Friday, February 17, 2012

Gay New York and the Arts of the 20th Century

With Cecil Beaton's authorized biographer Hugo Vickers.
Last weekend I enjoyed attending an all-day symposium at the Museum of the City of New York. The symposium was called "Gay New York and the Arts of the 20th Century", and it was aligned with the Cecil Beaton exhibition at the museum which I wrote about for Elle Decor magazine.

The museum is located in the far (for me) reaches of Manhattan at Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street but I managed to get there Saturday morning at 10am with coffee in hand. The event was held in the museum auditorium which was quite packed with more than two hundred people. Kudos to the museum for hosting a day on this fascinating subject.

Donald Albrecht, the curator of the Cecil Beaton exhibit who I interviewed for my article, opened the event with welcoming remarks and talked a bit about Beaton in New York. Next up was George Chauncey, the renowned Professor of History at Yale, and author Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1980-1940, which TD read and is lying around here somewhere. He noted that in the 20th century, New York became the cultural capital of the world, succeeding Paris in the 20's, and that "gay artists and composers played a large part in shaping American culture." At the time, many gay men felt they were "the last defenders of civilization" (I can relate).

Then there were eight more guests at the symposium who spoke on a range of topics including the Ballet Russes and modern dance, gay composers who created the music of America, gay Harlem, E.M. Forster and his American friends, gay Latinas in New York, the art collector Sam Green, and more observations on Cecil Beaton from Hugo Vickers, Beaton's authorized biographer. By the end of it, my mind was spinning with history and culture.

It was all interesting, and the crowd especially enjoyed Hugo Vickers who knew Beaton and many of his acquaintances. "It's fantastic for me to be here in New York," he said in his deliciously plummy accent and then went on to share funny bits like the fact that artist Jean Cocteau called Beaton "Malice in Wonderland." It was a knowledgeable crowd that was ready to laugh and be entertained by this insider's view.

What I took away from the day was this chorus of gay men besides those mentioned – Aaron Copeland, Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, Ned Rorem, Paul Cadmus, George Platt Lynes, Andy Warhol, just to name a few – who came to New York to produce creative work. It's a long tradition of those who came before and those who will come in the future. At the end the question was asked, why are gay men so often attracted and interested in the arts? There were various answers, but I didn't hear anyone say "Talent." Gay men often are just innately gifted in art and style and aesthetics. Why is that I wonder. What do you think dear reader? Why is it that gay men are very often talented creatively?


Daniel Shigo said...

Thank you for this post! I knew about this symposium, but was out of town.

"Malice in Wonderland." My, but that does say something about the man, doesn't it?

Why are gay men drawn to the arts and Aesthetics? I can think of several reasons.

1) It is one area in which we can succeed, where being different is seen as an advantage.

2) Being different makes one see things from outside, that is, outside the norm and status quo. Thus the gay person is able to put things together in a new way. Being gay has a sense of Otherness. I see this as gay people having their antennae up from a very young age. This can lead to a highly developed sensibility and aesthetic awareness.

3) Gay men exhibit more left-handedness than straight men if I am not mistaken. This is a sign that the brain is being used differently.

In sum: I believe the answer lies in a combination of genetics and psychology.

Bart Boehlert said...

Hi Daniel,
Interesting - TD and I were discussing talent and genetics vs environment; he said more environment, I said more genetics.

Unknown said...

I know Hugo - and oh I wish I'd been there for the talk. He is a wonderful raconteur. I am coming to New York for 3 weeks in May, so will add the Museum to my list of things to do. I am now following your blog with great interest, and enjoying it very much.
Mary D

Bart Boehlert said...

Hi Mary,
I'm glad you are enjoying the blog - thank you.
But I believe the exhibition ends April 22! It has been extended, but I think this is it -

Bumble at home said...

I love your very civilized blog,riveting subject,I think it's the feminin/masculine mixture.I am in Australia and won't make the exhibition, such a shame.

Bart Boehlert said...

G'day to Bumble at home in Australia!