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The dean of American photorealist portraiture, Chuck Close, has been accused of sexual harassment, and the consequences for him have been immediate and dramatic.

A scheduled exhibition of his work at the National Gallery in Washington has been indefinitely postponed. Seattle University (in Close's home state) has removed a large and valuable self-portrait of his from one of its public areas. Other museums holding his work – the Met in New York, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, the Broad Museum in Los Angeles – are debating whether to continue to display it with a text attached acknowledging the accusations against the artist.

Chuck Close is best known for extremely large portraits of faces, in close-up, that duplicate the effects of photography. He suffered a collapsed spinal artery in 1988 that left him partly paralyzed, and after that he painted with a paintbrush strapped to his hand. His style then changed, to one that incorporated abstraction into realism: He began his extraordinary paintings made of grids of small squares, with each square filled with an abstract circle of colour. When seen from afar, they create startlingly life-like faces, on the principle of pointillism. Close has also often painted nudes, and worked from photographs of nudes.

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Several young women have accused him of being rudely sexual with them. Two have said that he invited them to his studio under false pretenses and asked them to disrobe so that he could inspect them prior to taking their photograph. Both complied. He then made crude comments about their bodies, and asked to touch one of them (she refused). He offered both of them money after the encounter. He has not been accused of any actual touching.

In an apology that wasn't really an apology, Close did not deny the accusation that he came on to the women. "Last time I looked, discomfort was not a major offence … I never reduced anyone to tears, no one ever ran out of the place. If I embarrassed anyone or made them feel uncomfortable, I am truly sorry, I didn't mean to. I acknowledge having a dirty mouth, but we're all adults."

He added, melancholically: "As a quadriplegic, I try to live a complete, full life to the extent possible. But given my extreme physical limitations, I have found that utter frankness is the only way to have a personal life." I am guessing that he is hinting here that these voyeuristic interactions constitute his only sex life and he thinks this justifies any deceit.

His practices are manipulative and dishonest. Most of the intellectual response to this scandal has been to go over the thorny question of separating art from artist, one that we have rehashed many times over the past year. Removing from museums all the artworks by old pervs, or of them, would of course mean removing all the Picassos and the Dalis and the Schieles and many more. Many museums compromise by putting acknowledging texts next to these tainted works.

The U.S. National Portrait Gallery, for example, has a Chuck Close portrait of Bill Clinton that is accompanied by a text reminding us that "Clinton's denial of his sexual relationship with a White House intern, while under oath, led to his impeachment." A portrait of the boxer Floyd Mayweather is similarly asterisked to point out that he was imprisoned for domestic violence.

There is an even deeper question, though, about the fundamental sexism of men painting female nudes. Women have been painted naked since the Renaissance mostly by men and for the entertainment of men, and the practice is undeniably sexual. Indeed, you could argue – as John Berger did most convincingly in Ways of Seeing – that right through the 18th century most portraits of women, even clothed, were commissioned by their wealthy husbands as a show of material possessions. Powerful men often had themselves painted with their wives against a backdrop of their lands and horses and hunting dogs; the wife was a part of the accomplishment.

Berger goes on to show striking similarities between the poses of women in classic nudes and the poses of barely clothed women in modern advertising. Hardly any of the conventions of representation have changed.

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And, of course, in order to be painted nude, women must enter an artist's studio and take their clothes off, which makes them vulnerable. The artist is clothed.

Artists do tend to make passes at their models. They are most likely painting them because they are sexually attractive in the first place. The fact is that much great art is essentially pervy.

Perhaps the focus of current concern should be on a much more profound question: Is the problem not the behaviour of individual artists but the artistic tradition itself? Aren't all artists who insist on painting or photographing naked women defying the spirit of the time? Is the nude always essentially objectifying? If so, what do we do with the nudes in our museums?

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