The show ended at San Francisco’s Theater Rhinoceros one February night like any other. The audience applauded and went home; the cast washed up and headed out. One actor, pleased enough with his performance in a variety of roles in Joe Pintauro’s Wild Blue—among them, a gay uncle making amends with an estranged niece and a gay actor with a younger lover—left the theatre around 10:30, and within a couple of blocks was attacked by four men. “Faggot!” they screamed, as they punched and kicked him. He appeared on stage the next night with 20 stitches in his head.
Incidents of violence against gay men and lesbians rose 31 per cent last year, with nearly 2,000 cases reported, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF). Many more incidents go unreported. In one community survey, one out of four gay people said they’d experienced physical abuse; three out of four said they had been verbally abused. Across America, gay-bashing has become a sport. On warm weekend nights, young men fill their trunks with beers and baseball bats and drive into gay neighborhoods, where it’s open season on queers.
Experts explain that typical bashers—men between the ages of 15 and 25—are acting out of profound anxiety about their own sexual identity. Gays are achieving more visibility and a modicum of political power: gay rights legislation in America’s largest cities and several states; gay caucuses in churches and synagogues, some of which are ordaining gay and lesbian clergy; graduate students writing dissertations on gay and lesbian themes hoping to get Ph.D.s, and later jobs, in gay and lesbian studies. And in response, homophobes compensate with personal enforcement. They lash out, as if their own sexual insecurity—and a perceived threat to their privilege—could be beaten into oblivion.
Things have gotten so bad in some neighborhoods of San Francisco, says Adele Prandini, artistic director of the gay and lesbian Theater Rhinoceros, “I’m getting letters from people saying they can no longer come to our theatre because they don’t feel safe.” A few weeks after the Wild Blue actor was attacked, a gay man was beaten unconscious on the same corner. He’s been in a coma ever since.
Public response to such crimes, gay activists charge, ranges from discreet sympathy to utter indifference. The press has often been reluctant to report the gay-related aspects of bias crime. In New York, an anti-bias crime bill has been languishing in the state legislature for years, vehemently opposed by the Republican majority because the bill dares to define gay-bashing as a hate crime. Public schools have caved in to pressure from local religious institutions, refusing to include homosexuals in curricula aimed at combatting prejudice. Indeed, the NGLTF, releasing its annual report on gay-bashing in March, blamed political, religious and entertainment industry leaders for fostering a climate of homophobia in which violent assaults are tolerated and in some cases, even encouraged. “This is the real trickle-down effect,” Prandini says. “The violence outside our theatre happens, in part, because anti-gay hatred is being fanned by people in power.” The Vatican, for instance, in its 1986 letter on the pastoral care of homosexuals declared, “People should not be surprised when a morally offensive lifestyle is physically attacked.”
For gay men and lesbians working in the arts—and by extension, all gay men and lesbians—this “second epidemic” reaches beyond beatings outside bars and slurs snarled on streetcorners, to an aggressive strike against their most fundamental rights of expression. The infamous “pledge” on National Endowment for the Arts applications, for instance, equated homosexuality with obscenity, at the very time, says performance artist Tim Miller, “when the need for representation is crucial to the ecology of gay and lesbian life.” Little theatres in small cities (the very spaces that would surely be lost if the NEA were to close down, or decide to fund only the Metropolitan Museums and Boston Philharmonics) often must remove the funding credits on programs for Miller’s performances; still, audiences, especially young audiences, flock to his shows, he says, “desperately needing to see images of ourselves other than the monstrous serial killers Hollywood keeps offering up.”
Of course, homophobia is nothing new in American culture, and the current melee can only be understood in the context of a wider onslaught—a retrenchment, really—against irreversible changes in America’s population, workforce, family structure and values. Gays, as during the purges of the McCarthy era, remain an acceptable target, especially as they represent, in conservative corners, a nexus of menace: subversive art, rejection of the nuclear family, repudiation of traditional gender roles—and now, AIDS. Bashers take swings in a vain effort to stave off change.
Presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan has, at least figuratively, wielded the bat himself, blaming gay men for AIDS and calling the virus “divine retribution” on an “immoral lifestyle” of a “pederast proletariat.” Most notoriously, he has bashed gays as a means of attacking the NEA. In this instance, the powers that be have been far from indifferent: They have joined the mob. Last February Buchanan’s campaign aired a television commercial in Georgia that showed frames of dancing men from Marlon Riggs’s elegiac film Tongues Untied while a voiceover charged President Bush with “wast[ing] our tax dollars on pornographic and blasphemous art too shocking to show.”
