Something from Nothing

Rauschenberg-white-painting  The composer John Cage said of Rauschenberg’s white paintings that they were “airports for lights, shadows and particles,” hues and shadows that arose not as an expression of the artist’s inner self, but from the way spectators’ own movements interacted with the seemingly blank canvas.

This is about as far from the relentlessly self-promotional and self-heroic productions of the Abstract Expressionists as you can get: the sacred drama of the virile, if tortured, hetero male splattering a canvas.

I’ve been reading a wonderful article by Gavin Butt on gay and lesbian artists challenges to Abstract Expressionism.* Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Warhol–all of them are known, in part, for work that distances itself from what Johns called “the stink of the artist’s ego.”

One of the things the article I’ve been reading points out is that the dominant model of the time, one in which the “expression” of the canvas was tethered directly to the artist’s biography, was simply not an option, or at least not a fraught one, for gay and lesbian artists before Stonewall.

Under traditional identity politics, this would be an occasion for mourning: society thwarts the open expression of someone’s identity and that makes them an incomplete being, an unfinished person. The tragedy of this incompleteness becomes an occasion for protest and political change.

A valuable enough conceptual tool. But one of the things I’m enjoying about Gavin Butt’s article is the way it explores other things that happened. Finding themselves cut off from art that expressed biography (and especially hetero masculine individualism) in a direct way, people found community, collaboration, and exploration across genres instead.

Now what I especially like about this approach is that it avoids a teleology which sets up contemporary gay and lesbian out identities as a benchmark by which to measure the past. Instead, we have people responding in creative ways to oppressive circumstances, but without setting up the present as a promised land. 

Instead, we have artists who reshaped and expanded, radically and permanently, the possibilities of art. This doesn’t have to do with an underlying common identity, but more of a common situation, shared dilemmas, and the communal and creative ways they responded to it. Instead of simply a blank absence, an empty canvas, you have a shared space and what happens within it.

I think the histories of this are just being written, but I’m grateful that they are.

* Butts, Gavin. “How New York Queered the Idea of Modern Art.” in Varieties of Modernism. Paul Wood, ed. London: Yale UP (for the Open University), 2004.

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