Creative Eros: The generative power of sexuality in art
July 3, 2012 | 5:00 pm
(Updated: February 25, 2013 | 3:17 pm)
For as long as he can remember, Denver photographer Anthony Norris has been drawn to – if not lived inside – that fantasy world inside his own head.
“I can see it,” he said. “You have to be in the moment to create that world, to build what you want. It’s a different way to think, a different way to look at the world.”
Growing up in the tiny hamlet of Mount Vernon, Illinois (pop. 15,000), there was no cultivated path for young artists looking to develop their talent. Yet inspiration was appearing around every corner for the adolescent Norris. “There were two twin girls that lived across the street where I grew up,” he remembered, “and they took me over to their house to see their father’s collection of Playboy magazines. And while Playboy is not considered fine art, as photographers, these people were creating a kind of art. That was one of my first exposures to sexuality.”
The eroticism in the pages of the 1980s Playboy didn’t match what was going on in young Anthony Norris’s head, but he was drawn to the sensuality – the fantasy those photographers were after, he said. The experience has remained with Norris to this day, the theme of twins remaining a consistent image in his photography.
When the time came for Norris to really plunge himself into the whimsical realms of his own mind – pursuing a fine-art degree from Syracuse University – the results were wildly liberating for him, yet problematic for his family.
“One of my final pieces I created was about my sexuality,” he said, citing homoerotic photographer Duane Michals as an influence. “It was very cerebral, subconscious type of imagery. I took that and showed it to my parents. It was basically me coming out. Being traditional, small-town people, it wasn’t received well.”
While Norris returned to the closet after that experience – going as far as a heterosexual marriage that produced a daughter – in time he found support from friends and fellow artists, moving to Denver “for the sunshine,” and establishing a life of sexual liberation and creative exploration.
“People who are artists and are creative must have long term intentions,” he said. “It becomes something you have to do. Either you’re in or you’re out. I can’t not create; I can’t not photograph. I could never stop.”
Not all artists are gay – nor are all gay persons artists – yet historically, the two have gone hand-in-hand. “Telling the history of art without the history of gay people is like telling the history of slavery without mentioning black people,” said historian David C. Ward during an interview with Salon during their coverage of a Smithsonian retrospective on gays in art history. “There’s been an entire history hiding in plain sight.”
While it almost goes without saying that homoeroticism existed in the art of ancient Greece and Rome, many art historians have stirred up controversy by suggesting that Renaissance painters Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were both closeted homosexuals, as evidenced in accusations of sodomy and their clear delight in the male figure in their art. During the roaring ’20s of the Western world, cities like Berlin, Paris, New York and London played host – and refuge – to artists and LGBT individuals of the world, looking to find a place where their natural lifestyles would not land them in prison or the gallows. Perhaps both camps recognized one other as enlightened to their true selves, both following Anthony Norris’ ethos of opening up the mind, living in the moment and letting what is naturally inside you come out.
Many artists have sought to live outside mainstream society to discover their inner selves, moving to cities or culturally evolved communities to be able to live day-to-day in a world of uncensored expression. In her book, Just Kids, Patti Smith describes the years she spent as companion to gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in 1970s New York. The best seller depicts a romantically troubled life of poverty, heartbreak and inspiration, Smith and Mapplethorpe casually drifting around the now iconic pre-punk scene of Manhattan. Smith recalls one night when she and Mapplethorpe were allowed rare access to the art vaults of the Met, touching private nude photos that Alfred Stieglitz had taken of Georgia O’Keeffe. “As Robert concentrated on the technical aspects, I focused on Georgia O’Keeffe as she related to Stieglitz, without artifice,” she writes. “Robert was concerned with how to make the photograph, and I with how to be the photograph.”
In 1989 Mapplethorpe’s art was the center of controversy when a Washington D.C. museum, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, abruptly backed out of plans to show his work due to its explicit and homoerotic nature; a year later the photographs found a home in the Washington Project for the Arts, which was then charged with obscenity. Even a decade later, a University of Central England student’s book Mapplethorpe’s work was nabbed by the police who threatened the school with the classic “obscenity charge” if the book wasn’t immediately destroyed.