The ‘Respectable’ Queer

One of the things which previously inspired me to write on why I thought ‘gay art’ was at a dead end was seeing a ‘film’ by someone called Antonio Da Silva.  This consisted of 14 minutes of naked men speaking about themselves and wanking. The thoughts I articulated in that blog struck me again today when an article about Da Silva’s latest popped up on my Facebook. I must confess I haven’t watched the full 13 minutes but it seems to consist of naked men speaking about themselves and wanking. This may have passed me by without further comment but something caused me to pause:

“All my films have been self-funded, your donation will help me to continue producing films that aim to be artistic as well as sexually explicit. People who donate will be contacted to watch unreleased footage once it is ready. I am grateful for your contribution.”

This quote from Da Silva appears above a plea for donations and a series of gifs depicting the men in the film masturbating. The ‘appeal’ is pretty obvious (and it’s not the art) but the assertion that his films ‘aim to be artistic as well as sexually explicit’ reminded me of a series of adverts I’ve seen for this increasingly popular night in East London which describes itself as “a literary salon featuring unclothed men”. I was also reminded of the ‘Red Hot’ photography series which has been a perennial feature in the press, both queer and beyond, since it debuted. The statement on the Red Hot website that the series has raised thousands for anti-bullying charities then reminded me of the Warwick Rowers and Ben Cohen, both of whom have also monetised ‘classy’ sexual images with an added charity sheen.

There is clearly big money to be made in facilitating respectable wanks. I remain of the opinion that that vast majority of this stuff is terrible (and deeply cynical) yet with the very recent arrival of gay marriage in Scotland and today’s images of gay marriages in Florida, I started thinking about a wider context for this ‘art’ which I hadn’t previously considered. Gay marriage is the culmination of the rise and subsequent dominance of ‘respectability politics’ in the queer community, something I’ve written about many times before – it’s easy, then, to draw clear links between this and the rise of LGBT art as ‘porn-with-meaning’. I don’t use the word ‘porn’ pejoratively here but rather to muse that many of the above examples are risible attempts to intellectualise the very basic and very human urge to be aroused and to get laid, comparable to how respectability politics tries to downplay the ‘deviant’ aspects of queer identity (both sexual and political) and make it more ‘acceptable’ to a wider audience. In this way the decline of radicalism which has characterised queer politics over the past 30 years can be seen to have fed into our mainstream LGBT media, obsessed with facile bullshit and castrated schoolboy giggling over celebrity nudity, and aforementioned queer art. I wrote in my blog on newsworthy microaggressions that they “flatter the self-expression of those who control or have easy access to the media” – something which I think is of key importance here. The desire is not only to appear a certain way to others but to have that reflected back and so feel that way too – the drive to respectability is about self-love as much as anything else. Of course as a basic principle this is fine but when projected through the prism of an LGBT world which overwhelmingly reflects the interests of those of a certain class and certain colour (and certain gender to an extent) it becomes detached from any reflective political power and ends up as a brutal narcissism. As James Baldwin described the ‘gay world’ in the quote which ended that piece: “It’s a very hermetically sealed world with very unattractive features, including racism.”

We can see this even in some self-conscious attempts to remember and/or reclaim the radicalism of the past. Depictions of the struggle against HIV are enormously whitewashed and even much modern activism fails to reflect or even acknowledge that worldwide incidences of the disease are overwhelmingly and disproportionately found in Sub-Saharan Africa (almost 70% of cases vs less than 7% in Western Europe/North America). Even the film Pride, which movingly depicts the solidarity displayed between LGSM and the striking miners in 1984/5, contains pretty much zero people of colour and while it depicts gay men in fetish gear (for example) it manages to completely desexualise them.

The depiction of class in Pride is also interesting. The miners’ strike is only ostensibly the heart of the film – really it’s a liberal message of tolerance and mutual respect. The collapse of the strike may have destroyed communities for decades to come but the film’s emotional climax is the arrival and support of the miners at Gay Pride in London. The closing captions tell us that the National Union of Miners were then instrumental in making the Labour Party adopt a gay rights platform – the film concludes with the working-class defeated but having helped to bestow respectability upon the queers.

It’s easy, then, to see how the current LGBT media, as brain-dead as it is, could applaud the film and bypass any issues it raises about critical thinking and wider solidarity: in the end it can be a film about the path to respectability and, read that way, it pushes the same buttons as the dominant LGBT politics and art. Indeed, I saw the film praised by quite a few gay viewers whom I’d not long before witnessed viciously slating the RMT for their latest tube strike. Irony is not dead.

In this sense the film offers an unthreatening flirtation with radical politics, just as the examples of ‘art’ I mentioned at the beginning offer an unthreatening flirtation with the aggressive potential lurking in sexual ‘deviance’. We can draw further links from this, with the furores around the threatened closures of Madame JoJos and the Joiners Arms speaking to a contained and commodified radicalism which is about little beyond its own reflection. The rise of club nights which offer ‘crucial edginess’ as mentioned in the Joiners piece also clearly fit into this: they offer caricatures of rebellion which can be left behind at the door as you return to respectability. The latest advert for Sink the Pink is a pretty perfect illustration of this:
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Classist, condescending and sexist, this betrays the reactionary vacuum which lies behind the respectability politics so dominant in the LGBT world. It is from this vacuum that racist and orientalist ideas about the world beyond white Western Europe/North America flow and it is into it that true solidarity vanishes.

