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.
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.
(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.
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.