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Taking on the antigay censors
In his new book, Outlaw Representation, Richard Meyer tells tales from the long, sad history of the censorship of lesbian and gay artists. One result of his project has been that his own book, with its 194 photos and illustrations of controversial work, has now itself been censoredbecoming a part of the very history it covers.
By Tim Miller
An Advocate.com exclusive posted February 6, 2001
Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in 20th-Century American Art, by Richard Meyer. Oxford University Press, $35, 392 pages.
There's no mistaking what's going on in this portrait of a naked man: The vintage physique photo has been censored by a diagonal white bar across the model's pelvis. The white band both arouses and frustrates our desire to see what lies beneath it, to see the best bit of Ben Montgomery's portrait. As viewers of this photograph, we may try to imagine it prior to the imposition of the diagonal white band. Yet the partially blocked picture is all that survives.
In this analysis of a censored photoand in thousands of other examplesRichard Meyer's new book Outlaw Representation proves to be a triumphant exploration of how conflicts over censorship and homosexuality have transformed the history of modern art in America. From Mapplethorpe to Warhol, the author masterfully charts the complex crosshairs of sexuality and politics as we witness again and again the collision between gay sensibility and the long arm of the law.
OK, I'm no stranger to these battles, since as one of the so-called NEA 4 I learned firsthand what it's like to have your creative work under the gun of people like Jesse Helms. Nonetheless, I was blown away by Meyer's grasp of his subject and the light he shines onto this sad litany of censorship in America.
I found the book intensely reassuring about the courage of gay artists in the face of such attacks on freedom of expression. As I read Outlaw Representation, I was struck by how skillfully Meyer locates the ways both artists and subjects managed to get around censorship, claim power over their creativity, and sometimes even challenge the unjust authority that was messing with them. He shares with the reader an amazing analysis of the famous Weegee photo from the late 1930s of the drag queen being arrested but still finding the feistiness and agency to mug a huge smile for the camera, which is so moving.
When asked about the subject of that photograph, who found a way to reject outlaw status even as she is thrown in the paddy wagon, Meyer replied, "What I love about that picture, in addition to its title, The Gay Deceiver, is the way the drag queen turns the circumstances of her arrest into an extension of her camp persona. Rather than hiding her face in shame, as did most of the other people Weegee photographed in the midst of being arrested, The Gay Deceiver makes the most of her appearance before the camerashe lifts her skirt and smiles while stepping daintily out of the paddy wagon. It's as though the police station has become her stage set and Weegee her own personal glamour photographer. The Gay Deceiver embraces her role as an outlaw even as she reimagines that role from her perspective as a drag queen."
It's this kind of deep empathy for the artists who created the images as well as the subjects and viewers that makes Outlaw Representation as moving as it is smart. The impressive historical reach of the book really invites the reader to realize that the censoring of queer art has always been as American as apple pie. I recently talked with Richard Meyer about art, queerness and outlaws.
Tim Miller: What led you to write a book on censorship and homosexuality in American art?
Richard Meyer: During the controversies over federal funding and homoerotic art in the late 1980s, I was working toward a Ph.D. in art history at U.C. Berkeley. I increasingly began to think about how I might use my scholarly training to situate the censorship of gay art as something that began long before Jesse Helms denounced Mapplethorpe on the floor the U.S. Senate. As part of this effort, I researched and eventually interviewed Paul Cadmus, an artist whose painting of sailors on shore leave, The Fleet's In!, was confiscated by the Navy in 1934 and denounced as a "disgraceful orgy." The painting featured a group of sailors carousing on Riverside Drive along with several women and a single male civilian who embodied period stereotypes of the homosexual (e.g. red tie, dyed blond hair, rouged cheeks). One of the things that interested me about the censorship of The Fleet's In! was that its portrayal of homosexuality was never acknowledged in the 1930s, even though that portrayal was surely a part of the reason why the work was censored. Even as military officials were troubled enough by The Fleet's In! to seize it from a museum under cover of night, they could not fully describe or explain the problem the work presented.
As it happened, The Fleet's In! was confiscated from the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. in the 1930s. More than 50 years later, that same museum would cancel Robert Mapplethorpe's retrospective exhibition The Perfect Moment under pressure from conservative politicians and religious groups. From Cadmus to Mapplethorpe and beyond, my book traces the conflicts surrounding art, homosexuality, and politics in America.
Why did you call the book Outlaw Representation? Is gay artistic production inevitably in some way criminalized?
