Saturday, May 5, 2007

NY Times Article on "The Male Gaze" Show: Nostalgia in Oppositional Gay Culture

My friend J sent me a link this morning to a New York Times article about "The Male Gaze," a "just-opened group show at the powerHouse Arena in the Dumbo area of Brooklyn, that makes clear how a new generation of artists is addressing itself frankly to the varied and mutating shapes of sexuality." These attempts are being formulated in zines like Butt and the output of artists like Christian Holstad and Scott Hug, and those formulations, according to the shows's curator, Nicholas Weist, “argues for a new kind of alternativism that reacts against the mainstream of the culture.” It's easy to see this argument being enacted in our little bubble of a gay scene in San Francisco, where you have an oppositional "queer" culture that gathers around Trannyshack and The Rod and enacts nostalgic longings for pre-AIDS sexuality. As the article's author, Guy Trebay, puts it:
. . . nostalgia remains a powerful current running through the new gay male art scene, manifest as a longing for what, from a distance, looks like the utopian days of radical and pre-AIDS politics and unfettered sex.

That many gay people now find themselves squarely in the mainstream is a source of useful friction for artists like Dean Sameshima, whose Web site explains that his randy autobiographical work was inspired by “the will to assert and examine the continued existence” of underground gay cultures. A similar thought turned up a while back in a Butt interview with the gay German playwright Patrick Schuckmann.

“Gay culture is coming to an end,” said Mr. Schuckmann, head writer for a hugely popular German soap opera whose title, translated, is “Good Times, Bad Times.” “In a way I regret that, because this gay identification was so important for me, and I liked the revolutionary aspects of this idea of having a different sexuality. Now it’s all about marriage and being like everybody else.”

The article goes on to point out that, for some artists in the show, like James Morrison, we are entering into a kind of post-gay era in which being gay is secondary to anything else. It's easy to see how this could be interpreted as a betrayal of the queer oppositional position that so many of us championed through the late 80s and early 90s, where the very fact of our gayness set us apart from the rest of the world, and, theoretically at least, enabled us to take a critical stance toward mainstream culture that promised to usher in a new era of progressive politics. Ironically AIDS was the shock to the system that catalyzed the second major wave of gay liberation and civil rights. Now the oppositionl culture, in its longing to return to the pre-AIDS era, also seems to want to return to an apolitical vision of gay identity, one that focuses purely on sexuality, and a very randy version of sexuality at that.

The problem with this, or at least what I struggle with, is that the attempt to re-invigorate gay identity by re-invigorating an underground gay sexuality is that it leads, both politically and culturally, to a dead end. If we want to focus on a "purely" gay culture than what we have is 70s disco, and the incorporation of any contemporary aesthetic component is a vaguely assimilationist threat. We thus get caught up in an endless repeating cycle that, in another ten years, will make us look as anachronistic as swing kids today. At the same time this oppositional sexuality traps us in an eternally horny yet unfulfilled adolescence - what happens to my oppositional identity when I get a boyfriend and decide that he's all I really want? This is the decision that expels us from the gay garden of earthly delights, or at least, so it has seemed in my own experience - when you're no longer looking for that fucked-up hook-up, what's the point of most gay party nights?

For me the solution is to realize that my queerness sets me apart in almost any situation, gay or straight, and that it still enables me to look at the world in a uniquely critical way. I think it's more important to go forth into the larger cultural world and drag my queer sensibility along with me than to settle down into narcissistic nostalgia. Besides, it's far more oppositional to be the two boys kissing in the corner at a "straight" techno party than on the back porch of Deco. And if I can get those kids to let me or the boyfriend up on the decks and bring our queer interpretation to their world, I think this creates more real change than any solipsitic, studied attempts to re-create the Paradise Garage. This is perhaps a "post-gay" attitude, if being gay is defined solely in terms of a specific set of sexual attitudes and practices, but I was always much more interested in being queer than gay anyway.

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