Culture change 2 — Hide/Seek

This past weekend I went to the see the now-famous — or should that be notorious? — Hide/Seek show at the National Portrait Gallery, the show that offers images of gays and lesbians in American art from the 1880s to the present. It’s notorious, to some people, anyway, because under pressure from religious groups and the political right, a video was removed that showed, however briefly, ants moving on a Christian cross. 

But that’s not what i thought of when I saw the show. I thought about the history of gays, their hiding in past decades, their emergence into full public view since the 1960s, and their depiction of themselves, coded at first, then open, in art. The art is powerful, the codes touching and ingenious. If you follow the link I gave, you can see a fair amount of the show, and read some of the commentary. So many themes emerge, among them the importance of outsiders in American art and consciousness, how central outsiders (and gays in particular) have been in the history of American art, and how perfect it is for the show to be at the National Portrait Gallery, which exists to offer portraits of Americans, and which so deeply expands its view of America by hosting this show. 

Particular pieces struck me — a Jasper Johns painting, “In Memory of My Feelings — Frank O’Hara,” a treatment of an O’Hara poem (he being a gay poet, very close to many gay painters), which is also thought to be a reminiscence of Johns’ own relationship with Robert Rauschenberg, and which holds inside it (or rather on it, but so welded to the canvas that it seems to be inside) a symbol of love and bonding, a fork and spoon lying against each other, cemented to the paint, as close as lovers.

Or a portrait of a notable artistic figure, someone famous long before anyone could be gay in public, and whose name just won’t come to mind (I didn’t make a note of it, because I was so sure I’d remember!). [ADDED LATER: It’s Carl Van Vechten, an important writer and photographer, most active from around 1909 through the 1930s. He was the first critic to write about modern dance, published many novels, was a patron of the Harlem Renaissance, and was Gertrude Stein’s literary executor.] Against a dark background, his flesh is almost luminously pale. And in the dark background, if you look carefully, you see, dimly shown, images of black men, whom the subject of the portrait would meet in trips to Harlem (leaving his wife behind downtown). 

Or “River Front No. 1,” a 1915 painting by George Wesley Bellows, which you can see in the “Modernism” section of the Hide/Seek website (the way the site is made won’t let me link directly to this). It’s a profusion of mostly undressed working-class men, swimming or sunning on a messy, teeming urban riverbank, and maybe uninhibited in what it implies because, in those days, no one could admit that the gay vibes in the painting — riotous, explosive, and absolutely unmistakable to us today — could possibly be there. 

Or a film still from the Dream Girls series, in which Deborah Bright, a lesbian artist, inserts herself into scenes from old films. This time it’s a Hepburn-Tracy moment; they’re kissing in the front seat of the car, and Bright puts herself behind the wheel as a disgruntled chauffeur, herself in love with Hepburn (a lesbian icon), and miffed that Tracy’s getting the attention. 

This is the kind of show you expect to find in art museums, not every week or every month, but often enough, something that links art and social history, in powerful ways that underline both the history and the art. Gay themes are frequent. But you couldn’t do a show like this in classical music. 

It’s not that there aren’t gay musicians, and certainly not that there aren’t gay composers. It’s easy to name names — Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns. And in the US, a powerful segment of gay composers, with central power and influence in the 1930s and beyond — Copland, Virgil Thomson, Marc Blitzstein, Leonard Bernstein, many more. And of course Ned Rorem, who celebrated his homosexuality in his dairies. And David Del Tredici. And John Cage…the only problem being that, apart from David, none of these people treated homosexuality in their work. 

Rorem, in fact, explicitly rejected that, saying that music was simply music. Maybe we could find minor figures whose sexuality was present — coded or otherwise — but among major people only one name shines out, Benjamin Britten. In his operas, we could find work to set beside the art in Hide/Seek. He could represent the closeted age, and, for our own era, we could offer two song cycles David wrote, “Gay Life” and “My Favorite Penis Poems,” one small (well, large) problem being that these pieces are virtually unperformable in today’s classical music world, because we’re so far behind visual art that David’s gay-themed work seems shocking. 

