The Difference Between Art and Abuse
CW:Mention of Sexual Assault
Arts students are often pushed beyond their comfort zone, but how far is too far?
You have just arrived on a college campus as a freshman student and you have come to study what many categorize as an impractical career– the arts. You try to find ways to become more adult, while perhaps experiencing being apart from home and parents for the first time ever. All the while, you struggle to keep your grades up and please your professors with your work.
Yet, these arts professors are quite different from any other student-teacher relationship you have encountered. They may curse, they may say or do what they like if it is serving their lesson. When you have a one-on-one conference, they may ask you deeply personal questions. Should you answer? If you do divulge, maybe responding could make you a better student, maybe a better artist. Possibly, if you become closer to them, you could grow closer to your desired grade or performance or product. It feels like they may have all the answers, but you are unsure. What you do know is how comfortable you have grown with uncomfortable circumstances.
A tell-all blog post titled “Setting the Stage for Sexual Abuse: How theater pedagogy makes students vulnerable to sexual harrassment” circulated from student to studentin the winter of my freshman year. Re-evaluation of the unfortunate past of one of New York University Tisch’s acting studios, Playwrights Horizons Theater School (PHTS), was underway. Former student and victim of sexual harassment, Randy Ginsberg, describes his relationship to former design (and Tony-award-nominated) professor Michael Krass. Ginsberg recounts that the “‘holistic’ approach of a school like PHTS was most visible in a class like Krass’s.”
Ginsberg then describes Krass’s constant dialogue around sex, which was met with “unquestioned popularity” as “most 18-year-old freshman are bursting with excitement to explore their sexuality.” Yet, his popularity was attributed to the notion that “if you did show resistance to his ideas, then you obviously weren’t a committed artist.”
Krass’s encouragement of sexual exploration became especially clear when he assigned his students to draw each other nude. He encouraged students to buy alcohol and “see what happens,” while clarifying that the assignment was not centered around the ability to sketch, but for the sake of getting “out of those demonized ‘comfort zones.’”
Through this article, Ginsberg shares the personal, and eventually physical, boundaries that were crossed in their mentor-mentee relationship prescribed by the school. He clarifies that “very few 18-year-olds know what professional boundaries look like.” His account drudges up an array of entangling factors with regard to the age of #MeToo and the conversation of sexual misconduct between students and professors on university campuses, especially art programs.
How are students meant to navigate healthy professional boundaries having never seen them before? Not to mention the impossibility of the question– what is an appropriate boundary?
Early on in my first semester at PHTS, we were embarking on directing projects that we performed on a weekly basis. By the time we reached creating theater based on visual artists in our curriculum, the upper-classmen snickered and shared excitement with me one afternoon. They asked if I had seen anyone nude yet. I had not, but by the end of that week three of my classmates had performed topless in their depiction of Klimt in front of my classmates and our directing professor. I remember my professor unpacking the nudity after it occured by saying, “there’s a way we can make this art.” Although I was unsure what he meant, I did understand that it was up to the students to decide their comfortability with nudity in class.
Gender and sexuality illuminate another complicating factor in relation to Ginsberg’s experience. In the context of #MeToo – which is characterized by a predominately female population speaking out against males – where does gay sexual abuse fit into the conversation? Or any other gender combination for that matter?
I look to Masha Gessen’s article for The New Yorker called, “An NYU Sexual-Harassment Case Has Spurred a Necessary Conversation About #MeToo.” Gessen analyzes the complicated nature of the case involving, female professor at NYU, Avita Ronell’s alleged – and eventually proven plausible – sexual harassment of a male student. Gessen firstly states, “we all know, or claim to know, that anyone– regardless of gender, age, social position, or power of intellect – can be an abuser, and anyone can be a victim.” But this statement is swiftly placed under question as this case truly cracked open the #MeToo argument in the sense that both parties identify as gay, the abuser is a elderly female feminist and the victim is a younger male student. The power dynamic at play is highlighted, above all other factors, as Ronell made it clear that “she would ruin the student’s career for having reported her.” This is what lies at the core of the #MeToo movement– power dynamics.
