The sexuality of Western artists. Well, that got your attention, didn’t it? Actually I was thinking about Deleuzeguattarian thought, specifically the concept of “lines of flight” which is a way of finding the pre-existing fractures and layers in hierarchical systems and using them to escape to a more free, just and beautiful world.
First we’d better settle the gender issue. Yes, cowboy artists can be female and, yes, they can be sexual and, yes, they can be same-sex lovers and, yes, they can be promiscuous or opportunistic or you-label-it. At this moment some people will be shaking with terror that I might name names. I’m thinking about it. But the females can be dismissed because NOBODY CARES. Unless we’re talking Emily Carr or Georgia O’Keefe, both of whom minded their own business. Most of the time. People have their weak moments. The other factor is that as soon as a woman artist shows signs of sexuality -- conventional or not -- she is likely to be re-assigned OUT of the cowboy artist remuda.
So now the guys. “Brokeback Mountain” has not reached the Western atelier and gallery and Annie Proulx has left the West. Still, after fifty years hanging around the corrals and chutes, I’ve picked up a few observations. And so have others. I note this paragaph from an article in “Big Sky Journal” Summer 2003 by Scott McMillion writing about Floyd DeWitt, a tough, reclusive, visionary sculptor (married with daughter).
“A rodeo bull obviously qualifies as Western art, as does some of his other work. But Floyd likes to pop bubbles. Witness the piece that he calls “PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) Cowboy, but one I always think of as the gay caballero. This is a dude [sic] so fey you can almost hear his affected lisp. Floyd says he’s a monument to the rednecks and wastrels who gave him bum advice back in Wolf Point, who told him to quit school and go bust horses.”
So DeWitt is not being friendly, and he has squarehead misconceptions about gays, but at least he knows the category exists. Being gay is defined in Montana small towns as being weak, a loser. Therefore, even the kind of big masculine hairy males that are called “bears” in certain San Francisco circles would find it bad strategy to be defined as “gay” if they lived here. Being invisible is worse than being stigmatized and DeWitt knows it, having spent a few invisible years.
Now I have to stop to say that I’m in a position (ahem -- “was”, actually) to testify that Bob Scriver desired women -- lots of them. Whether he related to men in that way is outside any knowledge I have, except that I recognized quite a few floater men who showed up and stayed around for a while because they were clearly attracted to Bob. (They liked bears.) They ignored me. One worked in the shop for a few weeks. One was a photographer who slept on our sofa and told us all about his mother. More than a few were traders with art works in the trunks of their cars. There was a pedophile author who hung around for a while, but he only wanted to use our phone. If we’d understood his predilections, he would have left in an ambulance. And then there were lawyers. One or more were very fine artists. If you cruise the dealer rooms during the March Great Falls auctions, you’ll be able to find some, often men of dignity and perception. Sometimes not.
It’s tough to live with an artist, whatever the orientation of their desire, and often it is only rich or charismatic artists who attract lovers in any committed way. But I would suggest that there is a portion of the infrastructure of Western Art that is definitively gay in a way of its own: aesthetically, commercially, and as a point of focus in a floating world, especially in this era of auction-based art rendezvousing involving hotels. “Nomadism,” would the Deleuzeguattarian theorists say. For some it is the chance encounters, the planned-but-brief reunions, and the uncertain future that is the essence of relationship. But for others it is the secret knowledge, the coded signals, the sense of being the ones who know, that is the reward and this melds very well with being an art dealer. Hotbeds for wheeling and dealing. They often strike up arrangements with stylish or motherly women, rather like Parisian couturiers with their muses. Someone to hold the fort.
Secret bonds created in one context can affect another, the way an unseen rock in a stream creates patterns in the water. Funding, exhibits, contacts, agents, patrons, written comment and galleries affect the lives (which means the works) of artists of all kinds. It was as true for Leonardo, Michelangelo and Caravaggio as it is today.
“Nomadism” is a source and result of what Deleuzeguattari call “lines of flight,” points of entry for new ideas that break up old orders. It has been proposed that Jesus made a long trip to India and brought back some of his revolutionary ideas (like compassion) to a relentless Roman Empire. Less controversially, Marco Polo was the bee who pollenated east with west and vice versa. We have all been startled by the migration of fine Chinese artists into the Western art scene, partly mediated by their portraits of the still pre-industrial people of western China, Mongolia. Before that it was the migration of the slick magazine short story illustrators out of Connecticut to fine art easel studios in Texas or Arizona. They brought rich technique to hackneyed subjects.
It may be time to open up Western art by introducing -- or rather, revealing -- the gay infrastructure and connections. I’m NOT talking about images of cowboys making love. I AM talking about a new sensibility, a new awareness. a new place for everyone. The life of the single traveling man can be very lonely, but it can also be rich with insight. We have too many repetitions of work that has already been done, not enough discussion of the true nature of people sharing a vast windswept, arid region of the planet full of endangered wild species and transplanted domestic animals. We seem unable to leave the 19th century.