Public Art, Private Expression
BY Christopher Harrity
July 20 2013 3:00 AM ET
Gay artists like John Singer Sargent, as well as very straight artists like Thomas Hart Benton, created large-scale works that make you wonder what's just past the lofty ideals of public art.
Part of the pride of being civilized is art funded by institutions such as museums, banks, and even the government, for the enlightenment of the general public. These works are often mythical, religious and allegorical. Because murals depicted lofty realms of thought and philosophy, they naturally tended to include naked gods, muscled shirtless workers, and androgynous angels. Also a lot of bare ass.
Viewing them now through our 21st century lenses, it is evident how much more prim and prudish the general public is. It would be implausible to think of Paul Cadmus's naked native Americans flashing themselves down on the post office patrons of today. What about the children?
In 1939, during the Depression, the Work Projects Administration created job for thousands of unemployed people that often included works of art for public spaces like courthouses and post offices. Many of these celebrated the average American working man, American history, and industry in the United States.
The corollary public art in Europe was similar in that it promoted the current political ideals of the time often veering to Olympic and physical culture. In Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany there are examples that promote a new human ideal. That didn't turn out so well, but the stylized heroic works of art still exist in some places.
Here's a look at what might grab your attention while running errands.
John Singer Sargent, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Born in Italy to American parents, trained in Paris, and a resident of London, Sargent became Boston’s favorite painter in the 1880s. Acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic for his brilliant oil portraits, after the turn of the century he applied his talents to other forms and media, including public mural projects. The commissions from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to decorate its new building’s most important public spaces—the grand staircase and rotunda— resulted in one of Sargent’s last and most ambitious works, the culmination of his career as a creator of great decorative schemes. Sargent regarded the entire space as a giant canvas and brought together all the pictorial, decorative, and architectural elements with a painter’s skill and vision.
After a large trove of Sargent's male nudes were published recently, it is generally understood that Sargent was sexually oriented toward other men. To call him "gay" would be misleading, as the modern concept of a gay man did not exist then. His sensual depictions of muscled but weightless forms that verge on campy seem to be a coded message to modern eyes.
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