There may be a reckoning in the winds. Attitudes about gays and lesbians, and about same-sex marriage in particular, are now changing so fast that American culture is suffering from cognitive dissonance: still prone to habits of homophobia while simultaneously aware that overt bigotry is no longer acceptable in much of the public square.
And so you get a parade of dramatic contortions: Comedian Tracy Morgan performs a self-lacerating apology tour after making anti-gay jokes; major league sports figures, such as Kobe Bryant, face the prospect of six-figure fines for yelling anti-gay slurs (especially if they are caught on video); and Southwest Airlines fights for its reputation as a progressive business after reinstating a pilot caught on an open mike making derogatory comments about gay men and older women.
(Photo by Christopher Reed/ Photo by Christopher Reed ) - George Segal, ‘Gay Liberation,’ 1980, white bronze and park benches, in Christopher Park, New York City.
(OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS/OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS) - ‘Art and Homosexuality: A History of Ideas’ by Christopher Reed.
Even the arts world, often seen as a haven for diversity, is being forced to confront a long record of using cultural power to demean, control and hide the contributions of gay artists. A new book from Oxford University Press, “Art and Homosexuality: A History of Ideas,” by Christopher Reed, lays out a broad history of the relationship between art and sexuality, dating back before the “invention” of homosexual identity in the late 19th century and encompassing such a complex array of same-sex behaviors that Reed includes a chart in his introduction to map all the possibilities.
Published last month, Reed’s book carries forward a long-overdue reckoning that began in a very public and controversial way with the exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery late last year. The power of the “Hide/Seek” exhibition, and of Reed’s comprehensive history, is the restating of the obvious: Artists with same-sex desires have played a disproportionate role in the creation of Western art, especially in the past century. As in music (Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber), so too in the visual arts (Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly): Much of what is seen as quintessentially American is the product of gay creators. “A complete account of the 20th-century artists who were or were thought to be homosexual,” Reed writes, “would come close to a chronicle of modern art in its entirety.”
While both the exhibition and Reed’s book make a positive case for the often intimately entwined histories of homosexuality and art (especially in the 20th century), they also document a litany of shameful events and grievances, many of them perpetrated by institutions and people who may be forced to confront past bigotry and make amends.
As Reed demonstrates, the “super-macho” ethos of the American abstract expressionists wasn’t just about hard living and womanizing. The downtown Artists’ Club, which served prominent ab-ex painters, also encoded a “no homosexuals” clause in its constitution. Artists such as Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe found themselves on the outside of the established arts world in their early careers in large part because of the overtly homoerotic themes in their work. Critics such as Hilton Kramer trafficked in more or less virulently homophobic rhetoric throughout their careers. And as the art world begins to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Warhol’s death (there are major exhibitions coming to Washington in September), it’s hard to forget critic Vivian Gornick’s infamously anti-gay analysis from 1966, dismissing the role of gay culture in pop art as “a malicious fairy’s joke.”