Speaking for Vice: Homosexuality in the Art of Charles DeMuth, Marsden Hartley, and the First American Avant-Garde.

Speaking for Vice: Homosexuality in the Art of Charles DeMuth, Marsden Hartley, and the First American Avant-Garde. – book reviews

Paul Mattick, Jr.

Speaking for Vice: Homosexuality in the Art of Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, and the First American Avant-Garde, by Jonathan Weinberg, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1993; 260 pages, $40.

It is often hard to remember today that homosexual love once dared not speak its name. Plays featuring gay themes now frequently occupy Broadway and Off-Broadway stages, and homosexuality is prominently featured in the visual arts as well. And yet only a few decades ago such matters could not be mentioned openly, much less made explicit in the content of art works. Jonathan Weinberg’s book offers a view into an earlier, more secretive moment–the period between the two world wars–in the history of the complex interrelation between homosexuality and modern art.

While his study focuses on the painting of Charles Demuth and Marsden Hartley, Weinberg’s more general subject is the relation between the artistic transgressions that defined the stance of the avantgarde and the social transgressions of male homosexuality. (Weinherg has chosen to limit his discussion, for the most part, to gay men, because of the distinctness of lesbian and gay male subcultures in his period.) Central to the avant-garde’s sense of itself, Weinberg argues, was “the theme of the artist as outsider.” The homosexual, defined as aberrant by society, would thus seem destined to find a natural home in the avant-garde, both because of bohemia’s interest in the unconventional and because of the potential of modernist art to serve as “a form of self-revelation and a means of liberation from the prohibitions society places around those it deems abnormal.” As Weinberg shows, however, reality is not so simple. On the one hand, the avantgarde was not as free from anti-gay attitudes as it liked to think; on the other, Demuth’s and Hartley’s art suggests significant points of contact between their homosexuality and the dominant culture.

Weinberg is careful to stress that “homosexuality” should not be taken as the name of some timeless condition. While he does not take a position on the general question of sexual essentialism vs. constructionism, he observes that “the discussion of homosexuality in relation to the art of either Hartley or Demuth has often been limited by a failure to link the term to its historical context.” His first chapter, therefore, asks “Who Is a Homosexual?”–i.e., what were the meanings of this term in the inter-war period? By this time, as he shows, homosexuality was taken to be not a sexual taste or a range of acts but “a variety of persons–almost a species.” Yet dependable signs of this condition were hard to specify. For Freudian psychology, especially influential in modernist circles, homosexual proclivities were considered pathological in adults, but were also assumed to be a universal feature of psychosexual development. Ultimately, Weinberg argues, the indeterminacy of the homosexual’s nature, and the indistinctness of his difference from “normal” men, made him seem all the more dangerous to the stability of societal boundaries.

This indeterminacy was evident in the domain of representation as well as in real life. At a time when “homosexuals themselves were unable to agree on the signs of their sexuality,” it is not surprising that there was “no real iconography of homosexuality.” Consequently, the recognition of “homosexual content” in art works is a difficult matter, which Weinberg approaches by combining social-historical and biographical discussion with more strictly art-historical modes of investigation. Weinberg’s second chapter explores the question of “signs of homosexuality” in both life and art, stressing, with respect to the latter, the variety of forms available for the expression of homosexual content. Comparing a Demuth watercolor of a bathhouse scene with a Bellows lithograph of a similar subject, for instance, he shows how the former sets its male protagonists in physical contact with each other and emphasizes one man’s penis (in Bellows’s picture the genitals are discreetly hidden). Most important, Demuth creates an atmosphere of “secret purpose” linking the men on view, while Bellows’s figures are visibly engaged in nothing more noteworthy than vigorous toweling and conversation.

