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Erotic and Pornographic Art: Gay Male  
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Given the historic stigma around making, circulating, and possessing overtly images, the visual arts have been especially important for providing a socially sanctioned arena for the depiction of the naked male body. They have even allowed the suggestion of homoerotic desire and physical affection within acceptable cultural and moral boundaries. Even so, much of the history of homoerotic image-making may be characterized by calculated ambiguity, coding, denial, and underground circulation.

Although recent controversies and attempts at censorship may seem to suggest that the visual depiction of homoeroticism is a new phenomenon, the existence of numerous pre-modern artworks (prior to ca 1700) that address homosexuality, either in the affirmative, as erotic records of homosexual delight and existence, or in the negative, as rhetorical blights against the love that dare not speak its name, suggests a long, complex, and variable relationship between homosexuality and the arts.

The Impact of Modernity on Visual Expressions of Homosexuality

As modernity brought colossal changes to the ways in which sexuality, and homosexuality in particular, is understood and experienced, so too did it severely impact visual expressions of homoeroticism. Although sex between men had been generally vilified and punished for centuries, the decades between 1890 and 1960 both found renewed disdain for homosexuality and witnessed the proliferation of coherent gay cultures, mindful of both gay pleasures and their policing by the larger society. The visual expressions of these cultures were either kept from the mainstream or engineered to circumvent its suspicions.

The broad, ideological shift away from sexual subterfuge and toward erotic openness, epitomized by the Stonewall riots of 1969 but underway well before and still in progress today, can be charted in the increasing sexual explicitness of homoerotic images as well as in advancements in their mass distribution.

Whereas the visual arts long served as a solitary, if inadequate and somewhat inaccessible source of homoerotic imagery up until the mid-twentieth century, the increasing availability and commercialization of gay pornography in recent decades have made it the main cultural fount of explicit homoerotic pictures. Although the same may be said about the proliferation of heterosexual pornography, gay pornography plays a much more complex cultural role, given the stigma attached to homoerotic imagery of any sort.

Although contemporary gay artists have by no means abandoned eroticism altogether, many contemporary homoerotic artworks tend to comment on or complicate--rather than merely serve up--depictions of sex between men. By calling into question previously unchallenged constructions of race, desire, gender, and sexual identity, and by challenging conventional distinctions between "art," "erotica," and "porn," many contemporary artists articulate the postmodern pleasures of revision and subversion.

Reclaiming Homoerotic Art

Michelangelo's sculpture David (1501-1504) and Hippolyte Flandrin's Figure d'Etude (ca 1835) are two prominent examples of artworks that present a complex issue in the study of homoerotic art: the reclaiming of artworks and artists from a presumed heterosexual context or existence.

Each work depicts a solitary male figure, naked, muscular, and youthful. David stands in a strong but elegant contraposto pose, completely revealing his muscled body to the viewer, while the boy in Flandrin's picture sits, tucking his head between his folded legs and concealing his genitals from view.

Although both images are sensual, there is no concrete visual information contained in either artwork to suggest that either figure, the biblical hero David awaiting his enemy Goliath, or the boy posing in the artifice of the studio, is inclined specifically to or on display expressly for the erotic gratification of other men.

Yet, both of these artworks resonate throughout contemporary gay culture as icons of homoerotic desire--the monumental David has been often kitschified as a lofty ideal while the crouching pose of Flandrin's boy has been adapted by several gay artists and is reincarnated in countless gay-themed commercial images.

As these artworks and others like them began to be reproduced and widely published in the early 1900s, they became ideal masturbatory fodder for gay men during a time when illicit gay erotica was not readily available and risky to own or produce. That is, in addition to being visually stimulating, pictures of artworks like these also came with a ready alibi: the cultural auspices of high art could veil lustful interests with aesthetic ones.

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1) An ancient Greek vessel decorated with a painting of dancing youths.
2) Figure d'Etude (ca 1835) by Hippolyte Flandrin.
3) The Swimming Hole (1893-1895) by Thomas Eakins.
4) A photograph of two nude youths (ca 1905) by Wilhelm von Gloeden.

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