A Miriam Cahn painting at Paris’s Palais de Tokyo that incited outrage in France after many claimed it represented pedophilia can stay on view, France’s Council of State said on Friday.
The council’s ruling affirmed a prior decision that a lower court had made in March. The legal matter continued, however, after several children’s rights groups appealed it, forcing a higher court to look once more at the case.
Cahn’s painting, titled fuck abstraction !, appears in her current survey at the Palais de Tokyo, one of the largest solo presentations of her work to date. Her paintings are widely known in the European art scene, with her work memorably appearing in last year’s Venice Biennale.
In the painting, a small figure whose hands are bound is shown kneeling and fellating a larger, more muscular person. Cahn stated that she painted the work in response to atrocities being committed in Ukraine. Specifically, she was reacting to news reports on mass graves in Bucha, as well as the rapes of women and children by Russian soldiers.
“The repetition of violence during wars is not intended to shock but to denounce,” Cahn said.
The French Council of State said in its decision that the work was clearly contextualized, both by materials that the Palais de Tokyo had released alongside it and by other works in the show that also dealt with human rights violations in Ukraine.
“Under these conditions, the judge in chambers considers that the hanging of this painting, in a place dedicated to contemporary creation and known as such, and accompanied by a detailed contextualization, does not cause serious and manifestly illegal harm the best interests of children or the dignity of human persons,” the council wrote.
In March, certain organizations had lobbied a lower court to have the painting removed from the show. The lower court denied to do so for similar reasons to the ones cited by the Council of State. Sylvie Vidal, the judge behind the case, stated, “The painting is not child pornography. The fundamental freedoms at stake are freedom of expression and freedom of creation.”
Even after that decision, however, many continued to decry the work. A director of Forum of Democracy, a right-wing party in the Netherlands, claimed in a video making the rounds on Twitter that the work was an example of “the banalization of pedophilia.”
With the outcry continuing to grow, some of the top museum directors in France signed an open letter published in Le Monde last week in which they apologized for having remained silent on the matter for so long. They stated that the polemic had confused activism with censorship—and said this was a dangerous, slippery slope that had potential impact beyond France. They brought up the recent controversy over Michelangelo’s David, waged at a Florida charter school, as an example.
“Our responsibility is not to censor or allow censorship, but to fight to offer a space of freedom, of questioning, so that art can always find places where it can flourish without fear,” the directors wrote. “Even more than censorship, we must fear self-censorship. Museums must be havens of emancipation and intelligence in a time of polarization of opinions and media lynchings. If we let the fear of controversy and attacks take over the interest of the works or projects that are offered to us, then we would renounce the principle on which our open societies are based.”
Among the signatories were Laurent Le Bon, president of the Centre Pompidou; Chris Dercon, head of the Grand Palais; and Christophe Leribault, the leader of the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée de l’Orangerie.
In a statement on Friday, the Palais de Tokyo addressed the Council of State’s decision, saying that it “regrets that the affair gave place to the instrumentalization of a work of art.” The museum noted that 70,000 people had seen the Cahn exhibition, which runs through May 14.