Art as Sexual Harrassement: the Maja Incident

In Nicole's Post, Uncategorized on September 20, 2010 at 10:37 pm

The well-known “Maja incident” took place at a branch of Pennsylvania State University in Schuylkill, Pennsylvania in 1991 (Anderson, Garoian, 1994, p. 33). While many art censorship debates have focused on public reactions against religious desecrations, this is an example of a debate in which the focus was not centered explicitly on the visual images of the art in question, but the subjective opinions one can place on art when one does not adequately understand the context.

The Maja controversy surrounded a reproduction of Goya’s Maja desnuda, which hung in a classroom used by Professor Nancy Stumhofer, who taught English and Women’s Studies. The image is of a nude woman lounging on a couch, staring directly at the viewer. Along with the Goya image, there were four others as well, which included an image by the Mannerist artist Bronzino, depicting a well-dressed, wealthy young man; a reproduction of Raphael’s The Madonna of the Chair; Perugino’s Crucifixion with Virgin and Saints and a landscape by van Ruisdael. Combined, Stumhofer felt the works “presented an image that was uncomfortable for women”, as it “stereotyped women as mothers and sex objects while portraying men as professionals (Centre Daily Times, 20 November 1991)” (Anderson, Garoian, 1994, p. 34).

Under university policy the paintings were able to classify as sexual harassment, as it is defined as “anything that makes people uncomfortable about sexual issues” (Foster, 1994, p. 63). Bonnie Ortiz, the director of Pennsylvania States’s Affirmative Action Office, also supported Stumhofer’s claim, which prompted the university to move all five images to a reading room in the student center. A computer-printed sign reading “Gallery” was placed on the door, “to forewarn people that there is art in the room” (Anderson, Garoian, 1994, p. 35).

In his article “Art’s Enemies: Censors to the Right of Me, Censors to the Left of Me” (1994) Steven Dublin argues that Stumhofer decontextualized the work by removing it from the centuries-old European tradition it was created in, which was a time in which women were often objectified (p. 52). Also, by not considering the fact that the image was part of a pair, with the nude Maja thought to represent profane love while the clothed Maja represents sacred love, a theme common throughout art history, Stumhofer further refuses to view the image in its intended context (p. 52). Rather than viewing the piece objectively and considering the historical context in which it was made, Stumhofer subscribed her own thoughts and beliefs onto not only the Goya image, but the entire group of images as well, creating an environment in which art is viewed as sexual harassment rather than an educational opportunity.


Anderson, Albert A., and Charles R. Garoian. “Exposed and Expelled: The “Maja” Controversy Revisited.” Journal of Aesthetic Education 28.4 (1994): 33-35. Print.

Dubin, Steven C. “Art’s Enemies: Censors to the Right of Me, Censors to the Left of Me.” Journal of Aesthetic Education 28.4 (1994): 44-54. Print.

Foster, Kenneth J. “Art, Culture, and Administration.” Journal of Aesthetic Education 28.4 (1994): 62-65. Print.

  1. Sex is arguably the most explosive topic in American culture. There is much to celebrate about the progress of females, artistically, socially, and professionally in this society. Sexual harassment unfortunately still exists. I understand harassment as abuse. But, as a male, do not fully understand how one can objectify a person whose reproductive organs are inside of her body.

    Furthermore sexual harassment can be committed by females. I content that male contemporary artists are censored more than female artists. Lady Gaga is an example. She, like many other female artists, flaunts her feminine beauty, with the objective of making males feel inadequate. “Gaga wants us to understand her self-presentation as a kind of deconstruction of femininity, not to mention celebrity. It’s easy to construe Gaga as suggesting that frank self-objectification is a form of real power.” (Bauer, 2010.) If I wrote the song Bad Romance, it would be labeled “hardcore” because I am male. Yet, Lady Gaga is revered, and uncensored, because she is not.


    Bauer, Nancy. Lady Power, an Opinionator blog entry from The New York Times. June 20, 2010. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/20/lady-power/?scp=3&sq=lady%20gaga&st=cse

  2. While I do agree that the five paintings would be a strange collection when viewed together, I think that recontextualizing art in such a way would not constitute sexual harassment. While historical context is an important aspect within art history, there are so many different ways to view art. Even in developing exhibits, images and objects are constantly recontextualized to emphasize different aspects of their intended message.

    In terms of the Goya, the professor really did not take it too far out of context, as the image was originally intended to be a sort of uncomfortable sexuality. Having an image like Goya’s Maja- the “first fully profane” female nude in art history- would allow the professor and her students to explore issues in Women’s Studies (Krumrine, 1994).

    Krumrine, M.L. (1994). Goya’s “Maja desnuda” in Context. Journal of Aesthetic Education (28:4), pp.36-44.
    Accessed through Jstor: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3333361

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: