ART AND POLITICS
A SMALL HISTORY OF ART FOR SOCIAL CHANGE SINCE 1945
gay identity/ queer art
In the first volume of his planned four-volume study The History of Sexuality (1976), Michel Foucault observed a “sudden, radical condensation of sexual categories” in the West, beginning in the late nineteenth century. This meant there appeared to be a new intellectual concern, across several fields of knowledge, with distinguishing heterosexual from other sexual behaviors such as homosexuality. As was typical of Foucault’s historically based works, The History of Sexuality traced the cultural and historical development of a social and epistemological category, here of sexuality, and the dynamics of power and ideology that hinge on the construction of that category through social institutions or intellectual disciplines. Some have argued that in this book Foucault also took aim at the theory of sexuality established by Freudian psychoanalysis: namely, the assertion that human sexuality was fundamentally repressed, and that this repression needed to be overcome before individuals could attain a kind of sexual health or balance. In their adaptation of Freud, Western Marxists from several different corners—from surrealists in France and in Latin America to, in the postwar era, Frankfurt School theorist Herbert Marcuse in his book Eros and Civilization (1955)—claimed that sexual repression was a negative effect of advanced capitalism in industrialized societies. For Foucault repression was simply how sexuality had been configured in these theories of sexuality.
Homosexuality took on particular if marginalized importance in theories of sexuality put forward by Western Marxism in the postwar era- Where “mainstream” or canonized surrealists such as Andre Breton were generally homophobes, other surrealist thinkers like Cesar Moro in Peru considered the movement to be a vehicle that could forward notions of homosexual desire that fused with revolutionary goals—that is, with socialist and political liberation. Unlike Freud, Marcuse considers “genital sexuality,” or sexual activity that has procreation as its goal, part of repression, or what he terms “sublimation.” Eros, on the other hand, refuses to instrumentalize sexuality in this manner. Homosexuality, Marcuse believed, is another non-procreative “perversion” that is also part of the “Great Refusal” of the conditions of the status quo: “the perversions […] establish libidinal relations which society must ostracize because they threaten to reverse the process of civiliza tion which turned the organism into an instrument of work.”’ Finally Marcuse also thought that the recovery of “pregenital polymorphous sexuality” would create larger social groups that could channel their new erotic energies into political liberation as well. Marcuse, however, quickly gave up on this notion of homosexuality as a revolutionary element; by the time he wrote An Essay on Liberation (1969) he does not even mention it. By 1969 he understood that the potential of Eros had already been co-opted by advertising propaganda and transformed into an engine of capitalism. (In strong contrast to Marcuse’s defeatist stance of the late 1960s, surrealist and post-modernist artists understood that this territory remained highly contested.) In the end homosexuals constituted only a “perverted” subgroup for Marcuse—the term was positive in his usage—but otherwise as a group they lacked any social or political specificity.
But as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick uses it in her important book on queer theory, Epistemology of the Closet (1992), the term “closet” becomes a critical tool that allows for the investigation of homo sexuality and heterosexuality as the most important culturally constructed categories in twentieth-century intellectual history. Sedgwick uncovers and questions the heteronormative categoriza tion of homosexuality in her study of certain canonical authors of
modern literature, along with its delineation of the “homo/het- erosexual definition.” She concludes that this definition is highly contradictory and unstable. The “relations of the gay closet,” as she calls them—silence and/or secrecy, and even the social decep tion regarding the gay man’s sexuality and relationships, and the threat of stigma and bias that forces the perpetuation of a cycle of secrecy about one’s identity, at great psychic cost—typified homosexual daily life and culture in modern Western society until the watershed event of the Stonewall riots of 1969 in New York City’s West Village, after which the gay-rights movement became much more confrontational. Sedgwick draws on key authors who contribute to the debate on the homo/heterosexual defini tion, including Herman Melville, Oscar Wilde, Henry James, and Marcel Proust. Since Sedgwick took up the gay closet as an issue relevant to Western culture and to queer theory, art historians such as Kenneth Silver have examined visual artworks that similarly engage with the strictures of closeted gay existence during the pre-Stonewall period. During that time, what was known as the “homophile movement” in the US gently advocated equality by assimilation—that is, dirough gay people’s conformity with the norms of heterosexual society.