Did the President (or any other candidate) publicly reject such a crass appeal to prejudice? No. “Politicians make a cold—if erroneous—calculation that they will lose votes if they champion gay rights,” says Urvashi Vaid, executive director of the NGLTF. “Buchanan’s incendiary statements must be challenged by political leaders, but get attention only from the gay and lesbian community.” Instead, the President responded by dismissing John Frohnmayer as chairman of the NEA, which had indirectly contributed $5,000 to the film about black gay men.
It’s a mistake, however, to blame Buchanan alone for forcing Frohnmayer to resign. Frohnmayer had been the target of a two-year campaign by Vice President Dan Quayle and then White House chief of staff John Sununu, who wanted to bulldoze the NEA into institutionalizing content-based criteria for arts funding; meanwhile, the justice Department actually suggested that the NEA remove from its mission statement a clause saying that every citizen of the United States is guaranteed freedom of expression. At the same time, the new, nationally organized, high-tech grassroots organization, the Christian Coalition, led by evangelical minister and 1988 Presidential candidate Pat Robertson (who supports Bush over Buchanan this time around), inundated the White House with petitions in February—coincidentally, just as the Buchanan ad was aired—calling for the ouster of Frohnmayer.
Certainly, none of these threats to the integrity of the NEA could come as a surprise. Since 1980, when Reagan first proposed dismantling the NEA altogether, the agency has remained an embarrassment to the Republican White House. As with so many other issues—a voucher system for parochial schools, affirmative action rollbacks—Reagan introduced a proposal that seemed too far out for congressional support. But the Bush administration, often egged on by sensationalist campaigns by the radical Right, has brought these proposals into the realm of respectable discussion, and the longer they’re discussed, the more legitimacy they seem to acquire. With each incremental gain dissent becomes more difficult. Without making a big claim for a causal connection, one may ask whether a climate in which the public has come to accept government restrictions on certain kinds of expression when it comes to art makes, for instance, the Pentagon’s ability to control news coverage of the Gulf War that much more acceptable.
In the ongoing debate over the National Endowment, proponents of arts funding have emphasized free-speech guarantees in arguing against content-based restrictions. In a stirring speech after his dismissal about Sen. Jesse Helms’s attempts to prohibit the NEA from funding “obscenity,” Frohnmayer himself stated, “All of us in government are sworn to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and for two-thirds of both houses to have voted for the last Helms language, which would pass constitutional muster on no level, in my view violates that oath.”
But artists embroiled in the controversy, as well as gay and lesbian critics and activists, have been frustrated by the arts community’s failure to recognize, name and renounce the homophobia driving attacks by Buchanan, Helms, American Family Association head Donald Wildmon and others. Playwright Tony Kushner points out that arts community leaders don’t sufficiently acknowledge the extent to which gay and lesbian artists have been prime targets of the anti-art frenzy. What’s more, instead of understanding how gay-bashing sets an acceptable ground for arts-bashing in general, activists explain, “mainstream” artists have often tried to distance themselves from the work under fire, arguing that most NEA money funds unobjectionable work, such as symphony orchestras and ballet companies. Many are fond of quoting a statistic showing that of the 64 cents each American taxpayer contributes to the NEA each year—less than paltry to begin with—only .02 cents goes to potentially controversial art. As actor Christopher Reeve told a crowd of some 2,000 rallying in New York against NEA restrictions in 1990, “We’re not fringe; we’re mainstream.”
This line of argument misses the point. For one thing, as performance artist Holly Hughes puts it, “That so little money is spent on controversial work, work that challenges our complacency or that makes us look at what’s going on in the world, is not something to brag about.” For another, it just doesn’t wash in Protestant-ethic America. There’s a longstanding mistrust of artists who represent, in our national tradition, the antithesis of all that’s encompassed by the phrase “traditional family values”—the cornerstone not only of campaigns of Buchanan, Helms and Wildmon, but the platform on which the American electorate put Ronald Reagan and George Bush in the White House. “Artists are traditionally thought of as bohemian,” explains Zelda Fichandler, artistic director of the Acting Company and of New York University’s graduate acting program. “The arts permit maverick styles of living—you don’t have to have a house and two children to live in the arts world. So we’re considered nonconformist, nonconventional, even frivolous.” Commenting on the pro-NEA mail coming from his constituency last year, one Congress member remarked, “Most of my favorable letters are coming from actors and artists and very few from real people.”
