The amateur artistic “muse” has been a staple of Western artistic communities for centuries; the romanticised, beautiful young woman, painted by the older (male) artistic genius. Contemporary artistic communities, in many ways, have carried on the tradition. Today though, young women are recruited through their networks of artsy friends or straight from Instagram.
The clearly established hierarchies in commercial fashion modelling between the photographer and model are culpable – at least in part – for stories of abuse and assault á la Terry Richardson. But, what of modelling in the “progressive” art world? Female artists are more common, it’s more sociable – often not involving any financial component – with the artists and models often both part of the same local artistic community. Surely those conditions would mitigate abuse?
“Your tits are fucking amazing!” Arianne* tells me, when I finally get the balls to take my bra off. Arianne didn’t exactly seem like a nude photographer. Here she was, this wealthy interior designer cum 30-something divorced mum with a big Instagram following, tanned stick thin legs and a Céline bag. A few days later, another model she’d shot started messaging me. I didn’t know him, but he began asking me if I’d like to shoot for Arianne with him. What began as suggesting another shoot quickly slid into asking if I’d be down for a three-way. I stopped replying to his messages, but his response was to tell me, in detail, how “turned on” Arianne had been during the shoot. When he sent me the pictures I’d asked Arianne not to show anyone, those showing my face and body, I blocked him.
The personal, casual relationships that found working agreements between artist and model fail to provide the support that even the flawed reporting of professional modelling agencies do. A lack of information and support networks means, in an informal context, models have nowhere to turn when abuse takes place. This is particularly so given most are amateur models; the artist often has a monopoly on any information about the rights of the model. Though most models reported artists asked them to sign contracts afterwards, a number reported not fully understanding the scope or significance of them. One simply states: “I just never fucking read them.”
I assumed that it would just be a portrait, so I turn up at Jessie’s* – a friend of a friend’s – place, middle of winter, in a turtleneck. I can tell as soon as I see him, he’s not pleased. Almost immediately he asks if I can take it off because it’ll ruin “the line”. I feel a bit uncomfortable honestly, but I’m here as this “boho-Instagrammer”, and I don’t want to seem uptight. So I do, and I just sit there awkwardly in my bra as he gets his things out. He still has this fucking look though, he’s still frustrated. Finally he just asks me if I can take my bra off. I’m definitely not okay with this, but it’s not like I can say so.
He keeps going on about the straps ruining “the line”, and how I just need to let go of these insecurities and taboos about the female body. He literally says at one point I need to “free the nipple” – something he would have seen I support from my Instagram. So I do. It’s not exactly the scene from Fame, but a part of me walked out feeling so disgusted with myself, that I should’ve been stronger. This was supposed to be a cute little experience for my arty Instagram and instead I’m too embarrassed to tell anyone about it.
Before even questioning the undoubtedly gendered underpinnings of the artist/muse dynamic, one must be disturbed by an underground modelling market that fails to protect and support young models. Abuse in the workplace and particularly in modelling are by no means exclusive to artistic communities, but the image of a progressive community is a fallacy that masks, and thus perpetuates, the insidious risks to young women these situations often involve.