Sunday, May 22, 2016

My journey

Forty years ago, I appeared (at least in the eyes of some) to have "jumped ship," abandoning the field in which I had been trained - art history - in favor of immersion in the new, struggling field of gay studies (as it was then called). In reality I did not abandon art history but continued to teach it (with generally full classes). In addition, I am finally bringing to conclusion my experiences in my home field in my book The History of Art History (not a history of art, but of the discipline itself). It will be in two volumes, each of about 600 pages.

I am glad that I stuck with this original commitment, because my experiences in what is now sometimes termed gender studies have not always been gratifying. I began in 1973 by joining the fledging Gay Academic Union, which I believed had two tasks: removing the legal and social barriers to our equality; and through research obtaining a better understanding of the phenomenon of same-sex love.

I soon found that I was more suited for the second task than the first. Progress - and I am not sure, even now, that one can call it that - was hampered by what Maurice Merleau-Ponty called the Adventures of the Dialectic, the constantly changing definitions of the goals of the field.

The seventies was a period of considerable ebullition, with some assuming that revolution was at hand. I never thought this, but I recognized that a form of neo-Marxism was in vogue and that it was embraced, fruitfully or not, by some of my leading gay and lesbian activist/scholar colleagues. That was the first twist of the dialectic, soon followed by the Social Construction trend, which alleged, in its pure form, that there were no homosexuals before ca. 1870. Others saw our best hope in enrolling under the banner of radical feminism.

There were many other twists and turns which I won't attempt to chronicle here. Yet the story is one of extreme volatility in which a finding or position could be initially hailed as positive or innovative - and shortly thereafter dismissed as hopelessly dated and reactionary.
There were also reversions to earlier enthusiasms, as in the current demand for intersectionality, the linkage of LGBT concerns with other identitarian ones. This had been, forty years ago, the program of the Gay Liberation Front, which sought to make common cause with radical feminists, the Black Panthers, and Hispanic groups.

So I look back with some skepticism, but not entirely because all told it has been a fascinating journey.


Some gay men are known for having a multiplicity of sexual partners. Yet there is no generic term for this kind of person. Straights do much better. There are three, derived from personal names, for heterosexual womanizers: Casanova, Don Juan, and Lothario.

Casanova (1725 – 1798) was a real person, best documented via his Memoirs (Histoire de ma vie), just published in a sumptuous new edition in France.

Don Juan (Tenorio) is a legendary figure who may never have existed; he first appears in a 1630 play by Tirso de Molina, "El Burlador de Sevilla."

Lothario, originally a Florentine, figures in a story, "El Curioso Impertinente," embedded in Cervantes' Don Quixote. The character takes on fuller form in a 1703 play by the Englishman Nicholas Rowe.