The great poet and critic William Empson wrote that critics, as “barking dogs,” are of two sorts: those who merely relieve themselves on the flower of beauty, and those, less continent, who afterwards scratch it up.
Empson heartily threw himself into the second category, saying that “unexplained beauty arouses an irritation in me, a sense that this would be a good place to scratch.” The reason that a poem is apt to give pleasure, Empson claimed, was something that “one can reason about;” but while art ought not to appear completely mystifying to us, he continued, it seemed “arrogant” of the critic to suppose that he could “violate the roots of beauty by a little scratching.”
In this special Pink Triangle issue on gay artists, The Independent has done a little scratching of its own. Throughout history, homosexuality has been so closely linked to an alleged disposition toward a higher degree of aestheticism, that it seemed natural to ask whether or not there really was such a thing as a “gay artist” or a “gay aesthetic,” and if so, what exactly these terms mean.
Why inquire? Where better to seek the roots of gay identity than in the work of gay artists? Because the arts have been one of the few areas of endeavor where gay people have felt comfortable being visible, it has traditionally been an arena where they’ve been able to explore, with varying degrees of rigor, their relation to a society that is usually inhospitable to them.
What about gay artists who would like to refuse the tag, who would like art-making to be a refuge from politics and an arena for the transcendence of worldliness? There may be no category that comes with more stereotypes attached than that of the “gay artist.” Artists, who already suffer the anxiety of influence, hardly need to worry in addition about whether or not their work is a reaction to the expectations of others. There can be no doubt, however, that our sexuality, as one component of our personalities, influences everything we do, including our creative work.
Furthermore, to be an artist, and openly gay, is an inherently political act. Gay artists play a fundamental role in articulating the terms of gay identity–and the terms of gay identity are always up for grabs. Do gay artists who deny the role of their sexuality in their art also give over the floor to others to define the terms of “gayness” for them?
Whether gay artists refuse the term or embrace it, accept it as an identity or deny it, they all want the same thing: the right to exist on their own terms. It is a natural desire, so greatly heightened in artists. But it could be argued that embracing a gay identity, and setting the terms of gayness for themselves, is the only route, for gay artists, to existing on their own terms.
Because artwork that seeks “transcendence” can never do so without invoking its opposite, it’s difficult to see how gay artists can transcend their sexual identities. It’s likely that William Empson thought it “arrogant” to assume that one could “violate the roots of beauty by a little scratching” because he thought those roots led to transcendence. But it is not transcendence that art delivers, but “otherness,” and it is encounters with otherness that people find disturbing and beautiful.
If gay artists cannot provide that sense of otherness, then I don’t know who can.