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.

Let’s Go To War

When the Manics released Futurology earlier in the year I wrote that:

The aesthetic and publicity of Futurology seems to have blinded many to the fact that it’s a continuation of (obsession with the past, with nostalgia) – and one which draws far more heavily on the Manics’ musical past. In its way, then, it also understands and plays with this post-nostalgia age. It offers a frictionless return to previous highs, mixing nods to a more aggressive and radical past with a distancing from (and sometimes apologising for) it (this distancing has been crucial to the Manics’ success with a particular kind of critic, who could never have stomached their early belligerence without that gap). It offers nostalgia under the guise of modernity, drawing on the past to present a comforting, easily-digestible image of a future. “We’ll come back one day… we never really went away. ” This is Futurology.

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The since-announced tour reviving The Holy Bible (to mark its 20th anniversary) fits in perfectly with this. Lest we forget, THB is an aggressive, uncompromising album which acts as a chilling testament to humanity’s brutality in the 20th century. It features song about the holocaust, the violence of the British Empire, serial killers, eating disorders, suicide, racism. More than that, it deliberately baits the liberal sensibility to distance onself from this bleakness and believe that it’s the fault of people ‘over there’ – who’s responsible, you fucking are (it also more directly baits liberals with its pro-gun, pro-death penalty lyrics and its ambivalence towards violence in general). While it’s inevitable that its unsettling power has dimmed with familiarity, we should be under no illusions that this album would be met with a chilly and/or bewildered response from many critics today. We live, after all, in an age where ‘music critic’ is viewed as an aspect of your broadsheet-friendly brand which easily lends itself to writing about fashion or Disney or yourself – all done with the same ironic wink at the audience. THB deliberately tries to shut down this distance, directly addressing the listener and implicating them in its litany of horrors. The band’s performance of Faster on Top of the Pops famously garnered the most complaints in BBC history – there was to be no easy escape and no backing down.

It’s been widely noted that THB came out on the same day as Oasis’ Definitely Maybe with the comparison invariably contrasting the former’s desolation with the swaggering optimism of the latter. Yet both had their roots in almost two decades of a largely-successful war against the working-class. The 1984 miners’ strike has become emblematic of this and it’s notable that (what remained of) the mining industry was fully-privatised at the end of 1994. In retrospect we can easily see this act as cementing the defeat of the working-class, yet at the time it was subsumed beneath the 20-point plus leads which Labour were enjoying over the Tories. There was a real sense of optimism that real change was coming – the first Labour government in almost 20 years. Definitely Maybe captured this zeitgeist but we can now see that THB was a more accurate harbinger of what was the come. Blair’s New Labour may have become almost comically demonised in recent years but, if it did some good, it certainly confirmed that the powerful forces represented by Thatcherism had won.

The left still hasn’t come to terms with this comprehensive defeat – one which stretches around the world and largely ensures that any government attempting to pursue radical left-wing policies is swiftly and aggressively punished (as Labour were in the late-70s). 20 years later we have another Tory government (let’s ignore the Lib Dems) which is widely viewed as being more Thatcherite than Thatcher and a left which is not in good shape. Fragmented, directionless and defeatist, much of the left prefers to dwell on the so-called glory days of the Spirit of ’45 (ignoring the unpleasant aspects of the context in which this happened, not least Empire) and pin its hopes on a Labour Party (or SNP for many in Scotland) which it hopes will be left-wing…just because. An analysis of power, the pressures which position political parties and the need to organise are frequently replaced by a blind optimism.

It’s into this context which THB is being re-born. The many pieces marking its anniversary may have paid lip service to its radicalism but they are steeped in nostalgia – a force which creates the crucial distance necessary for listening to the album without personal discomfort. There is often a sigh at the fact no band in 2014 could be envisaged releasing such a work, an attitude which bears comparison with the Spirit of ’45 nostalgia (we could draw a line from the complaints about the latter’s lack of acknowledgement of race and Empire, for example, to the notion that because no British white men with guitars are singing about politics it is currently absent). The fact that THB gigs were the fastest-selling ones the Manics have done in many years is testament to the power which the album holds over many people around my age and also an uncomfortable reminder of how easily we seek solace in sentimental reminiscing. In 1994, a BBC performance of Revol would have felt dangerous – now it feels like a crowd-pleasing offering to an audience who’ve just put the kids to bed and are relaxing with a drink. That’s what happens – we age and in doing so we hark back to when we weren’t sure who we were, when everything seemed more vivid and when life exploded with possibility (real or imagined). Yet we aren’t defeated until we stop trying and nostalgia is ultimately the enemy of progress. The Manics’ current playing with the past, both in straightforward reliving and in Rewind The Film/Futurology’s more experimental playing, risk obscuring the really important message here:

Working class skeletons
Lie scattered in museums
And all the false economies
Speak falsely of your dreams

Let’s go to war
To feel some pureness and pain
Let’s go to war
We need to go to war again