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Erotic and Pornographic Art: Gay Male  
 
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For the ancient Greeks, the centrality of the younger subject was in part a matter of social decorum: homosexual relationships between adult men were less acceptable. However, it is clear that this emphasis on youth is still entrenched in contemporary hierarchies of gay desire.

Similarly, as ideas and images of "Greek love" were adapted to modern homosexual sensibilities, so too were they co-opted by modern notions of race and history, which tend to classify the ancient Greeks as white but also think of them as culturally exotic; their civilized (that is, white) virtue coexists with traces of pagan indulgence.

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Accordingly, visual allusions to Greek homoeroticism often simultaneously promote a myth about the paramount desirability of white bodies, but find "darker" pleasures in their pagan hedonism--a construct that reveals the anglocentric and racist underpinnings often at work in homoerotic art.

Veiling, Coding, Pretext, and Ambiguity

While the pictorial conventions and subjects of homoerotic Greek art have been widely adopted, its prolific, aboveboard existence in the first place constitutes a major exception in the history of homoerotic art. The usually deviant status of homosexuality has largely required that any affirmative depiction of it be carefully handled.

If art was to be made that expressed homoerotic interest in the male body, or worse, suggested sexual acts or sexual attraction between two or more male subjects, that art would either have to remain private, circulating only among gay men and their cohorts, or artists would have to employ several tactics to code their work, making its erotic content legible to other gay viewers but passable in the mainstream.

Much as people with deviant sexual interests have historically had to hide their erotic lives from the oppressive mainstream, so did artists have to employ strategies of veiling, coding, deliberate ambiguity, and false pretexts.

These tactics are especially prominent in the early decades of the twentieth century, as small European and American homosexual subcultures, which had been forming in urban centers in some capacity since the eighteenth century, continued to develop.

Public openness about homosexuality, to say nothing of making pictures of men engaged in homosexual activity, was cause for scandal or imprisonment. Nevertheless, the erotic possibilities facilitated by these emerging pockets of urban homosexuality became the topic of a handful of artists.

The works of American painters Charles Demuth (1883-1935) and Paul Cadmus (1904-1999) are particularly good examples.

Some of Demuth's works (such as Three Sailors on the Beach, 1930) show men having sex outright and were not exhibited publicly in the artist's lifetime, while others, such as those in his Eight O'Clock series (1917), can be read as either platonic pictures of urban domesticity or, for those who are able to read their erotic nuances, windows onto the lives of male lovers.

The coy title of Demuth's Three Sailors Urinating (1930) reveals the flimsy double narratives often at work in his pictures; On "That" Street (1932), whose title serves as a euphemism for a gay cruising area, depicts an outwardly innocent scene of a homosexual dandy in the midst of two boyish sailors.

Sailors and gaunt dandies--the latter characterized as the fashionable, swishy, and effeminate homosexual of these new gay ghettos--also appear in Paul Cadmus's early paintings. Although these works may outwardly seem to depict only drunken, debauched, straight sailors and wanton women, the subtle presence of the dandy at the margins of Cadmus's pictures indicates a submerged erotic narrative.

The dandy (or fairy), with his dapper suits and tell-all red tie, which was then a street symbol of homosexuality, subtly signifies for what audience the muscled sailors are really on display.

The use of insider knowledge in artworks such as these signals both an increasingly codified gay culture and continued vigilance at once to reveal and to hide its very existence. Accordingly, although illicit same-sex pornography had been made by the 1930s in small, risk-laden underground networks, erotic openness in emerging art, which was subject to scrutiny by patrons and the public, remained limited.

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