Friday 10 July 2009

Strident solemnity

Gay Icons, National Portrait Gallery, London

This exhibition is being held to celebrate the contribution of gay people and their icons to history and culture. It also coincides with the fortieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York, which were a turning-point in the modern movement for gay rights. Ten leading gay figures have selected 60 photographs of people - not necessarily homosexual or lesbian – who have inspired them. Which choices stand-out among the inspirational figures here?

The selectors are all well-known representatives of their chosen fields of work. From the media world we have Lord Ali, from showbiz there are Sir Elton John and Sir lan McKellen, sport gives us veteran tennis star BillieJean King, politics has Lord Smith, gay rights campaigning has Ben Summerskill, and finally we have writers Alan Hollinghurst, Jackie Kay, Sandi Toksvig and Sarah Waters. Seeing that these figures are all drawn from the ranks of the great and the good, there’s a temptation to think that their choices will be overwhelmingly esoteric, just as the fifty most famous films selected by professional film critics assembled in a Wardour Street preview cinema will often vary enormously from those which might be chosen by the popcorn-munching multitude in a suburban multiplex on a saturday night. But this would be a wildly premature judgement. Significant figures leap up and grab our attention.

Let’s start with Lord Alli, whose choices includes drag performer LilySavage – the male incarnation of a certain sort of female toughness – who sits with a sort of demure roughness with Blackpool Tower as a background whilst, by way of contrast, a white-capped David Hockney blows a ring of moustache-like smoke. Alan Hollinghurst shows us novelist Ronald Firbank, who has a look of puzzlement on his face, whilst a miniscule photo of Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins shows him looking directly at the viewer and appearing to wonder why he is being photographed, what all the fuss is about. Actor and Warhol protege Joe Dallesandro exudes a sense of pretty-boy toughness and, although taken in 1968, the photograph prefigures the sort of present-day commercial pictures of male figures designed to appeal to gays and straights alike.

Sir Elton John shows us his songwriter Bernie Taupin. Cynics might say this is a diplomatic choice – Taupin has made a major contribution to keeping Sir Elton’s career in being – but the songwriter has a sense of freshness that might not be expected from someone who has clocked-up many years in the unforgiving business of pop music.

Jackie Kay’s chosen photograph of Bessie Smith shows her with a sad expression which belies the jazz singer’s rumbustious image,, whilst writer and self-proclaimed ‘stately homo’ Quentin Crisp walks with ethereal haughtiness through a snow-encrusted New York street.

Billie Jean King shows us tennis player Althea Gibson holding a trophy with a sense of restrained triumph, as if she’s got to be careful not to forget her place and be too exuberant. Sir lan McKellen gives us a smiling Harvey Milk who is rather overshadowed by an umbrella as he delivers a speech, but uniformed Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer is striking as a gay campaigning figure from an unexpectedquarter – the Washington National Guard.

In his earlier incarnation as New labour supremo for culture, media and sport, Chris Smith was seen - rightly or wrongly – as a perpetrator of cultural dumbing-down. Since his enoblement, lord Smith seems to have tried to redeem himself (his book Suicide of the West, co-authored with Richard Koch, being an example of this). Two of his choices exemplify commitment to serious culture and thought. We have cosily-craggy WH Auden contrasting with a shrewd-looking Alan Turing, the mathematician and logician often seen as the inventor of the computer, and whose work on the Ultra project during the Second World War would help with the cracking of the German Enigma coding system. Later, his career - and life - would be destroyed as a result of being convicted for homosexual indecency.

Leading gay rights campaigner Ben Summerskill gives us two tough figures. A backward-glancing Joe Orton shows the playwright exhibiting a defiance that looks camp but – as we know from his plays and diary – he was anything but wimpish. Painter Francis Bacon looks drunk and weepily belligerent, but you sense that he’s ready for another struggle at the easel depicting the red meat of human existence before heading-off to the Colony Room.

