Gay Art

The Many Shades of Gay

As the previous posts pointed out, many artists who were gay were caught up in attempts from various forces, both political and religious, to censor art. Confused and angered that art would be attacked in a land of free speech, the American art world directed its protests towards the red herring of censorship. Many gay artists were able to make gay-themed art with little or no interference, so it would seem that the incitement for censorship was not necessarily homosexual content but displays of Otherness in sites where the larger public could see this diversity. There are undoubtedly sincere individuals who honestly believe for moral and/or religious reasons that homosexuality is against their religion and their rights to their beliefs are protected by the Constitution.

However, the so-called “Culture Wars” begin when personal beliefs enter into the domain of “free speech” and the freedom to pursue happiness. Art was and still is on the front lines of those Culture Wars, and because art is public, it is always in the line of fire from those who want to remove anything they (personally) consider “offensive” from public view. The more precise problem of art censorship was a political one: people making statements through art that were not welcomed by other people. While the art world ignores the conservative culture, the conservative segments of American society are very concerned about the world of visual arts.

The censorship of gay art is less about the art and more about the “gay:” homosexuals were and are, legally in many states, second-class citizens, denied the rights enjoyed by “straight” people. Any threat coming from politicalized art to that “moral” order would be met with resistance, suggesting that the goals of conservative movements is political control and silencing of voices that presented another point of view. In other words, one can ask, is the issue one of the censorship of art or the domination of a minority? The art that has been targeted for censorship has been the kind of art that seems easy to read and that is susceptible to misinterpretation from those who refuse to inform themselves on the content.

Perhaps the level of difficulty in understanding homosexual art explains why some artists, whose work is more layered or subtle, are ignored by the religious and moral authorities. Other self-identified “queer” artists include David McDermott and Peter McGough who were among the earliest queer artists to emerge as a working couple. In order to understand McDermott and McGough, who did activist art on the margins, one has to understand the entire history of photography and a particular era in English history and numerous cultural references from the past. Like old photographs and early movies, their photographs are tinted in old fashioned tones, blues, lavenders and grays.

The pair are best known as photographers and in 1994, the pair did a photo book, The History of Photography, in which they rephotographed and restaged genres of photographs from the nineteenth century. Many of these images depicted the art couple, dressed up in period clothes and posing as a typical Victorian or Edwardian married couple. The pair lived in New York City on Avenue C and recreated a Victorian way of life in their apartment and used the fussy décor for their photography. To pose as a contented couple from the era of Oscar Wilde in the time of AIDS was a very political position, but the conceptual works of McDermott and McGough were subtle and visually not shocking, well within the intellectual realm and out of reach of the conservatives.

McDermott and McGough were part of a growing coterie of artists who were “out of the closet.” By the 1990s, “coming out” was a major narrative for queer people and many, like McDermott and McGough came out loud and proud. The couple was associated with other gay artists in the East Village scene in Manhattan during the 1980s, such as Keith Haring who worked hard to raise AIDS awareness. Keith Haring began as a “street artist” with Jean-Michel Basquiat, staking out the subway tunnels as his territory. The walls of the waiting areas of the stations had bulletin boards reserved for advertisements.

While waiting for new advertisements, the boards were covered with black paper and Haring would draw his signature line drawings with white chalk on the paper. Films of his fugitive invasions of the subway territory show an assured hand swiftly creating complex line drawings populated with humans and animals. Like Basquiat, Haring made his debut in the word of fine art in the late eighties and found fame and fortune with a wide range of works that included paintings, murals and graphic arts. When the AIDS epidemic swept the art world, Haring and other artists, such as David Wojnarowicz, worked hard to educate people, men and women, to the dangers of careless sex.

It was, in fact, this drawing of the “radiant baby” that inspired art critic, René Richard’s groundbreaking article, The Radiant Child, which focused on Haring and mentioned Basquiat in passing. Richard’s inspiration for the title of the article was Haring’s Radiant Baby, a child, drawn in outline, on his/her hands and knees, was surrounded by rays of light. Unlike Basquiat who quickly left his public persona as “Samo” behind, Haring’s career was largely devoted to public art and dedicated to the art education of children. Haring, like many of his colleagues, was diagnosed with AIDS and established a foundation for AIDS awareness before he died in 1990.

Although he outlived Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz also turned his attention to the decimation caused by AIDS in the arts community. Like Goldin, Wojnarowicz chronicled the dying moments of the victims of the disease in his art. Part of the East Village crowd, he lived long enough to witness the destructive assault on the arts by politicians in Washington, D. C. who called certain kinds of art “pornography.” He actually sued and won against a Mississippi-based group that had misrepresented his art as pornography. Wonjnarowicz was a writer and a visual artist and many of his images combined image and text. The artist produced four bodies of writings and just before his death in 1992, he did a series of readings for the benefit of a program for needle exchange (sharing needles among drug users was a major factor in the spread of AIDS).

