Thomas Eakins, The Wrestlers, 1899, Gay art
Art,  English,  Erotic

Extensive Freedom: The Evolution of Gay Art and Its Impact on Society

Introduction video credit: Countdown counter numbers video of Dimitris Christou from Pixabay and Couple walking on the grass of Pavel Danilyuk from Pexels

The text below is the excerpt from the book Gay Art (ISBN: 9781785259340), written by James Smalls, published by Parkstone International.

In the modern West, homosexuality is often thought about in binary notions of sex and gender. The very notion of homosexuality in the West implies that same-sex feeling and expression, in all the many different sexual and erotic forms they take, constitute a single thing, an integrated phenomenon called ‘homosexuality’, which is distinct and separate from heterosexuality. However, in the ancient, pre-modern, and non-Western societies presented in this book, the sameness or difference of the sexes of the persons who engaged in a sexual act was less important than the extent to which sexual acts either violated or conformed to the rules of religion or to the norms of conduct or tradition deemed appropriate to an individual’s gender, age, and social status.

For this reason, discourses of pederasty (from the Greek meaning “love of boys”) and sodomy (anal sex) as these related to class, age, and social status were more significant than the fact that the two partners were of the same sex. Concerns over the morality of homosexuality or sexual inversion are typical of modern rather than pre-modern approaches. What we call homosexual behaviour was not frowned upon, for example, in ancient Greece.

Elisar von Kupffer, Narcissus, 1927
Elisar von Kupffer, Narcissus, 1927. Tempera on canvas. Centro Culturale, Museo Elisarion, Minusio.

However, there were strict social rules that governed such behaviour. In ancient Athens, a homosexual relationship between a teenage boy and a mature man was generally regarded as a positive phase of a young man’s educational and social development. Indeed, such relationships were celebrated in the various dialogues of Plato, in vase and wall paintings, and in lyric poetry. At a certain point in his development, however, the adolescent was expected to marry and father children. What was frowned upon in such intergenerational sexual relationships was passivity and eager compliance in anal copulation. It should be stressed, however, that for the ancient Greeks, there was no underlying moral, religious, or social basis for censuring the erotic relationship between males that conformed to the expected hierarchical arrangement involving an adult male and an adolescent boy.

Homosexuality in the art of the non-Western world operated along the same lines as in ancient Western cultures. However, it was due to territorial expansion and campaigns of conquest beginning in the sixteenth century that Westerners forged contacts with previously unknown peoples and cultures in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Arab world. The moral values of the West were soon imposed upon those who were conquered. Cultures that had celebrated homosexuality in their past art, rituals, and native traditions, were soon forced not only to abandon them, but to perceive them as evil and morally reprehensible.

François Boucher, Erigone Defeated, 1749, Gay art
François Boucher, Erigone Defeated, 1749. Oil on canvas, 100 x 136 cm. The Wallace Collection, London.

The complex historical and social development of homosexuality in the Western world indicates that it is more than simply a conscious sexual and erotic same-sex preference. It has evolved into a new system of sexuality which functions as a means of defining the individual’s sexual orientation and a sexual identity. Homosexuality came to be associated with how individuals identify themselves. As such, it has “introduced a novel element into social organisation, into human difference, into the social production of desire, and ultimately into the social construction of the self.”

One significant aspect of the history of homosexuality is that of language and labelling. It was the change from the use of the word “homosexual” to “gay” that best exemplified the importance of the political dimensions of individuality and identity as important components in how homosexuals viewed themselves.

Boris Orlovski, Faun, c. 1820, Gay art
Boris Orlovski, Faun, c. 1820. Marble. The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.

In the 1960s and 1970s, ‘gay’ replaced ‘homosexual’ as the word of choice because many gay activists felt that ‘homosexual’ was too clinical and associated with medical pathology. By the time of the Stonewall riots in 1969, ‘gay’ was the dominant term of expressing sexual identity for a group of younger, more overtly political homosexual activists. In contrast to ‘homosexual’, ‘gay’ was thought to express the growing political consciousness of the gay liberation movement. ‘Gay’, like ‘homosexual’ can refer to both men and women. However, some women have taken issue with their implied exclusion from the category ‘gay’ and have preferred the designation ‘lesbian’. This haggling over names and labels is a very significant part of the history of homosexuality. The ‘lesbian’ over ‘gay’ debate reveals that the relation between homosexual identity and gender identity has always been vexed. In this book, I refrain from using the word ‘gay’ until after 1969 and the rise in political awareness over these terms.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the use of the word ‘gay’ increased. Almost every political and social organisation that had anything to do with the gay liberation movement used the word ‘gay’, or a variation thereof, in their organisation’s title. In recent years, some members of the gay community have rejected the designation ‘gay’ in favour of ‘queer’ – a term of inclusivity that refers to all non-heterosexual persons and categories. The word ‘queer’ had existed and had been used as a term of ostracism and pathology against homosexual men since the 1910s. It was during the 1990s that ‘queer’ was appropriated by some gay men who wanted to set themselves apart from a gay culture that they believed had sold out to the status quo and had become accommodationist…

George Platt Lynes, Nicholas Magallanas and Francisco Moncion in Poses from “Orpheus”, 1948, Gay art
George Platt Lynes, Nicholas Magallanas and Francisco Moncion in Poses from “Orpheus”, 1948. Photograph.

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Parkstone International is an international publishing house specializing in art books. Our books are published in 23 languages and distributed worldwide. In addition to printed material, Parkstone has started distributing its titles in digital format through e-book platforms all over the world as well as through applications for iOS and Android. Our titles include a large range of subjects such as: Religion in Art, Architecture, Asian Art, Fine Arts, Erotic Art, Famous Artists, Fashion, Photography, Art Movements, Art for Children.

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