Essential Reads on Feminism: The New York Public Library Creates a Reading List to Honor the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment

We may all have the best of intentions when we collect and share reading lists. We buy the books, stack them neatly by the chair or bed, then something happens. Like… literally, every day, something happens…. Let’s cut ourselves some slack. We’ll get to those books, or give them away to people who will read them, which is also a good thing to do.

But even if we can’t keep up, reading lists are still essential educational tools, especially for kids, young adults, and their parents and teachers. As we celebrate the centenary of the 19th Amendment (which fell on August 18th) and talk about its many shortcomings, it may be more important than ever to understand the U.S. history that brought us to the current moment.




This is a history in which—whether rights were guaranteed by the constitution or not—people historically denied suffrage have always had to struggle. Each generation of women, but most especially Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and LGBTQ women, must claim or reclaim basic rights, liberties, and protections. More than ever, feminist reading lists reflect the vast differences in collective and personal experience that fall under the label “Feminist.”

To illustrate the continued critical importance of feminist history, theory, and literature, the New York Public Library published reading lists for adults, kids, and teens on the 19th Amendment’s 100th anniversary. These books can help create community and solidarity and inspire deep reflection as kids are pushed back into schools and parents and teachers try to help them cope.

The adult list contains 126 books and includes links to the library catalog or e-Book editions. “The titles bridge the past and present of feminist movements, from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Independent Woman (1949) to Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist: Essays (2014), and from the earliest manifestos for equality to contemporary writings on intersectionality,” Valentina Di Liscia writes at Hyperallergic.

The lists for kids and teens are of a more manageable length, and “if you’re looking to stock the bookshelves before history class starts this fall,” you can hardly do better than to start with these titles (or just bookmark the lists for now), as Danielle Valente—who helpfully transcribes both lists, below—notes at Time Out New York.

NYPL’s Essential Reads on Feminism: For Kids 

  • Black Girl Magic by Mahogany L. Browne
  • Black Women Who Dared by Naomi M. Moyer
  • Bold & Brave: Ten Heroes Who Won Women the Right to Vote by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand,
  • Brave. Black. First. 50+ African American Women Who Changed the World by Cheryl Willis Hudson
  • Delores Huerta: A Hero to Migrant Workers by Sarah Warren
  • Elizabeth Started All the Trouble by Doreen Rappaport
  • Equality’s Call: The Story of Voting Rights in America by Deborah Diesen
  • Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo
  • The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure by Caroline Paul
  • Heart on Fire: Susan B. Anthony Votes for President by Ann Malaspina
  • Herstory: 50 Women and Girls Who Shook Up the World by Katherine Halligan
  • I Am Enough by Grace Byers
  • I am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings
  • Ida B. Wells: Let the Truth Be Told by Walter Dean Myers
  • It Feels Good to Be Yourself: A Book About Gender Identity by Theresa Thorn
  • Julián Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love
  • Leading the Way: Women in Power by Janet Howell and Theresa Howell
  • Lillian’s Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by Jonah Winter
  • Limitless: 24 Remarkable American Women of Vision, Grit, and Guts by Leah Tinari
  • Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison
  • Lucía the Luchadora by Cynthia Leonor Garza
  • Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai
  • Miss Paul and the President: The Creative Campaign for Women’s Right to Vote by Dean Robbins
  • The Moon Within by Aida Salazar
  • My Name Is Truth: The Life of Sojourner Truth by Ann Turner
  • Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik
  • Rad American Women A–Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries Who Shaped Our History… and Our Future! by Kate Schatz
  • Roses and Radicals: The Epic Story of How American Women Won the Right to Vote by Susan Zimet
  • Shaking Things Up: 14 Young Women Who Changed the World by Susan Hood
  • She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World by Chelsea Clinton
  • They, She, He, Me: Free to Be! by Maya Gonzalez and Matthew SG
  • Women Win the Vote!: 19 for the 19th Amendment by Nancy B. Kennedy

 

