships and start families. It’s very private too.

In the Wild West we hung people for stealing horses. That’s obviously not a remedy for stealing sexuality, but the comparison is worth noting. Sexual harm is a theft of the worst kind.

UdA: Do you think United States law effectively punishes sexual thieves?

 PRA: Not at all. If there is a sexual crime on a college campus, for example, it’s often labelled  sexual misconduct, and the perpetrator is treated accordingly.

Must we now start calling murder a violent misconduct too?

If a person steals valuable computer equipment from a campus laboratory, he – and it’s usually a he – is convicted of the statutory crime of theft. Imprisonment usually follows.

I want parity. I want rape, sexual assault, and sexual abuse to be treated as crimes of theft – the stealing of a very valuable and highly personal asset. I want prison sentences and conviction rates to reflect the hardship and long-term damages created by this loss.

Ursula del Aguila was a journalist for six years at Tetu, the leading French gay and lesbian magazine. She has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Paris.

 

 

THE ISLAND OF DR. LARRY NASSAR

Larry Nassar is the newest in a long line of despicable doctors veiled in the shroud of legitimate medicine. Nazi physicians come to mind, ice-pick lobotomists too. The Island of Dr. Moreau also fits the bill. Harboring dark secrets and horrific deeds, Moreau wreaked havoc on animals and humans alike.

More than 100 women have reported being sexually abused by Nassar, an osteopathic physician at Michigan State University, and a former doctor for the USA woman’s gymnastics team. The women were abused during the years of 1994 and 2016, and most were minors. The sexual abuse included vaginal and anal digital penetration, enacted under the pretense of medical treatment for gymnastic injuries. The FBI discovered that Nassar, a father of 3, filmed some of these crimes.

Nassar will not however face criminal charges for sexually abusing countless female minors. He accepted a prosecution deal instead, pleading guilty to only 3 counts of possessing child pornography.

Sexual assault is the plunder of an extremely valuable and extraordinarily personal asset, our sexuality. Unlike other commodities that are easily replaced, sex stands apart as a testament to the freedom of choice and personal autonomy. To regard this theft as being incidental to the crime of possessing child pornography is criminal in and of itself.

Imagine if an armed robber forced his way into a series of Silicon Valley mansions, stealing precious items and terrorizing homeowners in the process. Would it then be reasonable to offer a compromise to the thief, whereby he could avoid prosecution for armed robbery if he pleads guilty to the felony crimes of trespassing, and the illegal possession of a firearm?

Or are we deal making with devils?

 

 

FUCK MOM/FUCK DAD (2017)

I served as an expert witness for the plaintiffs in two dreadful cases of child sexual abuse. A thirty-five year old mother working in law enforcement allowed her 19-year-old boyfriend, a former prisoner, to brutally – and then repeatedly – rape her 5-year-old daughter. The mother and boyfriend were convicted and both went to prison, he for life.

The second case involved a stepfather who had sexually terrorized his stepdaughter. The stepfather was never criminally prosecuted, and though civil litigation was initiated, the lawsuit settled out of court for a token payment. The stepfather then married his adopted daughter.

A chorus spontaneously materialized in my head. It was scriptural, in an odd sort of way, an anti-hymn perhaps, composed by Sophocles as a sequel to Oedipus Rex. Fuck Mom, Fuck Dad, Fuck all the memories I never had. Fuck honor, Fuck obey, Fuck the wrath of judgment day.

Possessed by a righteousness borne out of tragedy, and distinguished by the uncompromising force of its rhetoric, this song, impiously titled Fuck Mom/Fuck Dad (2017), is performed by Crying 4 Kafka (Paul Abramson, Marc Bobro, Bryan Kovarick, and Ian Putnam).

Fuck Mom/Fuck Dad (2017) is hardly the first song to juggle provocative imagery with an explicit, disturbing message, Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit being the exemplar:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood at the root. Black body swinging in the Southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Initially performed in 1939, Strange Fruit was a scathing indictment of lynching at a time when White America had not yet fully embraced the cause, perhaps distracted instead by the drivel of Mammy and crew in Gone With the Wind.

