This Art Is So Gay!
Andy Warhol was gay. So was Francis Bacon, Herbet List and Gordon Anderson. Creatives who in their respective fields have been recognised as compelling, insightful and exciting. Unfortunately they have been labelled as everything except gay. A hard pill to swallow for a sector of society, Who’s creative output over the last century has gone largely unrecognised. This is not something that I would regularly think about.
Particularly with the so called emancipation of Egypt and global warming, there are more pressing matters at hand. Recently however I was sitting at home. Its 8:30 and I have just finished watching an episode of that soapie with which the whole of Mzansi seems to have a love affair with. Generations! A vuvuzela goes off. Then another and pretty soon there is a chorus of noise all over the street. No, South Africa has not shaken that proverbial title of chokers and won the cricket world cup.
But rather there are two gay men, kissing! On Generations nogal? Surely not!. But the vuvuzelas were not blowing in celebration of the liberation of a community that has been so deeply embedded in the closet that not even a 22 part musical by R-kelly could get them out. The vuvuzelas instead blow in condemnation of the whole affair. “How dare they spit on us like that” I hear a neighbour shouting.
“This is our show”. It is at that moment that I am reminded of the ideals of creativity. That art is perhaps the single greatest area of human achievement. It is also the most erratic. It seems to transform itself. Form the renaissance to the impressionists. Creativity cannot be put in a box. Unfortunately over the last few decades, realising this has made a lot of artists sit and wait for it to knock them in the buttocks. So much so that critics and artists alike have been consistently failing to answer (and at times even ask) the most important questions about the art and the artists of the day.
One such area that has gone largely unquestioned is the stake of the lesbian and gay community in the arts. For large chunks of the last century Lesbians, Gays, Bisexual and Transexuals (LGBT’s) have played a momentous role in blurring the lines between art and culture, pop and entertainment. Perhaps for no other reason than the shock factor. Key figures like Capote and Alvin Ailey have in significant ways changed the way we look at what society deems normal. Why then have we been so slow to respond?
Maybe it’s because of the stigma around homosexuality. It is considered almost a default position (even by the most seasoned art lovers and critics) that LGBT’s can make no contribution to that art we interact with. Let alone a positive one! The idea is just too ludicrous for public consumption. Or is it?
Take into consideration the paradigms around which gay art is framed, and I will show you ludicrous. With social tensions as they are the discourse is shifting towards the centre. We have to accept (publicly or behind closed doors) that we as art critics often use the sexual identity of an artist as a good starting point towards understanding the artist himself. It is through this that we are able to recognise the subtle admiration of masculinity in Capote In cold blood and other works. Or the overt sexuality in the works of Tamotsu Yato.
Coincidently the rebuttal of this alternative creative sphere goes a step higher in the hierarchy then just the regular gallery goer. Our gate keepers have persistently continued to shut down these brave new voices. This was epitomised early last year when minister Lulu Xingwana, expressed her scorn towards a series of pictures taken by Zanele Muholi. The pictures showcase women in intimate positions draped in the softest cloths. Something that was displeasing to the minster who labelled the exhibition as “porn” and “goes against nation building”
Unfortunately minister Xingwana does not stand alone. At the risk of sounding conspiratorial, there are many other who feels the same. Gallery curators, collectors and the likes have played a key role in making sure that the platform afforded gay artists locally is rather minimal. So much so that some several artists have even chosen to open galleries of their own as a last resort to counter this trend.
Equally alarming after the minister’s statements was the fact that there was never any real follow up on the issue. With the exception of a few commentaries here and there the story was quickly dismissed as yesterday’s news. Another over cooked meal. Even our very own artistic institutions were rather mum. There was nothing from the National arts council and the Arts and culture trust certainly didn’t send us any postcards.
In an ideal world there would have been vigorous debate around the role of gay artists in the South African arena. Unfortunately such ridiculous notions will remain as just that, ridiculous notions that must be exiled to an ideal world.
But even if the issue had been discussed, would there have really been any difference? Would the shareholders rise suddenly from their wrath and commission a new series from Muholi? Surely not. If there is one thing that can be said about the debate on role of gay artists in public art, is the ability of the debate to go on a tangent. Academics and artists alike seem to focus on the nitty-gritties as opposed to the real issues.
The mere fact that I as straight person am writing this article, is likely to draw questions around my sexuality then it is draw a new audience to the works of Zanele Muholi, David Shaw, Staceyann Chin and the likes. And so another generation of gay artists will go unnoticed and unfortunately that is the maximum price we can pay.