The New Queer Art Kenneth Silver argues that key works by the US artists Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol of the late 1950s and early 1960s “began to label something—male homosexuality—that had hitherto been considered too unworthy or too dangerous to name.”2 Earlier twentieth-century American artists had also dealt with gay cul ture—Silver discusses Marsden Hartley and Charles Demuth as important precedents for later artists who took on homosexual life and culture as a subject, and another art historian, Richard Meyer, points to the painter Paul Cadmus. But arguably Johns and Warhol were among a younger generation of painters in New York whose art turned against dominant notions of artistic masculinity as it had been set in place by the New York School,
or abstract expressionism, of the 1940s and 1950s. Johns’ work most explicitly critiques the calligraphic brushstroke as a celebrated marker of the machismo of abstract expressionism. His Painting with Two Balls from i960 (Figure 5.1) is made up of intricately placed brushstrokes, and not the bold gestures of large-scale abstraction. Johns interrupts the painting surface not only with two wooden balls wedged between the canvas sections, but also by
5.1 Jasper Johns, Painting with Two Balls (1960)
neatly stenciling the title and the artist’s name across the bottom of the composition. Perhaps a visual play on words, Johns ironi cally presents a painting “with balls,” mocking the heroics, the cliched blue-collar heterosexuality, and the sublime aspirations, of the New York School painters. These exclusively heterosexual masculine qualities were also to be found in the language of the art criticism that championed the “forcefulness” and “directness” of earlier abstract painting in New York, Johns contests such assertions, suggesting the existence of other modes of artistic masculinity. Johns’ art continues this contestation in other paint ings such as In Memory of My Feelings, Frank O’Hara of 1961, in which Johns pays homage to a recently deceased friend, the gay poet and curator Frank O’Hara.
In Silver’s reading, In Memory makes direct reference to the secretiveness that by necessity characterized homosexual culture in the US during the conservative 1950s. Johns’ painting consists of two hinged panels positioned like a diptych; one can then close the painting upon itself and completely seal it from view. Johns takes the painting’s title from one of O’Hara’s poems; it can be read as marking loss, and it may suggest more intimate relationships. Perhaps an affair took place between the artist and the writer. O’Hara’s poem also reflects on the loss of falling out of love. Silver notes that in the same year that this painting appeared, Johns’ relationship with Robert Rauschenberg was coming to a close. The painting’s multiple ambiguities and its veiled references to past and necessarily secretive love affairs underscore the qualities of indirectness and concealment that were part of homosexual relationships, and of living a closeted life, during a repressive and homophobic era. Perhaps as a result of the US debate on gay marriage, some have recently suggested that homophile-type assimilation might bring positive benefits to gay men.3 But in the early 1960s, Johns used his art to point to the heavy cost of assimilation: a stunted and unrealizable sense of self as a gay artist.
It is a widely held view that in his paintings and films Andy Warhol refused the strictures of closeted homosexuality that had plagued American artists like Johns and Rauschenberg in the
generation before his. He instead chose to present a commentary on gay culture and identity, albeit one that remained encoded. As one would expect of one of the most important artists of the twentieth century, the literature on Warhol is voluminous. Most often it points to his art’s engagement with gay identity in the “camp” aspects of the subject matter that animates the work, and usually cites Susan Sontag’s famed essay “Notes on ‘camp'” (1964) as a source. While Sontag mentions, almost in passing, that camp is frequently associated with homosexual culture, the two have come to be treated as practically synonymous. More generally the outmoded, sentimental, trivial, excessive, and bad- taste qualities of what constitutes camp—cultural marginalia or detritus, of not only “serious” culture but also of pop culture—have been associated with marginalized communities, and particularly with the gay community. Camp has also become a mechanism of the margin’s political resistance to the cultural status quo. Thus Warhol’s long series of paintings of the film actress Marilyn Monroe, completed after her death in 1962, is associated with the camp fascination with the outmoded, since by 1962 Monroe was something of a has-been. She was then a camp figure, and, in addition, a gay icon; it is questionable whether there were any empathetic motives behind this series, or behind any of the huge number of portrait-type paintings that Warhol produced during his lifetime. Instead, as Thomas Crow has suggested, Warhol seems more interested in these icons as visual indicators or as an effect of the functions of the mass-media system, and the place of individual tragedy within it?