It’s no wonder artists aren’t counted as “real people.” According to an NEA report developed under Frank Hodsoll’s chairmanship, only nine American states require art classes in high school; more than 80 per cent of Americans have had no lessons in visual arts, ballet, creative writing, art appreciation or music appreciation. In Cincinnati in 1990, of 50 prospective jurors being considered for the obscenity trial of the Contemporary Arts Center, which had exhibited Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs, the New York Times reported, “only three had ever been to an art museum.”
Pat Buchanan’s biggest applause line in his campaign stump speech comes when he refers to the NEA as “the upholstered playpen of the arts and crafts auxiliary of the liberal establishment.” Artists, in this view, are infantile, narcissistic, non-productive, un-American. The same qualities, in other words, often attributed to homosexuals. Indeed, the artist has historically been associated with groups relegated to the fringes of society. In 16th-century Europe, for instance, writes theatre historian Jonas Barish, “Jews and actors were lumped together as undesirable members of society, like prostitutes”; and at the time of the French Revolution, the National Assembly debated the status of Jews and of actors together. Both were seen as predators, Barish explains, feeding off the gullibility and goodwill of working people.
More recently in this country, the images of prostitute, outsider and artist converge in the homosexual (at least, that is, in the male homosexual): Instead of putting away his crayons and getting on with his productive—and reproductive—life, he remains oversexed, yet infantilized, fixated on such fripperies as opera, poetry, theatre. (These attributes converge in stereotypes of African-Americans as well, who, also often associated with the arts, are also accused of being oversexed and lazy, and therefore equally nonproductive. It’s no surprise that Buchanan exploits these images too, by blaming welfare and affirmative action for the sorry condition of the American economy. Indeed, in his Tongues Untied ad, according to Marlon Riggs, Buchanan’s “anti-quota race-baiting has now fused with a brazen display of anti-gay bigotry.”) Thus, all the arts, no matter how “mainstream” in style or viewpoint, are fringe in America; homosexuals are simply a handy—and volatile—emblem of that status.
Of course, fin-de-siecle America is not the first place that the state has been so suspicious of artists. The anti-theatrical prejudice in the West goes all the way back to Plato, as Jonas Barish has shown, and has been sustained throughout the ages by powers that have wanted to keep a tight lid on the citizenry. The artist is banished from Plato’s Republic for representing pale imitations, an inferior version, of the world. What’s more, in Plato’s view, the arts acquaint us with evils that otherwise would remain repressed, and further, work against the motives of the state by inflaming the spectators’ passions instead of appealing to their reason. Worst of all—and in this respect theatre is the worst of the worst—the arts hint, and sometimes even demonstrate, that the individual is changeable. If an actor can play various roles, how can the state maintain the public order which, Plato insists, depends on total adherence to assigned tasks and functions—in terms of professions, class, gender, and so on?
The individual freedom inherently encouraged by the arts is anathema to the state Plato envisions. Indeed, Barish explains, “If the state is to achieve the greatness proper to it, it must curb the instinct for self-expression that lodges in us all and tends to thwart the fulfillment of the political idea. This is not the last occasion we shall have to notice that those who promulgate utopias are often more dangerous enemies of art than simple despots, since they so much more programmatically and ideologically set about to restrict individual expression.” The Christian state the fundamentalist Right would like to bring to power in America may not be an image of utopia for all of us, but it’s a mistake not to recognize that the religious Right has an elaborate agenda for this country; restricting art to state-sanctioned expression (in Buchanan’s words, “closing down the NEA and fumigating it”) is one high-visibility piece of the plan. “What’s going on with the arts,” says Urvashi Vaid, “is a progression from the Right’s war on sexually explicit material. The front keeps moving to cover more and more different areas of representation. It begins with sexually explicit material and moves to the politically controversial.” Pat Robertson promises “a Christian in the White House” within eight years.
In this regard, the attack on the NEA cannot be separated from one of the Right’s biggest victories of the last decade: the chipping away of abortion rights. Both crusades center on regulating the body, and especially the body’s inexorable association with sex. After all, the four performance artists whose panel-recommended grants were overturned by the NEA in 1990—Holly Hughes, Karen Finley, Tim Miller and John Fleck—have little in common but their unabashed recognition, even celebration, of the body in their work. Formally speaking, they are not at all alike. Finley recites in an incantatory, accusatory rhetoric, from an almost trancelike state; Hughes’s extended, carefully wrought images sneak up like a summer tornado through her casual delivery; Miller sweetly intones tales of a queer boyhood, illustrating and embellishing his escapades with abstract movement; Fleck’s style is more disjunctive and confrontational. Such simple distinctions are far too refined for Jesse Helms—and others who haven’t seen the work and aren’t familiar with the genre. But mere description of their performances (and often simply mentioning that Hughes, Miller and Fleck are openly gay) raises the spectre of the unruly body—not in the acceptable mode of sex object or commodity on display for straight men, nor the body purified of its passions, cleaved in Cartesian manner from the soul for which it provides a residence. Rather, these artists present the sweating, secreting, excreting, ecstatic body as a site of self-defined meaning, not subject to the regulations of church or state. The idea is especially threatening—especially palpable—in the theatre, for where else is the body more present than in the live, self-reflective event of performance?
