using a woman’s bruised #metoo selfie without consent takes ‘appropriation art’ too far
Art Basel’s ‘headline’ exhibit presents details of #MeToo survivors’ rape allegations – and images of a bruised assault victim – without their consent, illustrating why ‘appropriation art’ is so controversial.
Installation view of 'Open Secret' (2018) by Andrea Bowers. Photo © Art Basel.
The artist behind Open Secret, an installation about the #MeToo Movement at Art Basel, has been forced to remove a section of the work after a survivor of sexual assault noticed that images of her bruised face and body were on display without her knowledge or consent. On Tuesday evening, writer Helen Donahue tweeted images of the installation, writing, “cool that my fucking photos and trauma are heading art basel thx for exploiting us for ‘art’ Andrea Bowers,” adding in block capitals, “Do you know how fucking insane it is to find out my beat up face and body are on display as art rn for rich ppl to gawk at thru a stranger’s instagram story.”
The installation, described by curator Gianni Jetzer as “a stunning artistic monument to one of the most important women’s movements globally,” consists of a wall covered on both sides by rows of large red scrolls, each relaying details of rape, assault and harassment allegations (against 200 individual, named men) made as part of the #MeToo movement, including details of the men’s responses, ranging from apologies to denials. When the work began to cause controversy online, one of the galleries representing Bowers, Andrew Kreps Gallery in New York, posted on Instagram that, "the images in the work solely depict the accused, not the survivors".
Helen Donahue knew this wasn’t true, because she could plainly see her own bruised face on the panel about her alleged attacker, Michael Hafford. “[T]his gallery is straight up lying to people in real time about using my image in their exploitative bullshit,” Helen tweeted, with a screenshot of the gallery’s claim. Donahue had originally posted the images, from 2015, of her bruised face and body in a 2017 tweet documenting her injuries and warning others of the reality of such violence. The tweet, including the images, was appropriated and reproduced by Bowers in Open Secret.
On Tuesday, after Donahue’s claims had been shared and reported widely online, including in a series of tweets by New York art critic Jerry Saltz, Bowers issued a statement to artnet. “I, Andrea Bowers, would like to apologise to the survivor whose image was included in my piece. I should have asked for her consent,” she wrote. “[Donahue] has asked that the panel including her photo be removed and I have honored the request. I have reached out privately and am very much looking forward to listening,” she added. The four international galleries representing Bowers issued a joint statement that they “would also like to issue an apology to the survivor pictured in the piece,” adding, however, that they “stand by Andrea Bowers and her work and support the conversation that has only just begun.”
However, Donahue is not the only survivor claiming Bowers used details of their trauma without their knowledge or consent. “TFW you find out someone turned your rape into ‘artwork’ at Art Basel ???” tweeted Abby Carney. “Imagine my SURPRISE when I opened Instagram this morning to find an acquaintance in Berlin had posted a pic of an Andrea B*wers piece, which is a large reprint of an article abt abuse you were featured in two years ago. I lit’rally haaaaaaate art,” wrote Dilara. “Days like today, I almost wished I lived in the misogynist fantasy world where women profit from telling our stories – rather than other people profiting! This [Art Basel] installation uses [Helen]’s face & [Dilara], [Abby] & my stories & doesn’t even get the facts straight,” Deirdre Coyle wrote.
Abby Carney has reportedly not heard from Bowers, and is not aware that Bowers has, or intends to, reach out to any of the other survivors who have spoken out about their unwitting inclusion, according to a Rolling Stone article published Wednesday evening. i-D contacted both Donahue and Carney for comment on this story, but did not receive a response. (Tweeting out the Rolling Stone article, Carney wrote “Now let’s never talk about this again, plz,” which is understandable.)
The controversy provoked by Open Secret is a particularly emotive example of the ethical dilemmas that have plagued so-called ‘appropriation art’ for decades. In the US, there are legal protections for the ‘fair use’ of information and images – without the permission of the rights-holder – for a number of purposes, including news reporting, research, criticism, and parody. The work of American artist Richard Prince, who in 2014 appropriated a number of women’s Instagram selfies and exhibited them as blown-up prints, provides a contemporary example of these protections in action. (His appropriative art has previously been ruled to be “transformative” enough to meet the requirements of fair use.) But this form of art is nothing new.
“Good artists borrow, but great artists steal” is an aphorism, ironically, variously attributed to Picasso, Stravinsky, T.S Elliot, and even Steve Jobs. Likely intended as more of a camp quip than hard art theory, it nevertheless has been taken to mean that great artists (or poets, or entrepreneurs) have an ability to identify paradigm-shifting sparks of genius and originality among the efforts of lesser artists (who may not even have noticed their own innovation, or grasped its profound implications), and possess the competence required to carry that spark through to its significant and enlightening conclusion, thus transforming it into ‘great art’.
There are celebrated examples of appropriative art. Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can screenprints are seen as a comment on the aesthetics and values of mass consumer culture (a major obsession of his); and David Wojnarowicz re-photographing an image of buffalo being driven off a cliff is understood as art recontextualised by his identity as a gay man in the midst of the AIDS crisis and the deadly silence the Reagan administration. In the internet era, a number of artists have appropriated online material without permission. American artist Jeanette Hayes, who has repeatedly said "If you put something on the internet, it’s mine", faced furious backlash online for tracing and repurposing an anime artist’s work in a larger drawing of her own (which also included elements from the Simpsons and Hello Kitty).
Andrea Bowers’ installation work on display at Art Basel, which appropriates information and images that were already in the public domain as part of the #MeToo movement and related reporting, would likely meet the requirements of ‘fair use’ if challenged in court. And the survivors who have spoken out against Open Secret do not dispute this. Per Rolling Stone, “Carney does not dispute the fact that her story and those of the other women are a matter of public record.” However, the survivors see Bowers’ public, commercial (the work is priced at $300k) use of their stories and Helen’s images, without their knowledge or consent, as a problem of ethics.
Considering Bowers’ intention in making the piece was to “[document] the important cultural shifts represented by the #MeToo and Time’s Up international movements against sexual harassment and assault”, it is a bitter irony that she has caused survivors in the movement to feel exploited, by resurfacing their trauma in a very public way, without their consent. Donahue posted the bruised images of herself online “to warn other women, not to profit,” she told Rolling Stone, adding, “I’ve never benefited from that choice – if anything I’ve lost opportunities and burnt bridges. And through this art, I feel massively exploited like I’m on display in a zoo.”
“I’m assuming [Bowers] was well intentioned, but apparently she spent TWO YEARS researching this [project], and never once reached out,” Carney says in the same article, adding her opinion that the work “glorifies a rapist and makes us all voiceless footnotes” (the accused men’s names and occupations are printed in large font, whereas the women’s names are in the smaller text, and their occupations are not mentioned). It seems Bowers has spectacularly missed the point of her own artwork. If it’s supposed to be a monument to the #MeToo movement, then undermining the central value of that movement – consent – has surely consigned it to abject failure. “[T]here is important art to be done [on the #MeToo movement],” Carney says. “But this isn’t it.”