In other words, the “Hide and Seek” Exhibit actually confirms the idea that any comprehensive consideration of “gay art” must give pride of place to sexually charged, sadistic, voyeuristic, nightmarish, and self-destructive themes. Visitors to the National Portrait Gallery, might wander from historic paintings of statesmen, inventors, writers and popular heroes of the last 200 years, to the museum’s first show honoring homosexual history would immediately discover a huge graphically realistic painting (by the controversial Larry Rivers) of a male hustler flaunting his genitals, or photos of bearded, bare-chested body-builders in chains.
In the midst of the current same-sex marriage debate, gay right advocates insist that homosexual and heterosexual couples are virtually indistinguishable, and that same sex desire constitutes as normal and positive a force in our society as the attraction between males and females. “Hide and Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” powerfully and definitively rebuts that notion.
Had the museum assembled a series of art works to highlight heterosexual “desire” there might have been a few erotic works showing strippers or courtesans, but it’s hard to imagine all the dark visions of sadism, domination and death currently featured at the National Portrait Gallery.
By the same token, Gay Pride parades around the country always celebrate bizarre displays of black leather, cross-dressing, fetishism, semi-nude dancing, masochism, and lurid costumes. While leaders of the homosexual community frequently stress family values, middle class stability, and gay identity as no more peculiar than any ethnic affirmation, that community’s big public festivals convey a very different message.
By the same token, the selection of art works in the ambitious exhibition at the august, publicly funded National Portrait Gallery should offend gay activists who seek to mainstream homosexual identity just as much as it outrages cultural conservatives. Those activists want to convey the idea that gay history and culture count as comparably substantive, decent, wholesome, constructive and admirable as the background and values of any other subgroup in America. Unfortunately, current art show in the nation’s capital serves to undermine rather than to reinforce that claim.