Since the advent of photography, gay artists have needed an excuse to document the male body.
In the late 1880s artist Thomas Eakins photographed young men wrestling, swimming, and frolicking nude; his pretense was to create classical academic studies to paint. Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographs were defended in court on the basis of their formalistic perfection; the purity of light and shadow seemingly cleared notions of the homoerotic. Bruce Weber's work captured young men with glowing, idealized bodies; the homoerotic tension in the images were absolved by their use as advertising images for underwear.
Why should homoerotic photography need a flimsy denotative transformation to be presentable to those outside queer circles? The male body and the homoerotic were celebrated in classical eras; it's only in the last few hundred years that we've turned mens' bodies into something to be shocked by. Even in our modern, sexually liberated society a significant gap exists between depictions of females and males as sexual objects in arts and media.The male nude has been forced into "niche" photography; viewers must be given a means to see this style as art and not pornography.
Legendary Children, Atlanta's controversial new drag queen photo exhibit (of which I am a photographer), learned the hard way that many people refuse to be confronted by depictions of the male body -- particularly images twisted by queerness. Gallery 1526, Legendary Children's host gallery, exists as the walls in a larger building of creative professionals (game designers, photographers, videographers, etc.); some of these folks found our images too risqué and censored them without our approval.
Two works by Blake England and one work by our curator Jon Dean were covered up by people who work in the Gallery 1526 building. The offenses: One image by England featured Violet Chachki's flaccid penis, a second image by England showed Violet's rear end and gaff (a special piece of underwear worn to hide a queen's tuck), and a photograph by Jon Dean featured a background of lips and spittle. (Our critics claimed the image depicted cum.) Our critics demanded that we cover up or remove our images; our gallerist was unable to broker a compromise. In response, we covered up the "offensive" images with elegant black censor flaps. These large black sheets of paper make the censorship issue blatantly apparent: You can't help but notice the swaths of silence that litter the gallery.
This censorship story seems to me silly and overblown. Gallery 1526 has previously shown paintings and photography of women, both nude and sexually provocative. The space has even hosted parties with nude women in body paint. In a direct line of sight above Blake England's offending images sits a painting of a completely nude woman. As for Jon Dean's "cum-soaked" photo? I never saw cum in it until some dude decided to tack a piece of paper over it and point out that he saw cum. I always saw the subject of the photo: Violet Chachki (she's a controversy magnet!) cinched-in and femmed-out. The background, to me, was whatever you wanted it to be.
I think all of this drama speaks to drag's power to transgress social norms. The act of cross dressing distorts the play of gendered power we live our lives by. Drag stands as an affront to rigid, traditional notions of sexuality and identity; even simple images of drag queens were able to upset the liberated, "hallowed" space of an art gallery.
Our critics claimed that our photos create a threateningly sexual work environment for their employees; covering our photos was a way to protect their businesses from lawsuit. Also, critics said our photos were inappropriate for corporate clients to see.
I find it dubious to cover up someone else's artwork for fear of being sued for sexual harassment. Also, I find it disappointing to think that business and art can't mix, especially since business operated just fine when Gallery 1526 presented images of women in the nude.
Jon Dean and Blake England are my colleagues and friends. I could not sit back and watch their work get trampled on. As the story unfolded, I couldn't help but think of all the queer voices over history who have been silenced by outsiders for the sake of "appropriateness." Even on this small, insipid scale, it's damn insulting! As queer artists, we must fight to have our voice heard and have our heritage honored. Sometimes the battle is fought over a photo of a naked drag queen, but, zoomed out, this is an issue of queer voices, mens' bodies, and the power of art.
I have decided to censor my own artwork for Legendary Children. I stand in solidarity with Jon Dean, Blake England, and all the artists before me who needed a "cover" in order to produce work about the male body. Sixteen of my works are now blacked out; viewers must actively lift up the flaps and view my photos. During the closing reception for Legendary Children, the covers will be removed from Blake England and Jon Dean's work, but not mine. When viewers play peekaboo they'll find fake tits, a real ass, dog shit, and lots of beautiful faces of my drag queen friends. I force viewers to have an intimate connection with these girls. Initial uneasy closeness with these queer images will melt and become a fun, playful, and titillating experience for my audience.
The homoerotic has a long history in art; unfortunately, it's one that art historians have shied away from discussing. As a gay man, I feel called to be a creator and caretaker of culture; I want to continue in the footsteps of other great gay artists before me. Queer history has been erased, ignored, and altered by those fearful of the disintegration of the sexual status quo; I want to change that. I realize that America faces an inevitable march toward queer equality, but we must acknowledge that the fight is far from over.
To learn more about my work for Legendary Children, please visit my Kickstarter page.