'Gay' Art: Dolled Up and Still Dressed Down

By Philip Kennicott

Washington Post Staff Writer

Sunday, November 30, 2003; Page N07

John Trobaugh's photographs of Ken dolls and G.I. Joe figures hugging and staring lovingly at one another are as far from obscenity as the risque is removed from the romantic. They're completely clothed, and doing nothing that would earn even the most puritanical parent's disapproval. And they are, after all, just dolls and action figures. But even that much homoeroticism has been banned in Alabama.

An exhibition of Trobaugh's work was removed last month from a public gallery of Shelton State Community College, in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on orders of the college's president, Rick Rogers. The stated reason, according to Trobaugh and a college spokesman, was that the content was controversial and would clash with a production of the popular theatrical chestnut "Arsenic and Old Lace" (a light comedy about murdering the elderly) playing at the college. After protests, the college agreed to remount the exhibition in an empty second-floor classroom, but not in the public gallery. Trobaugh was willing, even though finding the classroom required a map, but negotiations over printing invitations and a promised reception broke down, and ultimately Trobaugh felt insulted and took his art elsewhere.

The college, however, says it offered Trobaugh exactly what it offers other artists, and cites a production of the gay-themed play "The Laramie Project" as evidence that it's not uncomfortable with homosexuality.

So the culture wars grind on, the battles smaller and more local, but no less angry than the flap over the Corcoran Gallery of Art's plans to exhibit photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, which got Sen. Jesse Helms hot, hot, hot back in 1989. But there is an important difference: It's not just obscene art that gets people riled; art with any suggestion of same-sex affection or eroticism will do almost as well. In a more closeted era, gay artists would speak in a subtle and complex code to gay audiences, a code that usually went over the head of the general populace. Today, the general populace is quite good at discerning even the sliest feints in the homophile direction.

Richard Meyer, a scholar who has written on the censorship of homosexual imagery in American art, came to Washington this month to give an update on the subject at the Renwick Gallery. Meyer is the recipient of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Charles C. Eldredge Prize, which honors distinguished scholarship in American art. His ideas gained wide attention through his highly praised book "Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art," soon to be reissued in paperback by Beacon Press.

Meyer's work suggests the complexity of the strange dance that artists and their detractors do, and the strange way in which censorship shifts attention away from the content of art and onto the artist and his or her politics.

Censorship is one of the most effective ways to make artists famous.

It draws attention not only to their work, but often to relatively minor details in their work (the naughty bits). Once censored, an artist's work is no longer just art, but "censored art," which is its own category. While partisans in the culture wars line up for or against certain types of art (sexually suggestive, religiously unorthodox), Meyer stands back and looks at the details, the process and the contradictions.

For instance: When the artist Alma Lopez was criticized for an image that showed the Virgin of Guadalupe as a sexually attractive young Latina (decorously covered with flower garlands), one might think she had taken huge liberties with a sacred image. But Meyer has done his homework, and demonstrated for the Renwick audience that Lopez's digital collage is not a terribly radical departure from a long and rich tradition of Virgin imagery. There's the Virgin painted on a hot rod. There's the Virgin on a matchbook cover. There's the Virgin used as part of an advertisement for a psychic. Despite the cheapening and vulgarity of those representations, they are still deemed religiously respectful. But a woman artist representing the Virgin as sexually attractive is instantly read as sacrilegious.

There was one other, wee objection to Lopez's picture. At the bottom, as an ornamental figure, is a bare-chested woman, holding up the Virgin rather like cherubs sometimes hold up religious figures in Renaissance painting. It's a tiny detail, and no more explicit than the nudity that has been a staple in religious art for centuries. But it was enough, suggests Meyer, to give the image a lesbian spin, and that fanned the flames of outrage.

Svetlana Mintcheva, who tracks artistic censorship for the National Coalition Against Censorship, says she's seen an uptick in cases like Trobaugh's and Lopez's in the last few years. She attributes it to two developments: Financial pressure on local arts groups makes some of them wary of offending anyone who might be a source of income; and, in many cases, the use of government facilities to exhibit art raises the discomfort threshold for curators and sponsors.

But it's also not accidental that the contested cases involve art with homosexual themes or subtext. Alex Donis, a West Coast artist, found his exhibition of paintings pulled from the Watts Towers Arts Center, in Los Angeles, when it was deemed too explosive. Donis's show, called "War," showed cops dancing with gang members, and curators expressed concern that local audiences would find that pairing offensive. The images were carefully built up from photographs the artist took of people dancing (some of them at a gay pride parade) and then recast to suggest a utopian vision of men normally antagonistic to each other acting as if all past animosities were forgotten. There's something Norman Rockwellian about their bright colors, their realism and their pure white backgrounds.

Again, nothing explicit, nothing even remotely obscene. But as Meyer's talk pointed out, they are potentially seen as homoerotic, and that may have been the real reason for the curators to yank the show. It was replaced with a simple sign that shows the complexity of the humor and irony animating some of the best gay artists today: "War is Canceled."

No, war isn't canceled, and the fact that the nation is at war may be part of the problem.

One of Trobaugh's images, of two G.I. Joes in uniform hugging, with a U.S. flag in the background, suggests the danger of homoeroticism during times of conflict (whether it's wars abroad or gang wars in Los Angeles).

Gay men may be fighting to serve openly in the U.S. military, but they also have a long and proud tradition (especially among gay artists) of pacifism. A world in which men found it as repellent to kill other men as they have, for millennia, found it repellent to kill women would be a dangerously safe place.

One of Donis's most recent images (commissioned for the cover of the October issue of Theatre Journal) goes to the heart of this discomfort. Using, as a base, a photograph of a pas de deux from the ballet "La Fille Mal Gardee" (a ballet classic famously choreographed by Frederick Ashton in the 1960s), Donis has painted a U.S. soldier with a bare-chested Iraqi soldier. No other art form idealizes sexual desire like ballet, and perhaps that's the problem. By refusing the simple route of making an obscene sexual image, Donis has made a far more powerful one, about desire and purity and the aspiration for peace and communion with our enemies.

These local skirmishes in the culture wars don't bode well for the debate about gay marriage that may consume the public during the upcoming presidential race. Artists like Trobaugh and Donis are saying, hey, it's not about sex, it's about love, which is also one of the messages of advocates for same-sex marriage. But while it was relatively easy to push sex and obscenity to the cultural margins during the debate about art and indecency, it's going to take a lot more work to demonize love.

2003 The Washington Post Company.