The painting is entitled Fuck Abstraction. It depicts a corpulent man forcing a handcuffed victim to perform fellatio on him, next to another kneeling silhouette whom he holds by the head. The work has been on display since February as part of a retrospective dedicated to Swiss artist Miriam Cahn at the Palais de Tokyo, perhaps the most prestigious contemporary art center in Paris. Few had noticed the canvas, surrounded as it was by other disturbing prints of the most atrocious war crimes. That is until Marine Le Pen’s political far-right wing was made aware of the work and demanded its immediate removal from the public museum.
Cahn’s critics consider the victim in the painting to be a minor. The artist says this is not the case, describing her undeniable difference in complexion as poetic license to distinguish the victim from her tormenter. These two viewpoints have led to the biggest cultural controversy of the year in Paris with the case being taken to court. After Le Pen’s party, National Rally (RN), called for the work to be taken down, six child protection organizations brought the Swiss artist before the Paris Administrative Court. They demanded that the painting be censored and that the exhibition be closed to under-18s. However, on Tuesday the court ruled in favor of the artist, finding the complaint to be unfounded. In its ruling, the court said the work alludes to “the use of sexuality as a weapon of war” and that it cannot be interpreted “beyond the context of Cahn’s work.” The Swiss artist has been documenting and denouncing battlefield horrors for 40 years.
The Palais de Tokyo applauded the court’s decision and denounced “the instrumentalization of the work of art and the contempt for the role of museums” shown by the extreme right. Still, the museum elected to provide a team of guides to explain Cahn’s intentions to visitors. At the artist’s request, an explanatory text has also been installed next to the work, which makes it clear the painting alludes to the war in Ukraine and the massacre at Bucha.
“They are not children. The painting is about how sexuality is used as a weapon of war, as a crime against humanity. The contrast between the two bodies shows the bodily power of the oppressor,” Cahn stated. Among her other works are paintings denouncing atrocities committed during the Balkan war and in the Persian Gulf. Nearly 45,000 people have already visited the exhibition, which brings together 200 of Cahn’s works and runs until May 14. However, this is unlikely to be the end of the story. One of the associations that filed the initial complaint, Jurists for Childhood, which branded the work as “pedo-pornographic,” has said it will appeal the court’s decision at the Council of State, France’s highest judicial-administrative body.
They are not children. The painting is about how sexuality is used as a weapon of war, as a crime against humanity. The contrast between the two bodies shows the bodily power of the oppressor”Miriam Cahn
The RN campaign has been led by Caroline Parmentier, one of the most recognizable deputies in Le Pen’s grouping. It was launched in mid-March via her social networks, after she visited the Palais de Tokyo to see the painting with her own eyes. “Nothing justifies this exhibition, not even the denunciation of war. This work is an incitement and a wink to predators and child molesters,” Parmentier said in a video recorded inside the museum. Days later, she confronted Minister of Culture Rima Abdul Malak during a plenary session at the National Assembly, during which Le Pen nodded and clapped alongside her deputy. “The artist’s intention is diametrically opposed to your interpretation. Art can offend, provoke discomfort or disgust, but freedom of expression is guaranteed by law,” Malak retorted.
This is not the first time the French far right has used culture as a battleground. Last year, the RN attempted to prevent an exhibition by cartoonist Bastien Vivès, who had been invited to the Angoulême Festival, the most important event in the comic books calendar. A child protection organization denounced Vivès, author of acclaimed books such as A Taste of Chlorine and A Sister, but also of three other volumes featuring uncomfortable drawings depicting sexual content involving minors, for “dissemination of pedo-pornographic images.” Parmentier, who has made the fight for the defense of “common values” her specialty, was also behind that campaign.
In reality, these cultural wars have been a favored tool of the French extreme right for decades. The strategy is always the same: denounce the elitism of contemporary art circles in order to reclaim historical heritage and promote the lifelong beauty of classical art. This allows the RN to mobilize their electorate through the defense of traditionalism, seduce the religious wing of the more moderate right and, above all, to generate headlines.
In 2014, an inflatable work by American artist Paul McCarthy, which depicted a Christmas tree in the form of a giant sex toy, sparked protests from the ultra-conservative Printemps Français collective, which was formed during mass demonstrations against same-sex marriage in France. In 2011, the traditionalist Catholic association Civitas staged protests over two plays by Romeo Castellucci and Andres Serrano, terming them blasphemous. In the 1980s, the National Front, which rebranded itself as the RN in 2018, was outraged by the decorative columns that Daniel Buren installed in the Palais Royal in Paris. For the far right, contemporary art is part of the “unbearable reality of a society in full decadence,” as Le Pen once opined.
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