For the first time, this past year at Cannes a sovereign jury gave a prize for gayness. The Queer Palm is one of a very few gongs given independently at the festival and one of only two that acknowledge the appearance in cinema of tormented creatures. The other is awarded to an outstanding canine.
Sadly, few remember past recipients of the Palm Dog, which is, after all, a bit of a joke. The performance of the standard poodle in Inglourious Basterds may have been prize-winning, but it is difficult to recall. Obscurity, it seems, is the official fate of the unofficial winners at Cannes. No one knows the name of Tarantino’s talented dog; few will enjoy the champion of the inaugural Queer Palm.
The work Kaboom, a hyperrealist tour of a handsome teen’s bisexual awakening, will appear on subscription TV and at a few queer film festivals. Nearly a year after its festival debut, it has become a standard poodle. Director Gregg Araki may not have sought marginality when he whelped this pup; another take on the shop-worn theme of “coming out”. Marginality was bestowed, nonetheless.
There are those who would argue doggedly that awarding an artwork a certificate of sexual identity is a wonderful idea. But these people are often the curators and creators of queer arts events, such as one unfolding in my city this minute.
Here, the consistent delivery of coming-out narratives and drag shows and paintings of mid-century housewives is seen for a queer community as self-defining. There are those of us, though, who see this act as self-defeating. And a little bit lazy and, possibly, a little bit cheap. Affixing the “queer” or “gay” tag on an artwork may have no function higher than marketing to a willing niche.
The very idea of gay is itself a bit of a problem. These past 20 years, good minds have argued that the game of Gay Versus The World has gone into excruciating overtime. There are no goals left to be gained from a commitment to Team Rainbow. In the real world, pressing private practice into the service of public politics is fraught enough. In the art world, of all places, it’s a taxonomy that borders on madness.
Even in the real world, I would not personally argue for the right to lapse into a definition, but I do understand that a sex-ratings system works well for some. Homophobes, Kylie Minogue and queer arts community workers, for example, are all people who actively profit from the code. So it might be persuasively argued that to classify people as gay, bi, trans, poly et al has some ethical or practical purpose.
I just can’t get my head around why it might be useful to do the same for art.
This is not to downplay the quality of all Gay-endorsed works; in fact, some of them might be rather good. But it is to question the value of any festival dedicated to promoting homosexuals in the arts.
This mission seems about as desperately needed as promoting white men in politics or self-esteem at Muscle Beach.
As a relatively eager consumer, I venture that the queer and the camp are disproportionately represented in our culture’s higher texts. If the gays require the endorsement of an arts festival, then my name is Andy Warhol. Or Leonardo da Vinci. Or Charlotte Bronte, Mapplethorpe or Genet. Bob Fosse. Vidal. Ginsberg. The chorus line continues. You get the idea.
Queer and camp have long informed many of our best-regarded narratives. Indefinite sexuality continues to appear in much of our art and, whether explicit or implicit, has always existed centrally. Queers, if you just take the trouble to look for us, are in the story. A gay arts event seeks to move us to the fringe.
These days, the general gay culture exists as a sanctuary for those who have surrendered the hope of or the need for equality.
Now, the gay arts culture exists as a currency for those who have given up on art.
An individual work may be passionately avant-garde, resolutely mainstream, really good or plain appalling. Whatever it is at a Gay Arts Festival, it is, first and foremost, a function of sexuality.
Understanding sexuality as a spectrum upon which all players are equal is revolutionary; apprehending art in the same manner is a terrible mistake.
A gay arts event manages the simultaneous feat of elevating crap and diminishing excellence. Here, reeking floor-shows steeped in misogyny and locked in a darker decade are afforded the same status as thoughtfully, provocatively curated visual works. In this hideously democratised world, Oscar Wilde and Todd Haynes have no ranking that exceeds RuPaul.
As long as they crave the award of marginality, the ghetto-fabulous standard poodles of a pessimistic gay culture have names we’ll soon forget.
This article appeared in a mildly different form in The Age newspaper.