Sense or Sensibility: Part I, the PowerHOUSE Arena panel discussion “Them Boys: A roundtable discussion on the history and future of gay art,” with contributions by Tracey Drew
Earlier this May at the powerHouse Arena in DUMBO, there was a panel discussion in conjunction with The Male Gaze exhibition curated by Nicholas Wiest. The exhibition featured work, mostly photographic, through the decades from well known and lesser-known gay artists. On the panel sat Them Boys: Bruce Benderson, AA Bronson, Michael Bullock, Billy Miller, Daniel Reich, and Casey Spooner—with Nicholas Wiest mediating. Wiest introduced the event as an opportunity to discuss the future of gay art. Does this include gay women…? To get the ball rolling, he asked the mother of all questions: “What is gay art?” Almost immediately the uprooted pew, that old piece of church the participants were sitting on, divided dialectically. Interestingly enough, at opposite ends sat AA Bronson and Bruce Benderson with equally opposite perspectives on the matter. So, the argument that followed snapped between locating gayness as sense or sensibility.
“Gay art’s about men fucking men,” Bruce Benderson bluntly affirmed. Taking the position of sense, he rooted his argument in the actual pith of the homosexual experience, no more and no less, intimacy man to man. This truth cannot and should not be denied, but the sheer rationalism is an unfashionable and risky position. It is this very determinism that drove the pathology of the turn of the century against gays and the decontextualization of their experience to mere fact—the medical gaze. To broaden the lens would be to encompass a wider context of sexuality, and there would be no need for the categorization of gay art per se, rather the umbrella term “erotic art.” A beneficial exhibition would be one that features sexuality in general as was noted.
. . . but what of the trappings of being gay? Benderson remarked that the term “gay,” as we know it today, can be traced to the personal ads of the papers in the twenties where a man might seek another with a certain “gay” style, flair, or sensibility. So, AA Bronson voiced that gay art is made from and maintains a certain j'nais se quoi. He retorted that this sensibility was not learned from a certain class of people, but cut across upbringing and culture in the making of a unique set of characteristics, like a family, all sounding very Richard Shusterman, very somaesthetic, as in the new pragmatism of the body, and focus on lifestyle/performance within culture and outside it.
Ultimately, an identity project is one working within the language of culture . . . and culture, for better or worse, is the commodifiable experience of production and reproduction. However honest and natural the traits of the family may be, they are not safe from the market as Capitalism dehumanizes the personal to a target. I concur and would define Disney as a form of pornography. The very sensibilities of being gay then become their limit. Daniel Reich noted that at one point gallerists and dealers would not dare forefront an artist by his or her sexuality, which now is common practice. How the market has changed and the galleries followed. Could it not be said that the galleries led the market? As they also now lead the property market, but both follow the artists.
And yet, there is a dilemma, the problem of responsibility. As gay artists, how can we speak out for our community without compromising our position and selling out? This is the reason Casey Spooner of Fisherspooner skirted the issue of his sexuality with the press for years. He actually had his straight band mate deal with all the gay press for some time. When he did decide to do an interview for a gay publication, the reporter reamed him out for not being open with the gay youth in need of a successful role model. Benderson thinks it all irrelevant. He sighted Tennessee Williams as a gay man who found a commitment to making universal stories of being human. Case in point, on the part of the artist there is a responsibility to the human condition and not the constituency, a veritable unlearning of difference. An interesting point in transcendence, he noted that the majority of readers for his gay romance novels in France are women (a curious twist in the market). He reasoned his novels deal with the obsessions and trials of any relationship women in particular relate to and follow.
Sense or sensibility, gay art is either a sub-group of erotic art or a construction of the market. It does not exist. What does exist is queer art. Queeràqueryàquestioning being—the root of the most successful creative work and imagination. Yes I agree. Queer art practice and theory can be said to have powered art from the Renaissance onwards in a way gay male art cannot claim for itself, as it is so narrowly defined and exclusive by self definition. The questions of identity and gender now raised in queer theory also include notions of exploring definitions of race, sexuality, and power that can be said to have had real political implications, far reaching and profound, which at first are perceived as uncomfortable or shocking but then lead society to a redefinition of rules and notions of inclusivity for gay female and other “other” sensibilities. Perhaps in the way that Capitalisim is defined by Marxisim, Queer theory is now defining society in terms of perceptions of gendering art and architecture and defining clarity in terms of production….Mark Wallinger at the Tate, for instance could not be there without queer theory.
Tracey Drew is an English visual artist involved in developing a rigorous formal dialogue between Modernism, Feminism, and Late Capitalism via memento mori tableaux. Her approach is both radical and lyrical, hence Radical Lyricism. Currently, she is constructing a website covering her work in film graphics, research, and painting.