It’s easy to think of the New York art scene as a big, gay playground. Okay, maybe not a playground, but a place where gay men have had the opportunity to be relatively open, at least within the parameters set by the norms of their particular era. Think Johns, Rauschenberg, Warhol, and sometimes Larry River who, although didn’t identify as gay, often took one for the team. In his book Between You and Me: Queer Disclosures in the New York Art World, 1948-1963, Gavin Butt presents gossip as an alternative, let’s say queer, way of knowing. Butt proposes that when we consider an artist and his work (all the artists presented are male) that we consider more than just reception histories and textbook biographies. Butt suggests that we look deeper than that, showing how gossip informed the work these artists produced, as well as the way the public and art world received it.
Why is gossip important? Well, even in the comparatively liberal New York art scene, it was still the 50s and even if one’s homosexuality were “common knowledge” that didn’t mean it was accepted by the general public. Artists were often inned by galleries and the mainstream art press. Butt gives many clear of examples of this. He also uses the queer press as confirmation of alternative histories placing such publications as The Mattachine Review and Gay Sunshine Press on the same level as The New York Times.
In a chapter entitled “Dishing on the Swish, or, the ‘Inning’ of Andy Warhol,” Butt outlines the experience of a young Warhol, whom we now think of as a purveyor of prurient gossip. But at the beginning of his career, Warhol was the victim of gossip. In the hyper-masculine 50s, Warhol’s sissy demeanor was an embarrassment to the traditionally masculine artists (both gay and straight) in the scene. Warhol became re-invented, not as gay or straight, but as asexual. While the entire art world knew his orientation, Warhol and the media effectively maintained a beyond-sexuality public persona. We can see this same method employed today every time someone says an artist’s work is “universal,” or that his or her sexuality is “unimportant.”
Between You and Me lingers between art history and queer theory, which in itself makes the book queer. This is an older title, published by Duke University Press in 2005, and somehow it feels like it never really found it’s niche. Perhaps it is because of this inbetweenness, or maybe because the subject is gossip, which is inherently unserious. I highly recommend this book, not because of what it teaches about the golden age New York art scene, but what it teaches us about queer ways of knowing art today. Between You and Me is a serious academic book, but because of its subject matter left me with an overall feeling of playfulness. Good summer reading, if summer ever comes.