high brow

Is The Smithsonian’s New Queer Art Showcase Bad For Contemporary Art?

Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, a new exhibit that opened over the weekend at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, features 105 works from artists including Jasper Johns and Thomas Eakins that, says curator David C. Ward, are not overtly queer — despite the show’s purposeful message that sexual orientation and gender identity played a crucial part in American art. “There’s been an entire history hiding in plain sight,” he says. “Telling the history of art without the history of gay people is like telling the history of slavery without mentioning black people.” Allow some art types to disagree!

In an ArtInfo piece titled “What’s Troubling About the Smithsonian’s “Hide/Seek” Show,” Andrew M. Goldstein and Andrew Russeth respond:

Well, no. […] But being gay is not a prerequisite for being an artist — no matter what some more conservative fringes of the United States may think about the convention-flouting art world — while being black was a requirement for being a slave. Also: at this point, exactly how hidden is the supposedly clandestine history of gays in art?

[…] What the new show offers, an exhibition statement proposes, are abstracted or discreet depictions of the issues at hand. The show’s organizers take the twin (vague) themes of “gender and sexuality” and use them to gather together work by some of the greatest artists of the past century, taking a sweeping look at variously coded identities by artists whose own sexual orientations run the gamut from strictly homosexual to strictly heterosexual. The result is that the 105 works on display in the show, which will run through February 13, don’t obviously cohere, or rarely cohere in the same way to the proposed theme.

It is focusing on gender and sexuality — or race or nationality — that places the Smithsonian “so consistently out of the mainstream of contemporary art practice,” the pair argue, though taking time to note highlighting under-served categories are “worthy efforts.”

While I’m by no means an art expert — I’m one of these “I know what I like, and I know what I don’t” types — is it so bad for a museum like the Smithsonian to collect these works under a single theme so they’re accessible to, say, regular folks? Certainly not. And it’s for the same reasons that exist outside the art world: Gays have been mainstreamed enough they are are now part of popular culture (we’d argue The Gays drive pop culture, but whatever), appearing even on CBS programs!, and yet we would never say we’ve so successfully infiltrated the masses that we can start ignoring our group identity. Let us not mistake the Smithsonian’s showcase of these works as an attempt to single them out for ovation based on their queerness, but to hold them in high esteem for being works that happen to be queer.