#WhatNow: A Conspicuous Consumer of Culture Grapples With #MeToo
Zac McDonald

#WhatNow: A Conspicuous Consumer of Culture Grapples With #MeToo

I was volunteering at a charity rummage sale when talk turned to the MeToo movement. Sort of.

“Uh oh,” said Cathy, one of the women with whom I was organizing and pricing a pile of record albums and DVDs. As usual, I was the only male volunteer. “What should I do with these?” she asked, holding up a stack of Woody Allen movies. Suzanne, standing next to me, groaned.

“Here,” barked Donna, holding out a cardboard box. “Put them in here.”

I peeked into the box. Inside was a Bill Cosby album and a Mario Batali cookbook. Cathy tossed in the DVDs: Sleeper, Annie Hall, The Purple Rose of Cairo.

I used to have that Bill Cosby record when I was a kid, I thought to myself, starting to reach into the box. It would be fun to listen to that bit about Old Weird Harold again.

I stopped myself. Wait, I thought. I’m not supposed to like Bill Cosby any more.

I glanced around, wondering if anyone had noticed me reaching for my past, for a talisman of a world we no longer live in. I inched away from the paper box full of art by men accused of sexually assaulting women. By then, talk had turned to that new movie about Tonya Harding, which Donna had seen and didn’t like.

“Allison Janney has a parakeet on her shoulder in every scene,” Donna complained. Donna doesn’t like birds, so for her, the whole movie was a bust.

I felt suddenly awkward. Should I be standing this close to Suzanne? Should I have attempted to defend Woody Allen’s work? Can one tiny parakeet really spoil an entire film?

Lately I’ve been bumping into this same MeToo quandary. Although I’m a feminist — I like to brag that I marched on Washington for women’s rights not once, but twice — am staunchly pro-choice, and admit to voting for Hillary in part just because she’s female, I keep wanting to ask for proof whenever talk turns to men who’ve been sexually inappropriate. And then I don’t. Because I’m a man. And I don’t want to be mistaken for someone who supports abuse and bullying of women. Or anyone.

As someone who follows popular culture both personally and professionally, I’m wrestling with how to support a cause I really believe in. How do I empower women and men to stand up for themselves, without demanding evidence, without being mistaken for a misogynist if I dare to mention the burden of proof? I thought about it in 1997, when Woody Allen married his ex-wife’s adopted daughter. I thought about it last year, when actresses started calling and emailing me to say they’d been abused by a local film director.

And again a couple of months ago, when Daniela Soleri, daughter of renowned architect Paolo Soleri, alleged that her late father sexually abused her.

“Uh oh!” Brenda called out from several feet away. She held up a paperback with Steven Seagal’s face on the cover.

Donna held out her box, and Steven Seagal disappeared into it.

Miramax film producer Harvey Weinstein's downfall launched the #MeToo movement.EXPAND
Miramax film producer Harvey Weinstein's downfall launched the #MeToo movement.
Kathy Hutchins

The MeToo movement is the new black. The long-overdue anti-harassment crusade began big last fall, toppling the Hollywood career of Miramax producer Harvey Weinstein and maiming a longish list of superstar actors including Kevin Spacey, Louis CK, and James Franco. In the wake of Weinstein’s downfall (his sexual misconduct reportedly spans decades), a Twitter post from actress Alyssa Milano suggested that women who had been sexually harassed or assaulted post the hashtagged phrase “MeToo” to give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. Within hours, the hashtag was trending worldwide, and a new movement was born.

It’s continued to gain steam with an avalanche of new accusations in other show-biz arenas, including Broadway’s Ben Vereen; New York City Ballet director Peter Martins; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Charles Dutoit; PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley; and Ryan Lizza, the New Yorker’s Washington correspondent. Like many Hollywood spectacles, MeToo birthed a sequel. The Time’s Up movement supports anti-harassment in professions other than show biz, clearing the way for more people like Daniela Soleri to tell their stories of abuse.

“Now, all at once, women are refusing to accept sexual aggression,” wrote novelist Barbara Kingsolver in a January issue of The Guardian, “and men are getting fired from their jobs. It feels like an earthquake. Men and women alike find ourselves disoriented, wondering what the rules are.”