Which pretty clearly shows that classical music hasn’t kept up with our changing culture. We just can’t explore the cultural territory that other art forms can. How this came to be would be an interesting study. I think it started early, even in the 18th century, when writers like Voltaire broke new intellectual ground, but we don’t find composers setting them to music. In the 19th century, we don’t find composers showing the underside of urban life, as Balzac and Dickens did. 

I’m not saying that classical music is therefore useless, or that there’s anything wrong with anyone who’s at home in its comfortable gardens, discussing Schumann’s long-ago (and safely distant) insanity, while the art world shows us what it’s meant to be gay. But we have to understand that people coming to classical music from the outside — people whose cultural expectations have been formed by things in other arts, including shows like Hide/Seek — find classical music limiting. 

They’ll enjoy a concert or two. Who wouldn’t? The music’s wonderful. But it’s hard to believe that they’ll become an audience as devoted as the older one we’ve got right now. They expect more from art than we can give them — something we’d better remember when we try to attract new listeners. 

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  1. says

    Hi Greg,

    I don’t want to make the cliché mistake of conflating “Gay Art” with “AIDS Art,” but I’m surprised you haven’t thought of John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1, in memory of all his friends who died of AIDS. It’s one of the great pieces of the 20th century, I think, and it’s certainly been an inspiration and a guide to me as I navigate some of the issues you’ve mentioned in my own music.

    (I saw the Juilliard Orchestra perform it a couple of years ago in December, around when World AIDS Day falls each year, and the musicians wore the red ribbons on stage.)

    You’re right, Jeremy. I should have mentioned John’s symphony. Can’t imagine why I forgot it.

  2. jason says

    Why couldn’t you do a show like that in classical music? I’m not sure you’ve cast your net wide enough. What about Ricky Ian Gordon’s opera “Tibetan Book of the Dead” or his “Orpheus and Eurodice” both intricately linked to the gay experience and specifically his experience watching his partner die of AIDS? What about Peter Eotvo’s setting of Kushner’s Angels in America?

    And you could add my friend Jorge Martin’s opera Before Night Falls, about a gay Cuban writer. But maybe you didn’t read carefully my description of the show, or didn’t browse the website. The show had art going back to the late 19th century. Hard to find classical pieces with conscious gay connections written in, let’s say, the 1920s.

  3. says

    I think Mimi, Violetta, and Rigoletto would like a few words about 19th-century music not depicting the downside of urban life. Kurt Weill, Edgard Varese, Berg, Alexander Mosolov, Shostakovich, Bartok, Gorecki, Arthur Honegger, and Schoenberg had a few things to say about the 20th. And The Death of Klinghoffer will never be presented in the US while we remain on Israel’s side.

    There seems to me to be a difference between a painting showing a fork and a spoon next to each other and reading it as depicting gay love, and a song cycle titled “The Penis Poems.” Call it “Fork and Spoon Poems,” and it’s suddenly less problematic.

    Ah, Marc — so La boheme and La Traviata and Rigoletto show us urban poverty, from a scathingly critical point of view? They feature characters who are industrial workers? Who are bourgeois women, like Emma Bovary, living in stifling communities? I guess I must have slept through every performance of those operas I’ve ever been to, because I just didn’t notice.

    As for the more recent works you cite, who said there weren’t exceptions? I’m talking about the overall impact of classical music, what the classical audience encounters, night after night, going to classical performances. Are you seriously going to tell me that there’s as close a connection to contemporary life as there is in theater productions, or museum shows? I’d love to see you demonstrate that!

  4. says

    I also saw Hide/Seek and found it incredibly moving and beautiful.

    Regarding the impossibility of a gay-themed classical music performance, what about this recent performance? (I didn’t attend, but remembered seeing the review.)

    Sounds fabulous! Terrific stuff, anything that Stephen Blier does. Gives me hope. Maybe we can do more with the classical canon than I thought. Though I do notice that older classical pieces played a very small part in what was offered.

