I spent a day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York over the holiday, and saw two terrific exhibits: the reopened Islamic art wing, about which much more to come, and “After the Gold Rush,” a contemporary photography show. Two pieces in the latter exhibit struck me in particular.
First, Philip-Lorca diCorcia took his 1991 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and used it to tweak conservatives who were hysterical over NEA funding for a traveling show of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. He parceled out the money in small sums to male prostitutes and drug addicts, paying them posing fees and producing a series of tender, lovely portraits. In my favorite, a young man named Todd M. Brooks, appears washed in blue through a cheap motel window, framed in red window trim, and against a patterned blue bedspread. It’s not Picasso, and diCorcia’s approach isn’t a perfect solution to the problem of artists exploiting vulnerable subjects. But it’s a creative political stunt, with better results than usually come from those sorts of origins.
In the second, Robert Gober superimposes a man’s hand between two newspaper articles, clipped neatly and placed on a shell-strewn beach. Below his hand, the article refers to Matthew Shepard’s death. Above it, a letter to the editor argues that “Orthodox Jews, conservative Christians and others have a right to speak out against homosexuality without being placed in the category of thuggery.” While the piece obviously precedes Jonathan Rauch’s provocative and important piece in the December issue of the Advocate arguing that gay people should tolerate a certain amount of anti-gay sentiment as a sign that they’re legally and socially secure enough to practice tolerance, it’s a useful encapsulation of the dilemma behind that argument. It’s hard to cast off past threats if you’re not entirely sure they’re past.