New York Public Library’s Essential Reads on Feminism: For Teens 

  • Alice Paul and the Fight for Women’s Rights by Deborah Kops
  • Ask a Queer Chick: A Guide to Sex, Love, and Life for Girls Who Dig Girls by Lindsay King-Miller
  • Because I Was a Girl: True Stories for Girls of All Ages by Melissa de la Cruz
  • Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin
  • Beyond the Gender Binary by Alok Vaid-Menon
  • Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Pénélope Bagieu
  • The Bride Was a Boy by Chii
  • Colonize This!: Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism by Daisy Hernández and Bushra Rehman (eds.)
  • Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Feminism Is… by Alexandra Black, Laura Buller, Emily Hoyle and Dr. Megan Todd
  • Feminism: Reinventing the F-Word by Nadia Abushanab Higgins
  • Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir by Kai Cheng Thom
  • Fight Like a Girl: 50 Feminists Who Changed the World by Laura Barcella
  • Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters by Jessica Valenti
  • Girl Rising: Changing the World One Girl at a Time by Tanya Lee Stone
  • Girls Resist!: A Guide to Activism, Leadership, and Starting a Revolution by KaeLyn Rich
  • Girls Write Now: Two Decades of True Stories from Young Female Voices
  • Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World by Kelly Jensen (ed.)
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  • I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman In Guatemala by Rigoberta Menchú
  • Lighting the Fires of Freedom: African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement by Janet Dewart Bell
  • Modern Herstory: Stories of Women and Nonbinary People Rewriting History by Blair Imani
  • Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age by Amani Al-Khatahtbeh
  • Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns
  • #NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale (eds.)
  • Rethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition by Katie Rain Hill
  • She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman by Erica Armstrong Dunbar
  • Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story by Jacob Tobia
  • Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir by Liz Prince
  • Trans Teen Survival Guide by Owl and Fox Fisher
  • Trans+: Love, Sex, Romance, and Being You by Kathryn Gonzales and Karen Rayne
  • Votes for Women!: American Suffragists and the Battle for the Ballot by Winifred Conkling
  • With Courage and Cloth: Winning the Fight for a Woman’s Right to Vote by Ann Bausum
  • You Don’t Have to Like Me: Essays on Growing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding Feminism by Alida Nugent
  • Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists: A Graphic History of Women’s Fight for Their Rights by Mikki Kendall

This is, indeed, an excellent place to start. Given younger generations’ levels of engagement with current events, it’s likely your kids or students are already familiar with many of the newer books on the lists.

And if you, yourself, need some less daunting bibliographies to get you started, you might also check out Emily Temple’s “40 New Feminist Classics” list on LitHub or her (shorter and less diverse) “10 Essential Feminist Books” at The Atlantic, or feminist writer Mona Eltahawy’s list of Black feminist books on Twitter, or former NFL player Wade Davis and Cornell English professor Mukoma Wa Ngugi’s lists for “men who care about feminism.”

If there’s any overarching theme to be found among such a vast and ever-expanding canon of feminist literature, it might be summed up best in the title of a recent Angela Davis book on feminist movements around the world: “Freedom is a constant struggle.”

Related Content:

11 Essential Feminist Books: A New Reading List by The New York Public Library

Download All 239 Issues of Landmark UK Feminist Magazine Spare Rib Free Online

103 Essential Films By Female Filmmakers: Clueless, Lost In Translation, Ishtar and More

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Get the Ancient Roman Look: A Hair & Makeup Video Tutorial

Remember early April, when we threw ourselves into the Getty Challenge, turning ourselves into historic art recreations in lieu of climbing the walls?

Seems like ages ago, doesn’t it, that you wrapped a shower curtain around your head and rifled through the button box, rabid to make yourself into a masterpiece.

While it’s not accurate to say we’ve collectively settled into a new normal, many of us have accepted that certain alterations to our everyday lives will be prolonged if our everyday lives are to proceed.




First it was depressing.

Now it’s just boring (with the occasional thrum of anxiety).