  5. Ben says

    What a wonderful essay. I am in total agreement with your conclusions – we see all this playful, plastic, imaginative innovation from the visual arts and contemporary culture, and this is looked on with envy by many engaged in putting on classical music. And yet I seem to feel less and less that I have any idea what the solution is.

    A certain part of the classical music audience (my parents are a good example) would look on that same scene that we see as imaginative and beneficial with something like derision, and this is sad. But is that actually what is stopping classical music from exploring in those ways, to the same degree?

    I suppose the problem is partly battling one of preconceptions – both those of audiences and those of owners of venues themselves. Put it this way, for some cutting edge subterraneous venue, weaving Benjamin Britten into their program probably doesn’t exactly look like a safe bet to draw a crowd – and probably isn’t. Nor even does contemporary “classical” stuff like Gabriel Prokofiev.

    I think overall there are a lot of opinions that will need to change, a lot of preconceptions in need of enlightening. It may take quite a long time, and be a difficult road.

    The comparison to the history of gay visual art is a terrifically close one, now I think about it.

  6. says

    @Marc, Juilliard presented The Death of Klinghoffer (albeit in a semi-staged concert version) last year, and it was a huge success. There was no big controversy that I remember.

  7. says

    I haven’t seen the exhibit, though I hope to. But I see a larger problem with this. One of the reasons for much classical music’s (alleged) durability is in its abstraction and its ability to see things from a broader perspective than a single issue. Peter Grimes may or may not be about child abuse, homosexuality, provincialism, misunderstanding. The fact remains that we don’t know what it’s really about, and the fact that we don’t means it’s about every one of those things at the same time that it is clearly not ‘about’ them. I don’t much respond to things that are ‘about’ a single topic and I’m sure many others don’t as well. If we want classical music to better appeal to a narrow community of literatt, then we should by all means pursue something more topical. If our ambitions are to appeal to a more diverse array of people, then we can’t limit ourselves to work about single topics.

    Fascinating, Evan. I’d swear it works the other way — it’s the specific reference to things in their culture that makes people interested. Certainly that’s how classical music worked in the past! In any case, look at the empirical facts — classical music, with little specific reference to contemporary life, is fading in our culture, while other arts, which do have the specific references, are doing well.

  8. Robert Berger says

    Sorry,Greg,but I could not disagree more with you. The fact that there was a recent exhibit of gay art in Washington proves absolutely nothing negative about the classical music world,and I think you’re setting up a straw man here,with all due respect.

    Yes, there are and have been many gay composers.But as far as I am concerned,that is irrelevant. You have to judge their works on their individual merits.

    If certain works of theirs are great,it has nothing to do with their sexual identity.

    Take Barber’s Vanessa,for example. It’s a wonderful opera which has been performed successfully by many different opera companies.

    The fact that Barber was gay has nothing to do with this.

    And Schubert’s homosexuality is still a matter of uncertainty. But who cares anyway?

    What does this have to do with the greatness of the string quintet in C major or his 9th symphony?

    People don’t go to concerts or opera based on whether a composer was straight or gay.

    And despite all the talk of how supposedly out of touch classical music is with the modern world,there is still absolutely no reason for any one not to attend concerts or opera. This has never been more worthwhile.

    As I’ve pointed out before,it’s unfair to judge the classical music world by the standards of Pop or Rock music etc,or the visual arts.

  9. Mags says

    I just have to point out a thread in your two “Culture change” posts. Glee (which I absolutely adore) is rooted in a gay aesthetic, that’s part of what makes it so good.

    One current cultural piece that is missing from classical music as it’s most often presented is the use of video and/or visuals generally. So much of communication now depends on the intersection of sound(or text or idea)and image.

    Good points, Mags! One visual aspect of classical music we often ignore is how classical musicians look when they perform. They often don’t seem interested, don’t acknowledge the audience, don’t move their bodies. And may even take pride in these things!