The photo of Peter Tatchell chosen by Sandi Toksvig shows the veteran gay campaigner, blank-faced, achieving a sort of dignity in a police mugshot: she rightly praises him for his attempts to arrest Robert Mugabe. Bookseller Jane Cholmeley (plus her partner Sue Butterworth) radiates quiet and justifiable enthusiasm outside the old - and rightly much missed - Silver Moon Women’s bookshop in Charing Cross Road. Sarah Waters shows the novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner in a pose that could be that of a serious young schoolmistress of the inter-war years who - because of the carnage of the trenches - will never marry: but the burnt-down cigarette in her hand effects a louche demolition of this image. A smiling Kenneth Williams is complemented by noir crime writer Patricia Highsmith looking deceptively-girlish whilst novelist Daphne Du Maurier seems furtive, a reflection of her own sexual uncertainties.

This range of choices seems a straightforward celebration of significance, but it provokes questions - and ones which might not have been fully considered by those doing the choosing.

First, whilst some of those making choices for this exhibition may have dabbled with heterosexuality, all of them identify as being gay. At a time when LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) is normally the catch-all acronym for all those contributing to non-heterosexual gender behaviour or sexuality, this raises an obvious question. Why have no bisexuals or transgender people been featured as selectors? Is it because the concepts of bisexuality and transgender have caused splits - usually about the nature-versus-nurture origins of sexuality - within the gay and lesbian worlds and it was feared that inclusion of some Bs and Ts would queer the pitch, as it were, of gay solidarity? If so, it is not unfortunate that a chance to confront this issue rather than smooth it over wasn’t taken by the exhibition’s organisers. It’s also somewhat ironic, given that the Stonewall riots were led by drag-queens.

Secondly, polities - sexual and party - also intrude here, along with religious issues. Some of the figures exhibited here have manifested views that would be at odds with gay establishment-approved attitudes today. In his later years Quentin Crisp caused a furore over his critical views on AIDS campaigning and also by dissing gay icon Diana, Princess of Wales (another of Lord Alli’s choices), while Kenneth Williams’ diaries have revealed that, whilst he abhorred South Africa’s apartheid system, he held views on socialism and immigration that would probably have commended themselves to the Monday Club: they would certainly cause a carry-on if voiced by anyone seeking a career in showbiz or gay polities today.

Joe Orton, by Lewis Morley (1965)

It’s doubtful whether Williams’ friend Joe Orton - an instinctive non-conformist and scorner of team spirit - would have had much time for the strident solemnity of modern gay campaigning. He didn’t think homosexual law reform would do much to change public opinion on the matter, and his rampant cottaging showed a sexual lifestyle very different from the squeaky-clean image of modern rainbow flag gayness. The author of Loot would have relished the irony of seemingly gay-friendly politicians not only showing little concern about the preservation of traditional liberties but also imposing a Big Brother surveillance and regulatory culture: one hopes he would have written acerbically about it too.

Hopkins (author of, among other things, the line ‘There’s none but truth can stead you. Christ is truth.’) and Auden (an Anglican in later years) would both have probably have had a dim view of what comes over as the deliberate provocation of religious believers carried-out by mainstream gay campaigning and which has - arguably - helped to spark the equally unlovely ‘God hates fags’ extremism of America’s Religious Right. And one wonders what Alan Turing would have thought about the modern-day quest for social inclusiveness which has helped to fuel the therapy-culture attitude of ‘all must have prizes’ which bedevils much modern Western education.

These considerations raise deeper questions. What is the meaning of inspiration when taken in the context of a belief-system - in this case, the political correctness of the gay modern mainstream? Is being inspired a matter of following a particular figure blindly, or of filtering-out from that person’s beliefs whatever may be incompatible with one’s own? If so, is that possibly a dishonest approach involving as it does, not only the co-option of people who might not be in agreement with one’s outlook,  but also a lack of openness to the changes which an open-minded acceptance of inspiration might encourage? Indeed, is there any point in holding any sort of belief or orientation-specific exhibition about inspiration when it’s simply a matter of reinforcing existing beliefs?

Gays and lesbians (and bisexuals and transgender people) still have to face their (un)fair share of burdens, but does gender-specific campaigning help? Seeing what makes people tick is always interesting, and this exhibition is no exception. But perhaps it might be more thought-provoking - and, in the best sense of the word, more inclusive – to have exhibitions about people who stimulate individuals across the board to develop their potential as human beings.


Till 18 October 2009


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