Perhaps it’s time to shake things up a bit, and Crows Eye Productions’ tutorial on achieving an Ancient Roman look using modern hair and beauty products, above, is an excellent place to start.

While Crows Eye specializes in building historically accurate period dress from the unmentionable out, it’s worth noting that stylist Liv Free takes a few liberties, adding a bit of mascara and lipstick despite a dearth of evidence that Roman women enhanced their lips or lashes.

She also uses curling irons, ponytail holders, and a hair donut to create a crown of ringlets and braids.

If you’re a stickler for authenticity who won’t be able to live with yourself if you’re not sewn into your hair style with a bone needle, you may be better off consulting the YouTube channel of hair archeologist Janet Stephens.

But, if your goal is merely to wow your co-workers with a full-on Flavian Dynasty look during your next Zoom call, by all means grab some pale lead-free foundation, some expendable Hot Buns, and some light blush.

Don’t worry that you’ll appear too done up. Free notes that Roman women of both high and low birth were devoted to makeup, but in deference to their men, limited themselves to the natural look.

That’s a tad anachronistic, huh?

These days, anyone who wants to remake themselves in the image of Empress Domitia Longina should feel free to take a crack at it, irrespective of gender, race, or extra hands to help with the parts of the hairstyle you can can’t see in the mirror (or a Zoom window).

Once we have mastered our new look, we can see about another museum challenge. Here’s some inspiration to get us started.

Related Content:

How a Baltimore Hairdresser Became a World-Renowned “Hair Archaeologist” of Ancient Rome

Roman Statues Weren’t White; They Were Once Painted in Vivid, Bright Colors

How to Bake Ancient Roman Bread Dating Back to 79 AD: A Video Primer

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Meet the Liverbirds, Britain’s First Female (and Now Forgotten) Rock Band

We never ever got as famous as the Beatles. But we started as friends, and we ended as friends. —Sylvia Saunders, The Liverbirds’ drummer

John Lennon (a member of a band who in a parallel universe might’ve been billed as the male Liverbirds) announced that the all-female quartet would fail, a deeply inaccurate prediction.

The band got a lot of attention, toured with The Kinks and The Rolling Stones, dismissed Brian Epstein when he pooh-poohed their desire to play in Hamburg, rejected an offer to play topless in Las Vegas, and were sought out by Jimi Hendrix, owing to their bassist’s joint-rolling skills.




They also learned how to play the instruments they had optimistically purchased after seeing The Beatles in Liverpool’s famed Cavern Club.

Respect to any grandmother with bragging rights to having seen The Beatles live, but it’s heartening that these 16-year-old girls immediately pictured themselves not so much as fans, but as players.

As bassist and former-aspirant-nun Mary McGlory recalls in Almost Famous: The Other Fab FourBen Proudfoot’s New York Times’ Op-Doc, above:

“Oh my god!” I said to my cousins, “We’re going to be like them. And we’re going to be the first girls to do it.”

Mission accomplished, in trousers and neatly tucked-in shirts, buttoned all the way to their collars.

It’s not terribly hard to guess what put an end to their six-year-run.

Motherly, wifely duties…

Sylvia Saunders, who became drummer by default because sticks were a better fit with her small hands than frets, got pregnant, and recused herself due to complications with that pregnancy.

Valerie Gell, the Liverbirds’ late guitarist and most accomplished musician, married a handsome fan who’d been en route to Hamburg to propose when he was paralyzed in a car accident, devoting herself to his care for 26 years.

The other two members carried on for a bit, playing a Japanese tour with a couple of female musicians they’d met in Hamburg, but the chemistry couldn’t compare.

The dream was over, but fortunately rock and roll stardom was not their only dream.

Unlike the fourth Liverbird, Pam Birch, who descended into addiction after the band broke up, neither Saunders nor McGlory seems angry or regretful over what could have been, smiling as they mention their long, happy marriages, children, and grandchildren.