Richard Meyer has argued that Warhol’s early advertising images asserted a sense of gay community within the advertising industry in New York City. Best known among Warhol’s advertising images of the 1950s are his illustrations for a campaign for the shoe store I. Miller, which ran primarily in New York newspapers. In 1956 Warhol showed his gold-leaf collages of shoes at the New York Bodley Gallery and bookstore, and at the Serendipity, a cafe frequented by art directors from advertising and from the theater. In another work from the same year, Untitled (“To All My Friends”) (Figure 5.2), Warhol presents an ensemble of 11 single shoes, each
5.2 Andy Warhol. Untitled (“To All My Friends”) (1956)
inscribed (possibly by his mother) with the handwritten name of a close friend or business associate. Meyer relates that this was a social circle of gay men, some of whom were dating or in relation ships with each other.5 Untitled underscores not only interconnected personal affairs and relationships, but what is in today’s parlance called a support network, of like-minded professionals in a given field, who also serve as advocates for each other.
Warhol’s post-modernist refusal to separate high and low culture, and his move to merge each into a broader category of
visual culture, allowed him to import similar references to gay identity into his “high art” or post-advertising works. His notion of a private and professional gay community in New York, how ever, ultimately matured into an awareness of the marginalized nature of gay identity in American society, a shift that might be read in some of his later pop art paintings. This is perhaps most evident in Warhol’s contribution to the New York World’s Fair in 1964, Thirteen Most Wanted Men, a large panel of 15 silkscreens that, in a bizarre act of double censorship, was not only painted over but also covered with a tarp by Fair officials. Meyer argues that in this work Warhol first aligned, in metaphorical fashion, the outcast figure of the criminal with that of the “outlaw” homosexual and his desires.6 The double entendre of the title, and Warhol’s configuration of the found mugshots of good-looking young men within his grid of panels so that they gazed upon each other, made quasi-veiled reference to gay desire. Moreover, it is suggested that Warhol’s repetition of photographic images in his silkscreen pop paintings contains a complex strategy: within them, he changes each repeated image so that it differs slightly from the one before it, in the manner of Duchamp’s notion of the infra-mince. As has often been noted, Warhol is able to achieve subtle compositional effects in his repeated silkscreened images because his repetition is far from identical. In this way, we might understand Meyer’s claim that Warhol’s Double Elvis (1963) presents differentiated images of two male bodies in contact with one another as an erotic possibility, and also as a flash of recognition of gay desire? Finally, however, Warhol’s awareness in the 1950s and 1960s of his own place within an “outlaw” gay community is difficult to reconcile with his later lack of interest, in the mid 1980s, in the harrowing situation of many gay men in New York City during the AIDS crisis.
Like Warhol, the West German artist and filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder refused debilitating notions of homophile artistic assimilation. At the time of his death in 1982 Fassbinder had come to terms with his own homosexuality and was occu pied with a cinematic working through of Jean Genet’s notion of homosexuality and/as criminality. Fassbinder was perhaps the
most important filmmaker and auteur of the West German “New German Cinema” of the 1970s and 1980s. It appears that after his death commentators did their utmost to scour Fassbinder’s gay ness from his films and legacy, mostly through marginalizing his queer films, which feature gay protagonists and either implicitly or explicitly address gay identity. Fassbinder famously worked across multiple films with an ensemble of actors he began to cultivate during his years at the Action Theater in Munich in the late 1960s.8 As he began to make films he sometimes recruited non-actors, both female and male (many of whom were his lovers), to star in his films, such as Irm Hermann, Gunther Kaufmann, and El Hedi ben Salem. Even in his earliest films there existed a strong connection between Fassbinder’s personal life and the actors and even the narratives that animated them. He featured his real-life male lovers in his films as objects of desire; in the film Germany in Autumn (1977) Fassbinder appears in the nude with Armin Meier, who later committed suicide. Fassbinder also married two women in his lifetime. At the time of his sudden death in 1982 he seemed, however, to embrace gay culture and his own gay identity; his last film Querelle (Figure 5.3), made in the year of his death and adapted from Genet’s novel Querelle of Brest, is a queer film in that it is concerned with Genet’s view of (sadomasochistic) gay sexuality and otherwise more or less explicitly focuses on the gay sexual relationships that define the
5.3 Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Querelle (1982), film still
lead character, a sailor who is a thief and a murderer, played by the American actor Brad Davis.
