Intolerant is too polite a word for both the citizens who are kicking and screaming about this exhibit and the politicians who are trying to gain from it. These are fag-haters—they don’t want to see portraits of fags next to portraits of Founding Fathers. That the Smithsonian didn’t stand its ground is disgraceful.
The New Museum gives a terrific and deeply felt examination of what we’re losing. If this seems like a better exhibition for, say, a design museum, it’s useful to remember the role that newspapers have played in art since their emergence as the fourth estate. At once a conduit for, and a representation of, culture, society, and the world, the newspaper has provided artists of many stripes with an ideal stand-in for received wisdom. Hence the presence of newspapers in Cubist collage, in Cornell boxes, or in Warhol’s silkscreens: newspapers are the voice of authority, and can literally be torn apart for art’s sake.
The presentation capitalizes on the fact that a computer remembers better than a person, with more detail and more accuracy. Google Maps then provides the truer memory of the appearance of your childhood street, Arcade Fire provides the emotion, and the program itself directs the eye. All you need to do is experience the thing and, when prompted, type a postcard to yourself as an adolescent. The Wilderness Downtown doesn’t allow the viewer to draw connections of his or her own; it takes you by your collar and tells you where and what and when to remember, and then it tells you what to do about it.
Indeed, the physicality of the magazines—that you can buy them, hold them, and keep them—creates a closer relationship between reader and content. When I was preparing to write this piece, I found myself walking out of St. Mark’s Bookstore holding a plain brown-paper bag full of gay rags. At that moment I felt connected to a gay past that I had never experienced: the formerly common experience of sliding a few bills across the cover of a dirty magazine and then scurrying home.
But as the show goes on and the subjects age, it becomes clear that some essential insight is missing here. The snapshots have very little to say that’s not beneath the surface. There’s no comment in their compositions, and no deeper personalities betrayed in the candid shots. These are, in fact, the pictures Ginsburg would have taken with his iPhone, had he had one, and he seems to know it. Like a Facebook user, he supplements the early photos with exuberant, handwritten comments in the margins as if to provide meaning that’s not apparent in the image. Just because these photos were taken by an artist doesn’t make them art. These are documentary images of the lives of great artists, artifacts better suited for display at the Library of Congress than at the National Gallery.
The musicians and lyricists behind some of the greatest works of musical theater were often gay men who wrote their own repression into their work. Using heterosexual characters, they expressed an experience of love that was interrupted or destroyed by prejudice. Three cornerstones of the genre, Show Boat (1927), South Pacific (1949), and West Side Story (1957), all turn on interracial romances, which were still subject to public debate when the pieces were written. West Side Story’s climactic “Somewhere,” in which Bernstein’s star-crossed lovers imagine that “there’s a place for us” must have reverberated beyond the theater for the gay men in his audience.
So, twenty years on, is there a significance to the shared sexuality of these captains of media, or is it just biography? I don’t know if gayness can ever just be background. In our overheated culture, sexual preference is central to personality—particularly when it’s so closely guarded. Successful people who choose to remain in the closet are necessarily excellent adapters. The closet is a hothouse specially designed to chameleons. It creates extreme extroversion, which allowed both men to be so flexible, and so eager to be a part of what was happening next. Wenner and Geffen had a choice between being in with the in crowd or being out of the closet.