This notion of the body as a playful ground of pleasure, exploration and self-definition is exactly what the fundamentalist Right objects to when it rails against abortion (and against safe-sex education in high schools). Claims to “rescuing the unborn” notwithstanding, the Right makes no secret of its contention that women should remain at home raising babies instead of thwarting their “natural” roles by entering the workforce. Unwanted pregnancy, in its view, is God’s punishment for recreational sex (just as, in its view, AIDS is God’s punishment for the “perversion” of gay sex). As one Operation Rescue activist in Wichita told me last summer, “If a girl wants to have sex outside the sacred bond of marriage and outside its purpose—procreation—then she has to pay for the consequence.”
This principle is important to recognize in the context of the arts debate because the regulations and litigation tactics now being employed to clamp down on the arts were developed and tested around the issue of reproductive freedom. The anti-NEA argument—no one’s saying they can’t express themselves, taxpayers just don’t have to pay for it—scored its first success with the Hyde Amendment of 1977, and was soon after upheld by the Supreme Court. That regulation prohibited abortions in federally funded health services. Thus women on Medicaid as well those in the military, on Native American reservations and in the Peace Corps, were denied access to abortions in the health facilities they relied on. The reasoning went: No one is saying these women can’t have abortions, it’s just that the government shouldn’t pay for what it doesn’t endorse. But of course, given the uneven availability of affordable health care in this country, cancelling services in federally funded health programs effectively made them unavailable to anyone without the means to travel and pay a private physician.
It’s not a large logical leap to the “gag rule” of last year, the controversial Supreme Court decision in Rust v. Sullivan, which prohibits counselors and other personnel in federally funded health facilities from even mentioning abortion. Perhaps the intersection of these issues became most obvious when Movement Research Performance Journal was asked to return $1,400 of its $4,400 NEA grant for including, in a special issue on gender and performance, a full-page photo of a woman’s genitals with the caption, “Read My Lips Before They’re Sealed.” Several paragraphs of text followed, calling for a reversal of the gag rule and asserting, “Our heroism is daring to imagine our bodies not as the machinery of reproduction, but as our theatres of pleasure. Our bodies should be playgrounds, not just battlefields.”
The most blatant connection between the narrowing of reproductive rights and attacks on the NEA was made by the Department of Justice itself when, in Senate hearings on First Amendment implications of Rust v. Sullivan, a Justice Department representative stated, “…when the government funds a certain view, the government itself is speaking. It, therefore, may constitutionally determine what is to be said.” Later, he specifically cited the application of Rust to the NEA, an application that could have grave repercussions in decisions about the selection of library materials or scientific research projects. According to attorney Nan Hunter, who is representing the four defunded performance artists in a lawsuit against the NEA that charges that the grant denials violated their First Amendment rights, the Justice Department invoked Rust in its arguments before the Los Angeles Federal Court in February, as a precedent establishing that government has discretion to do whatever it wants with its money.
Meanwhile, following the abortion rulings, Congress enacted anti-funding provisions directed specifically against gay men and lesbians, and against gay and lesbian expression. The current zeroing in on the arts, explains Hunter, must be understood as another step in that long march away from freedom. Shortly after the Hyde Amendment was passed, for instance, came the McDonald Amendment, which forbids legal services lawyers—that is, lawyers paid with government funds—from taking on any cases having to do with gay rights. Around the same time, the Oklahoma legislature adopted a statute that called for the firing of public employees who “promoted homosexuality.” (A similar initiative was narrowly defeated in California.) This law was challenged and litigated by the American Civil Liberties Union on the basis of a freedom of expression argument, since the provision basically made it illegal for anyone working in, say, a public school or a public health agency, or any other government-subsidized institution (perhaps even an NEA-supported theatre) to say anything in public that could be construed as advocating—which is to say, not condemning—homosexuality. Violation of this rule would cost the worker her or his job, even if the offending remark were made on the employee’s own time. A high school teacher under this law might, for instance, be prevented from nonjudgmentally pointing out that Walt Whitman addressed love poetry to men; a road repair worker could be barred from marching in a gay pride parade.