Throughout the last century, homoerotic art has often been attacked as obscene, immoral, or otherwise illegitimate. Yet, as I argue in my book, gay artists have found creative ways to use the outlaw status of homosexuality as a means of responding to the attacks on their work. Andy Warhol, for example, drew upon the gritty allure of police mug shots in his mural for the 1964 World's Fair, a painting comprised entirely of silk-screened blowups of the police department's "most wanted men." Just before the official opening of the fair, Warhol's mural was censored by officials who had it painted over with silver house paint. Rather than simply allow his Most Wanted Men to disappear, Warhol saved the silk screens from the mural and made large portraits of each outlaw that he used to decorate his famous studio, The Factory, and later exhibited in both Europe and the U.S.
When a work of art is censored, it rarely just vanishes into thin air. More typically the work is reproduced in the press, remade by the artist, and recirculated by a range of different audiences. I am interested in the afterlife of censored works of art, the ways in which they continue to reappear in the wake of their suppression.
Speaking of outlaws, this material is pretty hot subject matter. Did you face any problems with censorship in terms of publishing this book?
Shortly after the book went into production, I was informed that the London office of Oxford University Press would not distribute the book in England or anywhere in Europe unless I agreed to remove Mapplethorpe's picture of Jesse McBride, a 1976 portrait of a naked little boy. According to a lawyer for the press, the photograph violated two different criminal codes, including the English Protection of Children act of 1978. Because I refused to remove the image from the manuscript, the London arm of Oxford University Press severed all connections to the book. The book remains without a distributor in the U.K. or Europe.
In the passage of my book devoted to Jesse McBride, I look at how those who attacked Mapplethorpe's work in the late 1980s used this photograph to reinforce long-standing stereotypes of gay men as pedophiles. Although no sexual activity is shown (or even suggested) in the portrait, and although the picture was commissioned by the child's mother who was in the room at the time of its taking, the very fact that Mapplethorpe had photographed a naked boy was enough, at least in the minds of Pat Robertson and Jesse Helms, for the photographer to be accused of child molestation. Given this history, I was unwilling to remove the portrait of Jesse McBride from Outlaw Representation. I want readers to see that a photograph of a naked body does not automatically constitute pornography, even when the body at issue is that of a child. To allow the portrait to be removed from the book because of a concern about legal liability would have been tantamount to labeling the photograph obscene.
Just to see the beauty and sexy heat of these images assembled in a single book counts as a remarkable achievement. Can you talk about the importance of visual images to this book? There are almost 200 images, including many color reproductions.
The pictures in the book comprise a visual archive of censored and suppressed art in the 20th century. I fought to include as many images as possible and raised money to print about 50 of them in color so that the pictures could appear in the strongest possible light. In response to the charge that these images are obscene or indecent, I wanted to provide a place where they might be seen again and taken seriously as works of creative achievement and visual complexity. I'm perfectly happy to have readers who primarily want to look at the pictures since, in many ways, the pictures tell the story of gay art and censorship most powerfully.
The images remind us of the huge impact gay artists have had on our culture. How do you think queer culture has contributed to the history of art?
Part of what I'm arguing is that art history can not be fully understood without taking homosexual culture into account. The career of a key figure like Warhol doesn't make sense unless you think about the queer worlds of fashion and design in the 1950s, of underground film in the 1960s, and of Studio 54 in the 1970s. The culture of homosexuality is not some sidelight to the main story of art history but an essential part of it.
You end the book by talking about taking "the risk of unrespectability." Can you say more about what you mean by that?
Taking the "risk of unrespectability" means accepting the fact that somebody somewhere will always be bothered by homosexuality, will always consider it a "problem" for the larger culture. Rather than responding to such people by arguing that lesbians and gay men are no less normal, dignified, or morally upstanding than anyone else, I am interested in what happens when we insist that we really are different, and that our difference opens onto other possibilities for social, sexual, and creative life. This, for me, is the appeal of queernessthe refusal to conform to someone else's idea of what it means to live a respectable life, to have normal sex, or to make decent art. The artists in Outlaw Representation took the risk of unrespectability not only by portraying homosexuality in their work but also by emphasizing the power of nonconformity.
Outlaw Representation gives us an amazing and inspiring road map of potential ways that gay artists have pushed boundaries and challenged society. What to you think your book tells us about strategies for countering the censorship of gay culture now and in the future?
Gay and lesbian artists have made precious contributions to American culture not by fitting their work into some rigid standard of decent art but by proposing alternative visions of social, sexual, and creative life. Rather than downplaying or apologizing for their difference from the mainstream, queer artists have expanded upon and expressed that difference in brilliantly imaginative ways. I think this is a crucial historical lesson and a key strategy for the future not only of gay art but also of gay life and politics.
Tim Miller is a solo performer and the author of the books Shirts & Skin and Body Blows. He can be reached via his Web site, http://hometown.aol.com/millertale/timmiller.html.
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