Is There Such a Thing as
Gay or Lesbian Visual Art?
by Lester Strong
Published by LLGAF in conjunction with the exhibition, Forbidden Visions:
Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman
- Five Decades of Collecting Art, 2003.
$6 non-members • $5 members
OUT OF PRINT
Is There Such a Thing as Gay or Lesbian Visual Art?
by Lester Strong
Is there such a thing as gay or lesbian visual art?
The question is not rhetorical. We live in 2003, a year when Queer as Folk and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy are big hits on television, when out actors like Ellen Degeneres, Ian McKellan, and Rupert Everett are big names in Hollywood, when the U.S. Supreme Court has declared sodomy laws unconstitutional, when gay marriage — already legal in Holland, Denmark, Belgium, and parts of Canada — is being publicly debated across this country as well, and when major visual artists like Harmony Hammond and A.A. Bronson are open about the role being gay plays in their art. But we also live in a deeply homophobic mainstream culture where gay marriage and relationships are decried by many as a travesty of "normal" hetrosexual relationships, where verbal and physical gay bashing is on the rise, where some internationally prominent artists still take pains to elimate any references in print to their being gay. Just a year ago, a major international retrospective of Andy Warhol's art deliberately overlooked his status as a queer artist whose queer vision has deeply impacted our culture at large.
The conclusion is clear: To be seen, to be acknowledged — let alone to be taken seriously — in the art world, self-identified lesbian and gay art still faces major hurdles. Despite taking hits, homopobia is alive and well among those determined to defend the heterosexist status quo — and that includes many people who control access to the art world's galleries, museums, and collectors. Well, sometimes you just have to spit in the eye of homopobia. And that was all the more true over a quarter of a century ago, when Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman surveyed the art world, found it decidedly wanting in regard to gay art, and set about carving out a homo-friendly space where queer artists could be openly queer, joyously queer, defiantly queer. Thus was born the Leslie-Lohman Gallery, later metamorphosed into the Leslie-Lohman Gay Art Foundation (LLGAF).
The term "gay art," of course, can have many meanings, not all of them necessarily sexual. But in the minds of many people — and certainly for the public at large — it equates to gay erotic art: men portraying the sexiness, sexuality and desirability of the male body, women portraying the sexiness, sexuality, and desirability of the female body. It equates to the portrayal of cocks, balls, breasts, and cunts within a framework of same-sex desire. Put more bluntly, it equates to queer pornoraphy.
This was certainly the equation in the minds of federal officials in the late 1980s when they delayed granting LLGAF nonprofit status for three years by asking question after homophobic question challenging its proposed facilities, intentions, and programs. And of course with the type of art Charles and Fritz intended to promote — in which, let us say, the genital and same-sex desire quotients run very high indeed — it's no surprise the homophobia alarms rang loud and clear.
It's to the credit of Charles and Fritz that they didn't back down, and not just because for well over a decade now LLGAF has been able to exhibit plenty of art in which genitals are lovingly portrayed and openly displayed within a framework of same-sex desire. It's not even that the foundation has been able to acquire and preserve the erotic work of many wonderful artists that might otherwise have been lost or hidden away: Andy Warhol, Jean Cocteau, Delmas Howe, to name a few. No — it's also because of being open to the wonder of gay and lesbian erotic art, LLGAF has taken part in and in its own way helped to promote a social revolution going on all around us in which gay men and lesbians are central players.
What I'm talking about, to give it labels, is the sexualization of the male body, and what we might call the autosexualization of the female body. It's men learning to look at their own and other men's bodies as desirable sexual objects, and women learning how to view their bodies through the lens of their own desires rather than those of men. And while it's not making gay men and lesbians out of everyone, it's definitely shaking some of the founations of the reigning social system these days: heterosexist partiarchy.
A social revolution in the days of Bush II, et al., and the so-called family-friendly agenda they're trying to foist off on the American people (in reality, of course, their agenda amounts to nothing more than trying to shore up the heterosexist patriachy the changes threaten) may seem strange. But this revolution has been going on a long time — at least since the early days of Elvis "The Pelvis" Presley's pop music career in regard to men, and 1970s' feminism in regard to women. And so deeply entrenched are the needs it expresses in our psyches that neiter Ronald Reagan, Phyllis Schlafly, Margaret Thatcher, Pat Robinson, Jerry Falwell, nor the entire Bush clan — to name some of the homophobic forces abroad in the world in recent memory — has been able to halt its spread.
In a world where control over people's sexuality is an important means of maintaining the political, social, and even economic status quo, LLGAF's willingness to say yes to art centering on gay and lesbian sexuality amounts to an act of political subversiveness. Or in the memorable phrase of Charles Leslie, it strikes a blow against the oppressiveness of church, state, and straight.
LLGAF is not alone in its efforts these days. Among those who have shown a willingness to explore the meaning of gay and lesbian sexuality through art are organizations like the Schwules Museum in Berlin, Santa Monica Museum of Art in California, Site Santa Fe in New Mexico, and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City, curators like Lawrence Rinder at the Whitney Museum and Dan Cameron at the New Museum, art critics like Holland cotter at The New York Times; and galleries lilke Robert Miller in New York's Chelsea district. But if we are able to answer with a resounding "Yes!" those who question the need, revelance, or even existence of gay and lesbian art, it is thanks in no small part to the pioneering work of Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman, and the foundation that bears their names.