Posted by: facetothewind | April 16, 2004

Bitterness and the Fine Art of Outing – for

Bitterness and the Fine Art of Outing
A short essay by David Gilmore,

Recently I visited the new Charles M. Holmes gay community center in San Francisco to see an exhibit of artist Robert Rauschenberg’s love letters. The works of art and letters were loaned to the center by Rauschenberg’s former lover Terry Van Brunt. Included in this show was an entire wall covered with notes written in large block pencil letters spilling forth the artist’s love, fears and vulnerabilities. There were lots of misspellings, emotional outpourings, and insecurities in the letters. As I walked through the gallery, my blood began to boil with embarrassment and I felt red in the face reading them…as if I had just gone into someone’s most private drawer and opened their diary and then passed it around at a party. My friend led me away, as he too, felt it rude to even look at them.

In case you were not aware, Robert Rauschenberg is still living.

Whether you like his art or not, the mainstream art world considers Rauschenberg to be one of the great Abstract-Expressionists, changing the track of art in post-war America, along with other Black Mountain College heavy hitters like Jasper Johns, John Cage, and Willem de Kooning. Hence, Rauschenberg has become rich and famous, which seems to send some unwritten signal out into our community: “Must bring him down.”

This show was curated by overly-ambitious art historian Jonathan Katz, a Rauschenberg expert, who seems to have taken it on as his personal mission in life to out Rauschenberg against his will. I don’t think one’s personal life is art, really, and pondered the ethics of promoting a celebrity’s cute little love notes as such. No gallery or museum would display such a show as the Rauschenberg Foundation would surely black-list them forever. Sadly, and not surprisingly, this display found a willing host in the gay community center of San Francisco.

This show exemplifies the gay community’s darker side: our propensity toward biting each other, exposing our insecurities, bringing down our leaders, and sensationalizing celebrity relationships. I cannot ignore the fact that homophobia, internalized or not, installs one too many bugaboos in our already cluttered closets and prompts us to biting when someone jiggles the handle. Can we, as folks who have all had to reconcile at some point our own queerness, not find compassion for those who wish to keep their love under wraps? And is it really validating one’s relationship to expose one’s love letters, or does it come across merely as a statement of bitter revenge on the part of a scorned lover?

Clearly, Rauschenberg has his problems. He’s an old man – born in 1925 – the product of a generation of secret lives and codified art that is nearly gone. Like Liberace, Rock Hudson and other celebrities from that generation, Rauschenberg has not found the inspiration or personal safety to come out. He didn’t grow up in the more or less gay-friendly environment that many of us raised in the latter half of the 20th century enjoyed. Certainly, he was protecting his career and his relationships as he was achieving notoriety in a time when it was not so fashionable to be an art fag. Those of us in succeeding generations ought to be more sensitive to this.

On a personal note, I’ve never particularly liked Rauschenberg’s art, nor do I find it endearing that with all his stature and power, he’s remained closeted all these years. Still, I don’t see him as a lesser man for not coming out, and I wouldn’t make personal career advances from outing people. To see him being publicly strung up was not only sad, but a walloping disrespect for an elder and leads me to the question: If we really, truly believed that our own relationships, our own love was valid and worthy, would we still be driven to thrust our closeted lovers into the limelight for the scrutiny of all?


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