Katz’s Take on Rauschenberg Challenged
To the Editor:
I find some critical problems with Jonathan Katz’s article on Robert Rauschenberg in the September-October issue of the G&LR.
Outstandingly, the article is written from a viewpoint outside the artist, not from the, or a, artist’s viewpoint looking out—thus replicating in his own way the very sources of discrimination that he deplores. This begins in Katz’s second paragraph, where he notes the continuing suppression by the media of Rauschenberg’s intimate relationships with men, in favor of Rauschenberg’s short-lasting marriage to Susan Weil (1948-51). The paragraph ends, “Such deliberate distortions of the historical record are common in Rauschenberg scholarship.”
Katz then goes on to make the artist “part of the responsibility for this situation,” saying that Rauschenberg “was at best coy about his sexuality” and that he “didn’t want to articulate his sexual orientation openly, and the American art world was only too willing to accede to his wishes” [my italics].
But the art world, along with the world at large, dictated those wishes! They were installed in the artist’s psyche, and every other psyche of his times—but in our own times as well. The revolution of consensus that began with Stonewall in 1969 is now long over. Without consensus, we live in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” world. It simply isn’t true, as Katz writes, that “Today, most of us no longer feel the need to encode our desires, and artists no longer believe they have no option but to bury messages into the surface of paint.” Not unless you closet yourself with a like-minded group. But you still have to go to the store or encounter people who service or employ you and in other ways interact with the population.
As to Rauschenberg’s sexuality, I knew him well beginning in 1961, and he was never “coy” about it, socially at least. And where he and his friends employed coded messages in their work, “clever,” “witty,” let’s say “brilliantly misleading,” are appropriately descriptive words.
Katz claims that Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham—the great gay (i.e., hidden gay) quadrumvirate of the late 50’s and the 60’s—“were able to achieve their rapid critical and commercial success precisely because they never articulated their sexuality in terms that the dominant culture would understand as ‘queer.’” And, “Instead, all of them, to one extent or another, made the cultivation of an anti-expressive art the central tenet of their aesthetic.”
The words “precisely because” are very misleading here. The rise of these men to success and riches was due to their talent as artists, not to any suppressed content in their work. Is Katz jealous of their acclaim and wealth? The artists at any rate were just as expressive—in their way—as the Abstract Expressionists, whose preeminence in the art world by the late 1950’s they had begun replacing, along with other “pop” artists both gay and straight, such as George Segal, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol.
Katz is right of course that the gay artists among them would never have achieved success, fame, or riches had they openly declared their gayness in their work. But again, Katz’s emphasis in his phrasing and grammar places blame or responsibility unmistakably with the artists.
In a single instance, Katz asks the right question, contradicting the tenor of his article: “After all, how could a closeted queer artist produce an expressive mode of art at a moment when direct revelation of his sexuality would have been literally illegal?”
Indeed, Cage was born in 1912, Cunningham in 1919, Rauschenberg in 1925, and Jasper Johns in 1930. A sense of compassion for this generation and a half is missing in Katz’s account. Instead, one gets the feeling that Rauschenberg and the others don’t deserve their success and riches. Only a huge cover-up made their preeminence possible.
Consider just one indignity these four men endured in their personal lives in order to conform—or I should say three of them? Cage, like Rauschenberg, also married a woman, but for a whole decade, and Johns dallied with women for a period of time after his breakup with Rauschenberg. Such dalliances and marriages are an important trope of the closet. I had them myself, including a four-year marriage. The tragedy in last year’s film, Brokeback Mountain, shows this corruption to perfection.
That these men heroically succeeded against great odds should, I think, be the thrust of any writings about them in consideration of the tremendous demands of the closet. But Katz speaks from a kind of anti-art perspective. In the end, he says, “I want a queer art … that invents new forms for representing our desire, that makes queerness not the represented subject of the work, but its mode of operation, makes it a verb, not a noun.” He adds, “But I want it without the costs Rauschenberg and his circle had to pay.” Katz may get such an art, but it would be relegated to “queer galleries”—and I personally would never go to them.
Rauschenberg and his circle wouldn’t either. Nor would they ever make such an art. Or even know what Katz is talking about. To say you want “queer art” is to elevate “queer” over the word “art,” to demote the artist to an attribute of his personal baggage. In any world, but particularly ours at this time, with its general lack of support and interest in the arts (do you ever hear the campaigning politicians even mention it?), the word “artist” denotes a prized status.
We don’t want anything in front of what we do. Women who are artists don’t care to be segregated by being called women artists. You don’t put women in front of mothers. You just say mothers. And we know what you mean.
Jill Johnston, New York City, author of Jasper Johns: Privileged Information (1996)
Why We Lament a Gay Bar Closing
To the Editor:
Jason Narlock’s piece [July-August 2008 issue] on the closing of a gay bar in Fargo reflects a sentiment familiar to guys my age (64). I’ve read other pieces by writers who should know better than to decry the “impersonal” nature of the Internet and the loss of disco. I suspect that my generation is really lamenting is the loss of the energy of being twenty.
Nostalgia is cool when you’re older, but young gay men aren’t going to long for hanging out at truck stops or smoky bars. They can put a profile on MySpace and make friends. They can find vanilla sex on one site and S&M sex on another. We made progress holding hands in public and experienced a freedom that was a powerful aphrodisiac. That’s what I want to pass on to readers in their thirties: make your life as imaginative and exciting as ours, and hopefully less bittersweet.
I have to think guys my age who say they miss bars are really missing not getting laid as often. We do have things to be proud of. Our generations didn’t invent fist fucking, but we brought it into the realm of mainstream sex. We invented gay softball and gay bowling. We organized and funded the community’s attempts to cope as HIV killed us without regard to class, A&F polo shirt, or perversion. We learned that Tina is a vicious bitch who wipes out the personalities of the men she plays with. That’s what I want to pass on with the hopes that younger men can have the same outrageous fun and abandon that we knew.
I can’t judge. River rafting may bond young gay men as surely as dancing in glittered hardhats bonded us. I feared the epidemic would encourage modesty, but seeing the men on the popular nude websites has proved me wrong. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Chuck Forester, San Francisco
In “Barcelona: A Magnet for Europe’s Gay Couples” in the July-August 2008 issue, José Luis Rodríguez Zapetero was incorrectly identified as the president of Spain; he is in fact the prime minister.
Due to an editorial error in Cassandra Langer’s review of a book on painter Charles Demuth (July-August 2008), a quotation was not properly attributed to Jonathan F. Walz, who praised author Betsy Fahlman for her restrained treatment of the author’s homosexuality “as one more remarkable aspect of the Lancaster modernist persona, which in turn helps us better understand this important American artist’s life, work, and humanity.”