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Defining art and sexuality

As LGBT Pride Month draws to a close, there’s a lot left to think about. Just last Friday, New York became the 6th (and largest) state to legalize same-sex marriage. It was not a Pride Month many New Yorkers will forget.

Today we offer up a final Pride Month post. Below, we talk with Christopher Reed, Associate Professor of English and Visual Culture at Pennsylvania State University, and author of Art and Homosexuality: A History of Ideas. If you’d like to learn more, listen to our podcast with Reed here.

Sexuality in art is a very personal thing, expressed and interpreted in many different ways. What does sexuality in art mean to you?

That depends on what you mean by “personal.” It’s true, of course, we all experience our own erotic and aesthetic emotions personally, but they are experienced in relation to other people or things. And the categories of “Sexuality” and “art” are social and collective. Different cultures create and develop them in different ways. The book is about hose patterns.

One of the primary ways our culture has defined art and sexuality is as expressions of individualism — that is as “personal.” Our culture puts huge — probably historically unprecedented — value on the idea of individualism. Because we have made art and sexuality primary markers of individualism, they are enormously important to our culture. Just look at the expenditures of time and money we devote to them — and at the intense pleasures and frustrations they bring us.

But if we look at how tastes change — takes in sex and in art — we see that they do so across cultures. It’s paradoxical but true: our sense of what individualism is is shared and collective.

What this book does is trace the way modern culture conjoined the kinds of individualism represented by the “artist” and the “homosexual” so that these were seen as closely interrelated types: outsiders, sensitive to aesthetics, who gravitated to cities and shocked conventional sensibilities by acting on their unconventional impulses.

As you say in the book, “it is one thing to sell copies of a book with a lesbian plot that can be secreted in personal libraries, and quite another to market an expensive painting that marks the buyer’s rooms for any visitor to see.” (pg. 76) Could you further discuss the differences and similarities between the acceptance of paintings, prints, and sculptures versus other forms of art (including literature and film)?

One of the great modern myths is that the art-world “avant-garde” is a realm of radical, free-wheeling, anything goes experimentation. The persistence of this myth is evidenced of its importance to our culture’s ideas about individualism, because if you think about it rationally for two seconds, the myth simply can’t be true.

Historically the “avant-garde” was created by the upper-middle classes, who paid for it by subsidizing its institutions, buying its products, entertaining its members. Clearly, the “avant-garde” produced something that the wealthy classes wanted. That something was exemplary individualism, but it had to be a kind of individualism that did not fundamentally threaten established values. This is the fundamental dilemma of the avant-garde, and the reason why avant-garde art as often — I would say usually — lagged behind popular culture in generating expressions of identity (racial, sexual, national, etc.) that challenge established power structures.

I haven’t answered your question yet, have I? But I am getting there! Even within the avant-garde, there are hierarchies of opportunity for dissent. On the most basic level, a unique, large, expensive object needs a certain kind of customer base — what art history calls “patronage” — essentially a rich individual or institution with ample display space and a desire to show off for the approval of similar individuals or institutions. In contrast, smaller, multiply produced products, buyers can experiment with. People may buy a book or see a film out of curiosity without knowing much about it, or use it to explore a part of themselves they are not comfortable showing off to their peers. So these art forms — which, significantly, blend into popular culture much more readily than easel painting or bronze sculptures — suffer fewer constraints than the traditional “fine arts” and are, therefore, more conducive to provocation and experimentation. Often you find that when some experimental aspect of a novel, film, or other form of popular culture, turns out to achieve unexpected success and publicity, it turns pop in the art world a few years later.

Will any of the artists in the book surprise people?

Well I suppose that depends on how easily surprised people are! There are a lot of heavy hitters in the book, from Michelangelo to Andy Warhol. Maybe people will be surprised by the not-homosexual artists who play a role in the history the book lays out, people like Marcel Duchamp and George Segal. It’s really no exaggeration to say that virtually every modern artist had to deal with ideas about homosexuality in some way because of the stereotypes that became so powerful about artists being gay. So almost any artists could be included.

What I think might surprise people more is the range of “art” included in the book, which stresses from Native American weavings, through European glassware, to modern magazine advertising.

I hope people will also be surprised — in a good way — by the inclusion of art and artists who are overlooked in mainstream histories of art. I hope they like the very interesting work done in the 1970s by lesbian-feminist indentified artists, for instance. That work has gotten short shrift in standard accounts of art of that era, but it was very influential — and a lot of it I just really like!

