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.
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.