It’s been an all too familiar headline in the past three years or so: prominent public figure accused of sexual assault by multiple people, with the alleged offenses going unpunished for years if not decades. Though in the latest case to make news, the accused isn’t a Hollywood director, big name actor, or politician. They’re an individual with just a much power over the people around them, but perhaps less visibility in the public sphere: Benjamin Genocchio.
You would be forgiven for not knowing this name - I myself had no idea who this man was before it hit every publication from the Huffington Post to the New York Times on Thursday that he had been accused by a total of eight women of “sexually inappropriate comments” and “unwelcome touching” - but perhaps that’s part of the problem. Genocchio was a big name in the art world: an art critic, editor-in-chief of Artnet, and director of the Armory Show; one of the largest exhibitions of international contemporary art in the world. To any artist, writer or critic looking to break into the mainstream, Genocchio was a man whose good graces you’d want to find a place in. Perhaps this is part of the reason why - though these horrifying incidents had apparently been occurring since 2014 according to one employee of Genocchio’s - consequences are only being dished out nowi. Though not as well-known as an individual like Harvey Weinstein, Lars von Trier, or even Kevin Spacey - three entertainment giants whose alleged sexual misconducts have been splashed across front pages for months now among scores of others - Genocchio’s power was undeniable. And if these recent cases have taught us one thing, it’s that a predator with power in a world of people desperate to rise above the fray is a recipe for disaster.
The entertainment industry and the art world have more in common than we sometimes realize. Both are disciplines in which success can be based as much on one’s ability to shake the right hands and say the right things as one’s talent in their craft. Naturally, this leads to an accumulation of power among a relatively small, close knit group to which everyone else has little choice but to defer. With a constant stream of hopefuls entering into these limited spaces with dreams of fame and recognition - many naive and not prepared for the hardships that await them - it isn’t difficult for people with power to make prey of those without; using intimidation and fears of career ruin to make sure their crimes stay hidden. In Hollywood, these individuals at the top are prominent television and film directors, producers, and actors. In the art world, these are curators, museum directors, administrators, gallery owners, and publishers. And in both entertainment and the arts; it is becoming increasingly clear that nobody is immune to being taken advantage of. Just last month, over 2,000 individuals working within the arts signed a letter condemning sexual harassment in their sphere. Among these names were well known artists and victims of harassment like Cindy Sherman and Helen Marten - whose fame one may have wrongly assumed served as a buffer to these abuses. It’s also important to note that this isn’t exclusively a women’s issue, though women are disproportionately affected: men are not exempt from being taken advantage of either. The question then is what can we do as rising artists - the people at the bottom of the food-chain - to protect ourselves and one another?
The answer is this: never turning a blind eye (and this means not falling into the trap of separating the art from the artist). An abuser’s power rests with their ability to silence their victims, and as just as we’ve seen in the triumphs of the women who came together to finally break the silence regarding Genocchio, as well as women who last month filed a lawsuit against Artforum publisher Knight Landesman for his own crimes: when people make noise for long enough, eventually their message will come through. Though the College of Fine Arts - especially within the School of Art - is perhaps not always as connected as we’d like; we must remember that ultimately, we are a unit. Both as students as well as citizens: as a collective we have a significant amount of power. It’s part of our responsibility as artists not only to create art, but also to make sure that the spaces in which we and our colleagues are creating are safe, free, and accessible. This is not limited to CMU, either. Though the avenues for affecting change in the art world on a broader scale are narrower, it is important to remember that - like any other industry - it is controlled by the capitalist system of production and consumption. Boycotting and encouraging others to boycott galleries, shows, publications and any other bodies complicit in allowing predatory behavior is a way to send a message that hits them in the place that counts most: their wallets. When somebody is sexually assaulted or harassed - no matter the context - their misfortune is never their responsibility. It is, however, the responsibility of those around them to come to their defense. Because after all, when you can’t rely on the people in power, what else is there to do?