August 10, 2013

An Artful Dodger's musing

First commissioned essay for New Zealand's gay newspaper express.

Do we look at the world – and art – differently because of our sexual orientation?
Imagine, if you will, wandering into an art gallery or museum, not knowing what to expect or see, perhaps enticed by a specially curated exhibition of art you are rather unfamiliar with. It’s something that may occur frequently, especially on travels when you want to see what the locals have made or collected. It happened to me last year when visiting the Auckland Art Gallery’s exhibition of work owned by the National Galleries of Scotland; the appealingly human-scaled Berlin art museums; and the renaissance treasure troves of the Low Countries.
I’m not a huge art connoisseur – I like to be surprised, appalled or seduced by each painting and sculpture that crosses my path through an exhibit, even to the point of ignoring who the artist is or what the work is called. I regard wandering through an art gallery akin to an adventure trail with no set path, signs or finish. A complete open-mindedness when approaching a piece of work has, in my experience, always stood me in good stead and allowed me to be able to enjoy the art – even the disappointments. Contemplating a painting that draws you in, screws your brain and leaves you pleasantly exhausted is almost as good as having mind-blowing sex.
I would like to think that the way art speaks to people is somehow related to their sexuality and sensibility. I love hearing a lesbian’s assessment of a Tom of Finland drawing or a straight man’s eulogy of the female nude in Western painting, then trying to relate those criticisms to my own. On a related but different level, I would hypothesize that many collections around the globe might have contained very different pieces if their investors/collectors had not been gay men or lesbians. And does this mean that my distinct lack of enjoyment of the aforementioned Scottish exhibition, despite its critical acclaim in the local media, is due to my gay sensibility second-rating many of the works? One often knows more about the artist’s inclinations than the critic’s.
For those lucky enough not to have studied for a fine arts degree, like me, there are some excellent art historians and critics around who have produced sterling guiding work for television. Sister Wendy’s roaringly funny and touching reflections on art, particularly religious art, and Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation have both given me the confidence to look at art with all my senses and judging faculties, and being unafraid of going against the received wisdom of the art canon.
On BBC World News, Andrew Graham-Dixon is a leading light when it comes to letting you see art in an unexpected sociological and national historical setting. He did a series on Russian and German art and his take on art in the Low Countries is on the Arts Channel. His previous work included a riveting piece on Caravaggio’s relationship between the artist’s biography and his art, which was especially appealing to a gay guy like me after Derek Jarman’s earlier magisterial and idiosyncratic treatment of Caravaggio’s life. And nothing, of course, beats standing in front of “Christ Expulses the Money Changers Out of the Temple” or “Triumphant Eros” at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin.

Simon Schama has produced an intensely personal take on artists as varied as Rembrandt, David and Rothko in his Power of Art series on BBC Knowledge, which smacks you round the head with its erudition and often far-fetched theorising. He nevertheless remains enjoyable because the show allows you to talk back afterwards, if you’re keen enough to delve into the subject’s art yourself.
None of those television personalities, as far as I know, are gay. So I am again intrigued whether critics of a different sexual orientation would approach Bernini, Friedrich or Hirst differently.
Re-interpreting imagery, storylines, characters and quotations is what we are really good at. Whole pre-gay liberation movements have devoted their waking hours to appropriating actresses, films and operas, resulting in whole swags of cultural icons and artefacts now being recognised as ‘gay culture’ which every aspiring queen needs to master. The beauty is that this gay subcultural conquest is on-going, even though it is becoming less easy to find material since show business and other visual arts are now actively niche-marketed to us instead of invented by us.
We just like to dance to our own tune and dream the world as we want.

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