So, too, are those of us who might want to go see a Woody Allen movie, even knowing what we think we know about his abuse of his adopted daughters. Should we? As a man, am I allowed, as Kingsolver pointed out, to notice that “women are widely complicit in the assumption that we’re separate and not quite equal”? Or does doing so make me just another piggish, incompassionate guy?

Because he scrambled to apologize to the women he shook his dick at, it’s easy to label Louis CK guilty, and therefore simple to be proactive about his awful behavior: I won’t watch his sitcom ever again. (I never much liked it, anyway.)

And I didn’t need a reason never to return to Paolo Soleri’s Cosanti — how many copper bells does a guy need? — before the daughter of its founder alleged horrible indiscretions by her late father.

But the loud silence from the Cosanti Foundation, which has yet to issue an official statement or take any action on Daniela Soleri’s accusations, is troubling. And the quiet surrounding Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art’s recent Soleri exhibition — what am I supposed to do with that?

Stuart A. Weiner, [Soleri sketching at his desk, Cosanti], ca. 1960. Gelatin-silver print, 10 x 8 inches. Collection of the Cosanti Foundation. © The Weiner EstateEXPAND
Stuart A. Weiner, [Soleri sketching at his desk, Cosanti], ca. 1960. Gelatin-silver print, 10 x 8 inches. Collection of the Cosanti Foundation. © The Weiner Estate
Courtesy of Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art

It’s easy to criticize cowardice. But bravery doesn’t always win a race, either.

Daniela Soleri says she tried publishing revelations about her sexual abuse for years.

“No publications responded to my pitches,” she told me in an exclusive email interview, having declined all other offers to speak to the press. “I finally just needed to have it published for my own peace of mind, and decided to do it myself. This decision coincided with the articles in the New York Times and New Yorker about Weinstein, so sexual abuse and how society responds was a timely topic.”

The essay, posted November 13, 2017, on medium.com, is titled “Sexual Abuse: It’s You, Him, and His Work.” In it, Daniela, an anthropology professor at UC Santa Barbara, recalls a recurring dream about her late father in which he’s held captive in a cage in the family living room. His wife and daughters hand him art supplies through the bars of the cage, while the elderly Soleri fumes.

“It was a clumsily literal dream,” she wrote, “that started in my early adolescence, when my father, an architect and craftsman, began sexually molesting me, eventually attempting rape when I was 17. It was a child’s solution to the problem posed by a man who I, and everyone around me, saw as the center of the universe.”

Paolo Soleri’s place in that universe was established well before Daniela was born. Already a celebrated architect by the time he and his wife, Corolyn, settled in Scottsdale in the mid-’50s, he established the nonprofit Cosanti Foundation and in 1970 began building Arcosanti, a proposed utopia where he could implement his urban planning hypotheses. Conceived as a shared, cost-effective community, Arcosanti was an ecology-driven experiment in water conservation and sewage reduction. Its back-to-the-land philosophy minimized energy use and environmental pollution and maximized interaction with nature. Its construction continues to this day.

Soleri didn’t speak to her father during the last two years of his life, which ended in 2013 when the architect was 93. (Corolyn Soleri passed away in 1982.) In her essay, she recounts his charms (“intelligence, charisma, discipline, skill? — ?he was extraordinary in a number of ways”) and refers to him as a “a fierce narcissist,” whose abuse and sexual advances toward female employees were well-known to his staff, his family, and the board of directors of Soleri’s Cosanti Foundation, which oversees Arcosanti.

It may be too soon to know if Professor Soleri’s allegations will have an impact on various projects bearing her father’s name. Thus far, the reaction has been imperceptible. SMoCA reported no decline in ticket sales for its now-closed Soleri retrospective, “Repositioning Paolo Soleri: The City is Nature,” which opened last October and closed in January. Public attendance at Arcosanti continues apace. There’s been no public boycott of the annual FORM music and arts festival, which takes place in May at Arcosanti. After Daniela’s allegations, FORM’s organizers voted unanimously to keep the festival there.

FORM did release a statement, which reads in part:

“It is with the heaviest of hearts that we recently learned of Daniela Soleri’s trauma caused by her late father, Paolo Soleri. There is no rationale that would ever make his behavior towards her acceptable. We are here to voice FORM’s unequivocal support of Daniela, and stand firmly alongside all victims of domestic violence. No person should feel silenced or ashamed to be a victim ...

