Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth Century American Art by Richard Meyer; Oxford University Press; 376 pages; $35.00.
Shortly after Outlaw Representation went into production, author Richard Meyer was informed that the London office of Oxford University Press would not distribute his book in England or elsewhere in Europe unless Meyer removed from the book a reproduction of Robert Mapplethorpe's 1976 portrait of Jesse McBride, a naked little boy.
Since Meyer refused to remove the offending photo from his book, Outlaw Representation remains without a distributor in the United Kingdom or in Europe. That this act of censorship happened to a book dealing with the censorship of homosexual art is significant.
Long before Meyer had his own problems with the censors, gay artists have had to deal with official disapproval of homosexual art. In 1934 Paul Cadmus was hired by the Public Works of Art Project "to paint without any restrictions except that his painting must be an easel picture and on an American subject."
What Cadmus painted was The Fleet's In!, which featured sailors cavorting with both women and men in New York City's Riverside Park. When The Fleet's In! was exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., it was denounced by retired admiral Hugh Rodman, who called it "a disgraceful, sordid, disreputable, drunken brawl" and "an unwarranted insult to the enlisted personnel of our Navy".
Though The Fleet's In! was duly removed from the Corcoran, Rodman's attack made it and its creator famous. As Cadmus himself admitted, "I owe the start of my career, really, to the Admiral who tried to suppress it."
As Cadmus's experience shows, attempts to censor questionable art often gives said art (and its artist) a degree of notoriety that the censors never intended. In 1989 the Corcoran Gallery got into trouble again when it tried to show an exhibit of the often-homoerotic work of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
Cadmus' The Fleet is In!
When Corcoran director Christina Orr-Cahall caved in to the demands of Senator Jesse Helms and other bigots, she inadvertently made Mapplethorpe a cause celebre and coffee table editions of his works became de rigueur in every liberal's coffee table.
Artist David Wojnarowicz had a somewhat different experience in 1990 when Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association mailed out unauthorized copies of his art - to attack it, of course. Wojnarowicz promptly sued Wildmon and the AFA for libel and copyright infringement and won a dollar damages. Of course the publicity that Wojnarowicz got out of the lawsuit was priceless.
It would be too much to ask for a comprehensive study of homosexuality and censorship in America during the 20th century. Outlaw Representation, which began as Meyer's doctoral dissertation, deals to a great extent with specific instances of homoerotic art and censorship: Cadmus, Mapplethorpe, Wojnarowicz, Andy Warhol, the collective Gran Fury and, in a "token" lesbian presence, performance artist Holly Hughes.
With Attorney General John Ashcroft ready to decide what's naughty and what's nice, art that deals with unorthodox sexual topics will once again be the subject of censorship and controversy. In art, as in politics, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Jesse Monteagudo is a Cuban-born freelance writer who has lived in South Florida since 1964. His book reviews, news stories, essays and fictions have appeared in over thirty gay or mainstream publications and over two dozen anthologies. When not writing (or working at his day job), Monteagudo spends his time with his life partner of over 16 years or doing volunteer work for one of several South Florida organizations. He was awarded a Stonewall Award in 1994 and a Stars of the Rainbow Award in 1997 for his contributions to South Florida LGBT organizations, media and journalism. Monteagudo is also working on a book. He can be reached at email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org