Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Becoming a Gay Artist

At what age do you become a gay artist?

Is being a gay artist something you always were, something that permeates every aspect of your being, a permanent filter through which you view the world? That's the essentialist argument, argued in the same way, and for similar reasons, that women see the world differently than men, that blacks see the world differently than whites, that Asians see the world differently than Latinos. Many of civil rights arguments are based on essentialist assumptions; many other civil rights arguments area based on our essential Oneness rather than our (essential?) differences. The "gay gene" idea, that being gay is genetic and not determined by choice of will, is an essentialist argument; however, although it is supported by documented research and scientific study, it remains controversial even in LGBT circles because it's not a definitive proof. There remain apparent exceptions. (And we don't really know enough yet about the human genome to be able to be definitive.)

Is becoming a gay artist something you choose, some stance or methodology you learn or adopt, something that is transmitted culturally via role model and learning? That's the constructivist, or cultural, or social/environmental, argument, which views every human behavior as a choice constructed by the individual, a matter of free will and elemental decision. The constructivist argument, of course, is the one that is always used to deny civil rights to LGBT people: since gays and lesbians can choose to be straight, they should. Such is the rhetoric of the religious right, and of some of the more ideologically repressive factions of the psychological profession. Never mind that those psychological theories have been thoroughly discredited, they are still cited by the "ex-gay" movement, which itself has been thoroughly discredited, yet retains followers for ideological and superstitious reasons. (Morals are inherently ideological and tend to be externally proscribed; ethics are inner-self-generated and tend to be pragmatic.)

There are elements in the essentialist camp who use their arguments to shut down discussion and dissent: "That's just the way it is, so shut up about it." As a response to the constructivist anti-LGBT-rights camp, that seems a valid response; the constructivists after all have used their argument to undercut civil rights. But when essentialists direct the "shut up" argument at their own numbers, as a way of quashing dissent, it can cross the line into ideological fascism. The essentialist argument is a strong argument for civil rights, yet it does have some limits, in that free choice cannot be entirely removed from the human equation. The truth is a mix.

In my experience, both of these viewpoints have some validity, and both also remain largely theoretical, neither completely supporting the observed data and relationships. The distinction between these arguments has often been framed as: "Are you a gay artist, or are you an artist who happens to be gay?" Endless discussions, arguments, and dialogues have gone around and around that distinction, never satisfactorily resolving it.

I'm not sure it matters.

For myself, in my own practice, it's best to just go ahead and make art, and not worry about it. For one thing, being gay or not doesn't directly matter, either way, to my making art. I make art, no matter what, whether or not I happen to be thinking about LGBT issues at the moment, and whether or not the art I'm making at the moment contains explicit or implicit elements of gay imagery, iconography, or cultural references. I enjoy photographing the male nude, and I enjoy working with nude male models to achieve the photographic and artistic elements of expression I seek. And I also enjoy making photographs of mountains, sunsets, flowers, trees, buildings, pets, typewriters, and beautifully-arranged furniture displays. Does everything I photograph filter itself through the lens of my gay experience? Does it matter if it does, or doesn't? The more fruitless aspects of identity politics all involve arguing (rather Scholastically, one might add) about one aspect of my life as if it were the only important aspect, or the dominant aspect.

Being gay may well be a dominant aspect of my life, and my art-making, but it is never the only aspect—when I make art, all aspects of my whole self are engaged, focused, involved—and sometimes not the most important aspect. At the same time, I can never fully remove being gay from my art-making, because it is an aspect of my whole self—all aspects of whom are present and engaged, focused and involved, when I'm making art, or when I'm just doing my chores. For myself, I accept this both/and way of looking at the issue as being fundamentally true; where I might typically quibble is where and how much each aspect of the whole is present, or exactly when.

Gay artists have always been able to produce non-gay art. An artist, self-identified as gay or not, who produces homoerotic art will also produce art in which gender identity and sexual orientation have no measurable presence. Is a still life drawing of a vase, an orange, and a pen an inherently gay? The essentialist argument would say, yes it is—when drawn by a gay artist. The essentialists typically raise the issue of "gay sensibility" at this point, which is basically a way of saying that, because you're gay, everything you do is gay, therefore all of your art is produced through a gay sensibility. As though even my most abstract piano music—which is much more directly influenced by Debussy, Messiaen, and Takemitsu, that entire French-Russian-Japanese lineage of influence in contemporary music; rather than by known-to-be-gay composers such as Britten, Corigliano, or Noel Coward—is still gay abstract gay piano gay music. You can see the circularity of this reasoning: the essentialist viewpoint assumes a priori that everything a gay artist will ever do is filtered through a gay sensibility, so everyting you is gay, because you're gay, and because everything you do is gay, then you must be gay. By contrast, the constructivist argument allows for the artist to be able to make a choice about whether to utilize the gay sensibility, or not. Yet I do not entirely embrace the constructivists, nor do I entirely reject the essentialists; again, the truth is both/and.

I do believe that there is a "gay sensibility"—although it's a fuzzy set, whose contents are always-changing and not always clearly known, and it has changeable boundaries that are complex to the point of being fractal. I do believe that my own "gay sensibility" is in operation when I make art that contains homoerotic themes, imagery, or other content. I do believe that my artistic "gay sensibility" probably does add some coloration or shading to even my non-homoerotic art-projects; for example, would I write the abstract piano music that I do if were not who I am, which includes my being gay/bi? There is some truth, I believe, to the idea that a "gay sensibility" leads to art-making that is often more exploratory, experimental, more tradition- and rule-breaking; in part because being gay means being a cultural outsider, or insider/outsider: when you've been positioned as non-normative to the culture, you tend to go looking for yet more non-normative ways to dialogue with and express the culture. Camp and genderfuck are all about mirroring back to the normative culture ways of being non-normative; they are ways of performing the Other, as if in a funhouse mirror.