“While Soleri’s legacy as an individual must be judiciously reconsidered, FORM still firmly believes in Arcosanti and its core values.”

The Cosanti Foundation, which did not return my phone calls, has yet to issue an official statement about Daniela’s revelations, although board president Jeff Stein told architecture magazine Dezeen that the foundation is “saddened by Daniela Soleri’s trauma. Her decision to speak out about her father’s behavior towards her helps us confront Paolo Soleri’s flaws, and compels us to reconsider his legacy. … We support and stand firmly with Daniela.”

“Flawed?” spat Maria Fiorentino, a big-time Soleri collector, when I asked her about Stein’s response. “Sex abuse is not a flaw. This man was filthy. He was disgusting. The Cosanti people, they should abandon everything, all the projects. But no. They are sending everything under the rug. You don’t build a monument to a person who has done this sort of thing. What they said, the response wasn’t enough. They don’t deserve to exist anymore.”

In late November, acting CEO of Scottsdale Arts Mike Miller issued a statement to SMoCA staff that read, in part, “We were distressed to read Daniela Soleri’s article about her relationship with her father. We are grateful for her honesty and commend her for raising important questions about the balance between society’s adulation of artists’ work, their personal accountability, and the responsibility of those working with them.” No statement was issued to the public.

“It’s hard to say how I would have addressed Daniela’s allegations, had I known about them when I was putting the exhibit catalog together,” Claire C. Carter told me, not long after Daniela’s revelations were published. “I would have wanted to be truthful.” Carter, the curator of contemporary art at SMoCA, acknowledged the longstanding rumors about Soleri, in a footnote in that Soleri exhibition catalog.

Carter recalled museum director Sara Cochran addressing the sensitive subject at a presentation of the Soleri exhibition in December, saying that “the teacher is not the teaching” and acknowledging Daniela Soleri’s bravery in coming forth.

I’m guessing that the all-female executive staff at SMoCA would like to say and do more — to speak out against the kind of abuse Daniela says she endured. Perhaps corporate donors and institutional policies stand in their way. No one’s saying, of course.

“Everything — history, science, the arts — is dominated by the powerful,” Daniela reminded me when I asked why so many are saying so little. “Many widely lauded works of art were created by people whose behavior was not so great, but because it occurred long ago, the abuses have been minimized or forgotten while the art has been celebrated.”

The challenge remains: How do we celebrate the art but not the monster who made it?

I talked to a woman who posed nude for Soleri a couple of times in the late 1970s, when she was barely 20. She was young and pretty and wanted some extra cash so she could go to bars with her friends. “It paid $25,” she said with a chuckle. “In 1978, that was a lot of drinking money.”

It wasn’t weird for Paolo Soleri to be running ads looking for nude models, this woman reminded me. Artists do that all the time. In fact, Soleri did it all the time. In her paragraph-long footnote in SMoCA’s 235-page catalog on its recent exhibit, Claire Carter wrote:

“For years, Soleri drew nude models, advertising only for ‘women between the ages of 18 and 35.’ As payment, he offered them one of the three drawings produced during the session. Unlike Soleri’s startlingly primal architectural designs, the figurative drawings are generally considered monotonous and unoriginal. They are still sold in the Arcosanti gallery shop. Widespread rumors of sexual harassment by Soleri have not been substantiated by the author but an account was written by Margie Goldsmith in O, The Oprah Magazine, July 2007.”

Goldsmith writes of responding to Soleri’s call for nude models and posing for him. At the end of the session, she says, he asked to kiss her nipples. She declined. Soleri continued to ask for nude models, even after the O article.

When I asked the woman who posed for Soleri in the 1970s about the irony of a man whose goal was to create a bio-paradise utopia but was possibly being sexual with his young daughter at home, she admitted she hadn’t thought about that.

Maria Fiorentino had thought about it. She had thought about it a lot. “I don’t even want to own one of Soleri’s pieces anymore,” said Fiorentino, who once collected Soleri’s one-of-a-kind, higher-end copper bells.

“The bells, they were my passion,” admitted Fiorentino during a phone call from her home in New Jersey. “I had him on a pedestal: That’s how much I loved his art and his talent and his business sense. But then what did he do after he went home? I don’t want to touch his artwork anymore.”

