By Filiz Cicek
John F. Kennedy in a 1963 speech declared, “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.” He was eulogizing American poet Robert Frost, who two years earlier, at Kennedy’s inauguration, wrote: “And by the example of our Declaration / Make everybody want to be a nation / This is no aristocratic joke / At the expense of negligible folk.” His subject was America.
Kennedy’s invitation to Frost demonstrated his desire to include arts in government and to celebrate the role of the artist in society. Kennedy stated that “the artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state….If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice.” And that
“we must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.” And the truth can often be inconvenient to those in power.
Kennedy, like Thomas Jefferson, was a lover of arts. The latter was a true renaissance man who produced the declaration of independence. Indeed the age of enlightenment gave rise to revolutions, separation of church of state, rejection of monarchy and the embrace of democracy. One thing the West did not embrace however, was the practice of homosexuality.
We celebrate Alexander the Great yet we overlook his bi-sexuality; his marriage to Roxana, a noble Sogdian for purposes of breeding and his passionate love affairs with Hephaestion, a general in his army and with a former Persian slave Bagaos. Ancient Greeks–Spartans in particular–believed that homosexual sex strengthened bonds between soldiers. And we overlook the fact that so rampant was the physical intimacy between Roman soldiers that Augustus found himself forcing thousands of them to marry at the Colosseum, not for moral reasons but rather for the strategic purposes: their progeny would ensure future generations of Roman soldiers and therefore the Roman Empire. The West adapted Roman rule of law while completely ignoring widely accepted homosexual practices in Roman society.
In our selective adaptations of cultural values, we in the west also embraced Greek misogyny. Today we don’t widely celebrate Sappho’s poetry, nor do we generally support women in the political arena. We are still happy to confine women to domestic roles. In the West this can be traced to the Ancient Greeks who blamed the long and devastating Trojan War on women, in particular Helen and Clytemnestra. Aeschylus in his trilogy Oresteia defined murder of Agamemnon at the hand of his wife Clytemnestra, as an example of misuse of power and argued that women should never be allowed to govern again. Never mind that Clytemnestra, as a mother, was exacting revenge for the death of her daughter, Iphigenia. The first victim of the Trojan War, Clytemnestra was sacrificed by her father Agamemnon to Artemis for favorable winds for the fleet.
Such misogyny was exported to the Americas. Native Americans not only acknowledged, but celebrated, two spirit people, who possessed both male and female attributes. Such fluid gender roles also exist elsewhere in the world, such as among the Bugis people in Indonesia who recognize five genders: makkunrai, oroané, bissu, calabai, and calalai. Makkunrai and oroané are comparable to cisgender women and men. Bissu are androgynous shamans and calalai and calabai are approximately equivalent to trans men and trans women. The bissu, the calabai, and the calalai may enter the dwelling places of both men and women. Bugis believe that all five genders must co-exist harmoniously. But the adoption of Islam in the 8th century, (which was more mystical at the time, and more compatible with native practices) and western colonialism led to the oppression of gender fluid individuals.
And today in America we are waging Cake Wars in which the choices of same sex couples have clashed with the religious identities of the cake makers. This, after the passing of the Defense of the Marriage Act in 2013, a long and hard won battle for the GLBTQ community. The concept of freedom of choice, of being yourself is a very radical act indeed, one that has been regulated throughout the centuries by tyrants, dictators, patriarchs and matriarchs alike.
Art too can be a radical act. It was so for the impressionists, the original eco-artists who rejected modernity and pollution by re-embracing nature. Since the 1970s feminist artists have infiltrated masculine dominated art galleries and museums. Indeed art is one of the most powerful tools we have to express ourselves and explore our surroundings. Art experienced at the time of its creation is often radical by its nature, since it challenges norms and operates outside of the collective, highlighting the individual’s vision. Art is subversive at times, yet equally celebratory, affirming love and life.
Then again art can be a rebellious act any given moment in some corner of the world. Putting on a hijab in the French Riviera and shedding it in downtown Tehran. Ordering a cake in Kentucky and serving at the military while queer. Life and art are irrevocably intertwined, often compelling artists to speak from the margins to the center, enabling visibility and audibility to the oppressed, shifting societal norms for the better.
Regardless of whether it’s a revolution or a rave (or both, simultaneously), my process of making art is my small attempt to get free. –Alex Hollet
“Every Body” features work by local, national and international GLBTQ artists that illustrate the presentation of self. It will be on display in August at the Thomas Gallery in conjunction with the Pride Film Festival. The participating artists look at the human body from many different viewpoints; they explore identity, sexuality, movement, form and the transcendence of form.
Jessica Hurt is a multimedia artist who creates 3D works utilizing mannequins and also performs at the Back Door. Performing drag, she says, has opened up a safer space for her as a queer person. Patrons speak to her openly about her gender and pronoun preference.
She went through gay conversion, she says, “after I came out as a lesbian [while enrolled] at Central Christian College of the Bible.” It consisted of Jessica living in isolation in a cell-like room and watching videos explaining and instructing how to please a man. It didn’t work. “I puked” she says, with a lingering nausea, “and chose to leave and give up my course credits.” She was accepted in a program to become a minister in the Church of Christ denomination but was told during her first semester that women could not be ministers. Today she still believes in Christ and practices whenever she can. “My family, who are devoted Episcopalians, are doing it right. They accept me as I am, with unconditional love.”
Alex Hollet is a doctoral candidate at the IU Gender Studies Department who creates and performs regularly. She sees and utilizes art as a form of resistance. “Art-as-activism sometimes means exposing pain and power for what they are,” she says, “and sometimes it means reveling in the beauty that exists outside of, underneath, and around the status quo.” Hollet acts very much as an individual within a collective: “Regardless of whether it’s a revolution or a rave (or both, simultaneously), my process of making art is my small attempt to get free, and my approach to art-as-activism seeks to emancipate not just my individual body but also that of the collective.
“Art is a way for marginalized people – and anyone who cares about justice, really – to not only challenge the harmful mythologies that are often (but not exclusively) rooted in nationalism and racism and sexism and heterosexism and classism, but also to create something fresh and authentic and liberating in their place. Consequently, the art I’m interested in making and interacting with is, in general terms, deeply political and justice-oriented. It is art that forces us to confront our complicity in harm and violence. It is art that celebrates divergence. It is art that offers personal and systemic interventions. It is art that organizes communities. It is art that rebukes theories of pleasure that are almost always predicated on the exploitation of another human being or the earth.”
Participating artists include, Robb Stone, Randy Rud-Cloud, Alexandria Hollett, Brick Daniel Kyle, Smoove G, Dimosthenis Prodromou (Greece), Jessica Hurt, Filiz Cicek, Lucy Donnellan (Australia), Javier Cardona Otero, Jenni Cure, Jasper Wirtshafter, Margaret Belton, Mia Be, Kelvin Burzon, Shadia Siliman.
To see and celebrate GLBTQ art and artists featured in Every Body head over to Thomas Gallery on the square on August 3rd. The opening is from 5.30pm-8pm. You can experience art and eat cake at the same time! The exhibition is open until August 31st with an additional poetry reading by Jasper Wirtshafter on August 10th.