Art has yet to face up to homosexuality

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.

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.


George Segal, ‘Gay Liberation,’ 1980, white bronze and park benches, in Christopher Park, New York City. (Photo by Christopher Reed/Photo by Christopher Reed)

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.”

Even museums that are not actively in the business of anti-gay bigotry are often prone to hiding the rich history of same-sex desire. A Greek ceremonial chair known as the Elgin Throne, carved almost 2,500 years ago, includes an image of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who killed a tyrant in Athens and are celebrated as heroes of democracy. They were also lovers, according to Thucydides, but no mention of that is made in the caption information near the chair at the Getty Villa in Malibu, Calif. Rarely, if ever, is any explanation given for the role that figures such as Ganymede (a boy kidnapped by Zeus), Saint Sebastian (depicted as a handsome youth pierced by arrows) and Orpheus (who in some versions of the legend turns away from women and to the love of boys after his ultimate loss of Eurydice) play in the iconography of same-sex eroticism.

In some cases it is museum policy not to explain anything about the art (another suicidal habit of the modern American museum). But in other cases, the information is simply missing. As cultural change continues — in the space of six months, gays have earned the right to serve openly in the military and can now marry in New York state — institutional silence on gay themes may no longer be seen as an innocuous, “family friendly” strategy. “Family” is now understood to include gay parents, married gay couples and people with gay children, and the absence of basic information about the role of same-sex desire in art history has become an overt sin of omission.

The speed of change is unbalancing even established institutions. After Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough overruled his top curators and intervened to censor the critically acclaimed “Hide/Seek” exhibition on Nov. 30, he acknowledged only one mistake: having moved too quickly and without enough input from stakeholders. Clough was responding to attacks from a militant right-wing Catholic group, as well as the fear of potential budget cuts from a newly Republican-dominated House of Representatives. The removal of a video by gay artist David Wojnarowicz that showed a cross with ants on it was presented as a small price to pay for keeping the exhibition open. Clough’s intervention was widely seen as endorsing a rigidly conservative Catholic view of sacrilege against a deeply personal, and iconoclastic, gay view of spirituality.

But in many ways, it was the culture that was moving too quickly for the Smithsonian, and the firestorm that erupted afterward, severely damaging both Clough’s and the Smithsonian’s credibility, reflected an emerging consensus: that the acceptable level of anti-gay bigotry at an institution such as the Smithsonian is now zero.

It may prove painful, and chastening, as such institutions come to accept that reality and reflect it in their presentation of art. Whole movements and eras, from the aestheticists of the late 19th century to the abstract expressionists of the mid-20th century, simply don’t have coherence without reference to same-sex desire. As this history is made obvious, even established standards of how we judge art may be shaken. As Reed documents, ideas about abstraction, formalism and individualism in art have dominated criticism, but often at the cost of enforcing heterosexual values and power. Artists who hid their “gay” work (Charles Demuth), or stood to the side of the mainstream art world (Marsden Hartley), or are simply forgotten (a circle of artists in Italy that included Emma Stebbins, Edmonia Lewis and Harriet Hosmer) may deserve new attention and status.

The reckoning that finally re­establishes the legitimacy and accomplishments of gay artists in the modern museum may not be comfortable for many artists who identify as gay, either. Reed sketches a recent history of infighting and fratricide as a younger generation moves away from the definitions of gay identity that informed the thinking of artists who worked during the socially turbulent 1960s and ’70s and the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s and ’90s. Although the “Hide/Seek” exhibition was billed as the first major museum show devoted to gay art in this country, there was a precursor, the 1982 “Extended Sensibilities” exhibition at the New Museum in New York. That show focused on emerging and mainly unknown artists, in large part because established artists (or their agents and dealers) wanted no association with a public declaration of homosexuality. The artist duo Gilbert and George, who create overtly homoerotic images of epicene young men, refused to allow their work in the show. They also refused to allow it to be reproduced in Reed’s book, according to the author.


‘Art and Homosexuality: A History of Ideas’ by Christopher Reed. (OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS/OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS)

Having lacked the courage to be open about homosexuality may come back to haunt some established artists, critics, museum directors and curators. So, too, being dogmatic about what it means to be gay or lesbian may come back to haunt some militantly gay artists.

It’s clearly too early to write an obituary of homophobia. During the debate about same-sex marriage in New York, Catholic Archbishop Timothy Dolan compared advocates for equality in marriage to the North Korean regime, a government that tortures, kills and starves its citizens. It was an uncanny reminder of the virulent homophobic rhetoric used against artists in mid-20th century America, when homosexuals were often likened to the Red Menace. Yet even mainstream conservatives such as the National Review’s Kathryn Jean Lopez and George Weigel leapt to Dolan’s defense. Weigel even added a comparison of pro-equality groups to Bull Connor, the 1960s Birmingham, Ala., official who turned fire hoses and attack dogs on civil rights protesters and gave the Klu Klux Klan a free hand to beat, harass and intimidate African Americans and their supporters.

Late last year, as the curators of the “Hide/Seek” exhibition struggled to explain and condemn Clough’s censorship while defending the courage of the National Portrait Gallery, they revealed that several other museums had been offered the exhibition and refused it, probably out of fear of controversy. A full account, and reckoning, of the homophobia at work in the “Hide/Seek” controversy would probably embarrass (and perhaps educate) arts leaders far beyond the Smithsonian’s Castle.

It won’t be easy, but it will be exciting and productive, especially as gay people and their allies take an active hand in challenging museums to be more honest. The arts world is by no means the most homophobic institution in U.S. society. But the arts are a laboratory for cultural criticism, and they flourish when they are out in front of cultural change, not catching up to it. Some major universities have already begun to explore their own institutionalization of homophobia, just as they came clean about anti-Semitic policies generations earlier. As institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art grapple with why they never gave Warhol a solo show during his life, the historical record will get richer, and the bonds between museums and their public stronger.

But it isn’t just a matter of setting the record straight. Fundamentally, it’s about educating audiences and deepening the appreciation of art. As Reed explains, homosexuality in the 20th century “became the paradigmatic secret of avant-garde art.” It’s not the only thing that explains art, but without an understanding of it, there is a lot of nonsense in the history of art. As arts institutions catch up with American culture, they will only benefit from more truth, less silence and no nonsense.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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