They were awfully tickled by Girls Don’t Play Guitars, a recent West End musical that tells the story of the Liverbirds.

And McGlory is admirably sanguine about Lennon’s famous diss, revealing to the Liverpool Echo that:

He had a smile on his face when he said it—he wasn’t being malicious. But it would have been nice to have bumped into him a few years later and for him to say, “Well done, you proved me wrong,” which I’m sure he would have been happy to do.

Related Content:

New Web Project Immortalizes the Overlooked Women Who Helped Create Rock and Roll in the 1950s

Women of Jazz: Stream a Playlist of 91 Recordings by Great Female Jazz Musicians

Venerable Female Artists, Musicians & Authors Give Advice to the Young: Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson & More

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join Ayun’s company Theater of the Apes in New York City for her book-based variety series, Necromancers of the Public Domain, and the world premiere of Greg Kotis’ new musical, I AM NOBODY., playing at The Tank NYC through March 28 Follow her @AyunHalliday.

America’s First Drag Queen Was Also America’s First LGBTQ Activist and a Former Slave

Negro Dive Raided. Thirteen Black Men Dressed as Women Surprised at Supper and Arrested. —The Washington Post, April 13, 1888

Sometimes, when we are engaged as either participant in, or eyewitness to, the making of history, its easy to forget the history-makers who came earlier, who dug the trenches that allow our modern battles to be waged out in the open.

Take America’s first self-appointed “queen of drag” and pioneering LGBTQ activist, William Dorsey Swann, born into slavery around 1858.

30 years later, Swann faced down white officers busting a drag ball in a “quiet-looking house” on Washington, DC’s F street, near 12th.

“You is no gentleman,” Swann allegedly told the arresting officer, while half the guests broke for freedom, correctly surmising that anyone who remained would see their names published in the next day’s newspaper as participants in a bizarre and unseemly ritual.




A lurid Washington Post clipping about the raid caught the eye of writer, historian, and former  Oberlin College Drag Ball queen, Channing Gerard Joseph, who was researching an assignment for a Columbia University graduate level investigative reporting class:

An animated conversation, carried on in effeminate tones, was in progress as the officers approached the door, but when they opened it and the form of Lieut. Amiss was visible to the people in the room a panic ensued. A scramble was made for the windows and doors and some of the people jumped to the roofs of adjoining buildings. Others stripped off their dresses and danced about the room almost in a nude condition, while several, headed by a big negro named Dorsey, who was arrayed in a gorgeous dress of cream-colored satin, rushed towards the officers and tried to prevent their entering.

Joseph’s interest did not flag when his reporting class project was turned in. House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens will be published in 2021.

Meanwhile you can bone up on Swann, Swann’s jail time for running a brothel, and the Washington DC drag scene of the Swann era in Joseph’s essay for The Nation, “The First Drag Queen Was a Former Slave.”

Please note that William Dorsey Swann does not appear in the photo at the top of the page. As per Joseph:

The dancers — one in striped pants, the other in a dress — were recorded in France by Louis Lumière. Though their names are lost, they are believed to be American. In the show, they performed a version of the cakewalk, a dance invented by enslaved people, and the precursor to vogueing.

via The Nation

Related Content:

100 Years of Drag Queen Fashion in 4 Minutes: An Aesthetic Journey Moving from the 1920s Through Today

Before Brokeback: The First Same-Sex Kiss in Cinema (1927)

When John Waters Appeared on The Simpsons and Changed America’s LGBTQ Views (1997)

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join Ayun’s company Theater of the Apes in New York City this March for her book-based variety series, Necromancers of the Public Domain, and the world premiere of Greg Kotis’ new musical, I AM NOBODY. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How the Female Scientist Who Discovered the Greenhouse Gas Effect Was Forgotten by History


In the early 19th century, Aristotle’s Meteorologica still guided scientific ideas about the climate. The model “sprang from the ancient Greek concept of klima,” as Ian Beacock writes at The Atlantic, a static scheme that “divided the hemispheres into three fixed climatic bands: polar cold, equatorial heat, and a zone of moderation in the middle.” It wasn’t until the 1850s that the study of climate developed into what historian Deborah Cohen describes as “dynamic climatology.”