While I obviously had issues with Pride I don’t wish to condemn it out of hand: it was far better than I could ever have expected it to be and it had small but important touches which disrupted the dominant narrative as described above. One of these came to fruition at the emotional climax I wrote about. Prior to the mining community arriving in their droves, we are shown a Gay Pride organiser telling the members of LGSM that they can’t join the main parade with their ‘political’ banners because people just want a ‘celebration’. It’s only the force of numbers of the miners and LGSM that forces the organiser, due to sheer practical concerns, to back down. To me, that organiser can represent the current LGBT movement, apolitical and obsessed with respectability, and the film’s most truly radical message of solidarity for a current LGBT audience is not to say that we should seek to ape the politics of 1984 or ‘all get along’ but to remind us that even now we can join with others in a common cause and effect change not only out there but in our own reactionary and ‘respectable’ community.

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Gay Art: An Appreciation

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“There are painters who transform the sun to a yellow spot, but there are others who with the help of their art and their intelligence, transform a yellow spot into sun”  – Picasso

‘Gay art’ is at a dead end; perhaps it’s just dead. Killed by overbearing narcissism, preening vanity, lazy repetition and low expectations. We keep being presented with utter shit and on the whole we seem to keep wolfing it down while congratulating ourselves on our appetite. Whether it be photography, film, illustration or painting, modern ‘gay art’ is almost entirely concerned with variations of the following:

Masculinity. Vulnerability. Sex. Sexuality. Grindr. Attractive naked men. Attractive naked men having sex. Attractive naked men masturbating. Men in their underwear. Cruising. Hook-ups. Sex. Naked men. Voyeurism. Body hair. Nudity. Sex. Making connections through sex. Expressing oneself through sex. Gay sexual subcultures. Fetishes. Sex. Men naked. Photos of naked gay friends. Vulnerability. Masculinity. No women.

This stretches all the way from countless Tumblr blogs and websites like Butt to an infinite array of short films and even James Franco’s ohGodthismustbeparodybutit’snot Interior.Leather.Bar. A polished take on it took critics by storm in Weekend – it at least had a narrative of sorts. What does all of this mean? What does it say, what does it illuminate and provoke and challenge? Being generous, it overwhelmingly relies on verisimilitude – gay men watch and recognise themselves as someone who enjoys sex but wants to meet that special someone, as someone who is attracted to ginger men, as someone who uses Grindr – but what’s so great about presenting things as they are, over and over and over again? Being less generous, it relies overwhelmingly on self-love. You’ll search the films, the naked boy club nights, the photos, in vain for unattractive/overweight/underconfident men. They are populated rather by guys whom gay viewers might want to fuck. That’s the hook to all of this and if the guys were replaced by less sexually appealing people the ‘art’ would undoubtedly meet with a less warm response.  It is, of course, an unspoken hook: everything is covered in the fairy dust of ‘creativity’ in order to convince everyone involved, from the participants to the consumers, that a higher purpose is present. This delusion is the real creativity on display. There is certainly nothing to make us question our world or, God forbid, ourselves. There is no sense that there is a soul present, no attempt at Joyce’s “mode of life or of art whereby my spirit could express itself in unfettered freedom”. No transcendent beauty, no unbearable despair, no didactic provocation or reflective urge. It’s all so much ego-stroking shit.

‘Gay art’ (and clearly I’m talking overwhelmingly about gay men here) is of course not alone in this. Narcissism and circle-jerk relationships are widespread in modern Western society. Our popular culture is largely predicated on flattering our sense of self and encouraging triviality in both our interests and our emotions. Social media is neoliberalism-become-chimera, encouraging us at every turn to think of me me me. Forums like Instagram present photography which says absolutely nothing about anything as art. Gay art, however, suffers from that infantile disease of self-ghettoisation and ‘gay is good’. It’s spread at gay film festivals, in gay media, at gay-themed galleries and at gay nights. Indeed, the undoubtedly many artists who are gay and make art which doesn’t fit with the above themes are never labelled (or claimed) as ‘gay art’. As such, their work is subject to far more rigorous criticism as opposed to the free pass which most of this dreck, barely a step up from topless self-pics, receives when it’s presented and shared. To return to my most recent blog, a documentary about Chelsea Manning is unlikely to be playing at Dalston Rio any time soon.

I started by saying that gay art was at a dead end. It’s certainly difficult to know where it can possibly go from here. Progressing beyond this would entail not only stepping beyond narcissism but also leaving behind the ‘one-dimensional man’ who is little more than ‘Gay’. It would involve feeling uncomfortable and finding ways to feel special beyond being a ‘minority’ (which, incidentally, I’m sure isn’t confined to gay identity politics and its art). Difficult challenges, certainly. You can play your small part, however. Next time a ‘photographer’ shows you their photos of their mate in his sports socks or a ‘director’ uploads his film about guys meeting online and shagging – tell them it’s fucking shit. You’ll be doing us all a favour.