9 Gay-Themed Controversies That Shook the Art World


Le Parisien has reported that photographs in open-air exhibition by Olivier Ciappa depicting same-sex couples in Paris have been methodically defaced and torn apart by vandals. The series, the product of a collaboration with the anti-homophobia organization SOS Homophobie, has been met with expressions of disapproval and dismay from around the city. “In a way, it feels extremely violent,” Ciappa wrote on his Facebook page. “I have for the first time the impression that by destroying my art, they where [sic] trying to destroy my vision of the world.”

It’s puzzling to see something like this happen in Paris, a cosmopolitan world capital whose mayor of 12 years, Bertrand Delanoë, came out in 1998. Furthermore, the original images on display were hardly the most provocative works of art to grace the public eye that dealt with LGBT themes — each pales in comparison to these historic art and design controversies.

Still from: David Wojnarowicz, A Fire in My Belly, (A work in progress), 1986-1987. 20:55 min, color and b&w, silent, Super 8mm film on video.

David Wojnarowicz

Perhaps the most prominent controversy over LGBT-themed art took place in 2010, when the late Wojnarowicz’s video A Fire in My Belly was featured in the LGBT-themed Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution. Though religious conservatives mostly grumbled at the idea of a publicly funded institution putting on an exhibition that took gay themes in portraiture seriously, they took particular exception with Wojnarowicz’s video, which included a shot in which ants crawl over a statuette of Jesus on the cross.

Museum officials were compelled to remove the work, prompting Institution Secretary G. Wayne Clough to issue multiple statements like the one below, aimed at quelling the public outcry and accusations of censorship:

I think it was very important to cut off the dialogue that was headed towards, in essence, hijacking the exhibit away from us and putting it into the context of religious desecration,” he told the Huffington Post. “This continues to be a powerful exhibit about the contributions of gay and lesbian artists. It was not about religious iconography and it was not about desecration.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self-portrait, 1980.

Robert Mapplethorpe

The immensity of the debate surrounding the Wojnarowicz video was frequently compared to the trial of Robert Mapplethorpe, whose work was included in the National Endowment for the Arts’ traveling exhibition The Perfect Moment. The show included many of Mapplethorpe’s most explicit images, including a self-portrait of the artist inserting a bull-whip into his anus. (You can see that image at Christie’s.) In 1990, after the show was installed at the Contemporary Arts Center of Cincinnati, advocates of the American Family Association sought (unsucessfully) to have Mapplethorpe and the museum’s director Dennis Barrie convicted of “pandering obscenity.”

[Photo by Giulio Muratori via Heritage Toronto]

Richard Fung

In the early 1990s, Douglas Crimp, a leading art critic, sought to publish an essay by the video artist Richard Fung in the erudite art journal October, where he was a member of the editorial board. When his fellow editors refused, Crimp resigned. Many read the fact that Crimp succeeded in having authored a volume on LGBT film and video titled How Do I Look? as a vindication of his belief that LGBT issues would become a more and more important part of art and art history’s critical dialogue. Fung’s essay, “Looking for My Penis: The Eroticized Asian in Gay Porn Video” has also been reprinted multiple times.

Paul Cadmus, The Fleet’s In, 1934. Oil on Canvas.

Paul Cadmus

In 1934, Paul Cadmus contributed his painting The Fleet’s In! to a public works project organized by the Works Progress Administration, a government body that sought to put artists to work during the Great Depression. No one seemed offended by the carousing sailors grabbing a few local floozies by the arm, but the painting also featured a homosexual couple. Fearing a scandal, curators at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC removed the work, kindling publicity that actually helped Cadmus’s career.

[Image via Wikipedia]


Among the more recent controversies to affect art and artists comes from the world of comics. Chris Sprouse, an accomplished illustrator responsible for the Hammerlocke series, was at first honored to be part of a new issue of Superman that was to be released by DC Comics this past spring. When he found out that the comic book giant had appointed Orson Scott Card to pen the story, however, he had second thoughts. A science fiction novelist by profession, Card had attracted a wave of disapproval after making anti-gay statements to the press. Speaking to USA Today, Sprouse said all the negative attention “reached the point where it took away from the actual work.” Sprouse has since resigned from the project.

[Image via Wagner Art Gallery]

Donald Friend

This past March, Sydney’s Savill Galleries exhibited work by the daring Donald Friend, who did little to keep his sexual preference a secret, even as early as the ’50s. Much of his success, in this context, was quite remarkable. After winning the coveted Blake Prize for religious art in 1955, he still described himself, at least in his journal, as “a middle-aged pederast who’s going to seed.”

Program for the March 5, 1994, performance by Ron Athey.

[Image via Walker Art Center]

Ron Athey

In 1994, the performance artist Ron Athey drew nationwide attention when he included blood-stained cloths in his performance piece, titled Four Scenes in a Harsh Life (1994), at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. After using the cloth to blot cuts in the back of fellow performer Divinity Fudge’s back, and raising the cloths in the air, Athey courted broad anxiety about AIDS infection, even though the blood was not HIV-infected.

Love Against Homosexuality

Last year, journalist Ruslan Kukharchuk, head of the Ukrainian anti-gay group Love Against Homosexuality, advocated a bill before the national parliament that would criminalize positive depictions of homosexuality in art, film, and television. Though gay rights activists around the world responded with varying degrees of alarm and disgust, the bill was less than a surprise among locals. Oleksandr Zinchenkov, head of the Our World advocacy group, had recently told reporters that intolerance towards the LGBT community in Ukraine had “entered the stage of physical violence.” In October, the bill passed.

Barton Lidice Benes

[Image via Poz Blogs]

Barton Lidice Benes

Whereas the concern over blood in Athey’s performance was largely the result of a sensationalist news article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, in the case of Barton Lidice Benes, it was quite well-founded. When friends started dying of AIDS, Benes, who died in June 2012, had himself tested and found that he was HIV-positive. This inspired him to begin using pills and capsules, intravenous tubes, and other medical equipment in his sculpture. For the exhibition Lethal Weapons in 1993, Benes made no fewer than 30 artworks with his own blood, including a Molotov cocktail, a water pistol, and a perfume atomizer.