In terms of his resistance to patriarchal repression and author ity, Fassbinder has been claimed for feminism: the female protago nist of his most mainstream film The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), to give only one example, is a woman with phallic power who reaches success, independence, and wealth on her own terms and despite the men that surround her. Kaja Silverman has argued for the anti-patriarchal and liberating aspect of “deviant” male sexuality that is to be found in Fassbinder’s films, in part based on the masochism that is the basic driving force of human interac tion within them. In Silverman’s view this masochism offers some measure of fulfillment of the self—she uses the Lacanian term “masochistic ecstasy.”9 However, masochism is a universal within Fassbinder’s cinema; as Thomas Elsaesser has stated, “Fassbinder’s second strategy was to replace the oppressor/oppressed model by the sadomasochistic double bind.”10 It therefore seems dif ficult to stake a claim for masochism’s specific relevance, within Fassbinder’s films, to gay identity and experience. As others have also pointed out, one implication of Fassbinder’s queer films, and of his own life as an artist, is that gay desire and relationships may also bring the suffering of heterosexual ones. He therefore does not cast gay identity in a consistently positive or celebratory light Yet Fassbinder’s openness in exploring Genet’s views on homosexual ity in relation to his own artistic identity brought the issues of gay identity and sexuality into mainstream art cinema of the 1980s.
In (West) Berlin, a city with a history of tolerating homosexuality and gay culture, several German painters took a different approach in ruminating on their personal relationships and on their own sense of self as gay artists. Two members of the painting group “Die Neuen Wilde” (“The New Wild Ones”), as they called themselves, Rainer Fetting and Salome (Wolfgang Cihlarz), openly accepted their homosexuality in a number of paintings that also made refer ence to their affair. They explored the possibility of gay self-portrai ture, taking up and extending the genre of modernist portraiture as their chosen stylistic predecessors, the German expressionist group known as “Die Brticke” (“The Bridge”), first developed it.
Die Neuen Wilde organized itself as a group through the highly successful “self-help” or alternative space Galerie am Moritzplatz, in Kreuzberg, West Berlin. In addition to Fetting and Salome, key members were Helmut Middendorf and Bernd Zimmer.” The “return to figuration” in painting on the part of West German neo expressionists of the late 1970s has been lambasted in art criticism, with some claiming that this movement contained fascist elements or sympathies.12 These dismissive statements ignore the aspects of resistance—against patriarchy and against heteronormativity as it is practiced within the medium of painting—that are to be found among these artworks.
The gay painters who made up this postwar group were likely more interested in the expressionist genre of the male nude than in a generalized shift to figuration. The homoerotic element in German expressionism, particularly in Brucke painting, is a fasci nating and under-studied aspect of this direction of the avant-garde. While all of the members of the Brucke group produced portraits and woodcut prints of each other, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s are perhaps the most well known. The portraits point to the close-knit nature and the shared camaraderie of the Brucke group. Among other works, Kirchner’s painting Bathers at Moritzburg (1909/26) indicates the artist’s interest in the male nude, which he often depicts frontally and with a clearly delineated phallus. Kirchner also posed frontally and photographed his male African model, the circus performer “Sam,” in his Dresden studio, an indication of Kirchner’s fascination with and eroticization of the black male body as Other. This sexual interest in the black body was also an aspect of expressionist primitivism.
