Monday, August 8, 2011

Jonathan Katz and "Hide/Seek"

Breakup: Johns / Rauschenberg

Jonathan Katz and “Hide/Seek”

“You can show things
in paintings that you
can never get away
with in print.”
—Jonathan Katz,
Tacoma Museum of Art
July 28, 2011

Jonathan Katz recently gave a fascinating lecture on the National Portrait Gallery’s cancelled show—“Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” at the Tacoma Museum of Art (July 28, 2011),

“Hide/Seek” was the first major museum exhibition to address gender and sexual identity. Katz explained the politics of the NPG’s selection process & the delicate problem of getting permission from other galleries for the glbt “Hide/Seek” portraits.

The complexities & controversies surrounding the original NPG show could be a published in a separate book or become a film in itself. The Tacoma Museum of Art decided to showcase “Hide/Seek.” Then it invited Jonathan Katz to Tacoma to discuss the show’s portraits.

Jonathan Katz has given us West Coast gays & lesbians—a calm, fascinating, professional, very insightful lecture on some of the NPG portraits themselves. Which is after all what the “Hide/Seek” show was all about in the first place.

As a writer, I usually attend readings or lectures by literary critics—so I found Katz’s delivery to be uniquely different and very helpful for me to understand this visual aspect of the glbt revolution more clearly—just as the film critic David Gerstner has done with his recent excellent book, “Queer Pollen: White Seduction, Black Male Homosexuality, and the Cinematic” (2011).

Both Katz & Gerstner concentrate on one of the most exciting aspects of the glbt revolution—in particular for me how gay artists, poets, writers, filmmakers “portray” their subjects and “portray” themselves in this complex “virtual homophobia” zeitgeist we’re going through.

According to Katz, there’s a struggle even battle that goes on between the “sitter” who wants his own contemporary image to shine & prevail over others—versus the portraitist himself/herself who struggles with this “sitter” so that as an artist, cineaste & writer their glbt POV prevails in the usual hetero soup de jour we swim around in.

In fact, according to Katz, the country has lost something very valuable from the past—and that is the postwar annulment of “queer-straight” commonality which was present throughout America in the early twentieth century. Believe it or not, there was a Whitman-esque “adhesiveness” that prevailed & was portrayed by “queer-straight” art and literature. Things haven’t always been as tense as they are now.

Katz traces this “queer-straight” controversial realignment & failed détente to WWII. Many were worried in Europe, especially England, that the future of Western Culture was at stake. E. M. Forester when asked what made western civilization possible or survivable—mentioned the “Aristocracy of the Sensitive.” (1938)

Paul Cadmus, Forester’s artist friend & colleague, said it in a different way—with a “portrait” painting of himself, his lover & their friends entitled “What I Believe” (1947). This kind of portrayed “glbt adhesiveness” was more direct and could say things that literary Forester couldn’t say. Gay intelligentsia may be another phase for “aristocracy of the sensitive.”

During the conservative cold-war witch-trial McCarthy Era is when we gay intelligentsia & aristocrats of the sensitive—were discriminated again, hunted down & black-listed, purposely made an enemy-of-the-state. Rather than the “lynchpin” of western civilization, we were treated with “lynch-parties” like the blacks in the south.

Has this postwar “virtual homophobia” changed much since the postwar period? Hardly, my dears. The National Portrait Gallery flap & the earlier anti-gay “Mapplethorpe-Mandingo” controversy over “The Man in the Polyester Suit”—these and other quasi-political, quasi-religious, quasi-queer “Encounters of the GLBT Kind” continue don’t they?

Queer portraiture as well as queer portraitists such as Robert Mapplethorpe and David Wojnarowicz will probably always be “politically incorrect” in the US. Although the “body-politic” POV towards us seems to be changing somewhat as the “same-straight” osmosis between us & them continues to ooze together somewhat—as with most constipated blockage issues such as DADT & DOMA over time.

Marriages & divorces aren’t easy for gays or str8ts—I suppose that’s why Katz’s thoughts on Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were very touching and fascinating for me. How these two artists were married together and then divorced themselves—is something most of us have gone through I’m sure.

Most of us don’t do “portraits” of such a difficult rite de passage however—and both these men did, perhaps they had to, both fearing the loss of their creative powers after such a traumatic separation. Every couple’s different I suppose—but with these two modern artists the “divorce portraiture” was more than difficult. It was a matter of psychic & artistic survival—like Siamese twins being cut apart.

Robert Rauschenberg portrayed gay divorce with “Cantos XIV” (1959) based on Dante & the sodomites. Jasper Johns portrayed the Rauschenberg divorce with “Souvenir” (1964)—although both artists probably did many portrayals of this period in their lives.

I’m sure many astute art critics have already analyzed the nuances of this “divorce portraiture” process—something that was still in the “virtual homophobia” closet when they were together.

When Robert Rauschenberg passed away several years ago, the NYTimes made note of his brief, early marriage, but tiptoed thru the tulips as far as his longtime marriage with Jasper Johns.

How discrete of the Old Grey Lady—who continues to trash gays as with the rather maudlin Hart Crane trashy review by William Logan “Hart Crane’s Bridge to Nowhere” (1/28/2007).

This so-called “virtual homophobia” in the arts that Katz alludes to—reveals itself in this particularly bitchy essay by Miss Logan of Langdon Hammer’s “Complete Poems and Selected Letters” edition by The Library of America:

“Crane tried on various identities as a young man and failed at most of them. He was frank about his homosexuality only with close friends—his sexual appetites were voracious and involved far too many sailors. (The definitive work on the United States Navy’s contributions to cruising has yet to be written.)”

Virtual homophobia sure can get dishy, can’t it?

“Crane dreamed of being a poet much more often than he sat at his desk and wrote poems; and he was forever complaining in letters that he had no time to write, though he found plenty of time to drink. He conceived his major poem, “The Bridge,” as early as 1923 but made only desultory progress toward it. (Remaining drunk all through Prohibition proved surprisingly easy.) It was hard work, avoiding real work; but Crane became an expert at writing cadging letters to his divorced parents and playing one against the other.”

This kind of treatment is what Johns and Rauschenberg would have got—and perhaps they did? As with Mapplethorpe and Wojnarowicz—as well as Oscar Wilde and many of the Hollywood black-listed writers and directors.

Rauschenberg’s "Canto XIV" with its circle of hell in Dante's Inferno—where sodomites are forced to run barefoot in hot sand. Both Dante and Rauschenberg—as well as Johns and others knew only too well about the “queer-straight” lack of commonality which has existed for glbt lovers.

Rather than commenting on “Canto XIV” or “Souveier” any further than the professional critics have already done—let me just say that my reponse to these two divorce portraits was to do my own amateur portrait version of the Johns-Rauschenburg separation at the beginning of this essay, entitled simply “Breakup.” Based on a snapshot—with the third-party divorcee individual in between the two disenchanted artists…

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