Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century Art

By Richard Meyer

Beacon Press (2004), $25

“So as to gather evidence against Warhol, two FBI agents were sent to watch (semi-pornographic) Lonesome Cowboys together, at midnight, in a movie theater in San Francisco.” While Outlaw Representation is far from a comedic endeavor, it does have its funny moments, like the passage above — and I'd argue that any history of the censorship of gay male artists in this country would have to. As Richard Meyer, an associate professor of art history at USC, points out in this study, it has been tricky for censors to try to stop “them” while simultaneously trying to deny that “they” exist. As a result, suppressed images of man-man love have had an exciting time. Witness the furor caused in the mid-1930s by Paul Cadmus' The Fleet's In, a painting showing sailors getting into all sorts of trouble, including one fella who's accepting a cigarette (and you know what that means) from a sleek-haired, rosy-cheeked lad in a clean, pressed suit, tucked in among the slutty girls. The canvas was removed from its gallery after a Navy brass hissy fit, but was later resurrected by rank-and-file seamen who defended the activities shown. Were the sailors ignoring the “pansy” or simply including him, as a contemporary newspaper reported, in the range of “things that he-men do when they want to relax”? We can't be sure, but it's a great story.

Meyer's thorough research and in-depth treatment of the subject display his highly respectable scholarship — which to the civilian reader can mean “over my head” and “annoyingly pedantic,” so caveat lector. But slogging through the academese is worth the effort: Most pages inspire some sort of exclamation, whether it's in disbelief or wonder (just try to look at Robert Mapplethorpe's 1978 Self Portrait dispassionately). Meyer's honest study of every image is a slap in the face to anyone clamoring for artists to clean up their act: Outlaw Representation is intelligent, historically rooted analysis of great American art.

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