The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the law was, indeed, unconstitutional, but when the case moved on to the Supreme Court, no majority decision was reached. With Justice Powell absent due to illness, the Court was divided four-to-four, which meant that the ruling reverted to the Appeals Court decision and was therefore thrown out. Echoing one of Plato’s—and later anti-theatricalists’—biggest objections to actors, arguments supporting the statute focused heavily on the idea of role models. Just as Plato warned that art threatens the state by acquainting the public with evils that otherwise remain in the world of dreams, advocates of the Oklahoma law worried that pro-gay teachers, straight and gay alike, might give innocent pupils wicked ideas that would otherwise never occur to them.
The Supreme Court hearings were “a very scary moment,” recalls Hunter, who attended the oral arguments in 1985. “This should have been a blindingly simple First Amendment decision. It was amazing that four Justices could find those kinds of restrictions on speech to be constitutional.” A year later, in Bowers v. Hardwick, the Court, in upholding Georgia’s anti-sodomy laws, ruled that the right to privacy does not extend to gay men and lesbians. Indeed, the Court opinion explicitly stated that certain sexual acts were no business of the state when performed by consenting heterosexual adults, but could be deemed illegal when engaged in by partners of the same sex. Thus gay and lesbian expression of the most intimate kind was officially excluded from constitutional protection. Describing or depicting such relationships, then, could easily be banished to a realm beyond the compass of the First Amendment.
Certainly the AIDS epidemic has brought these issues to the surface, as it has increased the visibility of gay men, for better and for worse. If a centuries-old association has linked gays to the arts, a simple syllogism of popular understanding now links the arts to AIDS. Crudely put, the reasoning runs: Arts=Gays; GAYS=AIDS; therefore, ARTS=AIDS. Never mind that this hysteria-driven logic is based on stereotypes and incomplete information, it goes a long way toward explaining the rancor toward art that deals with sexuality.
Anti-theatrical tirades over hundreds of years have often used disease imagery to denounce the dangerous contagion of the stage. Most virulently, the 17th-century English Puritans railed against the Elizabethan playhouses as hotbeds of impurity and contamination, both literal and figurative. As illness itself was considered a moral sentence, a sort of physical manifestation of evil inclinations, disease and blasphemy were wrapped up together in harangues against the theatre. Perhaps the most extreme example of the period’s countless pamphlets calling for abolishing theatre (which was achieved with the closing of the playhouses in 1642) was William Prynne’s Histriomastix (1633), a venomous and voluminous diatribe whose repetitious and remonstrative rhetoric prefigures that of Jesse Helms so precisely, it’s tempting to think that the North Carolina senator has studied it. In the extended title alone Prynne fulminates, “That popular Stage-playes (the very Pompes of the Divell which we renounce in Baptisme, if we beleeve the Fathers) are sinfull, heathenish, lewde, ungodly Spectacles, and most pernicious Corruptions; condemned in all ages, as intolerable Mischiefes to Churches, to Republickes, to the manners, mindes, and soules of men. And that the Profession of Play-poets, of Stage players; together with the penning, acting, and frequenting of Stage-playes, are unlawfull, infamous and misbeseeming Christians.” He filibusters on paper in this manner for hundreds and hundreds of pages.
Some 300 years seem to vanish when Helms stands on the Senate floor waving this or that federally funded “abomination” or “obscenity,” instructing women to leave the room, describing how ill he feels at even contemplating such “filth.” Repeating this now trademark—and highly theatrical—trope, Helms has wagged Mac Wellman scripts, phone sex ads, Mapplethorpe photos, Public Broadcasting videocassettes, and has called for the banning of them all.
One of the first props Helms brandished, in what has become encore after encore of outrage, was a safe-sex comic book published by Gay Men’s Health Crisis. In the battle over this audience-specific manual, AIDS and gay expression converge, and the question of government funding for “objectionable” material is played most blatantly in this double context.
