Art is, first and foremost, honest
If LGBT art is sexually-charged, it's because it seeks the truth
July 4, 2012 | 12:00 am
(Updated: February 22, 2013 | 5:16 pm)
I still remember the first time I saw a book of photographs by Ryan McGinley. An art teacher in my high school showed it to me and a female friend, without explanation beyond that I was trusted to appreciate it without immature giggles or umbrage. I’d come out to my school as gay, and recently commented I’d never seen “gay” art that was as provocative as the abundantly-available photography of nude women in museums and art magazines.
McGinley was a then-26-year-old gay realist photographer, the youngest ever to be exhibited in the Whitney Museum of Art, the teacher said. I could have cared less about the museum – but between the pages of the compilation were what I then realized I hoped would be my future.
Depicted were the streets and cramped apartments in New York City, a place I’d never been, but longed for what I imagined it was – the polar opposite of my suburban life. Where being gay was no controversy, where the world wasn’t so easily offended by itself, where young people, I thought, didn’t seek to be “popular” as much as to experience, and where it was a good thing to be a little weird. There were scruffy, apparently-broke 20-somethings, mostly boys and some girls, in what appeared to be everyday ventures: Browsing a stack of vinyl albums, riding a bicycle, stealing a kiss, dozing off in an elevator or sleeping in. But in the snapshots of an aimless and out-of-the-spotlight youth culture was something inspiring: adventure.
The subjects were occasionally shirtless or topless, or nude. In retrospect, some of it could have been staged, yet the nakedness was presented so nonchalantly, so mundane and unselfconscious, that it was innocent; you’d think these were kids who only dressed completely when they were going out. It was as if they were saying the rest of you take life way too seriously, as if the artist’s watch would alarm at random times, and no matter what he and his friends were doing – sleeping, dancing, showering, shoplifting, having sex – he’d get out his camera and snap a picture of it. As if there was never a difference in importance, appropriateness or stigma between any two things people do over the course of a day, or lifetime.
The photos, some unabashedly graphic and all seemingly uncontemplated, were the opposite of everything I’d been taught art was. So to me it was immediately awesome – an art that we all, no matter how unruly, uncultured or unkempt, can experience every day just being alive and real.
Being a typical 17-year-old boy, yet with comparatively fewer opportunities to see those of my preferred gender in a sexual light (straight teenage boys encounter a lot of T&A on cable and film; gay boys don’t see much male nudity), the sexuality definitely caught my attention. I’d never seen homoeroticism in such a legitimate context. Talking to anyone about gay issues was purely about politics, religion and social acceptance, the “sex” part off the radar, a mutually-agreed-upon convention. Seeing those boundaries crossed – shattered by McGinley’s art – was liberating.
Maybe that’s why LGBT art is so frequently imbued in sex, bodies and eroticism. It’s hard not to notice some trend there, and speculate why: Not only does sex trigger that immutable animal part of our brains, as it does for everyone, but its mere appearance for consideration in public spaces is, uniquely for us, intrinsically novel and evocative of broader issues.
Or maybe it’s just that those of us with the courage to come out have tended to be more honest, less able to segment one part of our lives from another – the conception of this issue’s cover story. The type of person who is open and forthcoming about being lesbian or gay would perhaps naturally become the artist who’s open and explicit about what drives her or his creativity.
In our culture, sex is a topic we’re still working on, socially and individually. We’ve all got issues and ever-recurring questions: Should we, in increasingly-legitimized same-sex relationships, adopt conservative public standards the way straight folks used to – talking about sex in hushed language, euphemisms, and never in front of the kids? Is porn morally OK? Is non-monogamy acceptable? Are our books and magazines, social spaces and networking sites too objectifying and focused on skin? Are we as much able to talk about our private lives in earshot of straight people as they are able to do so around us?
Art prods those questions forward, bringing the maligned and embarrassing to new light – giving things we feel some residual shame and embarrassment about a space we can (try our best to) talk about with a straight face. It’s a strange fact that art – something manmade and intentionally illusory – serves an opposite purpose in our lives, and one our culture has always had the deepest appreciation for: drawing eyes to reality and truth.