The Reception of “Queer Art”
A large blue painting, the color of a dark daylight sky, filled with falling birds, dropping from the heavens, wings paralyzed in death is one of the great images on the AIDS crisis. Using the discredited and discarded style of Op Art, the painter, Ross Bleckner, was the elegiac poet of mourning. Memorium of 1985 features a silver urn, a visual/verbal l play on the early term for homosexuals: “uranian” and the urn, used to hold the ashes of the deceased. In retrospect it seems unthinkable that the United States government would allow an epidemic of a deadly and incurable disease to break out, unchecked, endangering all citizens, but the falling/floating birds of Birdland (2000) commemorates the fallen and the falling and the failing.
This unthinkable neglect, a fact of history, is a measure of the antipathy of the American government towards its gay and lesbian citizens. One wonders if the gay community had not had large numbers of talented artists who had equally talented straight allies and if these victims had not been well-educated and articulate and well positioned in society, what the outcome of the AIDS crisis would have been. It is possible the epidemic could have swept the nation with devastating impact. It is rare that one can point to such a clear example of the power of art. But the power of art often also puts art and artists who are activists in the cross hairs of censorship.
One senator, the late Jesse Helms of North Carolina waged a full scale war on art with perceived “homosexual content.” Locked in a close re-election in 1989 with an African American candidate, Harvey Gantt, Helms seized an unlikely opportunity to put race on the agenda. His target was Robert Mapplethorpe, a well know New York photographer whose work was being shown in a local art institution, Southeaster Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, a recipient of federal funds for the National Endowment for the Arts. Helms made the case that Mapplethorpe’s photographs of male nudes, most of them African American and gay, was a misuse of taxpayer money and that the viewers of these images would be morally and sexually impacted by the sight of nude males.
From the standpoint of the art world, Mapplethorpe was essentially a conservative art photographer, specializing in portraits and in flowers, and his work was beautiful and classic. Mapplethorpe’s approach to photography was based upon the ideas of Greek art and its reverence for the human body. For anyone in the art world, nudity is commonplace and accepted and the photographs of this photographer were no more or less interesting than any other art photographs. Indeed, Mapplethorpe had a modest reputation as a portraitist of local stars in the art world, but other photographers, such as Cindy Sherman, enjoyed higher acclaim for their Conceptual Art photography. However, there was an underground content of some of his photographs in the notorious X Portfolio, which were of the “rough trade” world of homosexual fetishism that would have been unsettling to an art audience outside of New York or Los Angeles.
Mapplethorpe’s works were divided into portfolios, X, Y and Z and it was one significant body of work that came to the attention of Jesse Helms, called The Black Book, a book of photographs of nude black men. Today, it is sad to leaf through the pages of this famous book, for all those involved in the making of the book, the models and the photographer himself, are dead from AIDS. The book is full of beautiful photographs of beautiful black men, photographed beautifully in the tradition of Greek art and the idealization of the human body. Mapplethorpe was simply part of a line of twentieth century photographers, such as Edward Weston and Minor White, who photographed and abstracted the human body.
But the art world traditions and the classical roots of The Black Book were lost on Jesse Helms who objected when a public gallery, funded by federal monies, in his state showed photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, including those from The Black Book. Helms went on the attack and decimated federal funding for artists through the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts), stating that tax-payer money should not be spent on “pornography.” The art world responded with anger to Helms and his views on art and the attack on the arts strengthened the support for all art—especially gay artist and gay art.
By the nineties, homosexual artists were accepted without comment and gay art as political art was accepted and began to exist apart from the AIDS controversies. Glen Ligon, an African-American artist who is gay, commented upon the politics of racism in the work of Mapplethorpe with his own art. Mapplethorpe posed black men like objects for white people in the art world to admire. Ligon’s Notes on the Margin of the Black Book (1991-93) unmasked the supposed formalism in Mapplethorpe’s work and revealed the eroticization of the less-powerful black men, disempowered in their nudity (a slave practice), by a more powerful white man. Notes was Ligon’s first work to deal with the cultural eroticization of the black male and his first revelatory work as a gay artist.
Nan Goldin is a self-identified bisexual artist who made her reputation with her seminal work, The Ballard of Sexual Dependency (1979-1986), which originally was exhibited as a slide show in a gallery. This series of color photographs were candid shots of herself and her social circle in the underground punk, gay, transvestite cultures of New York City. Compared to the scandal surrounding Mapplethorpe, Goldin’s career, post AIDS, has been relatively uneventful, and her images of drag queens (below) have caused little consternation among the art public. But for the arts community, the AIDS crisis was a lingering one and Goldin produced a powerful series of images of friends dying of AIDS. As Goldin stated, “AIDS changed everything in my life. There’s life before AIDS, and after AIDS.”
Working in the tradition in which artists would sit near the bedside of a dying loved one and drawing a series of death bed portraits, Goldin commemorated her friend, Cookie, and her Parisian art dealer, Gilles Dusein through wrenching candid photographs. Goldin who was among the AIDS activists in the arts who introduced the red ribbon which was soon worn by millions of people in solidarity. The photographer gave an account of the art world reaction not just to AIDS but also to government indifference:
The same day Cookie died, my big show “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing” opened, which I curated at New York’s Artists Space. It was the first major show done by people in the community where all the work was done by people with AIDS or by people who had died of AIDS. It became a national controversy. The government took away the show’s grant from the National Endowment of the Arts because of David Wojnarowicz’s text, a brilliant dissertation against the government and the Catholic church for their position and their silence on AIDS. There were 15,000 people at the opening because of the rage at the government’s response.
David Wojnarowicz has since died of AIDS and, before his death, he produced a significant body of work that paralleled that of his friend as witness to the AIDS death of photographer Peter Hujar. The power of his work and his protests against the mistreatment of AIDS victims was still potent in 2010, when over a decade after his death in 1992, a brief video Fire in My Belly, A Work in Progress (1986-87) was censored by the Smithsonian Institution. The film, a shortened version of a thirteen minute video, showed a crucified Christ covered with crawling ants. The theme was a condemnation of the attitude of the Catholic Church towards AIDS victims and made the point that these victims were also martyrs. The Church misinterpreted the work, in the words of William Donohue, as “hate speech.” Twenty years after the assault on the art of the late Robert Mapplethorpe, the Smithsonian removed the work from view.
Read Part One of this topic: “Queer Art and AIDS”
If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.