Indeed, 120 years before Exxon Mobile learned about—and then seemingly covered up—global warming, pioneering researchers discovered the greenhouse gas effect, the tendency for a closed environment like our atmosphere to heat up when carbon dioxide levels rise. The first person on record to link CO2 and global warming, amateur scientist Eunice Newton Foote, presented her research to the Eight Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1856.




Foote’s paper, “Circumstances affecting the heat of the sun’s rays,” was reviewed the following month in the pages of Scientific American, in a column that approved of her “practical experiments” and noted, “this we are happy to say has been done by a lady.” She used an air pump, glass cylinders, and thermometers to compare the effects of sunlight on “carbonic acid gas” (or carbon dioxide) and “common air.” From her rudimentary but effective demonstrations, she concluded:

An atmosphere of that gas [CO2] would give to our earth a high temperature; and if as some suppose, at one period of its history the air had mixed with it a larger proportion than at present, an increased temperature…must have necessarily resulted.

Unfortunately, her achievement would disappear three years later when Irish physicist John Tyndall, who likely knew nothing of Foote, made the same discovery. With his superior resources and privileges, Tyndall was able to take his research further. “In retrospect,” one climate science database writes, Tyndall has emerged as the founder of climate science, though the view “hides a complex, and in many ways more interesting story.”

Neither Tyndall nor Foote wrote about the effect of human activity on the contemporary climate. It would take until the 1890s for Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius to predict human-caused warming from industrial CO2 emissions. But subsequent developments depended upon their insights. Foote, whose was born 200 years ago this past July, was marginalized almost from the start. “Entirely because she was a woman,” the Public Domain Review points out, “Foote was barred from reading the paper describing her findings.”

Furthermore, Foote “was passed over for publication in the Association’s annual Proceedings.” Her paper was published in The American Journal of Science, but was mostly remarked upon, as in the Scientific American review, for the marvel of such homespun ingenuity from “a lady.” The review, titled “Scientific Ladies—Experiments with Condensed Gas,” opened with the sentence “Some have not only entertained, but expressed the mean idea, that women do not possess the strength of mind necessary for scientific investigation.”

The praise of Foote credits her as a paragon of her gender, while failing to convey the universal importance of her discovery. At the AAAS conference, the Smithsonian’s Joseph Henry praised Foote by declaring that science was “of no country and of no sex,” a statement that has proven time and again to be untrue in practice. The condescension and discrimination Foote endured points to the multiple ways in which she was excluded as a woman—not only from the scientific establishment but from the educational institutions and funding sources that supported it.

Her disappearance, until recently, from the history of science “plays into the Matilda Effect,” Leila McNeill argues at Smithsonian, “the trend of men getting credit for female scientist’s achievements.” In this case, there’s no reason not to credit both scientists, who made original discoveries independently. But Foote got there first. Had she been given the credit she was due at the time—and the institutional support to match—there’s no telling how far her work would have taken her.

Just as Foote’s discovery places her firmly within climate science history, retrospectively, her “place in the scientific community, or lack therof,” writes Amara Huddleston at Climate.gov, “weaves into the broader story of women’s rights.” Foote attended the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848, and her name is fifth down on the list of signatories to the “Declaration of Sentiments,” a document demanding full equality in social status, legal rights, and educational, economic, and, Foote would have added, scientific opportunities.