Fetting and Salome were participants in West Berlin’s boom ing club and music scene of the late 1970s, when the British rock musicians David Bowie and Brian Eno also lived and recorded there. Like the artist and impresario Martin Kippenberger, Salome formed his own punk band, “Geile Tiere” (“Homy Creatures”), in 1980 with Luciano Castelli. Both Fetting’s and Salome’s self- portraits from these years point to the culture and dynamics of gay nightlife, of stage performances in drag and otherwise. Introducing the quasi-ritualized action of drag and other types of sexualized
performance as subject matter for painting, these self-portraits also have to do with the medium-specific construction of the artist-self as a gay painter. Salome sets many of his self-portraits of the 1970s on a kind of stage that might be read as reminiscent of a nightclub, sometimes posing before a paravent in various drag costumes, as in Figure Before a Paravenl (1976), or, in camp fashion, in a woman’s corset and stockings, in Strip (Tryptichon) (1977). In the latter the artist paints his own body as an object, in a doubled gesture of empowerment; he performs the act of bodily and painterly seduction that is also the basis of his artist-persona pseudonym. This construction of painting as a claustrophobic theater of seduction featuring the artist also occurs in Salome’s strongest series with this motif, The Salome Story (1979).13 In the series harshly lit, chalky, and almost nude figures, at times in the contorted poses of what might be a dance, again appear alone or
5.4 Salome (Wolfgang Cihlarz), Death (Der Mord) (from the series The Salome Story, 1979)
5.5 Rainer Fetting, Self and Salome (Sebst and Salome 1976)
together on a raised stage. In Death (Figure 5.4), a blue shadow eclipses a slighter figure to the right, almost forcing it out of the frame. The series arguably presents a metaphorical tracking of the bloom and eventual death of passion. The title of the series implies that this melodrama has to do with the artist himself.
Rainer Fetting’s approach to painting and to the subject matter of gay relationships is less theatrical. In a longer series of self- portraits from 1977-8, Fetting depicts himself in the nude, sporting a red-lacquer manicure and matching lipstick, in drag, or with a fedora with the same rouged lips, a dramatic brushstroke of red. The artist’s body is always close to the picture plane in this series, and the figure gazes directly at the viewer. These works show the artist comfortably taking on, or mixing and discarding, various signifiers of gender within the genre of the self-portrait.14 Fetting’s painting Self and Salome from 1976 (Figure 5.5) memorializes their affair. It is almost a doubled self-portrait; it is difficult to distinguish one figure from the other. Fetting positions the two as though one were the mirror image of the other, a doubling of
the self that in itself can be considered homoerotic. The painting portrays an intimate couple, where the self/artist utilizes painting to take on and mirror the partner as self.
AIDS Crisis; Loss; AIDS Activism The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s plunged the gay community into crisis. The disease was first named (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) in 1981, after doctors reported cases of unusual cancers (Kaposi’s sarcoma) and pneumonia in otherwise healthy young men in New York and Los Angeles. The disease soon spread to transfu sion recipients and to infants born to mothers with AIDS. As of 2008, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded over 617,000 deaths resulting from diagnoses of AIDS. Deaths from AIDS in the US peaked in 1993, with the highest number of diagnoses occurring in the state of New York. Because of the wider availability of “active” antiretroviral therapy and drugs by the mid 1990s, AIDS deaths had declined by 40 percent by 1997; as of 2006, more than one million people were living with HIV infection in the US. As of today there is still no cure for HIV. However, before these drugs were developed and made available, HIV progressed to full-blown AIDS quickly, in just a few years, and was fatal. In the US large numbers of gay men contracted and died of it in the 1980s; these deaths greatly affected the art community in New York.15
The US government did not respond promptly to the rise of AIDS, nor did it make the crucial effort to educate the public and at-risk communities (including intravenous drug users) in a timely manner about the measures they might take to avoid contracting HIV. The first educational mailing on AIDS issued by the US Surgeon General reached the general public only in 1988, seven years after the disease had been identified. The Gay Men’s Health Crisis, formed in 1981 by Larry Kramer to raise awareness and funds for research into the disease, was instead one of the first organizations to issue pamphlets that emphasized prevention. Unfortunately social conservatives condemned such necessarily explicit explanation. Due to the successful efforts of
conservative politicians like Senator Jesse Helms (Republican, North Carolina) to ban any educational materials that “encouraged homosexual activities”—and this “Helms Amendment” is still in effect—the US government declined to educate its public about AIDS promptly. It is fairly certain that the State’s inaction led to the further spread of the disease in New York and elsewhere, thereby indirectly allowing more citizens to contract it.
