English

Homosexuality in Art

“What is done in love is well done” 

Vincent Van Gogh

The text below is the excerpt of the book Homosexuality in Art, written by James Smalls, published by Parkstone International.

As a concept, “homosexuality” encompasses a variety of conflicting ideas about gender and same-sex sexual attraction. Its broad range of possible meanings is what makes it such an irresistible, powerful, and ambiguous term nowadays. In its modern sense, “homosexuality is at once a psychological condition, an erotic desire, and a sexual practice.” (David Halperin, “Homosexuality,” in Haggerty, 452)

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Thomas Eakins. The Wrestlers, 1899. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art

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Greek painting representing a couple, 480 BC.Museum of Paestum, Italy

All three senses can and are expressed in artistic or aestheticized form. Homosexuality or, to employ a term of more recent invention, the “homoerotic,” can be understood as an actual or potential element in everyone’s experience, whatever the sexual orientation of the individual. The homosexual and the homoerotic frequently overlap but are not necessarily the same. Many of the images in this book might be classified as homoerotic rather than homosexual. “Homosexual” and “homoerotic” differ only in the root meanings of the terms “sexual” and “erotic.” Whereas “sexual” encompasses the physical act of sex, “erotic” is a concept that incorporates a range of ideas and feelings around same-sex wants, needs, and desires. It does not always culminate in the sexual act. The homoerotic, unlike the homosexual, legitimates erotic desire between members of the same sex by placing that sentiment in a context which rationalizes it—such as classicism, military battle, athletic activities, etc). Thus, in many situations the homoerotic is veiled and perceived as nontransgressive behavior. 

Whereas all homosexuals experience homoerotic desire, not all who experience and, indeed, appreciate homoerotic desire are necessarily homosexuals. The homoerotic can sometimes be a frightening prospect for some heterosexuals to such a degree that it sometimes incites virulent homophobic responses. The “homoerotic” is also linked to the more recent idea of the “homosocial.” Male homosociality refers to all-male groups or environments and is a means by which men construct their identities and consolidate their privilege and social power as males usually through and at the expense of women (see Eve Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, New York, Columbia University Press, 1985). Indeed, female homosociality also exists, but the dynamics of it in relation to patriarchal culture are quite different.

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Gustav Klimt. Friends (detail), 1916/17.
Oil on canvas, burned in 1945 in the castle of Immendorf

Although male and female homosexuality are often treated separately, both are considered in this book. Throughout, the term “homosexuality” refers to male homosexuality unless “female” is specified. This is so because most societies are male-dominated and male-oriented, giving primacy to the sexual activities and development of men over women. In relationship to art about and by homosexual men, the “scarcity of art about or by lesbians reflects male domination of the cultural record” (Saslow, 7). All of the art and literary evidence we have was the work of males and bear mostly on male activities.

The definition of homosexuality is further complicated by the differences between modern and pre-modern notions of the concept. There is considerable disagreement in contemporary literature on homosexuality over use of the word “homosexual” for same-sex relationships in non-Western, pre-modern and ancient periods. The word “homosexuality” is relatively young. Like the word “sexuality” itself, it describes a culturally determined and culturally constructed concept born of recent Western society. Thus, applying the concept “homosexuality” to history is bound to force modern and Western concepts of self and other onto the ancient and pre-modern world. In most pre-modern and ancient cultures, there is no word to denote a state of being homosexual or to describe a homosexual act.

Man and Ephebe Having a Conversation, c.420 BC. Red-figure dish (detail). Musée Municipal, Laon, France

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