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Boys and the banned: Michael Warner on Outlaw Representation. (Books).

Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art, by Richard Meyer. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. 376 pages, $35.

"CENSORSHIP AND HOMOSEXUALITY"--merely to name the topic suggests a heroic narrative. Most of time we think of censorship as an extraordinary intervention. The censor arrives, like the angel of the law after the Fall, or like Edwin Meese, standing with a fiery sword between us and some purer, freer form of expression, some barely imaginable possibility of direct representation, or in the case of homosexuality, of unstigmatized identity.

But do these good things exist? Should we wish for them? Can art avoid censorship? Can homosexuality ever stop being queer?

In Richard Meyer's subtle and informative book, nothing is quite so simple as the heroic story his title suggests. Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art features four artists, each the target of external censorship of the classic variety: Paul Cadmus, Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, and David Wojnarowicz. In each case, Meyer tracks the circumstances of the artist's struggle against the philistines. Cadmus, for example, began his career in infamy, when his early painting. The Fleet's In!, 1934, outraged the US Navy brass. (The painting was seized; ironically, it still hangs in the Naval Historical Center, where it is said to be the museum's top draw.) Warhol's Thirteen Most Wanted Men, hung on the side of a pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair in Flushing Meadow, was painted over before the fair opened. (One villain of this story turns out to be Philip Johnson, who told the press that the overpainting had been the artist's choice and that no censorship had taken p lace.) And of course Mapplethorpe was censored throughout his career, most famously in the cancellation of his "Perfect Moment" retrospective of 1989 at the Corcoran Museum in Washington, DC.

But Meyer also wants to show how the artists participated in their own censorship. Sometimes the effect was to weaken the art, in a kind and censor. Cadmus was capable of being just as coy as the admirals about the louche fairies lurking in his paintings, as though his art were sensational for depicting hetero excess. Warhol, so often evasive about the fag appeal of his work, silently went along with the overpainting of Thirteen Most Wanted. Sometimes, however, censorship strengthened the art; Meyer often claims (in a fuzzily half-Foucaultian way) that the censorship "produced" the art. He is by no means concerned simply with censorship that happens after the artwork's completion, in events such as the NEA funding controversies of the early '90s. He wants us to think about the way the possibility of art, at least when same-sex desire enters the picture, is always entangled with its own censorship.

An especially rich example, though Meyer does not linger on it, is Mapplethorpe's untitled image of two boys kissing. Here, in a picture cut into rectangles by the addition of a screen of silver spray paint, the visual field is made into a kind of keyhole, a frame within a frame, so as to create and symbolize a contrast between obstructed and unobstructed viewing, veiling and unveiling. The unmarked, ordinary form of viewing in this scheme belongs to the genre of pornography. From that reference point, seeing pornographically is almost naturalized. Who wouldn't want to see, unobstructed, these beautiful boys? Better yet, who wouldn't want to do more than look?

What the viewer must confront first is not the strangeness of pornographic looking--for there is something strange in this genre, in which looking is understood as a substitute for touching--the impediment of that layer of silver paint. The paint is an icon of censorship. The rectangle in the upper center of the frame is an icon of our desire to view. In this case the censor's power is mercifully feeble; we can look through it. We are tempted to wish the silver paint were not there in the rest of the image. A moral interdiction against erotic looking is linked to a more specific moral interdiction against representing same-sex desire (hence the second boy, whose presence codes the nature of the viewer's gaze, even though both boys' eyes, interestingly, are closed). Our pleasure in the peephole is barred by homophobia, even if one's own erotic looking might otherwise be "straight."

But paradoxically the silver is also the art--the layer of manipulation that keeps the photograph from being merely a porno image, the layer that signifies artful manipulation itself, producing this image as a "Mapplethorpe." How does it do that? Not just by turning the image into a "statement" about pornography--which after all would be fairly banal--but by creating a tension in the visual field, mobilizing at once two competing ways of looking. The look of desire rides on a perspectival axis toward the boy-object. But it is interrupted by another look, the one that diverts itself to the plane of the image. This second way of looking notices the framing of rectangles, the contrast of tonalities and color, the "call and response" that Meyer sees between the peephole rectangle and its visual echo in the cock-and-balls detail of the forward-opening crotch. In this second look, it is the image, not the boy, that we see. So the paradox of this image is that the censor and the artist are one.

What should we conclude from this? That Mapplethorpe satirizes censorship? Or that he aestheticizes it? That his own formalism interferes with his political impulses? Or, more troublesome, that neither the formal pleasure nor the desire for unimpeded representation can escape from its tension with a normative background? Meyer provides a suggestive reading of this tension as a structuring concern of Mapplethorpe's career. At the age of sixteen, Mapplethorpe once said, he would look at porn images "and I'd get a feeling in my stomach. I was in art school then and I thought, God, if you could get that feeling across in a piece of art ... It was exciting but definitely forbidden." Here is something more than formalism, a project for giving art a visceral dimension. But that project, in Mapplethorpe as in Cadmus or Warhol or Wojnarowicz, turns out to be quite different from the imaginary outlaw heroism of shattering taboos.

Some will read this book as an argument for identity politics and its ideal of full representation, when artists can depict homosexuality without dodges, shame, or scandal. The "outlaw representation" of Meyer's title would then be a thing of the past. We live at a time when most gay people want in-laws, not outlaws. And they can find their story here. But Meyer could also be read as showing why no victory of gay visibility or gay rights that we can yet imagine will transcend the queerness of the censor. Meyer occasionally reminds us that, in a heteronormative world, homosexuality is always censored in advance. It was censored before it became thinkable. How could it be uncensored? (Meyer's book itself has been an object of censorship, as it happens: The British division of Oxford University Press refused to distribute the book after Meyer insisted on including Jesse McBride, 1976, another Mapplethorpe, an image of a nude prepubescent.)

Other questions remain unanswered here. Why has this line of homosexual art come to be one of the central stories of twentieth-century American art in general? After all, the four artists examined are not minor figures, and Meyer's book implicitly challenges the larger story of twentieth-century art history. One key to their importance lies in another question that Meyer might have raised more centrally: Why is transgression, for us, a compelling value? Why do we love outlaw representation? (Foucault once called our interest in transgression "a profanation without object"; the twentieth century, he suggested, was defined by a love of transgression regardless of what was transgressed.) To think about this context for Meyer's material is to see how queer artists, far from being on the margin, might sum up some of the defining preoccupations of the century.

Michael Warner Is professor of English at Rutgers University. (See contributors.)

MICHAEL WARNER, author of The Trouble With Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life (2000) and The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America (1990; both Harvard University Press), also edited the anthologies American Sermons: The Pilgrims to Martin Luther King Jr. (Library of America, 1999) and Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory (University of Minnesota Press, 1993). A professor of English and queer theory at Rutgers University, Warner recently completed Publics and Counterpublics, a study of the public as a dynamic cultural form, forthcoming in June from Zone Books. In this issue Warner discusses Richard Meyer's Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art, which appeared in January from Oxford University Press.
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Author:Warner, Michael
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2002
Words:1468
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