In graduate school, my freshman advisor used to invite notable professionals in the art world to come speak to our core seminar once a month. These included Philippe Vergne, the charismatic director of DIA:Beacon (who took over from Michael Govan, who is now the director of LACMA), and Tim Griffin, who at the time was the editor-in-chief of Artforum. The idea was, of course, to give us direction in our own careers after graduation, as well as to give the speakers, who assumedly had meager salaries given that they worked in, well, the art world, a little extra cash.
Being within the art world, it’s hard to remember how opaque it is from the outside. So I’m not sure if I need to really explain that to a young, aspiring art critic, meeting someone like Tim Griffin is kind of like meeting God. Writing for a magazine like Artforum, if you have drunk the magic potion that both allows you to see it for what it is to a certain group of people, and suspend your ability to consider that it means nothing at all to the vast majority of the population of the world, is more prestigious than writing for the New Yorker.
At both places, you probably have to know whether or not to italicize the “the” in the title of the New Yorker, so I’ll probably write for neither.
Soon after Tim Griffin spoke to our class, he quit Artforum, and took a position as the Executive Director of The Kitchen, a center for numerous high-brow art forms including music, dance, performance, literature, and film. I can’t find his biography online, mostly because when you google his name, you get a lot of information about some Congressman, and also I’m lazy.
Last night, I went to the Kitchen to see a few things. When I walked in the door, Tim Griffin was standing near the entrance, and for me, it almost felt like a celebrity sighting. That’s all about Tim Griffin.
The Kitchen is an interesting place, because they do great readings, lectures, and screenings for the intellectual elite. These range from myopic discussions appealing mainly to failed academics and wistful former-graduate students, to an evening next week, on May 1, with The Paris Review, to celebrate its 200th issue. The event—which will appeal to some academics, but mostly aspiring fiction writers—will feature interviews with Bret Easton Ellis, fiction by Lorrie Moore, poetry by Frederick Seidel, and many other envy-inducing activities.
The event is free, and I announce it mostly for Bianca my intern, who unfortunately (for her) proofreads everything I write, and also loves The Paris Review. Hi Bianca! You, and everyone else who is reading this, should check out more of the Kitchen’s programming here, and perhaps even attend some lectures.
Now, I have finally come upon the reason for this post, and actually, the purpose of my entire day, because I don’t have much going on besides having to take Franke the Dog for a walk. Last night, at The Kitchen, I saw a video of an interview between Leo Bersani, a culture critic and gay theoretician, and Bjarne Melgaard, a Norwegian artist who is most famous for his work on S&M and heavy metal, and it was very interesting.
The conversation revolved around being a gay male critically thinking of one’s own position in today’s world, and covered topics ranging from barebacking to Focault’s theories on unleashing new pleasures within the body.
I’m about to go on another tangent but I promise, I will return to barebacking, because it fascinates me.
When gay marriage first became a real possibility in the early aughts, I had coffee one day with my gay uncle, the brother of my mother, who could best be described, like most of the members of her family, as “completely out of his mind” but also “extremely brilliant.” When I was little, he used to refer to my sister and I as the “little homophobes,” somewhat presumptuously, I thought, because I didn’t even know what the term meant.
During our coffee, the topic of gay marriage came up, and I, naively, told him that I was excited that it could become a reality. He then proceeded to scream at me, and tell me that gay men didn’t actually want to get married because it was an evil propagated by straight culture. Why would they want to conform to an institution that hadn’t modernized, and didn’t even work for straight people? He would much rather live on the fringes.
Naive, and self-righteous, I proceeded to scream back at him. A few minutes later, we got kicked out of Starbucks.
Liberal media today sells gay marriage as the ultimate form of acceptance for sexual differences. But when you think about it kind of critically, you realize that it’s actually a way to get people to conform to a single, homogenous, extremely faulty standard. Why should “marriage” be the goal of a people who have, by virtue of the fact that they have never been accepted, and in that rejection, been able to live however they want, want something so bland, so boring, and so fucking straight-edged?
Now, I know why gay people want to get married. They want equal rights, and they deserve that. I’m for gay marriage. But hear out this argument a little bit, because it’s interesting.
When you live in a space of rejection, and you accept yourself for who you are, you become almost completely free. With no expectations of conforming, you can experiment sexually, you can modify your gender, and you can say whatever you want. But when you’re accepted into mainstream culture, to stay there, you have to start to curb your behavior.
To look at it in a less convoluted (and probably offensive) way, if you live under a tunnel in Central Park and scream at people on the subway, no one is like chastising you to sit down and be quiet. They’re like, look at that nutjob, I’m going to steer clear of him, and let him behave however he wants.
