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Art and Homosexuality: What's the Connection?

Posted by Josh Rothman  May 4, 2011 08:15 AM

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If alien anthropologists were to visit our world, one of the weird things they'd promptly investigate would be the (apparent) connection between art and homosexuality. From Oscar Wilde to Robert Mapplethorpe, it seems that being artistic and being gay are, somehow, connected -- even if only in the collective imagination. As Christopher Reed, an English professor and art historian at Penn State, points out in his forthcoming Art and Homosexuality: A History of Ideas, "Calling someone 'arty' or 'artistic' has often been a euphemism for homosexuality." Reed's question is: why?

To understand the connection, Reed argues, you have to look at the histories of both art and homosexuality -- and you have to look very carefully, in a nuanced way. Reed starts with Ancient Greece and moves, painstakingly, into the present. What he shows is that "homosexuality" is a very modern term, which doesn't really apply to sexuality in past eras. The word "homosexuality" has a very definitive ring to it: it means that you belong firmly to one sex, and are attracted to people of that same sex. But societies throughout history have had more fluid ideas about sex and gender. In many societies -- like Navajo society, or the Tahiti that so intrigued Gaugain -- some people have lived as androgynous members of a third gender. Ancient Greek life was similarly fluid: The ancient Greeks, Reed writes, "sanctioned a role for homosexual behavior between males of different ages," while prohibiting most homosexual acts between adults. It's hard to figure out what to call that behavior; using the word "homosexual" just has the effect of obscuring its strangeness. (This was a problem for Victorian homosexuals, Reed points out, who tried to gain acceptance by using terms like "Greek love" when their lives were, in many ways, very un-Greek.)

The truth, it seems, is that people in the past weren't quite as invested in identity as we are today. The idea that homosexuality was an identity -- a whole way of being that saturated every aspect of your character, from your dress to your friends to your taste in books and music -- arose only in the mid-nineteenth century. In part, that rising sense of homosexual identity was driven by homophobic doctors, who worked to medicalize homosexual behavior. But that development was, in turn, part of a larger trend towards thinking of people in terms of clearly defined "types." In fact, it was during the same period that the type of "the artist" emerged. It used to be that a painter was just a painter, but now he was an Artist -- a person whose aesthetic sensibility shaped every part of his identity.

Art and homosexuality feel connected to us, Reed concludes, because artists and homosexuals asserted their identities around the same time, and in ways that emphasized their independence from an increasingly airtight society. (Think of Oscar Wilde, who declared independence from every kind of convention simultaneously.) There's nothing intrinsic about art that connects it with homosexuality, or vice versa. The connection, really, comes from the fact that "the artist" and "the homosexual" were two of the most challenging identities to emerge during the golden age of identity. That story is particularly, and peculiarly, modern. As for the future -- Reed doubts that the connection has staying power. History, he writes, shows that "the definitions of art and homosexuality are multiple and constantly evolving." And identities that once seemed vivid and threatening come, inevitably, to seem conventional and familiar. The special magnetism that brought these two identities together will only lessen with time, until it seems inexplicable -- something for art historians of the future to puzzle over.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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