One goal of the organization AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), also founded by Kramer in 1987, was directly to coun ter the fear, speculation, and homophobia that had arisen in this vacuum of information about AIDS. Douglas Crimp, an art critic and member of ACT UP, stated in that founding year: “If we rec ognize that AIDS exists only in and through its representations, culture, and politics, then the hope is that we can also recognize die imperative to know them, analyze them, and wrest control of them.”16 A second collective, Gran Fury, was formed in 1988. ACT UP has pitted itself against the elegiac tone taken not only by the media, but also by artists, in representing gay men with AIDS. The AIDS quilt, a project first begun in San Francisco as an act of private mourning of individual friends and lovers, was shown publically in Washington DC for the first time in 1987. The quilt has more recently been seen as a project that “became a public consolation, and part of what it consoled the public for was its failure to care in time.”17 Instead of constructing memorials to the dead, ACT UP staged protests and designed highly effective counter-media imagery in posters, T-shirts, buttons, stickers, and placards, which were disseminated in public spaces. ACT UP and Gran Fury posters most often combined, in post-modernist fashion, a simple text and an amended appropriated image that together urged the public to take action, by means of protest, against the governmental neglect of the spread of AIDS. Perhaps their best-known poster is Silence=Death from 1986 (Figure 5.6), which features text and a realigned pink triangle; this symbol was first used by the Nazis to identify “sexual offenders” (mostly homosexuals). All elements are positioned on a stark black back ground. Even post-modern appropriationist art was reappropriated for ACT UP signage, as in Adam Rolston’s retooling of Barbara
5.6 ACT UP, Silence=Death (1986)
Kruger in I Am Out, Therefore I Am (1989). ACT UP works are highly legible agitprop that resemble effective advertising, but their visual elements often resonate with high-art imagery by Warhol and others. The organization remains active and has begun the “ACT UP Oral History Project” to chronicle its history and the involvement of its members; it is available online.18
The art press severely criticized Crimp for advocating ACT UP’s merely “political art,” also accusing him of “hating” art. In response Crimp has noted that to argue for art that advocates for or avows politics is also to claim that there is art that “is beyond politics rather than art that simply disavows its politics.”19 The general inclusion of AIDS-activist goals in visual art in the 1990s, as ACT UP and Gran Fury practiced it, marked perhaps the most concerted postwar rejection of high-modernist definitions of art as autonomous, separate from the doings of society and the world. This is then another instance when the debate regarding the nature of the connection between art and politics has continued in art discourse.
As I have already mentioned, certain American artists pur sued a personalized, memorializing and mournful tone in their art, which some AIDS activists did not find productive in terms
of producing legislative and ideological change to improve the situation of those living with HIV and AIDS. For example, in the Cuban-born American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “candy spill” installations like Untitled (Revenge) (1991), wrapped hard candies are spread across the floor, or piled in a corner; in these works the number of candies corresponds to Gonzalez-Torres’ and his partner’s body weight (both died of AIDS). These works serve as an abstracted memorial to the artist’s partner, Ross. Viewers are welcome to take candies with them, and the depletion of the candies and their weight metaphorically references the slow ebb of mortality. Ross Bleckner’s dark oil paintings at first took on explicitly memorializing content in the references implied by their titles—in Memory of Larry (1984) or Memoriam (1985). Many of Bleckner’s paintings of the 1980s and 1990s, such as In Sickness and in Health from 1997 (Figure 5.7), feature ghostly and evoca tive forms on a dark background—sometimes birds, or possibly cellular or platelet-like shapes—and titles that suggest referents. The paintings seem to have as their subject the mourning process itself, and the struggle to recuperate from great loss after illness and death.