Lately, the woman with the sketches of her younger, naked self has been thinking about taking them down. She still has them, hanging on a bedroom wall. “They represent a happy time in my life, but then I keep thinking about what Soleri’s daughter has told us about him,” she admitted. “For me, these sketches are like bacon. You know it’s bad for you, but you keep eating it.”

I don’t want to keep eating bacon. I want to tell the woman to take down the sketches, and to burn them. I want everyone to be brave enough to call out their abuser. To use their real name. To do what Daniela Soleri did. And then, armed with something more than accusations, I want the world to change.

Tipped off to a Phoenix-based movie director who reportedly abuses women on his sets, I agreed to meet a group of people who have worked for him. I listened for more than an hour to their stories.

Wow, I said. How awful. Yes, let me help you derail this truly terrible cross between Otto Preminger and Bernardo Bertolucci. Let’s do some interviews about how he’s abusive to women on movie sets. Show me some proof, and then let’s nail this awful turd.

The movie guy’s accusers exchanged nervous glances. Really, I told them, maybe just email addresses of those who’ve pressed charges, or gone public with allegations against this apparently dreadful guy.

“Well,” I was told. “You see,” these nice people said to me. “It’s like this,” they explained.

It turned out there are no police reports about this guy. No formal complaints against him. No movie-set victim willing to use her name.

I kept thinking of that old proverb about smoke and fire. I called movie actors and film crew types, men and women in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Los Angeles who’d worked with the director. They all told me the same thing: He can be a bit of a dick on a movie set. Impatient, imperious, rude, something of a yeller. But that’s it.

How can I help you? I asked the man’s accusers. How do I know this isn’t some weird vendetta against a director who didn’t cast you?

Later, I met with the movie director with the bad reputation. Why was he so awful? I asked. He rolled his eyes. “I’m just a dinky little moviemaker,” he muttered, having politely taken my bait. “There are other people making movies here, bigger movies than me.” If he was really abusing actresses, he said, why wouldn’t they just go work for one of the other, bigger guys?

He referred to MeToo as a witch hunt. He saw similarities to McCarthyism and the Salem witch trials, he said.
But there can’t be a witch trial without an Abigail Parris. Senator McCarthy wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without Adolphe Menjou. What’s more, their squealing went beyond finger-pointing and allegations; it led to actual investigations. Why hadn’t I questioned Daniela Soleri’s accusations against her father?

Paolo Soleri, founder of Arcosanti, was posthumously accused of sexual abuse by his daughter Daniela.EXPAND
Paolo Soleri, founder of Arcosanti, was posthumously accused of sexual abuse by his daughter Daniela.
Jim Louvau

I hesitate before the potent and necessary MeToo movement, even while it’s forwarding ideas I support. I want women and men to be safe while they’re working, wherever that is. But the movement’s ability to destroy careers with rumors and accusations frightens me. I don’t trust its potential mob mentality.

When Woody Allen was accused of molesting his daughters, his case was addressed legally, with witnesses and victims who offered their names and evidence along with their stories. The public calling-out of Weinstein, Spacey, and the long list of others has forced them to respond, allowing us to consider their cases with rational, and not strictly emotional, thinking. I want to support victims of abuse with boycotts and opinions, but I can’t support their refusal to call out their abuser.

Have we learned to forgive harmful behaviors by those whose power or artistic greatness we benefit from? If so, I suppose I can pretend not to believe Kevin Spacey’s accusers, which will allow me to enjoy watching whatever Hollywood product he inevitably turns up in next (because certainly he’ll work again).

I had asked Daniela Soleri how we can teach ourselves to separate, as she wrote, “his opus and all the affirmations [it has] garnered” from the sadistic artist.

“Everyone has to find their own way with the work of alleged abusers, and decide what it does or does not signify to them,” she replied. “Many widely lauded works of art were created by people whose behavior was not so great, but it occurred long ago, and the abuses have been minimized or forgotten while the art has been celebrated. We may still want to celebrate, but with a clearer understanding, which I think would be good because creating untouchable heroes is pretty unhealthy and perilous.”

I worry that the local MeToo/Time’s Up movement is hobbled by a lack of public outrage, by its skimpy response to the Daniela Soleris of the world, who were brave enough to come forward. With no real power structure or solid agenda, our MeToo might fizzle like Occupy Wall Street.

As Professor Soleri herself wrote, “The truth is, these stories really aren’t news until enough people, and preferably famous ones, make lots of noise.”

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