Gay Museum Wars: Victory? Or a Truce?

For gay artists past and present, it gets better . . . slowly

Way back in 1934, Paul Cadmus's painting "The Fleet's In!" displayed a shockingly honest panorama of oversexed sailors on leave. When the Corcoran Gallery, one of the most prominent museums in Washington, D.C., removed the painting, the scandal made the young gay artist's reputation. In 1990, a Cincinnati museum was put on the docket for showing a sexually charged photograph by the late Robert Mapplethorpe. When the Corcoran Gallery canceled the whole show, it caused an outcry that reached the halls of Congress and slipped in the notorious "no promo homo" clause to manage government-funded exhibits.

Fast-forward to 2010. "Hide/Seek," the first major gay-themed retrospective at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, became mired in controversy when the museum removed a video by the late avant-garde multimedia artist David Wojnarowicz. (The full exhibit later traveled to the Brooklyn Museum.)

Many experts would argue that even today, sexuality and sexual identity of gay artists, both living and dead, are still marginalized or downright ignored. But the whole picture is more balanced. True, major museum retrospectives of artists from Caravaggio to Warhol play down their private lives and omit more erotically charged works. But the art world has changed. At least the National's self-censorship prompted a universal outcry that resulted in its director issuing a belated mea culpa.

Brooklyn Museum's Keith Haring show: Sex can be safe.
Courtesy Haring.com
Brooklyn Museum's Keith Haring show: Sex can be safe.
Cadmus’s horny sailors was once scandalous.
U.S. Naval Historical Center
Cadmus’s horny sailors was once scandalous.

More honest portrayals of the aesthetic of desire are happening, if not at the major Manhattan museums. The Brooklyn Museum's current retrospective of Keith Haring's career is an example of its progressive aesthetic, partly reflecting the multicultural borough itself, but also because, being in Brooklyn, it has to work harder to attract attention. By contrast, James Saslow, who teaches at the City University of New York, sees large institutions like the Met, the Whitney, and MOMA as more oblivious than overtly homophobic: "The Met doesn't see its mission as educating people about social context and meaning of the works."

Nor does he buy the argument that the historical record might not support a homocentric thesis. Take Thomas Eakins: Although there might not be hard proof of homoerotic impulses outside of his work (which is pretty fucking homoerotic), sublimating such impulses was hardly unusual in 19th century Philadelphia. "You cannot 'document' that as you can other kinds of behavior," Saslow says. "There's no 'proof' a person is straight. It's just harder to find when writing about taboos."

Jonathan David Katz, one of the most outspoken and prominent gay-art curators and historians, has long played the art world's gadfly. Back in 1995, representing the Voice, he was thrown out of a conference on a Robert Rauschenberg exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum for bringing up the artist's relationship with another pop icon, Jasper Johns. Since then, he has studied Manhattan's eight museums over a 10-year period and "found representations of queer issues appallingly low."

There has been progress, however, most notably at the Guggenheim itself, which has mounted some groundbreaking shows like "Rrose Is a Rrose Is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography," a 1997 comprehensive photographic exhibit. The Guggenheim has also presented a retrospective on the career of Félix González-Torres, a Cuban-American multimedia artist whose work reflected his experience dealing with AIDS. The museum's survey of photographer Catherine Opie from 2008–09 marked a major milestone in its frank description of how the photographer's experience in San Francisco's multifarious sexual underworld informed her art. The gender-bending show and its enormous catalog frankly examined a remarkable fluidity of sexual self-identities.

If, too, big museum exhibits reflect the conservative ethos of their major donors and still-skittish government-funding agencies, New York's dozens (if not hundreds) of art galleries don't give a damn—as long as the art moves from the walls into their cash registers.

"Galleries are not responding to public pressure," notes veteran Chelsea-gallery tour guide Rafael Risemberg. "Because gay people buy a lot of art, they show gay art. They also need a buzz, and a gay artist is more buzz-worthy." The biggest change he has seen over 10 years is that younger gay artists don't want to be pegged. "Younger gay artists don't even want to be called 'gay,'" Risemberg says. "Gay artists may be much more open in their personal lives, but in their career, they're not hiding. It's not what they want to be known for. It's not just post-gay but post-identity."

Aaron Tilford, editor-publisher of Spunk, one of the many gay-oriented art zines that have sprung up in recent years, sees the whole concept of "gay art" as outdated. "There was a time when you had to be validated by having erotic art exhibited. These are gay artists working right now, but their art isn't about being gay or erotic."

The Leslie-Lohman Gay Art Foundation is the one Manhattan institution that insists on celebrating gay erotic art in all its glorious sexuality. Founded by Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman, it was showing frank portrayals of man-on-man sex before Stonewall. Having been certified as museum-worthy by New York State and curated by Katz, it continues to exhibit art the big museums won't touch (or at least display: MOMA has acquired some of Tom of Finland's macho drawings, but you won't see them on the walls), as well as continuing to show non-erotic gay and lesbian artworks. "When we mounted our first show, you could see male nudes from the street, and, yes, the police came in," Leslie recalls. The situation today is improving, if slowly. "It's happening," he says. "Maybe we were just a little ahead of the curve."

 
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