At the same time, my own "gay sensibility" cannot account for all aspects of my art-making, nor its contents. I am not a stereotype; even within the gay subculture(s) I am not easily categorized into any of the familiar types or stereotypes. Yet I am quite certain, at this point in my life, that my "gay sensibility" of being Other and non-normative deeply affects my creative process, that it has led me to look at the world from subject-subject consciousness rather than subject-object consciousness. It is one root of my empathy, both as a person, and as an artist. In other words, my being gay affects how I go about making art. It affects my approach to making art. At the same time, it does not determine the contents or materials that I use to make art. My being gay might steer my art-making process—and indeed, it seems at times to be so innately bound up with the why of my art-making that I can't easily separate the two—yet my being gay doesn't determine what art I make, what kind of art I make, nor does it determine what genre of art-making I might be working in at the moment. (I practice crop rotation between music, visual, poetry, photography, calligraphy, land art sculpture, woodworking, etc.) So, my being gay seems to affect the why and how of my art-making, but not the when, where, or what.

So perhaps what it is true is that there are aspects of my being gay that are innate, that i was born with, that I have no choice about. At the same time, I have choices I can make about how to express those innate aspects of myself. I have the power to choose what I do with that innate part of myself; and I have the power to choose how I enact, express, present, and perform that innate part of myself, in public and in private. I am gay, and I can choose how I want to act gay, and how gay I want to act. In terms of art-making, then: I am gay, there's no doubt of that, and yet I can choose how "gay" my art is made to be.

Of course, some anti-LGBT constructivists try to hedge their ideological position of moral condemnation by claiming to, in their own words, "Love the sinner, hate the sin." In other words: we don't hate who you are in your inner nature, in your heart, we just hate your attempts to act from your inner nature, from your heart. Your soul is pure, but yet it's not pure because if you do act from your soul we can't approve of it. This variety of ideological hedging is utter bullshit; it communicates an extremely mixed message. It is not unconditional love precisely because it places conditions on loving behaviors.

And then there is Kinsey's continuum of sexual behavior, his infamous seven-position scale, which implies that most people are innately bisexual and choose an identity and orientation based as much on their ideas of who they want to be as upon clinical observation of who they really are. Kinsey's scale leaves the door open for self-delusion, in other words. It allows a man to claim to be completely heterosexual even though he had sex with other boys as a teenager, and still occasionally does so. it allows a woman to claim to be completely lesbian, even though at one point in her life she was married and had children.

Where do you find an artist on Kinsey's scale? Or are they separate axes of knowledge, as I believe they are? They do converge and overlap at points—we are whole beings, not collections of particles—but they don't fully account for one another, and neither is determinative of the other. Where do you find artists on Kinsey's scale? Everywhere.

Perhaps the known exceptions to the essentialist arguments, such as presented in the "gay gene" theory, can be explained by viewing sexual orientation as flexible and fluid rather than fixed. Conventionally, physical gender and sexual orientation may be viewed as biologically fixed, or innate, but gender expression and sexual identity are not. Kinsey's research seems to imply that fluidity in orientation may be the norm, and may change over the course of a lifetime—despite all our attempts to permanently fix an orientation upon ourselves by using a label the way an entomologist might use pins to affix moths to a bulletin board. The labels make us seem more fixed and permanent, more solid and unchanging, than we really are. Since everything is always changing, nothing is immune to change or independent of the ripple effects of changes going on around us. We change, we evolve, we learn, we develop; or we resist change, we fight against it, we deny the possibility of development or personal evolution. Some of the loudest and most repressive voices in the essentialist camp are those who want things to be permanently fixed, always just-so. (Fear of uncertainty and/or change is what often drives the totalitarian impulse.)

In my own experience, although I did not openly come out as gay until I was in my 30s, I have always been more physically and emotionally aroused (excited, if not erect) by viewing naked men than naked women. Yet some naked women do turn me on; and I have had two serious, successful (at the time) loving sexual relationships with women in my life. Nowadays I identify as gay, mostly because it's the easiest of several fuzzy gender-and-orientation categories that one might identify as, but I never forget that my identity as gay is part-innate, part-constructed. What is innate is that I am more sexually attracted, on average, to the male of my species than to the female; what is constructed is everything else. I have never forgotten the formulation of a gay/bi friend, an artist and therapist, whose life and desires and experience were similar to my own; he said to me once, in conversation about the topic of sexual identity, "I tell my straight friends that I'm gay, and I tell my gay friends that I'm bi. It's true, anyway, and it keeps them on their toes."

In some ways, it's more interesting to ask of myself: When did I become an artist? rather than When did I become a gay artist? I can honestly say that I've always been an artist, in that I've always had the instinct for art-making. Regardless of whether it was a childhood crayon drawing or a contemporary computer-assisted musical composition process, there has never been a time that I can recall when I wasn't Making, or if not able to be Making then at least wanting to on some deep level. Making is compulsory: if I'm not able to make something today, a pressure builds up deep inside me, until it can be released as art-making, or some other creative channel. I learned about myself at a very early age that I must let out that need to Make, or it will drive me crazy from the inside out. So, on days I can't make art, or music, or a poem—which are culturally-recognized and -approved, if only marginally -supported) modes of creating tangible art-products—I might peel an orange as beautifully as possible, or rake leaves with full artistic intention, or stack boxes of nails with artistic precision. The content or end-result of what is Made isn't what satisfies the need to make something, it's the process of Making that does.

There's a lot to be told about becoming an artist. At what age did I become a gay artist? At what age did I become an artist?

To be continued.

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