Now when I search Ronell’s name, the results are a slew of articles reporting the controversy she was involved in, the same stands for her accuser. It is clear that this weaponization of allegations bears the stakes of tainting one's entire career.
Both students and teachers at NYU undergo sexual respect training. According to NYU’s statement of policy on sexual misconduct, they aim to “cultivat[e] a climate where all individuals are well-informed and comfortable in reporting “Prohibited Conduct.”
Ultimately, Ginsberg did not file an official complaint as he “didn't trust that the administration of NYU or PHTS would support [him], because [Krass] was so beloved by the student body and administration.”
It has been over twelve years since Ginberg’s graduation, and in that time PHTS has made a multiplicity of changes to the structural firmness of their “holistic” curriculum. Krass no longer teaches at PHTS. Though these changes are present, it remains chilling to read Ginsberg’s account of sharing his experience with his directing teacher at the time, now head of the drama department, Rubén Polendo. Polendo told Ginsberg, he “probably shouldn’t tell anyone” about his intrusive encounter with Krass.
Although I do have faith that NYU cares about the health and safety of students, I am sure the administration wants to avoid sexual misconduct allegations that may effectively taint their reputation, just as those involved do.
In Ronell’s case, the victim, Nimrod Reitman went on to sue NYU for the results of their “investigation [which was] conducted by a private university under conditions of confidentiality.” As this “raises questions about the underlying purpose of the investigation: Is it to determine the facts, or to avoid liability?” These questions of liability, false accusation, and power dynamics are even further complicated within the muddling of artistic practice and process.
When reflecting on Krass’s nude assignment, although the sexual undertones and encouragement of underage alcohol consumption are extreme, nudity is not far out of reach of the art school environment. From my personal experience studying at PHTS, Ginsberg’s claim that it is a studio “where anything could count as ‘the work '' remains true to a certain extent.
Gary Warth writes on “The Naked Truth at UCSD” about a visual arts professor, Ricardo Dominguez, who received national news coverage for conducting an assignment where all students must perform nude in front of their also nude professor or fail. Perhaps most shockingly, this assignment was a part of Dominguez’s curriculum at UC San Diego for eleven years without notice. It was not until “the mother of one of his students told a television news reporter” when the story went viral.
Although the University clarified that the students were aware of this assignment going into the class and it was not required, most sources ignored it. Dominguez claims he was receiving calls from reporters all over the country and a few world-wide.
Warth highlights “students in his class were more uncomfortable with the media attention than being nude in class” and there is “no sexuality involved in the performances.” Certainly the boundless interpretation of a curriculum encapsulated by artistic expression makes it extremely difficult for administrators to identify when abuse takes place.
In an art-school context, emotional investment and vulnerability are often integral to students’ progress; the entanglement of boundaries grows unclear. These accounts display the lack of a clear distinction between inappropriate sexual relationships and non-consensual ones as the romantic relationships between students and professors perhaps reaches beyond consent due to the power dynamics at play.
Ultimately, legally, once students are of consenting age, they are responsible for themselves. Perhaps the nuance of each individuals’ personal threshold with respect to intimacy, sex, and power is the complicating factor that cannot be contained within the policies written by a university. I am sure this testing of boundaries and vulnerability is of value in the quest for artistic identity among arts students, but it is clear universities are unable to identify where the onus lies– in their policy, their teachers, or their students.
Maybe NYU, among other institutions, needs to employ new tactics in finding a better way to handle these issues and keep students safe. And yet, here we are caught in an odd spot, attempting to navigate the place between consent and abuse.
If you or anyone you know has experience sexual abuse, reach out to the free and confidential National Sexual Assault Hotline at (800) 656-4673.