Even when dominated by the word fuck, songs can nonetheless be self-affirming, Kesha’s Woman being a case in point. Life however is not limited to enriching moments. Fuck Mom/Fuck Dad (2017) rests upon the notion that art and human suffering are often inextricably bound.

Fuck Mom/Fuck Dad (2017) is available on Itunes.

 

 

KEEP IT SIMPLE: THE RULE OF OCCAM’S RAZOR

It is said, in the Lord of the Flies for example, that the greatest ideas are the simplest. This sentiment bears some resemblance to Occam’s razor. Often called the law of parsimony, it asserts that the best explanations have the fewest assumptions. The practical application being that simple predictions are easier to test.

Some fields, literary criticism comes to mind, thrive on incomprehension. Simple simply won’t do. Careful pruning is apparently abhorred because of the fear that it will eliminate all traces of intellectual residue.

Psychology, fortunately, treads on firmer ground. That said, the phenomena we study are difficult to measure, our samples are often truncated, and our comprehension of the multiplicity of underlying causes is rudimentary at best.

Keep it simple is my advice. It’s a better path to explanatory power.

AN EASTER STORY

When I was 18 yrs old I hitchhiked from Miami to Los Angeles. It was spring break, April 4th 1968. I was a freshman at the University of Miami.

Two friends joined me. The very first person who gave us a ride brought us to Memphis, Tennessee. It was not a direct route to Los Angeles, but it was progress, or so we thought, and we took it anyway. Little did we know, at 6pm that evening, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. When we arrived at 10pm, the city was under siege. Flames were everywhere.

We didn’t sleep in Memphis. We found a tiny town near the Arkansas border instead. The following morning we awoke to the sound of armored tanks driving down the freeway.

Our next ride was from a man in his early 20s, a dwarf who had recently gotten out of the Air Force. He was driving straight to Los Angeles. We stopped at many national parks including the Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert

When we got to LA, we “crashed” at an apartment on Rossmore near Vine. The apartment wasn’t far from the intersection of Sunset and Vine, where the Kaleidoscope, one of the leading music venues, reigned supreme. The Doors, the Byrds, and Steppenwolf were playing a gig in a couple of days.

I couldn’t afford a ticket, so I didn’t think much about it, until I guy named Johnny, a friend of a friend, said, Don’t worry. We only need to buy one ticket. That guy goes inside and then opens the side door and everyone runs in.

I ran in and saw The Lizard King, Jim Morrison, in his prime.

Not having much to do on Easter Sunday, I went back to the Kaleidoscope. The James Cotton Blues band was performing. I paid three dollars for my ticket. Once inside I discovered that there were only nine other people in the audience. Half way through his set, Mr. Cotton put down his harp and said, “Mannn, don’t get hung up about Easter.”

The following day I went to an agency that paid drivers to deliver cars across the country. I’m heading back to Miami I told them. You’re in luck, the woman said, we have a 55 Thunderbird that needs to be driven back to West Palm Beach, Florida.

Since one of my friends was not returning to college, the other joined me for the drive back.

James Cotton died on March 17th 2017. He was 81 years old.

 

 

 

ETIENNE de La BOETIE AND THE GODFATHER OF SMACK

Tyrants thrive on popular acceptance. It’s the fundamental insight of Boetie’s Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. Elected or not, civil obedience is the rule of thumb. Think Nazi Germany.

I was reminded of this insight while reading R.J. Smith’s (2012) biography The One: The Life and Music of James Brown. When I got to the part about how he’d routinely beat women, blooding their dresses for example, I threw the book away.

Brown’s domestic violence was well known. Abhorred no doubt, but generally accepted too. A recent review of Smith’s book readily acknowledged that Brown was a terror, but nonetheless claimed that the book was a showstopper that sparkled.

A different adjective came to my mind, inferno. Just because something was tolerated back in the day doesn’t make it any less despicable now – no matter how many times James Brown begs on his knees: Please, Please, Please.