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Art and HomosexualityReview - Art and Homosexuality
A History of Ideas
by Christopher Reed
Oxford University Press, 2011
Review by Elin Weiss
Apr 3rd 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 14)

Art and Homosexuality: A History if Ideas by Christopher Reed discusses the relationship between art and homosexuality, how art has been influenced by homosexual artists and how these artists have produced art that reflects the current ideas of homosexuality, heterosexuality and gender roles and identities.

Reed explicitly states that the concept of homosexual identity and homosexual art is not a new phenomenon and has not been recently produced nor has it been recently invented. Art and Homosexuality proves not only how modern but also ancient art has depicted homosexuality and homoerotism, sometimes masked and ambiguous and sometimes blatantly obvious.

Reed’s book discusses art from a sexual perspective that shows how intertwined these concepts are. Homoerotic scenes and depictions date far back and can often tell us much about how gender identities and sexuality were viewed at the time, or near the time, it was produced. In order to make his case, Reed goes through history discussing how cultural, religious, and societal attitudes concerning homosexuality are, and have been, reflected in art. 

Contemporary ideas and ideals concerning sexuality were often reflected in art and so was also homosexuality, although often subtly inferred or based on nude depictions that dated further back in history in which the artist claimed to portray biblical or historical scenes in order to freely produce art that was homoerotic in nature but which would still be accepted at the time it was produced. Homoeroticism in art was often highly policed and there were often strict rules concerning how art should be produced and what was considered proper art.

Masculine art was preferred over what was considered feminine art and both men and women were punished if the art they produced appeared too feminine or not masculine enough. The style of any artist (if it was unusual or not ideal enough) could be used as a tool to infer the sexual identity of the artist (for example interior design was viewed as feminine work which could infer a man’s homosexuality). The artist could then be punished in several ways. Punishments ranged from imprisonment to a lack of commissioned works or a lack of credibility and popularity.

The way in which assessment of homosexuality in art was interpreted was much due to prevailing ideas of stereotypical gender roles and gender role expectations. The way in which art was interpreted also depended much on the prevailing view of homosexuality. For example, the belief in homosexuality as a disease shaped how art and artists were interpreted and treated. So did also the belief that homosexuality was a distinct personality trait, latent in every person. At the same time, homosexual artists shaped art based on political, medical and religious changes concerning homosexuality.

Reed means that the way in which westerners has inferred and interpreted homosexuality in art has become a “western problem” that ignores cultural practices while only providing one perspective. It is problematic to assume a strong connection between “the artist” and “the homosexual” since interpretations of homosexuality differ so intensely depending on the context, the interpreter, the artist, and prevailing ideas about homosexuality and heterosexuality. One example Reed mentions is how certain non-western societies admire transgender attributes (admiration often been depicted in art). Such admiration appears odd to westerners since western cultures often show little or no acceptance of a blending between masculine and feminine traits and behaviors. 

Reed is an impressive writer who is able to clearly communicate his ideas. The book is filled with great pictures of art that are both interesting to look at, to read about, and to reflect over. The visual stimuli balances the sometimes quite historical and theoretical interpretations of art and the history of ideas, making it easier to understand the concepts presented by Reed as the reader makes their way through the history of art and homosexuality. 

Reed mentions how western interpretations have been applied in order to analyze most art, and the problem of doing so. Reed appears knowledgeable but at the same time critical of how art has been analyzed in order to “seed out” proper art and to infer homosexuality or indecent behavior by different artists.

It is difficult to criticize this book because it truly is well written and interesting. My one comment would be that the first chapters, concerned with very early pieces of art, are mostly concerned with male homosexuality. Reed is aware of this and explains the difficulty of discussing female homosexuality due to a lack of historical records on the subject. Reed gives several explanations to this, stating that women’s art was not as thoroughly recorded as art produced by men and was seen as less meaningful. Lesbian art (especially ancient) must also be analyzed and interpreted with caution since it was often produced for male audiences by male artists. Women’s contributions to art was even at times removed from literature about art, or simply not included in historic records.

Art and Homosexuality will be a very interesting read for anyone interested in the history of homosexuality and art and for individuals interested in learning more about prevalent societal attitudes concerning gender role expectations, homosexuality, heterosexuality (and sexuality in general) at different points of time throughout history.


© 2012 Elin Weiss


Elin Weiss has a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology and a Master's Degree in Women's Studies from University College Dublin, Ireland.


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