In this and other works by Demuth, the placement of men in ambiguous poses serves to encode gay desire by introducing sexual uncertainty into the representation of groups of men (it is unclear, for example, in the bathhouse scene, whether two men, half-hidden by a third, are touching each other or not) and by reserving a “clandestine subject matter” for “an intended few” who can be expected to understand the clues. Elsewhere, in works apparently intended for private circulation, Demuth is more forthright in his depiction of gay sex. Hartley’s 1914 Portrait of a German Officer epitomizes yet a different approach; here the artist’s subject matter–his adoration of a young military man–is hidden by a Cubist- and Expressionist-inflected style. In later paintings, this artist, too, expressed his sexual interests more directly.

Three chapters each on Demuth and on Hartley make up the body of Weinberg’s book; a concluding chapter develops more general issues relating to “homosexuality and the American avant-garde.” For neither of his artists does Weinberg give us a life or an artistic career survey. Instead, in each case, he concentrates on those works in which homosexuality is a central matter. The chapters on Demuth deal almost exclusively with the artist’s watercolor book illustrations and erotic scenes of sailors and bathhouse patrons. In a brief examination of Demuth’s flower paintings, Weinberg argues that critics have looked for phallic shapes in these works chiefly because of their knowledge of the artist’s sexual orientation, an approach which assumes that sexual themes must pervade a homosexual’s art. In reality, according to Weinberg, Demuth “carefully… segregated the subjects of his art,” using different mediums and seeking different audiences for different themes. In fact, Weinberg suggests, “this awareness of audience–the consciousness of what is permitted and not permitted depending on certain settings and viewers”–reflects the artist’s homosexuality more clearly than his occasional painting of phallic flowers or smokestacks.

Similarly, critics have often found sublimated sexual drives in Demuth’s early watercolor illustrations of works by Zola, James, Balzac and Pater. But in a series of close readings of a number of these illustrations, Weinberg argues persuasively that they can be more usefully seen as embodying a sophisticated meditation on sexual possibilities outside the standard male-female polarity, as well as on Demuth’s sense of himself as excluded from heterosexual love. The bathhouse scenes painted around 1915, in contrast, depict a homosexual milieu. Finally, a set of watercolors of sailors made in 1930 makes genital sexuality an explicit focus of attention, bringing forbidden acts into view.

Weinberg’s discussion of Demuth is consistently interesting; his insightful analyses of particular images make good use of an integration of biographical and social-historical materials. Occasionally, however, his predilection for art-historical source-hunting seems beside the point, a leftover from academic training. Thus a watercolor of two men and a woman in a boat, illustrating a Henry James story, is compared to Mary Cassatt’s The Boating Party, though no information is given linking the two in Demuth’s experience and the differences between them are at least as striking as the similarities. A comparison of Demuth’s Three Sailors Urinating to Rubens’s The Judgment of Paris, while it leaves the latter’s status as “source” for the former unargued for, does draw attention to the usual absence from Western iconography of an imagery of “masculine privacy and vulnerability” to match the traditional invasion of feminine privacy. There is one surprising misreading of an image: Demuth’s Two Sailors Urinating is said to show “the hand of the left-hand figure… on the penis of his companion,” but careful inspection of the picture reveals that reading to be anatomically impossible. What Weinberg has uncharacteristically missed is the clever way in which Demuth has suggested this act without actually representing it–a tactic that would, moreover, be in keeping with the author’s description of Demuth’s approach. [1]

An interest in sailors provides an important link between homosexuality as a subculture and what is supposed to be the mainstream of American life. Weinberg quotes a homosexual memoir of 1918 that classifies “the warrior” and “the blue-jacket” along with “the pugilist” at the extreme masculine end of a scale that, at its other end, runs to such “feminine” types as “the scholar.” The discomfort this link could generate is well represented by the reception in 1934 of Paul Cadmus’s painting The Fleet’s In!, which includes a sailor flirting with a gay man within a scene of heterosexual debauchery: hung in a government-sponsored exhibition, this work was swiftly removed from view by an assistant secretary of the Navy, though the ensuing public controversy never mentioned its homosexual element.