The veterans of gay art would certainly be Gilbert (Proesch) and George (Passmore), a British couple who began in the late sixties as conceptual artists, working collaboratively. They became famous in 1969 doing their signature performance piece, Singing Sculpture, sometimes for eight hours at a stretch. Dressed in neat gray suits with their faces bronzed like sculptures, the two initiated their art practice of putting themselves, their faces and bodies and their lives and their English heritage at the center of their art. But these artists also did text and image graphics, using the grid format, which resembled stained glass windows for cathedrals, the Medieval way of telling stories and teaching moral and ethical truths. The audience has watched the duo age over the past forty years from innocent young men to wise old men (still in the same suits) who have made profound comments on the alienating world of their time. As they explained,

Our subject matter is the world. It is pain. Pain. Just to hear the world turning is pain, isn’t it? Totally, every day, every second. Our inspiration is all those people alive today on the planet, the desert, the jungle, the cities. We are interested in the human person, the complexity of life.

Because of the small number of people any one performance could reach, they began to make films, such as, The Nature Of Our Looking (edition 4), 1970, Gordon’s Makes Us Drunk (edition 25), 1972, In The Bush (edition 25), 1972, and Portrait Of The Artists As Young Men(edition 25), 1972. As the pair became more famous, films about them proliferated: The Red Sculpture 1975, The World of Gilbert and George (1981), Gilbert & George, The Singing Sculpture (1991), Gilbert and George: Daytripping (1992), Gilbert & George , The South Bank Show (1997) and The Fundamental Gilbert and George (1997) and No Surrender of 2oo7.

Although Conceptual Art tended to be non-political, the couple made art that was pointed and activist, perhaps due to the growing politicization of the gay community. It has been noted that Gay Liberation was an American movement, but that this movement spread world wide, having the effect of “Americanizing” gay men everywhere. When the AIDS epidemic began, the art of Gilbert and George, like that of many gay artists, began to focus on queer subject matter. Being British, these artists were not subjected to the criticisms of the American right wing. Gilbert and George use the phrase “Art for All” to describe their art and work in a single and unchanging format for their two dimensional work: a grid which is imposed over their images. Now well-dressed and well-mannered middle-aged British gentlemen, the couple had a show at the DeYoung in San Francisco, winter of 2008, the same year as the film With Gilbert and George, directed by Julian Cole.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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“Queer Art” and AIDS, Part Two

The Reception of “Queer Art”

Part Two

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”

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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“Queer” Art and AIDS, Part One

WHAT IS “HOMOSEXUAL ART?”

Part One

Once again, the question arises. Like the questions of what is “Black Art?” What is “Chicano Art” What is Women’s Art?’ the query demands a neat definition that is impossible to give. Is “Homosexual Art” art that is made by homosexuals? Or is “Homosexual Art” art that is about homosexuality, regardless of the sexual preferences of the makers? The absurdity of the dialogue is depended when one extends such questions to other professions, from literature, to finance, to manufacture. Does an automobile become “gay” because the designer was homosexual? Does your home mortgage become “lesbian” because of the same-sex inclination of the loan officer? On the other hand, there are artists who have deliberately chosen to present themselves as “homosexual artists” who presented works of art with homosexual content. As was noted earlier, such displays of Otherness have been political acts and will continue to be as long as the culture is bifurcated between the One and the Other.

“Homosexual art” is different from art done by homosexuals. Like “queer” the designation is “auto-descriptive,” that is, an identification taken by the artist, not given to the artist by society. Therefore there are many homosexuals who made art and who are making art and who prefer not to give themselves a label that either reveals their sexual preference or limits the interpretation of their art. There are a number of reasons for a decision to remain artistically “in the closet.” For example, during the Fifties and the Sixties, being gay was illegal and its was simply unsafe to “come out.” Artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg chose to not discuss their homosexuality for their entire careers. Many works of art done by both Johns and Rauschenberg referred obliquely to the homosexual culture of their time.

The art critical climate of the fifties and sixties in New York City did not allow for discussions of homosexual content in art works and artists who dared to be open about their sexuality met with an unfavorable response. For example, Andy Warholbegan his career making frankly homosexual art but received critical disapproval. Making a smart decision to change his content, Warhol’s subsequent public art featured consumerism and mass media advertising and his career took off. Another point needs to be made here. By the seventies, lesbians, in contrast, found a hospitable home in the feminist movement and lesbian artists were simply folded into the larger feminist discourse. The male homosexuals had no outlet for homosexual subject matter until the eighties.