Learn much more about Foote and her fascinating family from her descendent, marine biologist Liz Foote.

via Public Domain Review

Related Content:

Women Scientists Launch a Database Featuring the Work of 9,000 Women Working in the Sciences

“The Matilda Effect”: How Pioneering Women Scientists Have Been Denied Recognition and Written Out of Science History

Marie Curie Became the First Woman to Win a Nobel Prize, the First Person to Win Twice, and the Only Person in History to Win in Two Different Sciences

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Celebrating Women Composers: A New BBC Digital Archive Takes You from Hildegard of Bingen (1098) to Nadia Boulanger (1979)

Recently, we published a post about Nadia Boulanger, the 20th century’s most influential music teacher. While a composer and conductor in her own right—indeed, she was the first woman to conduct major symphonies in Europe and the U.S.—Boulanger is best known for her list of illustrious students, including Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Philip Glass, and Quincy Jones.

One reader of the post rightly pointed out a not-so-glaring irony in the way Boulanger has been remembered. While celebrated as a powerful woman in music, in a sea of more famous men, her many distinguished female students go unmentioned, perhaps more due to ignorance than prejudice (though this may be no great excuse). Most people have never heard of former Boulanger students like Grażyna Bacewicz, Marion Bauer, Louise Talma, Peggy Glanville-Hicks and Priaulx Rainier.

Not many have heard of Lili Boulanger, Nadia’s sister, a child prodigy who died at 24, after composing two dozen innovative choral and instrumental works and becoming the first woman to win the Prix de Rome in 1913, at the age of 19, for her cantata Faust and Hélène, with lyrics, by Eugene Adenis, based on Goethe’s Faust (top).




Polish composer Bacewicz, who began studying with Nadia Boulanger’s former student Kazimierz Sikorski at 13, traveled to Paris to “learn from the great pedagogue herself,” notes the BBC Music Magazine.

Bacewicz was an incredibly talented violinist (see her further up in 1952) and a widely admired composer, just one of many noteworthy female composers, of the past and present, who don’t often turn up in conversation about classical and avant-garde music. The BBC aims to correct these major slights with their “Celebrating Women Composers” series, which features archival interview clips from legends like Nadia Boulanger, Dame Ethel Smyth (profiled above), and Elisabeth Lutyens.

You’ll also find interviews with dozens of contemporary female composers, a series on composers’ rooms, profiles of historical greats, links to performance recordings, and several informative articles on women composers past and present. Most of the composers profiled have found some measure of fame in their lifetime, and renown among those in the know, but are unknown to the general public.

Some of the composers you’ll learn about, like the five in a feature titled “The Women Erased from Musical History,” might have disappeared entirely were it not for the work of archivists. Learn about these rediscovered figures and much, much more at the BBC’s Celebrating Women Composers, one of many such projects making it harder to plead ignorance of women’s presence in classical music.

Related Content:

Meet Nadia Boulanger, “The Most Influential Teacher Since Socrates,” Who Mentored Philip Glass, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Quincy Jones & Other Legends

1200 Years of Women Composers: A Free 78-Hour Music Playlist That Takes You From Medieval Times to Now

Hear Seven Hours of Women Making Electronic Music (1938-2014)

Meet Four Women Who Pioneered Electronic Music: Daphne Oram, Laurie Spiegel, Éliane Radigue & Pauline Oliveros

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

Love the Art, Hate the Artist: How to Approach the Art of Disgraced Artists

Hate the sin, never the sinner. – Clarence Darrow

As a culture, we’ve largely stepped away from the sentiment described by the famed lawyer’s 1924 defense of murderers Leopold and Loeb.

Apply it to one of the many male artists whose exalted reputations have been shattered by allegations of sexual impropriety and other ruinous behaviors and you won’t find yourself celebrated for your virtue in the court of public opinion.

But what of those artists’ creative output?

Does that get bundled in with hating both sin and sinner?




It’s a question that historian and former curator Sarah Urist Green is well equipped to tackle.

Green’s PBS Digital Studios web series, The Art Assignment, explores art and art history through the lens of the present.

In the episode titled Hate the Artist, Love the Art, above, Green takes a more temperate approach to the subject than comedian Hannah Gadsby, whose solo show, Nanette, included an incendiary takedown of Picasso:

I hate Picasso. and you can’t make me like him. I know I should be more generous about him too, because he suffered a mental illness. But nobody knows that, because it doesn’t fit with his mythology. Picasso is sold to us as this passionate, tormented, genius, man-ball-sack. But Picasso suffered the mental illness…of misogyny.