In their art both David Wojnarowicz and Glenn Ligon inves tigate the issue of the representation of homosexuality within American culture, Ligon (who is also discussed in Chapter 2) uses his text-based conceptual paintings to track the conjoined problems of racism and homophobia as they are to be found in language and visual culture. His photo- and text-based installation Notes on the Margin of the Black Book (1991-3) re-presents selected images from the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s Black Book of 1986. Mapplethorpe’s work contains highly eroticized and stereotypical images of black men, which Ligon juxtaposes with framed quo tations and texts from various intellectuals. Ligon’s examination of Mapplethorpe’s problematic artwork directly interrogates and rejects the power relation that is realized in white artists’ eroti cizing and objectifying of the black male body, an old and even foundational principle of modernism.
David Wojnarowicz remains, with Robert Mapplethorpe, the most controversial artist who engaged with gay rights of the 1980s,
and one of the most important artists of the late twentieth century. Almost 20 years after his death from AIDS in 1992, Wojnarowicz still generates controversy: in December 2010 his film A Fire in My Belly (1986-7) was removed from the exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, held at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. This act of censorship, a deci sion by the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, took place after the Smithsonian had received complaints about one image in the film, of a crucifix with ants on it, from the Catholic League and
5.7 Ross Bleckner, In Sickness and in Health (1997), oil/linen
from the speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner (Republican, Ohio). Both had stated that this image or sequence was offensive to Catholics. During his lifetime Wojnarowicz fought attempts to censor or to misrepresent his art. One of its primary concerns, as Wojnarowicz himself articulated, is to make plain the pervasive censorship and marginalization practiced in American visual culture against representations of sexuality that do not con form to the normative fantasies of white male heterosexuality. A victim of child abuse and neglect, Wojnarowicz was left to live on the streets in New York on his own as a young teenager, where he became a hustler and drug addict Like one of his cultural icons, Genet, Wojnarowicz was an outsider to almost every community?20
Wojnarowicz worked across many mediums including perfor mance, but his most powerful works are in collage and photography. In his ode to Genet, the Xerox collage Untitled (Genet) (1979), he frames Genet’s photomontage likeness with recognizable Christian iconography of sainthood, suffering, and sacrifice: Genet’s face is surrounded by a halo; Renaissance-era angels, the interior of a cathedral-like space, and an image of Jesus Christ with a crown of thorns and a syringe in his arm, can all be seen in the immediate background. The work is also remarkable in that Wojnarowicz comments on the situation of addiction, something that he knew personally, as one of tribulation. The collage can then be read as deeply religious and, indeed, Christian. In it, Wojnarowicz as an addict identifies not only with Genet, but also with the figure of Jesus as the one who suffered most, and who as a deity was able to transcend misery.
Wojnarowicz’s Sex Series of 1988-9 marks a high point in his oeuvre: the works in the series consist of photomontage silver gelatin prints. In each of these works one photographic image takes up most of the picture plane and is printed in the reversed tones of a photographic negative. Most often these primary images are of a landscape. Some images in the series feature a text, and all have at least one vignette photographic image, also printed in negative, and cropped into a circular shape; they resemble the small circular images taken through a microscope. The small vignettes are found images, possibly from pornography, of either
gay or heterosexual sex acts. These smaller images seem to have no relation to the larger landscapes into which they are inserted. The work Sex Series (for Marion Scemama), Bridge from 1988 (Figure 5.8), is perhaps the best-known work in this series, because it was used in an attempt to condemn and censor Wojnarowicz’s art. The image’s references to scientific imagery—to microscopic views but also to the reversed tones of an X-ray image of the body—imply the penetration of surface reality and appearance to get at something concealed beneath it. The primary subject of this series is sexuality, though the artist is also interested in formal composition and the relation of visual elements. He sets up careful links between forms in his juxtaposition of photographic images. Wojnarowicz clearly considered sexuality to be part of daily life, one aspect of the landscape and world that surrounded him. As a gay man, homosexuality was also part of his world, even though it was not recognized as “normal,” or conforming to the dominant modes of heterosexuality. His Sex Series, then, focuses on representing what dominant American culture and ideology requires remain hidden, repressed, and marginalized. Yet the artist refused to allow his own experience to be erased from visual culture. Wojnarowicz heightens the revelatory aspect of this series in using the medium of photography, which is most closely associated with its “documentary” or indexical properties and with representing the “real” world around us.
