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Gustave Caillebotte, Man Drying His Leg, 1884
So, before the outraged comments on this post break the internet, let’s calmly discuss a few things.
First of all, the word "homoerotic." What we are referring to here is art that has a sexual or sensual approach to the male body, or is appealing in its masculinity and homosocial situation.
Most of the art here was from a time when art was considered of interest only to men. Art was made for a male audience and male patronage. So any art depicting men in an erotic way was made for other men. At the turn of the last century it was thought that a polite woman would avert her eyes from any depiction of male nudity. That whole idea is false, of course, but it was prevalent for a long time, even into the 20th century, despite the number of successful female artists. But you know how men are.
Secondly, let’s talk about the term "straight." Just as many artists cannot be verified as gay — a term that had little relevance in their time — neither can someone be categorically called straight without the allowance for the hugely different cultural standpoint we have in this century. After all, Oscar Wilde was married with kids.
So what we are referring to here when we say "straight" is that these men were assumed to be heterosexual at the time they lived. Did they have homosexual desires? Some might say that artists like George Bellows certainly seem likely to have had at least a thought or two in that direction. But other staunch heterosexuals, like Picasso, seem simply to have had an evolved sense of what was sexual and sensual without regard to gender.
One time I asked a close straight friend if he thought a mutual male friend of ours was attractive. He sputtered that he had no idea. How could he tell if another man was attractive?
Artists can be ahead of the curve. Maybe there would be less homophobia in the world if straight men could see the sexual beauty of other men freely and without the panic that it seems to engender. Beauty exists. Sexual orientation doesn’t logically have anything to do with being able to appreciate beauty. And finding someone beautiful doesn’t mean you necessarily want that appreciation to lead to sex.