The early work of Marsden Hartley is also concerned with military masculinity. His abovementioned Portrait of a beloved officer killed during the first world war was one of a set of works he made in Germany on military themes. An important element of Germany’s appeal for Hartley was no doubt the degree of art-world success he experienced there. But, in addition, Weinberg argues, it is likely that Hartley’s sense of being at home in that country was due at least in part to the role of homoeroticism in German culture. It was “not merely the size or the relative freedom of [Germany’s] gay subculture but the integration of homosexuality into the dominant German culture,” and in particular the connection established “between military and homosexual cultures.” In Paris, by contrast, homosexuality (to the degree to which it was visible) tended to be associated with the model of decadence, and with femininity rather than masculinity.

It is a pity that Weinberg does not also discuss the importance of militarism in America (not to mention the rest of the modern world) as background for the preoccupations of his two protagonists. “A real ecstasy for war is the only modern religious ecstasy,” Hartley wrote in 1914; without the element of religion, Hartley’s statement might have been made by a Futurist–which reminds us that interest in things military, as well as emphasis on the masculine, marks a point at which some versions of homosexuality, the artistic avant-garde and modernity in general converge.

Towards the end of his life, Hartley sought masculine fellowship in his relationship with a family of fishermen in Nova Scotia. In the Mason family, specifically the father and two sons, Hartley seems to have found again “what Germany represented to him–masculinity, youth, and cleanliness, intertwined with an element of erotic exhibitionism.” He also found the theme of death, connected this time to the sea, not war. His paintings of a drowned young fisherman, notably in the guise of a Christ mourned by a group of half-naked men, are homosexual (in Weinberg’s view) both in their exclusion of women and in their conflation of desire and loss, an “objective correlative” of the fragility of happiness which a gay man of that era might expect.

Weinberg’s final chapter argues against the conventional tendency to contrast avant-garde and mainstream culture. The former, he reminds us, was in truth less open to sexual nonconformity than it at times liked to pretend. In that context, Weinberg discusses the rejection of Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made Fountain by the American Society of Independent Artists in 1913. Exploring the sexual, and even specifically homoerotic, associations of the urinal, Weinberg explains how Duchamp’s gesture served not just to subvert esthetic systems but to question the avant-garde practice of tolerance–“something that those in control bestow on those who are not in control.” On the other hand, despite Demuth’s and Hartley’s acceptance of their own estrangement, as homosexuals, from the mainstream, they both attempted in their art “to place the homosexual experience within the sphere of the native”–Demuth by depicting homosexual life in the city, Hartley by “using the iconography of mainstream American faith” to express gay desire. Despite appearances, Weinberg’s argument is not really paradoxical. The avant-garde, whatever its pretensions and intentions, was a part of bourgeois culture. Homosexuality, for all its official unacceptability, lived its life throughout modern society. Thus, from both directions, “the marginal turns out to be about the center after all.” Weinberg does not explore this powerful idea as deeply as he might–for example, by thoroughly investigating those themes shared by gay and mainstream cultures, from the love of uniforms to the experience of estrangement itself. Such an investigation might have shed more light on a question Weinberg asks at the start of his book–“What are the kinds of transgressions that congregate around the particular sexual practices that are defined by the term homosexuality?”–a question sharply relevant to understanding today’s anti-gay campaigns. But despite its limitations, Speaking for Vice contains much to reward the reader wishing to come to grips with the dialectic of sexuality, art and modernity–a history still in the process of being written.

1. The suggestion that the sailors in this picture are drawn “as if from a crouching position” also seems unconvincing. It should be said in passing that the author has not been well served by his editors, who have allowed numerous unclear expressions and errors (e.g., Blau Reiter, twice repeated) to stand.

Author: Paul Mattick, Jr., teaches philosophy at Adelphi University; he is the editor of Eighteenth-Century Aesthetics and the Reconstruction of Art (Cambridge University Press, 1993).

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