Published on: Apr 11, 2024

By: Andrea Machado Romero 



The Metropolitan Museum of Art is adding to the flames of a two-century-old art scandal, with a pair of Current Exhibits drawing interesting parallels about what the bourgeoisie consider acceptable art.

On the Met’s second floor, Eduard Manet’s Olympia (1865) is on display as part of the highly anticipated Manet/Degas Exhibition. Olympia defined a pivotal moment for modernity in art and was notorious for scandalizing its 19th-century audience. At the time, Parisian Salons hierarchically codified art and dictated the appropriate subjects and their relative painting sizes.


A work like Olympia was unheard of. Borrowing its composition from Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538), the large canvas depicts a female nude lying on a bed. However, unlike Titian’s Renaissance work, Manet’s painting has no guise of mythology; instead, the figure who stares directly at the viewer is a modern woman. Olympia generated unprecedented controversy at the Salon of 1865 for “its frank representation of a contemporary courtesan painted on a grand scale and in a manner some perceived as flat, coarse, or dirty” (Wall text, Manet: Olympia 1863-65). Transitioning from the historical scandal of Manet’s Olympia, the Met takes a bold step into the contemporary art scene with its commission for t he Great Hall. When museumgoers first enter the building, they are greeted by A Metta Prayer (2023), a multi-channel video installation by Jacolby Satterwhite, which coats the historic Hall with provocative images. The artwork juxtaposes 163 objects from the Met’s permanent collection – many of which have histories of violence and domination – against signifiers of modern-day queer and black cultures to créate surrealist collages that are then animated. As subtitles to these dynamic scenes, Satterwhite wrote 200 Metta mantras based on the Buddist tradition of loving-kindness. These include phrases like: “May I always be grateful,” “May I be black and beautiful,” “May we always keep our wigs on our heads,” “May we always blend our makeup,” “May you f*ck and dismantle systems of oppression with vigor and grace,” “May you always believe in yourself” (Satterwhite).


In the resulting ‘endless-runner’ videogame-like narrative, Satterwhite “[creates] kaleidoscopic media installations that reference art history, popular culture, queer theory, and Afrofuturist aesthetics” (The Great Hall Commission: Jacolby Satterwhite, A Metta Prayer). When describing his creative process, Jacolby Scatterwhite states: “I was so scared because I don’t think a body like mine would ever think of having such a prominent role in being one of the first artists to do an exhibition of this type in that space” (“Artist Interview” 0:00:58 -0:01:10).


A Metta Prayer and its prominent location in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Great Hall has created quite a frenzy amongst Upper East Side parents, who are complaining that it is inappropriate – oversexualized, explicit, and shocking. Visitors are quoted in a New York Post article by Dana Kennedy: “It was so disgusting to me… so much weird stuff about the new world order. I don’t like children being exposed to this”. The Upper Eastsiders’ reception of Satterwhite’s work and the way it displays the queer experience is reminiscent of how 19th- century Salon patrons were outraged at Manet’s Olympia for the unabashed directness with which it portrayed the female body – a perversion of the contemporary societal standards. The Museum has firmly defended the artist’s rights to creative expression and free speech, emphasizing that “… at a time when Black and LGBTQ+ communities face continued threats of violence, Jacolby Satterwhite’s powerful project for The Met’s Great Hall creates a space of contemplation that celebrates emotion, exuberance, and resilience” (Kennedy).


One of the video sections in A Metta Prayer includes a tribute to O’Shae Sibley, a talented dancer who was fatally stabbed on July 29th, 2023, in a tragic hate crime against his black queer identity. In this section, Satterwhite’s text reads, “May your martyred fate start a revolution… may your heart be a gate to let all love lead the way” (Satterwhite) over the images of Shibley dancing.


In Olympia, the woman at the forefront of the painting is being approached by a maid, modeled by a black woman named Laure, who brings her flowers from a client. Laure’s presence alludes to the “burgeoning free Black community in Paris at this time” (Wall text, Manet: Olympia 1863-65). She is a working-class Parisian and is dressed in modern European clothes rather than being exoticized as an African foreigner. Moreover, her expression is animated instead of blank, with “her lips parted as if in conversation with her employer” (Murrell).


Laure’s presence contributed to the Salon’s shocked reception of Olympia since her role in the painting exceeded that of servitude and stirred the Bourgeois public’s anxieties about race in post-emancipation France.


The juxtaposition of historical controversy and modern provocation in these two exhibits prompts an essential dialogue about society’s long-standing discomfort with ‘otherness.’ The critiques against both artworks hinge on a collective unease with sexuality, class, and black identity. In A Metta Prayer’s preview interview Satterwhite concludes, “In this place of like extreme high-brow respectability, all the images I presented are being considered and valued, therefore pushed towards freedom” (“Artist Interview” 0:08:13 – 0:08:25). Fundamentally, these parallel exhibitions serve as a vivid testament to the enduring tension between regressive societal norms and the unyielding force of art to challenge, incite, and evolve our perceptions of acceptability and cultural boundaries. Quoting Jacolby Satterwhite: “Don’t take your child to a f–king museum if you don’t want them to learn” (Kennedy).


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