Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts

By Check, Ed | Studies in Art Education, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview
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Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts


Check, Ed, Studies in Art Education


Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts

Saslow, James. (1999). New York: Viking. 342 pages. ISBN: 0-670-85953-2

Organized chronologically and in a western European art historical tradition, Pictures and Passions is a one-volume survey, a broad map of significant trends and representative artifacts that typify cultures and homosexuality across time. The cultures include Europe, United States, parts of Asia, and bits of other world cultures. Art and sexuality, both public and private, provide a frame to examine the multiple ways homosexuality contributes to visual cultures. Chapters include: The Classical World: Greece and Rome, The Middle Ages: Dogma Versus Desire, From Renaissance to Reform: Europe and the Globe 1400-1700, Asia and Islam: Ancient Cultures, Modern Conflicts, From Winkelmann to Wilde: The Birth of Modernity 1700-1900, Modernism, Multiplicity, and the Movement: 1900-1969, and Post-Stonewall, Post-Modern. Saslow also includes a 7-page Further Reading section filled with books and articles. Throughout his text, there are multiple black-and-white images in each chapter and a 16-page section of full-color plates. (Roughly 65% of the images are male and 23% are female.)

Chapter One: The Classical World: Greece and Rome covers persons, artifacts, and events from Plato to Constantine. Saslow describes sexuality as dominated by and for men, a glorification of everything male, Sappho the lone exception. He nicely illustrates how aspects of homosexuality were integrated into various cultures. Chapter Two: The Middle Ages; Dogma Versus Desire chronicles the regulation of desire and sexuality by the Church. Saslow describes homosexual unions and emerging sexual underworlds and how the Church repressed and codified them as sin and crime. He notes how such regulation increased the production of homosexual imagery. Chapter Three: From Renaissance To Reform: Europe and the Globe, 1400-1700 documents multiple representations of sodomy. Key Renaissance artists kept journals and made art chronicling the beginnings of homosexual traditions in art. Saslow's documentation of male artists' lives is comprehensive. Chapter Four: Asia and Islam: Ancient Cultures, Modern Conflicts examines the cultural and historical dynamics of homosexuality in China, India, Japan, and throughout various Islamic cultures.

Chapter Five: From Winkelmann to Wilde; The Birth of Modernity, 1700-1900 examines the intersections of emerging private and public homosexual and artistic identities through multiple art movements, neoclassicism, romanticism, and realism. Chapter Six: Modernism, Multiplicity, and the Movement: 1900-1969 covers major social and artistic movements of the 20th century that led to Stonewall. Saslow integrates women's histories into a fast-paced snapshot chapter of great moments and significant players. Chapter Seven: Post-Stonewall, PostModern quickly sums up aesthetic queer culture of the last 30 years. Incomplete, as Saslow acknowledges his limitations-the "sheer size... [makes it] no longer possible to name all of the players" (p. 261), he barely touches the surfaces of numerous topics: gay liberation, collaboration, AIDS, queer academics, gay sensibilities, international perspectives, sexual minorities, attempts at multiculturalism, globalization, and mass media. It is a survey, after all. That "all postmodern culture [is] undeniably tentative, fragmented, and contested" (p. 310), I agree, but looking at it politically, it is also racist, classist and sexist.

As a profeminist gay academic, activist, and artist, I read Pictures and Passions in relation to politics and power. Saslow's book speaks from a position of privilege (he is white, male, educated, and middle-class) without acknowledging it. His attempt at a "grand narrative," to represent a historical totality of homosexual experience, fails to engage me politically and emotionally. Raised working class with a now feminist consciousness, I am nowhere to be found in his story.

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