But as soon as that person decides to get an apartment, and commute to work every day, he can’t really keep on screaming on the subway. Because someone of his ilk is going to look at him, and tell him to shut the fuck up. And then he’s going to get home, and his partner is going to be like, “why did you act like that on the subway today, I’m so disappointed in you, I’m going to ignore you and not have sex with you, you misbehaved.”
Now, I’m not equating homosexuality with homelessness. But, until very recently, gay men, and most especially gay men with AIDS, were pariahs in society, and people steered clear of them, quite literally, for fear of their lives.
Which brings me to Leo Bersani, Bjarne Melgaard, the AIDS epidemic, and barebacking, yet again.
Now, these are not ideas that I fully understand. But I thought I’d share some of what I took away from the video last night with you, if only because thoughtful ideas are not really disseminated in the incredibly homogenous mainstream media, which doesn’t really feather out into myriad discussions, but rather just stubbornly—and stupidly—veer between not that extreme right, and not that extreme left, in diluted, simple sound bytes. Even in the most “intellectual” of middle brow media—NPR, the New Yorker, the New York Times—ideas are easy to digest, shallowly rendered, and not too offensive.
So, Leo Bersani, somewhere at the beginning of his discussion with Bjarne, made a similar argument to the one my uncle made above. Why, he asked, should marriage by the major goal of gay men? It doesn’t make any sense.
His argument, I learned in graduate school, has been made by many other cultural critics. Today, it is almost a throwback to the past, to the AIDS epidemic, when gay men divided in an attempt to save themselves. Some men said, if we conform to the straight world, and stop doing “perverse” things like fucking random dudes in bushes, and start wearing cardigan sweaters and buying golden retrievers, then the government (and its citizens) will stop secretly hoping that the AIDS epidemic will kill us all, and start helping us to contain and control it.
And other gay men said, you’re a pussy for selling out what is actually a really free, wonderful way of living life. To the extreme, a few of them started openly courting being infected by the disease. Those who sought it out became known as “bug chasers,” and those who infected them were “gift givers.” The process of it became known as “breeding,” as in, “cum in my asshole, I want you to breed me.”
All of this I learned from Leo Bersani, who eventually segued (such a weird word) into a discussion of Freud (his speciality), the death drive (the desire of all human beings to propel themselves to the eventuality of their own demise), and the role that ego plays in sexual relations. Given that ego is the main agent of evil in society, Bersani argued, what happens when you divest yourself of it during sexual acts?
Well, he seems to think, you end up barebacking.
Now, barebacking is having anal sex without a condom, which is what bug chasers did as an act of rebellion against society during the AIDS epidemic. Unlike many sexual acts—unless, of course, we’re talking doggy style heterosexual sex, as I did in yesterday’s post on Girls—the act is completely impersonal. You can’t see the face of the guy who is fucking you, and therefore, cannot connect with him emotionally. Today, it frequently appears in gay pornography, with the bug chaser frequently getting fucked by tens of men at the same time.
Bersani, given that he is an academic, and can knit together ideas in a beautiful manner, connected the practice to that of Catholic heretics in the 17th century, who came up with the idea that you can love God without any idea of personal salvation. Such “pure love” is undiluted even if God himself comes down from the heavens, and tells you that he will send you to hell. Even still, you love him absolutely.
Such an act is the ultimate divestiture of the ego, and perhaps, leads to the eradication of evil. Therefore, barebacking isn’t an inherently destructive act, but rather one that opens up the possibility of selflessness, of undiluted love.
Now, it should also be noted that Bersani hates religion, and most especially Andrew Sullivan, the ultimate mainstream gay, for reasoning with the Catholic Church regarding their stance on homosexuality.
Pretty cool to make connections like the one Bersani made between Catholic heretics and barebacking, right? Right or wrong, sensical or not, it’s nice to flex your brain a little, and try to wrap around whether or not the idea makes sense, and if so, why, and if not, what else can you think about?
I almost never use my brain anymore.
Bersani said a few other things that were good, about how terrorists are despicable, but if you think about it, they’ve faced more oppression than gay men in America can even dream about. And, while that doesn’t excuse their actions, at the very least, it should make us all, even those of us who are discontented with society, feel lucky that we live in the United States rather than like fucking Yemen, where discussions like the one I’m writing would get you killed.
And finally, he talked a little bit about how true friendships between men and women are relatively rare and beautiful, even between gay men and straight women. For the most part, he says—and I quote him badly—men are misogynistic, no matter their sexual orientation. Gay men, in fact, hate women more than straight men. To prove the point, he briefly mentioned the fashion industry.
This made me want to call my gay best friends and ask them if they hated me, but I decided against it, because I like them to much too want to know what they really think of me.
I think that I’ve come to the end of the notes that I scribbled on the front of the program, so I’ll leave the discussion here.
Try, if you can, to get to the Kitchen, or to anywhere that can open up your mind a little. And if you’ve been to some programming recently that inspired you, let me know, because I want to come with you!