Archive: Issue No. 79, March 2004

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Rejecting the ghetto
by Andrew Verster

'Pope Commissions Gay Architect to Design St Peters' would be as silly a headline as 'Gay Headmaster Defrauds Parents Association of Thousands'. Is the 1812 overture a gay piece of music? Did Alexander the Great's military strategy have a homosexual slant? How do we measure the greatness of Oscar Wilde, Leonardo da Vinci or Cole Porter?

Peoples' lives are shaped by many things amongst which the intolerance of those around them, prejudice and bigotry must play a part. Indeed, in some cases, the reverse. In enlightened societies, and there are some, acceptance may make life too cosy. I have a strong feeling that all art protests against the status quo: artists are simultaneously insiders and outsiders, with a sceptical eyebrow constantly raised.

While Tchaikovsky's music might or might not reveal a gay sensibility - I doubt that such a thing exists - there is no question that his suicide was caused by the pressures he found intolerable, and that it is society that is to blame for his despair and death. It is a fact that the world has been cheated out of who-can-say-how-many unwritten works through a life ended before its time.

Being an outsider, not by choice, but by circumstance, can be a blessing not a curse. Those on the outer edges, those who seem not to fit into any known category, have the hardest fight from birth for they are faced with questions about where they fit in and who they are. Their decisions determine their identity.

Avoiding these difficult questions, means never discovering ones uniqueness. A tragedy. A life only half lived. A life lived by proxy.

As a male, looking at the problem of men in a man's world - and no matter how much things have changed, it still remains a world dominated by men - it is obvious that when one automatically inherits this superior position, one never has to question why one is there. The majority of men are given their identities at birth. Living in these hand-me-down clothes, accepting this given identity without having earned it, and never having had to question it, is in itself a problem.

For when the clothes don't fit, the result is tantrums and violence. Is it a coincidence that most of the violence in the world is committed by men? That there are more male prisoners, more murderers and bank robbers who are men?

But to get back to the question of a gay sensibility: clich´┐Ż has us believe that amongst its ingredients are flamboyance, showiness, excess and extravagance. Its reverse, a leaner aesthetic, would be Zen-like in its simplicity. Baroque churches would fit, medieval not. Indian temple sculpture are exuberant enough, Japanese too spare. Purple and red would be in one group, green, brown and grey in the other. It is a pointless game.

That I am gay and a painter is one thing, that I am a gay artist another. Boxes are limiting - black art, wildlife art, women's art - these sub-species subvert appreciation for they demand different criteria. It is retrogressive when barriers between the various art forms become more and more tenuous to impose artificial distinctions.

As makers and as viewers, we have on our menus everything that has ever been created from the beginning of time until the present, in every culture, language and form. Do you have to be Egyptian to appreciate the pyramids? Are vegetarians unable to enjoy Rembrandt's Flayed Carcass? Should Jews have a problem with Wagner?

I reject the ghetto, be it the ghetto of age or language or country or culture or time. To be marooned on a desert island with Hans Christian Andersen, Truman Capote, Louis XIII and Rudolf Nureyev would be intriguing, not because they were gay, but because they would help the days fly quickly until we were rescued. Likewise, I would not want to spend time with Plato, Byron or Peter the Great simply because they were gay for I'd be tongue-tied and out of my depth. Nor would I exclude, on another island, at another time, the Maharani of Jaipur, Picasso, Fatima Meer and Tom Waites - or a million other astonishing people - simply because they were not gay.