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Erotic and Pornographic Art: Gay Male  
 
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Given the active erasure of homosexuality from popular historical awareness, contemporary queer art history can be characterized in part by an impulse to uncover, or reclaim, homosexual artworks and artists (among the latter, Michelangelo). The project of literally "looking for" gay bodies, gay stories, and gay sex in the art of bygone cultures is central to repairing a visual history in which homosexuality has been largely scrubbed away.

While it is important to unearth these artists and artworks from a presumed or enforced heterosexual context, and although it is clear that many early-modern works are related to contemporary queer artworks and can themselves carry erotic significance in contemporary gay culture, it is also important to be mindful that they hail from times and societies very different from our own.

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The visual depiction of homoeroticism exists at various points and in various cultures throughout history, but the cultural significance of that eroticism, the means by which it is communicated, and the social consequences of its depiction are vastly diverse. Scenes of men having sex and homoerotic narratives appear in the art of Ancient Greece, the Persian Empire, the Renaissance, and many places in between, long before the arrival of modern ideas about what it means to be gay. These early depictions of sexual experiences shared between men are essential records of homosexuality's longevity, but also of its social mutability.

The Greek Precedent

The homoerotic art of ancient Greece is central to the visual history of homosexuality in the West. As a culture whose upper class adult male citizens engaged in socially sanctioned relationships with younger boys, the ancient Greeks stand out as early makers of homoerotic artworks.

A number of surviving artifacts--mainly painted vessels--expound on the pleasures and rituals surrounding the older mentor's seduction of his nubile young muse, while a number of sculptures reveal a broad cultural admiration of the athletic male body.

Homoeroticism is also a prominent theme in artworks about mythology: images of Bacchus, the wine god, and his bisexual trysts; the rape of young Ganymede by Jupiter; and the hedonistic orgies of male satyrs all depict same-sex lust with varying degrees of explicitness.

In addition to being among the earliest artworks to depict elaborate homosexual practices and relationships, these works are also important for how their narratives and formal values have inspired, and in many cases legitimized, subsequent homoerotic artworks.

During the Renaissance, classical themes were employed by many artists, but the classical idolization of the nude male and certain homoerotic fables from classical mythology were especially suited to the erotic tastes of the nascent homosexual (or, in the parlance of the day, ) subcultures in cities such as Florence.

Centuries later, gay photographers and painters would similarly look to Greek culture for a romanticized example of tolerated homosexuality, and to Greek artistic traditions to rationalize their own homoerotic expressions.

Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, compositions of scenes from mythology, and more generalized renditions of men in wholesome Arcadian activities, including bathing, lounging in nature, or playing a sport, garnered cultural cachet with vague, nostalgic references to ancient ideals while also leaving room for homoerotic possibility.

For example, the work of the American realist painter Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) exhibits a strong, yet culturally acceptable interest in nude boys and virile male athletes. Eakins's The Swimming Hole (1893-1895) is a particularly good example of how the pseudo-Grecian pretext could be adapted to current artistic and social concerns (in this case, realism), but retain homoerotic appeal, allowing for two disparate narratives to be rendered in the same visual terms.

The painting depicts two men and four boys (plus the requisite dog) bathing in the great outdoors, reveling in their unashamed, supple nudity. The work simultaneously evokes forthright ideals of nature, democracy, cleanliness, and platonic camaraderie, as well as the homoerotic promise of a cadre of naked male subjects, one of whom represents the painter.

Other artists, such as the German photographer Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden (1856-1931), employed the Grecian pretext more literally, staging nude boy models in "classic" poses and with garlands or skimpy togas.

While allusions to ancient Greece in the homoerotic art of the fin de siècle by no means completely safeguarded it from the censorious morality of the mainstream, it is clear that Grecian themes provided for both considerable social allowance and homoerotic potential.

A similar double-edged effect was also achieved with religious subjects such as Christ and St. Sebastian.

Homoerotic Greek art is also important for how it documents a number of ideals for gay male beauty and desirability that persist to this day. For example, the unparalleled attractiveness of the smooth youth first rendered here has become a standard visual convention and telling psychological emblem in several subsequent generations of homoerotic art.

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