How much is censorship a part of the history and present of homosexuality in art? Does any particular period stand out as being more or less conservative?

Censorship is a tricky term. There are the very obvious cases of censorship, like when the Speaker of the House phones up the Smithsonian and demands the removal of David Wojnarowicz’s video, A Fire in My Belly, from the Hide/Seek show recently. Those episodes are probably the least dangerous kinds of censorship. For one thing, they result in the supposedly censored image being much more widely circulated (through the news media, on the web, etc.) than it ever would have been without the censorship.

What these highly publicized censorship cases do is make clear the social dynamics of modern individualism — how we are encouraged to experience our own individualism in conventional ways, how individualism that seems to really challenge norms is suppressed, especially when, as was the case with the Wojnarowicz film, that individualism reflects a minority form of identity. (For reasons I discuss in the book, Wojnarowicz’s art was associated with communities of AIDS activists in the 1990s and the film in question — which was originally silent – had a sound track of an ACT UP demonstration laid over the images for the Smithsonian exhibition.) It’s a reprehensible dynamic, but at least it’s out in the open.

What is far more pernicious than such overt censorship are the subtler forms of self-censorship practiced by museums, commercial art galleries, and individual artists. To return to the example of the recent controversy over Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly video, some of the museums that rushed to purchase and display the video once it was in the news for being censored had themselves refused to take the Hide/Seek exhibition, which was the first major museum exhibition in the US to focus on sexual identity as such — the nearest forerunners I can think of were the much smaller 1982 show Extended Sensibilities show at the then-tiny New Museum in New York and the 1995 In a Different Light show at the museum of the University of California, Berkeley. But no major museum would touch this topic for a show. It was simply too controversial. And the same thinking excluded art that dealt with non-normative sexuality from lots of smaller shows at museums and galleries everywhere. And the same thinking makes commercial galleries turn away from art that deals with the politics of sexual identity. And that makes artists self-censor, both in their art, and in the kinds of things they think and say about their art — I have examples of these dynamics in the book.

When you have an art world that constantly claims to be promoting and celebrating artistic individualism, but it has ruled expressions of any kind of politics of identity out of bounds, that’s dangerous. Beyond its implications for artistic innovation, it limits everyone’s ability to think about the possible range of their individual desires, passions, and pleasures.

And I would say that right now is one of the most conservative eras for that kind of censorship. It’s hard to recognize, because we can’t see things that are not being made, or not shown. And it’s hard to think about ideas that are not being discussed. But these dynamics are very clear if we look back to the 1990s, when the art world — because of AIDS — was engaging these issues, and that engagement was rapidly shut down, not just by political conservatives, but by academics and critics associated with the avant-garde. The chapter in my book on that gives some really egregious examples quoting people, like Hal Foster, who continue to be very influential in the contemporary art world today.

Today is a lot like the 1950s and early 60s in the sense that there is a huge, expensive, authoritative infrastructure of something called the art world, supposedly looking for creative and original talent, but in fact rewarding art that toes the line of very conventional and disempowering kinds of individualism. In the 1950s it was all about existential angst, now it’s all about cynical, prurient humor. But when we look back now on the 50s-60s, we see that there were all kinds of interesting art being made — from Alice Neel to Andy Warhol — that just wasn’t getting out there. It took a social revolution to propel that art into the “art world.” I hope that someday we’ll look back on this era that way.

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Recent Comments

  1. [...] Fancy some heavier reading? Here’s some food for thought from Oxford University Press. Author Christopher Reed is promoting his new book Homosexuality in Art: A History of Ideas. He talks about why homosexuality is more accepted in mainstream cinema and literature and not in the visual arts, and also how sexuality really isn’t all that personal when it’s such a large part of our culture. (OUP Blog) [...]

  2. ralfka gonzalez

    Hi. I saw that my art work was in your Art and Homosexuality book. I’d love to talk to you about my work. I am self-taught, yet I have public art in Philly and childrens book. I love your book, but I feel that many queer artists of color are missing. Plus a few that are so great I wonder why they are not in it also: H.D. Ivey, Zoe Strauss. I am on Facebook. Just had a show in Philly called Witness: Artists Reflect on 30 Years of the AIDS Pandemic. Thanks. Ralfka. I live off and on in Oaxaca, Mexico and San Francisco. Cheers!

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