“Michael Sherry: Gay Artists in Cold War America”
Tuesday, Sept. 30, 3:00 p.m., 2239 Lane Hall
Today, Ellen DeGeneres is the new cover girl. Gay and lesbian wedding announcements are displayed right next to heterosexual wedding announcements. There’s an LGBT television channel. And there’s new speculation surfacing that claims American cultural icons, such as Abraham Lincoln and Rock Hudson, were gay.
In the Cold War, gay artists were exploited as examples of America’s cultural triumphs. At the same time they were ignored, feared and hated. Many people imagined a vast gay conspiracy while employing them as ammunition in the Cold War’s cultural battles.
This is the topic of the lecture “Gay Artists in Cold War America,” given by Michael Sherry, a history professor at Northwestern University. The author of several books including “Gay Artists in Modern American Culture: An Imagined Conspiracy,” Sherry focuses on the Cold War because it’s a period in which an abundance of American artists were gay.
According to Sherry, it was a very homophobic time, but it deserves a more complex label than merely “homophobic.” The simple fact that gay people were so prominent in the arts almost seems to contradict the way the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s are thought of as being particularly hostile times for homosexuals. Gay men like Tennessee Williams and Aaron Copland ruled the worlds of theater and music.
“We don’t see the kinds of programs in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s that send Samuel Barber off to Moscow and Tennessee Williams off to West Berlin and have these people playing such a prominent international role as American cultural ambassadors,” Sherry said.
In the present, politics and high culture are rarely so intertwined.
“While those artists have long been recognized one by one as being important gay artists, there’s been very little work done that has looked at them collectively and looked at the reaction that they generated in the wider American culture,” Sherry said.
The recognition and evolving understanding of these issues is central to Sherry’s lecture, and it appears we haven’t necessarily come that far from this era. During the Cold War, artists were condemned for being gay while celebrated for being American. According to Sherry, this distinction remains today; people are not often referred to as both “gay” and “American.”
“That is a combination you don’t very often see in public discourse about the arts and the world of intellectuals,” Sherry said. “Those two categories are treated as somewhat separate, if not mutually exclusive.”
Sherry’s lecture will provide a fresh perspective on a period of history full of important gay artists, and will also pay tribute to a degree of homophobia that has not completely subsided. Although our current global conflict does not spotlight gay culture in the same way as the Cold War, it is clear that homosexual rights is a crucial issue in the world today. Lectures like these acknowledge this fact and recognize the role of gay icons in creating cultural history.