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Forbidden images

“Growth of Overt homosexuality in City Provokes Wide Concern”

New York Times (headline in 1963)

The world recoiled when the gay community started receiving credit for its influence in fashion and culture, but at least, according to Christopher Reed, they were being acknowledged. In his new book Art and Homosexuality: A History of Ideas, Reed argues that for some time the professional art world plain ignored the gay presence.

We had the chance to speak with Reed recently at his Williams Club talk, where he laid out the tumultuous relationship between art and activism. Below we present a few of the controversial things we learned.

1.) Art that didn’t get a chance…

During the most formative years of the gay rights movement in the 70s and on through the late 80s, arts publications and professionals, and even museums like the Museum of Modern Art, ignored imagery associated with gay and lesbian identity. Imagery like the graffiti pictured below which emerged in urban areas during the 70s:

Grafitti on “The Rocks,” Lincoln Park, Chicago, mid-1990s.

According to Reed, “These sites of visual history were destroyed with no organized documentation when rising property values prompted local governments to reclaim these areas.”

2.) Censorship…

Is right for people to ban art today? Even if it’s in the imaginary town of Pawnee, Indiana? Reed surprised us with his answer, making us consider that there’s actually a worse kind of censorship. Listen below to hear what he said.



Censorship is an interesting question because there are overt examples of censorship like what just happened with the Hide/Seek show and the David Wojnarowicz piece, where particular politicians make a statement to their constituency by removing something that’s on exhibition. And then the kind of thing that you’re talking about where institutions simply don’t show things or don’t buy things – in the case of libraries – or don’t do things or don’t let particular people in, which often doesn’t read as censorship because people never realize what they could be seeing or could be reading, or could be going on, because the institution has already created a kind of logic in which that kind of thing doesn’t exist.

And so in a lot of ways I actually think that’s the most dangerous kind of censorship because people aren’t aware of it and they can’t make a decision about it. They can’t make a choice about how they feel about it because it’s invisible. And I do talk a bit about that in the book and the way that particularly after the overt censorship and debates about AIDS related imagery particularly in the 1980s, lots of museums simply stopped showing that kind of work. Then the debate seems like it’s gone away, but it’s been kind of preempted because the objects aren’t there to raise the questions and have the conversations about. So that kind of institutional censorship or pre-censorship I think is actually more dangerous than somebody walking in and saying, “you must take this down!” because then at least people know what’s going on.

3.) And survival…

George Segal’s Gay Liberation (1980) still stands in Christopher Park in Manhattan today. Interestingly the sculpture received backlash on all sides. A spokesperson for the Catholic Church condemned the piece for “the youngsters who will be lured into homosexuality,” while some some gay and lesbian activists complained that it ignored the political events the site was famous for (the Stonewall Riots), and instead reduced the gay experience “to a pickup on a park bench.”

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