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.
(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.
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.