Although it was well known in the art world who was “straight” and who was “gay,” no disapproval was attached to gay artists or to the Gay Liberation movement in the Sixties, but the art public was not ready for “gay” art. It took the AIDS crisis to bright about some public acceptance of homosexuals, who were the first and most visible victims. The source of AIDS is a matter of some dispute but an individual proclaimed “Patient Zero” was identified. This man was a steward on a French airline and his career as a world traveler allowed him to spread AIDS to a number of other men.

Because of this identification of “patient zero,” accurate or not, during the early 1980s, AIDS in America was called the “gay disease.” Due to the pressures from conservative constituencies, President Ronald Reagan, a veteran of Hollywood, another refuge for gay men, remained silent on the subject of AIDS. The Reagan administration ignored the dangerous epidemic until it was proved that AIDS was spreading to the “general population.” The implication of the inaction was that gays could and should die for their “deviant” “lifestyle,” but when women and children proved to be equally susceptible to the disease then the medical community in America rallied for a cure.

The story of the American neglect of an epidemic is told in the film And the Band Played On. The film’s judgment is a bit harsh but it contains a grain of truth. The Reagan administration did ignore AIDS until the good friend of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Rock Hudson, died of AIDS. By that time, it was too late for thousands of gay men who died during the early to mid Eighties. The art world lost a generation of gay artists in the visual and performing arts. The decimation of a community rallied the art world behind the victims and, after years of being underground, gay and lesbian art emerged on the scene.

For the general public, AIDS awareness came about thorough graphic activism, most notably from the group, ACT UP, AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, formed in 1987. Although the group would later have chapters in every state in America, its most visible activities were focused in New York. For example, ACT UP led a protest that shut down Wall Street to speak out against the way in which the financial and pharmaceutical powers were profiting from a national tragedy. ACT UP and Gran Fury (named after a popular Plymouth model) presented powerful graphic designs to educate gay men on how to prevent AIDS and to inform the public about the basic humanity of homosexual people.

The target of this agit-prop art were diverse, the Catholic Church, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, the FDA, Wall Street, and other institutions that labeled AIDS inaccurately as a “gay cancer” and displayed an immoral range of behavior from indifference to condemnation to stigmatization to profiteering (AZT cost $8,000 a year). One of the most powerful graphic images was the pink triangle with the strong words: “Silence = Death” underneath. The pink triangle was worn by homosexual prisoners in Nazi concentration camps, interned due to their sexual preferences. Gran Fury used this powerful and simple image as an installation above the entrance to the New Museum as a protest against the statement by conservative journalist William Buckley who proposed a draconian and punitive action towards homosexuals, who, he said, “should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to protect the victimization of other homosexuals.”

The artist Keith Haring, who died of AIDS, took up this simple graphic and elaborated it in his own signature style of “street” art: “Ignorance=Fear/Silence=Death/Fight AIDS.” Donald Moffett designed a very famous poster featuring a target on the right and a photograph of Reagan on the right with the phrase “He Kills Me.” Gran Fury mimicked the international and interracial Benneton fashion advertising campaign with a memorable series of “kissing” images of same sex and interracial kissing. The message was loud and clear: “Kissing Doesn’t Kill. Greed and Indifference Do.” Gran Fury also appropriated the famous (and broken) promise of President Bush, “Read My Lips” to educate the public on the true causes of AIDS and the price of inaction.

Undoubtedly what saved many lives was the fact that many of the victims and their friends had powerful positions in the worlds of fine arts, graphic design, and popular culture. They had voices, talent, and the backing of an important constituency: the art world. Their activism, whether on Wall Street or on the sides of busses or in movie theaters forced a resolution to a crisis that ultimately killed a generation of artists. Although Gran Fury and ACT UP (sometimes under different names) are still active, the center for AIDS in America is far from their New York roots—the American South. The South is the epicenter for AIDS in 2012 and the main victims are poor, often Black, without health care, without health insurance, without public education. In a conservative region where sex education is against the law and there are no funds for women’s health, the epidemic has moved on and is reaching crisis proportions. The graphic art campaign of ACT UP and Gran Fury would not be allowed to appear in this environment.

Thanks for the mobilization of the arts communities and the power of the arts, the tide against AIDS (in certain parts of the nation) began to turn. The public was educated on “queer people” and their humanity through popular movies such as, Philadelphia, starring a “straight” actor, Tom Hanks, and In and Out, starring straight actors, Kevin Klein and Tom Selleck, and popular television shows such as Will and Grace and Modern Family brought about public acceptance of homosexuals. Today “homophobia” has been named a psychological disease, and multiple and continuing examples indicate that those who are the most opposed to gay rights are also those who are most likely to be homosexuals still “in the closet,” because these individuals belong to conservative cultures.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]