Gay art versus state censorship

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Feb 25 08:48:45 MST 2002

NY Times, February 25, 2002

Boomerang in Suppressing Gay Art

Oxford University Press
Censorship and Homosexuality in 20th-Century American Art 
By Richard Meyer 
Illustrated. 376 pages. Oxford University Press. $35.

In 1933 a young New York artist named Paul Cadmus was hired by the Public
Works of Art Project to produce paintings. The only requirements were that
the pictures be portable and deal with American themes. What he painted was
"The Fleet's In!" a cartoonish vignette showing sailors on shore leave
carousing in Riverside Park with a bevy of picaresque women — some of whom
could be men in drag — and at least one flamboyantly effeminate man. 

When "The Fleet's In!" appeared in an exhibition of federally financed work
at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington in 1934, naval officials went
ballistic, and it was yanked from the show. Once out of sight, though, the
picture became sensationally visible. It was reproduced in newspapers and
magazines across the country. Cadmus was a star who got considerable
mileage out of inviting and evading questions about the homoerotic drift of
his work. 

The Cadmus episode was one of who knows how many examples of art with a
homosexual content provoking repression. Sometimes censorship is effective:
art is destroyed, artists are reduced to concealment or silence. But in
other instances it backfires, causing an image to get wider attention than
it would ever have if ignored and encouraging further subversive art.

A handful of such cases from the Cadmus episode to recent assaults on the
National Endowment for the Arts are the subject of a smartly written,
intensively researched and vigilantly argued new book, "Outlaw
Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in 20th-Century American Art"
by Richard Meyer, an art historian teaching at the University of Southern

The book had its source in a doctoral thesis, but for the most part it
wears its scholarship lightly. Whether analyzing a painting or the words of
a political speech, Mr. Meyer comes across as a cool but engaged observer.
Most important, he's a good storyteller, and he has fascinating stories to

>From Cadmus he leaps to Andy Warhol in 1964 when he finished a commissioned
piece for the facade of the New York State pavilion at the World's Fair in
Flushing Meadow. The work, "Thirteen Most Wanted Men," was a mural-size
composite of enlarged police mug shots, mostly of young and good-looking
accused felons. Almost as soon as it was installed on the pavilion, it was
painted over and obliterated.

Fair officials said that Warhol had been disappointed with his work and
wanted to replace it. Warhol, cagily diplomatic, floated out an equally
dubious story: some of the men depicted had been cleared of criminal
charges, so the piece was no longer "valid." Secretly he blamed the fair's
president, Robert Moses, for the defacement. Others said that Gov. Nelson
A. Rockefeller had found the mug shots out of tune with the fair's
"Olympics of Progress" spirit.

What nobody, including Warhol, mentioned was the implicit homoeroticism of
the work. From a gay point of view, the looming, unsmiling male faces
conformed to a classic model of sexual "rough trade." Who were these men
really "wanted" by? Presumably Warhol himself, whose homosexuality was
widely recognized but who chose not to acknowledge it overtly while he was
shaping his art career.


Louis Proyect
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