The controversy over the GMHC booklet, says Cindy Patton, author of Inventing AIDS, came at the end of a longer struggle between community health agencies and the Centers for Disease Control. In its first grants to community-based organizations for educational materials, the CDC included a line taken from obscenity law stating that any material produced needs to conform to community standards of decency. Some gay and AIDS activists objected, but there was little fuss surrounding this demand—until the mid-’80s, when the Los Angeles County Board of Health pulled a pamphlet on how to clean intravenous drug works, saying it would be offensive to people who saw it. Suddenly it became clear that the “community standards” in question did not belong to the community to whom a publication was addressed, but to anyone who might come across it. In debates on every AIDS education funding bill that followed, Helms was able to attach riders prohibiting federal funding of any material that “promotes homosexuality or promiscuity.” His success stems from labelling such a pamphlet “pornographic.” “You use that word,” says Holly Hughes, “and it’s like a blanket of panic has been thrown over the work that keeps you from seeing what’s going on—from seeing the lifesaving value of safe sex education, or, in the case of labelling our performances pornographic, from simply seeing what the work is like.”
According to Patton, “Helms’s ability to establish this obscenity precedent within public health added a pseudo-scientific basis to a more general queasiness about queer expression. I don’t know if anyone ever said that Mapplethorpe is depicting things that cause AIDS, but there was already a public health doublespeak in place for imagining that.” In terms of the NEA debate, Patton adds that people who defend the generally mainstream nature of the art the agency supports, talk about how “this inappropriate art slipped through the cracks. There’s a tacitly homophobic implication in this image—bad art snuck up from behind and buggered us. On a deeper level, there’s a metonymic structure whereby public health concerns are available as a kind of justification: If obscene art can slip through this way, there’s the possibility of other transmissions. It all adds up to a grand teleology: If degenerate art continues, it will end with everyone getting AIDS.”
Such “degenerate art” poses other threats as well, threats that have been decried throughout the centuries of anti-theatricalism, and that are particularly tangible at this moment in American history. As borders dissolve, or are at least disputed, across the globe, the boundaries by which people situate and define themselves also enter a state of flux. The only boundaries people can rely on, it seems, are those delineated by their own skin. People steel themselves in gender divisions—a major American preoccupation these days, as the abundance of scholarship and performances involving cross-dressing suggest. Confronting homosexuality challenges the certainty of such divisions, however, and calls into question the only distinction that seemed sure.
Of course, theatre has always been a place of border-crossing, of transgression, as Plato and so many after him recognized. Attacks on theatre were most vicious when it flouted borders of sexuality, the most flagrant threat to the social order. In Histriomastix, for instance, Prynne charged theatre with impugning the moral precept of each individual’s absolute identity. God, he rants, “hath given a uniform and distinct and proper being to every creature, the bounds of which may not be exceeded … Hence… he enjoynes all men at all times to act themselves, not others.” It’s no surprise that much of what Prynne and his cohorts take issue with is the practice at the time of boys playing women, and of sexuality run amok. “The category of homosexuality wasn’t really available to them as a concept,” explains Jonathan Goldberg, author of the forthcoming Sodometries, an examination of the spectacle of sodomy in the Renaissance. “But it’s clear that they’re objecting to men having sex with each other, to a category of debauchery that violates certain limits.”
“The current attacks,” says Michael Kahn, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., “are not about art. They’re about sexuality.” And thus—as Kahn knows, because he’s currently directing Measure for Measure—they’re also about government.
As Michael Wamer, author of Fear of a Queer Planet, sees it, America is caught up in a “deep cultural struggle over what democracy means.” Will it be defined by the conservative view, which sees the highest possible degree of agreement among state, media and public opinion—and implicitly, the arts—as its greatest achievement? Where having more than 90 per cent of the populace supporting the Gulf War is seen as a sign of a good democracy? Or will we have a democracy defined by the greatest separation among state, cultural production and media, with little emphasis on mainstream or majority views? Where diversity flourishes? This is the question being waged on the battleground of the queer body.
Artists are apt to lose if only because we tend to prefer the latter idea of democracy while insisting we’re full participants in the former. “Artists are incredibly stupid about politics,” suggests Tony Kushner. “One reason Wildmon and Helms are so successful is that they’re right: The arts in this country do represent a largely liberal humanist viewpoint. You can’t do a pro-Klan play in a resident theatre without everybody quitting. But we’re unwilling to articulate our ideology, to say: ‘Yes. This is what we stand for. It’s the human way to be.'”
In Measure for Measure the unruly polis is turned over to a law-and-order government, which tries to impose strict restraints on rampant sexuality, source of joy as well as transmitter of disease. It’s clear enough that Angelo’s absolutist reign is cruel and ineffectual, though Shakespeare, naturally, doesn’t offer any solution—other than the ordering and restorative powers of theatrical art itself.
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