Friday, January 18, 2013

Recent discussions of the designation LGBTQ and its variants demonstrate that the perceived diversity of sexual identities and orientations is increasing quite rapidly Yet, as a friend reminds me, we are far from attaining the dizzying heights posited by the Dutch sexologist L. S. A. M. von Römer over a century ago. In a learned article published in a German periodical in 1904, von Römer posited the existence of more than 800,000 sexual orientations.

How did he achieve such an astounding total? I have misplaced my photocopy of the original article, but as best I can recall it goes like this. Let us start with homosexuality as then understood. As a first step this category bifurcates into two subdivisions: gay men and lesbians. These in turn are divided into tops and bottoms (or butches and fems for women). Then there is the question of whether one is attracted to people of one’s own age, or a different age. If the latter, is the object mainly young people, adults, or old people? Is one attracted to individuals of one’s own class, or another? Some differences reflect body type: slender, athletic or zoftig? Then does one like hirsute individuals or those with smooth bodies? Does one focus on the genitals or the whole body? Is one given to BDSM or not?

As you can see, if one adopts this diversitarian perspective, it is not hard to see how von Römer reached his zany conclusion. The Dutch physician got no thanks for his pains in his own time. But maybe his day has finally dawned.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

It seems that a central principle of modern art its relentless disregard for the art of the past.  How then could it have any truck with the Middle Ages, that era of conformity and dogmatism?  Nonetheless, in forty years of college teaching, I have had frequent occasion to note affinities between medieval art and modern art. Six years ago, on the verge of retirement, I finally offered a course at Hunter College on the connection.  My lectures are summarized at a related site:

When I learned a few days ago that a book had appeared on the subject.  I immediately acquired it.  The book is Medieval Modern: Art Out of Time by Alexander Nagel, a professor at NYU's Institute of Fine Arts (Thames and Hudson).  Here is my review, as posted on Amazon.

Arguably, Meyer Schapiro was the greatest art historian ever produced in America. His two fields of concentration were medieval and modern art. This pairing was not accidental, for Schapiro recognized that the two periods share a common disregard for illusionism and the cult of beauty, predilections inaugurated by the ancient Greeks and revived during the Renaissance. In a word, medieval and modern art are both anticlassical.

In this light there has long been a need for a systematic account of the felt affinity of medieval and modern art. Unfortunately, this book does not meet that need.

Nagel conveys no sense of the historical sequence of medieval civilization, a complicated matter in which most readers will need guidance to thread their way through the historical narrative, ranging from Early Christian to Byzantine art, and on to Carolingian, Ottonian, Romanesque, and Gothic art. Yet the author rejects periods in favor of a kind of an episodic or "nonlinear" approach, hopping from one topic to another. Moreover, he complicates the Middle Ages by blurring the boundaries so as to embrace such figures as Michelangelo and Titian, Parmigianino and Bruegel.  These artists can in no sense be characterized as medieval.

The author's sense of modern art is almost as muddled. Unaccountably, he fails to discuss the evocation of medieval buildings by Monet (Rouen Cathedral), Matisse (Notre-Dame de Paris), Delaunay (Laon Cathedral; and St.-Severin in Paris) and O'Keeffe (Taos Church). In each case these works were important milestones in the individual artist's development.

Setting these deficits aside, what does one actually get from Nagel's book? It is a kind of grab-bag of aperçus and speculations, generally proceeding from some casual encounter with a modern or contemporary work. The effect is one of blundering into a room in which the speaker conducts an endless grasshopper conversation. Taken on these terms, though, the book may be stimulating.

The last page offers a conclusion of sorts:  "It is hard to think of any category of current work whose terms were not set in the 1960s.  The medievalism that was such a constitutive part of the development of the 1960s is, therefore, now encoded (usually unrecognized) in the DNA of contemporary art."  Unrecognized--and unrecognizable.

On the positive side, the publisher has embellished the text with many striking photographs. Whether this lavish feature will be enough to compensate for the narrative deficit of the text must be left for the reader to decide.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

At the City University here in NYC, CLAGS has reported that its April conference on Homonationalism and Pinkwashing is already sold out. These topics--mysterious to most people, even well-informed ones--seem to be the latest enthusiasm among Queer Theorists and the anti-imperialist wing of the gay left. Ostensibly, Pinkwashing is the effort by the supporters of Israel to gain support by spreading knowledge about the progay policies in that country. Since Israel's policies in this area are progressive (unlike those in some other areas) the grounds for this critique seem poorly chosen. However, Pinkwashing is said to be but one facet in a larger problem, that of Homonationalism, as defined by Jasbir Puar, a professor at Rutgers University. According to one summary this is her concept.

"Puar critiques the deployment of homonationalism in the United States as a justification for violently implementing the doctrine of American exceptionalism embodied in the War on Terror. The United States flaunts its supposedly liberal openness to homosexuality to secure its identity in contradistinction to sexual oppression in Muslim countries. This oppression serves as an excuse for the United States to “liberate” oppressed women and sexual deviants in these countries, simultaneously papering over sexual inequality in the United States. United States exceptionalism and homonationalism are mutually constitutive, blending discourses of American Manifest Destiny, racist foreign policy, and an urge to document the unknown (embodied in the terrorist) and conquer it through queering its identity, hence rendering it manageable and knowable." 
Quite a mouthful. The disturbing implication is that we in Western nations must not dare to criticize mistreatment of women and gay people in Third World countries. That would be imperialism, imposing our parochial values on other cultures.Yet in instances such as these, that is exactly what we should do.  In my view, the concept of Homonationalism is odious, because it attacks the universality of human rights.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Kerouac’s “On the Road” is one of my favorite books, so yesterday I risked an outing in the cold to see the new movie version. I am happy to report that the film is totally, completely, gloriously unfaithful to the book. 

So what? Who expected that “West Side Story” would be faithful to “Romeo and Juliet”? Instead of following the roady premise of the book, the narrative is a jumble of various episodes in Kerouac’s life. At the center, of course is the bromance between Sal Paradise (Kerouac) and Dean Moriarty (Cassady). Dean is a heel of the first order, but the superhunk Garrett Hedlund pulls you into his spell, as the character is supposed to. 

Many of the lines are quotations from the books, and the actors recite them as if they were incantations from an unknown religion (which maybe they are), We see various painful episodes of Sal trying to write, clutching a tattered copy of “Swann’s Way” here and there throughout. 

Go and see the movie before they take it down. It’s really a hoot!