I am an artist.
What’s that? Oh please don’t leave the room! I realize that has absolutely got to be one of the most loaded and obnoxious openers I could have chosen; and often at parties in the environs of Brooklyn I frequent, one might think the apartments were all prone to echoes if it weren’t simply the fact that six-to-nine people at any given time are probably saying the same thing in a crowded room.
I am many things: I am an American, I am male, I am an admirer of well made furniture and good industrial design, I am an urbanite, an uncle, and someone who worries about the health of his houseplants and who probably drinks too much coffee.
I am also gay, and an artist.
I count myself among the lucky who hasn’t lost a single friend or family member in the process of coming out and reconciling those aspects of my personality that were formerly hidden with those parts of myself which have always been public. As I mature I find my identity as a gay man moving beyond the simplified sexuality of my youth, becoming more involved in volunteer work and political activism. I’m trying to set the stage for the next phase of my life and consciously thinking out how my gay identity is going to factor in with that, and how I can give back to the community.
I swear to you, this is not a LiveJournal. I have a point to make and this post is not going to be about me, I promise.
For what it’s worth, among these (perhaps self-aggrandizing) ruminations I have been considering the role of my homosexuality in my art. I make films and videos as well as collages and drawings, and find myself developing projects that address a wide range of subjects. Occasionally I want to incorporate homosexual or erotic themes into some of these works, to address my own experience and the issues at play in the culture at large.
This, in turn, got me thinking about other gay artists and the homoerotic imagery in their own work and the varying receptions they received and how this affected their standing in the ‘Art World’ (a term that should never be place outside quotations).
I realized that by-and-large there are two camps: ‘gay-artists’ and ‘Artists, who are gay.’
What is the distinction, and am I really just making it up? I don’t really think so… but maybe!
The ‘Art World’ is arguably, outside the LBGT community, the most accepting group toward gays and lesbians and their rank and file has been infiltrated with our ilk at least since Giovani Sodoma (I know, right?) painted the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, long an excuse to show the young nude male body; up through the dandified posturing of Jean Cocteau and the torso paintings of Andy Warhol.
What prompted me down this line of thinking were a few particular instances that bubbled up from the dusty fruit cellar of my subconscious as I began to more seriously consider the issue I had set myself to.
First and foremost was a passage in Patricia Morrisoe’s well-written and colorful (to put it mildly) biography on photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, in which at the early onset of his quite meteoric rise up the ‘80s New York art scene he consciously hedges the amount of homoerotic photographs in his output which made him the enfant terrible of his generation.
At one point, he remarked to Carol Squiers “he didn’t want to be ghettoized as a gay artist. Robert was adamant about not being identified with gays, or having gay subjects, but I don’t think you can leave that out.” These concerns prompted Mapplethorpe to branch out into his photographs of flowers, celebrities, and human nudes using the imagery of classical sculpture; all elegant, tasteful, easily accessible and able to fetch high prices for people who wanted to be able to say they had a Mapplethorpe but still have something they would want to hang on their wall.
Second which came to mind was my happenstance visit to the Leslie/Lohman Gay Art Foundation in SoHo, a non-profit institution which also runs a gallery and is dedicated to collecting the work of gay and lesbian artists and art which address issues around the community. I had not previously heard of Leslie/Lohman (again as I get older places such as this are ones I am actively seeking out) and stumbled into it accidentally while gallery hopping with a friend. The exhibition up at the time was photographs from the liberation marches and the AIDS crisis of the ‘70s and ‘80s, moving photography and important documentary journalism, but certainly art about a very specific time and social niche.
For me, these two instances raised some serious questions about the role of sexuality in mine and others’ art. It seemed that there were certainly artists who straddled the fence in addressing serious issues around the gay community, Keith Haring in particular comes to mind, while also producing large bodies of work which do not touch on the subject even obliquely. There are then artists whose majority of output is centered on the gay community, the issues and concerns of that community, and their identity therein.
The second school tends to become somewhat marginalized and marketed to a very specific group of collectors and an audience largely springing from their own community. How does one negotiate this balance? How gay is ‘too gay’ and should this even be a concern? Is it inherently dishonest to push aside an aspect of your personality, or should the artist strive to be somewhat more universal in some instances and perhaps create work outside their own comfort zone?
I eventually realized that this situation is not, in fact unique to the gay community. Women, African Americans, and other artists who belong to a minority group are grossly underrepresented in the ‘Art World’ at large, and those who strongly address the concerns of their particular social group tend to also be marginalized. I respect the work of Cindy Sherman, but I would by no means call her a feminist or her work particularly ‘female,’ and while there are subversive elements to Basquiat’s corpus he was extremely marketable, is easy to hang on a wall, and was in his lifetime more than willing to play the art market game.
I think Hollywood is perhaps a suitable analogy for the art market, despite the abhorrence for that particular institution by many in the ‘Art World.’ You have the multiplexes who show the big name, big sale, accessible stuff (Gagosian, et al) and then you have the smaller venues (the Art Houses, if you will) who show perhaps more experimental stuff. Occasionally there is a crossover and a breakthrough, and a new art star is born and it is up to them to walk the line between broad marketability and addressing those issues which are of concern to them.
It is the issue of a greater inclusiveness in the ‘Art World’ at large, and it is not unique to the gay community. It is a line each artist must walk, and a series of questions they must ask and answer for themselves.