Don’t believe me? He said, “Each time I leave a woman, I should burn her. Destroy the woman, you destroy the past she represents.” Cool guy. The greatest artist of the 20th century. Picasso fucked an underage girl. That’s it for me, not interested.

But Cubism! He made it! Marie-Thérèse Walter, she was 17 when they met: underage. Picasso, he was 42, at the height of his career. Does it matter? It actually does matter. But as Picasso said, “It was perfect—I was in my prime, she was in her prime.” I probably read that when I was 17. Do you know how grim that was?

Grim.

A different sort of grim than the horrors he depicted in Guernica, still an incredibly potent condemnation of the human cost of war.

Should exemptions be made, then, for works of great genius or lasting social import?

Up to you, says Green, advocating that every viewer should pause to consider the ripples caused by their continued embrace of a disgraced artist.

But what if we don’t know that the artist’s been disgraced?

That seems unlikely as curators scramble to acknowledge the offender’s transgressions on gallery cards, and emergent artists attempt to set the record straight with response pieces displayed in proximity.

Green notes that even without such overt cues, it’s very difficult to get a “pure” reading of an established artist’s work.

Anything we may have gleaned about the artist’s personal conduct, whether good or ill, proven, unproven, or disproven, factors into the way we experience that artist’s work. The source can be a paper of record, the Internet, a guest at a party repeating a personal anecdote…

It can also be painful to relinquish our youthful favorites’ hold on us, especially when the attachment was formed of our own free will.

What would Hannah Gadsby say to my reluctance to sever ties completely with Gaugin’s Tahiti paintings, encountered for the first time when I was approximately the same age as the brown-skinned teenaged muses he painted and took to bed?

The behavior that was once framed as evidence of an artistic spirit that could not be fettered by societal expectations, seems beyond justification today. Still, it’s unlikely Gaugin will be banished from major collections, or for that matter, the history of art, any time soon.

As Julia Halperin, executive editor of Artnet News observed shortly after Nanette became a viral sensation:

A Netflix comedy special is not going to compel museums to throw out their Picassos. Nor should they! You can’t tell the story of 20th-century art without him…. Although glossing over, whitewashing, or shoe-horning stories of Picasso’s abuse into a comfortable narrative about passionate genius may be useful to maintain his market value and his bankability as a tourist attraction, it also does everyone a disservice… we can understand Picasso’s contributions better if we can hold these two seemingly incompatible truths in our minds at once. It’s not as uplifting as a straightforward tale about a visionary creative whose flaws were only in service to its genius. But it is more honest—and it might even help us understand the evolution of our own culture, and how we got to where we are today, a lot better.

Green provides a list of questions that can help individual viewers who are reevaluating the output of “problematic” artists:

Is the work a collaborative effort?

Does the work reflect the value system of the offender?

Are we to apply the same standard to the work of scientists whose conduct is similarly offensive?

Who suffers when the offender’s work remains accessible?

Who suffers when the offender’s work is erased?

Who reaps the reward of our continued attention?

As Green points out, the shades of grey are many, though the choice of whether to entertain those shades varies from individual to individual.

Readers, where do you fall in this ever-evolving debate. Is there an artist you have sworn off of, entirely or in part? Tell us who and why in the comments.

Watch more episodes of the Art Assignment here.

Related Content:

George Orwell Reviews Salvador Dali’s Autobiography: “Dali is a Good Draughtsman and a Disgusting Human Being” (1944)

When The Surrealists Expelled Salvador Dalí for “the Glorification of Hitlerian Fascism” (1934)

The Gestapo Points to Guernica and Asks Picasso, “Did You Do This?;” Picasso Replies “No, You Did!”

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, January 6 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domaincelebrates Cape-Coddities (1920) by Roger Livingston Scaife. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

More in this category... »
Quantcast