Because of the power of Wojnarowicz’s photomontages and collages, they became targets of social conservatives, particularly the American Family Association (AFA). Wojnarowicz finally initiated a lawsuit against the AFA for copyright infringement and defamation of character, and won on one complaint. In order to raise funds to counter or eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the AFA reprinted sections or excerpts from Wojnarowicz’s work and represented them as artworks funded by the NEA, the US governmental agency that had given grant funding for an exhibition and catalog of Wojnarowicz’s work at Illinois State University in 1990. The AFA pamphlet had repro duced only one vignette from the Sex Series, a sexual image, and represented it as Wojnarowicz’s “artwork,” with a text entitled
5.8 David Wojnarowicz, Sex Series (for Marion Scemama), Bridge (1988) gelatin silver print
“Your tax dollars helped pay for these ‘works of art.’” The court issued an injunction against further printing and distribution of the AFA’s fund-raising brochure, and awarded Wojnarowicz a nominal sum of $1.21 Despite the fact that the AFA’s cropping and copying of Wojnarowicz’s artworks was deemed to constitute fair use, the decision was a victory for artists’ rights more generally, since the artist was able to stop the censoring and misrepresenta tion of his art in court.
While it may be something that has a stronger resonance with feminism, another dimension of gay rights is raised and advocated by lesbian artists. Facing greater difficulty and margin alization in the intensely patriarchal art world—which gay male artists have not had to face—lesbian artists in modernism have mostly remained closeted, with some exceptions. New research on previously lesser-known lesbian gallerists and artists of the twentieth century, including the French surrealist photographer
Claude Cahun, the New York gallerist Betty Parsons, and the painter Agnes Martin, was an outcome of what has been called the New Art History. This revisionism in the discipline began in the 1970s with art-historical studies that demanded that the dis cipline acknowledge the assumptions at work in how it bestowed aesthetic value on some artists and not on others. The New Art History encouraged a new interest in marginalized cultures and artists within modernism. Many art historians and critics now see the openly lesbian Gertrude Stein, in her roles as art collector and as avant-garde poet, as an important figure for modernism more generally, and have constructed counter-histories of modernism and post-modernism with Stein as the “mother” of each.
Photography remains an important medium for several artists who examine aspects of lesbian identity. Catherine Opie’s best- known artworks center on aspects of the patriarchal structure that continue to shore up the dynamics of inequality and marginaliza tion as they are applied to certain bodies—for example, the lesbian body. Opie became known for a studio-portrait series of her friends in the sadomasochistic leather scene in San Francisco, and for several provocative self-portraits. Working in color photography, Opie poses the subjects of her images before brightly colored backdrops. In her series Being and Having of 1991, her subjects are sometimes inches from the camera lens, and some of them, as in Bo (Figure 5.9), shown sporting a mustache. Lesbian drag kings or others wearing the accouterments of the S&M scene are represented in rich detail in these portraits. At the time of these works in the 1990s, during the AIDS crisis and when homosexu als continued to be outcast, Opie was uninterested in the notion of the assimilating lesbian. Her art intends to lend dignity to women who, like herself, pursue alternative sexual preferences. Like the photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Nan Goldin, Opie uses photography to underscore the performance of gender, a feminist philosophical position articulated by Judith Butler as an aspect of individual autonomy and freedom. Departing from these subjects, Opie more recently has focused on children, and on the banal aspects of the domestic lives of lesbian couples. In one work from her 2006 series of color portraits, she pictures herself nude,
Madonna-like, nursing her young son; others depict children of varying ages who are also the offspring of artists and gay couples. Opie’s art anticipated and cleared the way for the debate on gay marriage in the US, which has since become a central social and political issue. She upends and diversifies the whole notion of family values, opening it to her vision of a diverse and inclusive way of American life.
5.9 Catherine Opie, Bo (1991) (from the series Being and Having). chromogenic print
- gay identity/ queer art
- The New Queer Art
- AIDS Crisis; Loss; AIDS Activism