Essays by Katz
> Passive Resistance: On the Success of Queer Artists in Cold War American Art
PASSIVE RESISTANCE: ON THE SUCCESS OF QUEER ARTISTS IN COLD WAR AMERICAN ART
Part 1: "the masculine quality of creating things." 1
In an unpublished l962 interview, the art historian Rudolph Arnheim exemplifies a particular kind of response to the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, one colored by a decade of Abstract Expressionist hegemony and its discursive legacy.2 In this interview, Arnheim had just complained about the dominance of women in American family life and how our "woman-centered society" had made American boys much weaker than their European counterparts. Such considerations seemingly inevitably lead him to regretting the dominance of homosexual artists in the post Abstract Expressionist art world and we pick him up here, speculating on the impact of so many successful queer artists.
[Y]ou can say that an art form that is characterized by the surrender of creativity--where the most characteristic thing is that I take passively from the world in which I live and I copy it passively...that this surrender of the masculine quality of creating things has a quality of weakness, of passivity, of adaptation which conceivably has something to do with this (homosexual) element.3 (my italics)
Arnheim is talking about Pop art here, which had just burst onto the scene, but these concepts are, I think, rooted in speculations about two earlier artist generally credited as proto-Pop--Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. My essay’s theme is, ironically, the same as Arnheim's; an analysis of, in his words, "the masculine quality of creating things" versus the weakness, passivity, and adaptation he attributed to gay artists.
Arnheim continues, "If you take the camera...as a receptive organ and if you use the camera as something which takes, which is being impregnated by the world almost passively without doing anything about it, because your taking whatever comes, you have a very passive quality in this use of the receptor instrument, don't you see?"4 Now aside from this absolutely remarkable collapse of the camera into a receptive organ--into, in short, the promiscuously impregnable homosexual anus--what I want to emphasize here is that quality of passivity that takes whatever comes, double entendre and all.
As early as 1958, Harold Rosenberg would argue much the same point. In his introductory essay to an exhibition tellingly entitled "Audience as subject," Rosenberg characterized the work of Johns and Rauschenberg in terms reminiscent of Arnheim's passive mirror relation: "Instead of concentrating on art, its problems and its needs, the artist speaks to the audience about itself. His image lurks on the wall of the gallery as a disguised mirror." 5 Rosenberg’s show took place the same year Johns and Rauschenberg entered art world consciousness with one-person shows at the Leo Castelli Gallery. But years before, at Rauschenberg's first public exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery in May of 1951, he showed paintings inset with mirrors; two years later, in a variant on this mirror relation, Rauschenberg showed his infamous all-white White Paintings, and shortly thereafter, John Cage completed 4’33’ of silence--both works which underscored audience as the maker of meanings (fig.1). As Robert Rauschenberg once put it, "Meaning belongs to the people." 6
This is old hat. It has long been axiomatic that one of the defining aspects of post-Abstract Expressionist American art was the denigration of the authorial "I" in favor of the spectatorial "you." We are by now quite used to correlating the works of these post-Abstract Expressionist artists to postmodern ideas of the death of the artist, or as Rosenberg put it, "the audience as subject." Whether camera or mirror, white or silent, these are metaphors emphasizing an unexpressive reflection of the "real" in clear contrast to Arnheim’s "masculine quality of creating things"-- the hallmark of the previous generation of Abstract Expressionist picture making.
What has not been satisfactorily answered, however, is how a marginalized, even despised social group came to occupy center stage, perhaps unrecognized as specifically gay--though by no means all the time--and with its discursive codes not only intact, but the very model of high cultural achievement. This group of closeted gay artists not only came to prominence in the midst of what was arguably the most homophobic decade in the Twentieth century, but they moreover quickly supplanted the authoritative Abstract Expressionist mode which had held sway in New York since the beginning of the Cold War. Furthermore, the work of these gay artists was promoted by an overwhelmingly straight critical and commercial majority ahead of work by exclusively heterosexual artists.7
These gay artists, while firmly closeted, did not try to create work that would fit into the then authoritative "expressionist" discursive norms. On the contrary, the gay men who supplanted Abstract Expressionist art at the end of the fifties employed the same strategies gay men had long used in order to escape detection and punishment within a homophobic culture; strategies born of the closet such as silence, dissimulation, masks and personae. Employing a veritable taxonomy of anti-expressive modalities, their pictorial strategies would over time come to seem almost definitionally post-modernist. 8 But even within their original historical context, there was something notably ambiguous, enigmatic, even disturbing about the work of these artists. In a very early 1959 review discussing Jasper Johns’ famous Flag of 1954, the art critic Nicolas Calas asked plaintively, "What is the function of a sign that has lost its significance?"9 (fig. 2)
Agreed that there may have been an original social utility to these ambiguous discursive means for men in the closet, but why did their anti-expressive pictorial strategies achieve widespread critical and commercial success within such a a remarkably short time span? And why did this success come despite the fact that even relatively early, this works’ inversion of a modernist authorial practice was dubbed anti-art or neo-dada and ascribed a distinctly marginal genealogy-- anti-masculinst, feminized , and occasionally even explicitly homosexual?10
Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns are the chief artists in question. And their critical and commercial success while still alive came to outstrip even the hagiography accorded the benighted Pollock. The story of the rapid success of these artists unfolded against a social-historical context of daunting complexity which saw the rise of newly hegemonic collective forms, a period now known as the Cold War era. And thus it is to these newly hegemonic Cold War tendencies we must turn in order to make sense of these gay artists’ rapid critical and commercial triumph within the art world of the late fifties.
Part 2: "Our Country and Our Culture"
The Cold War years witnessed a broad shift in intellectual speculation from the dynamics of capital to the cultural values it had wrought , signaling a widespread capitulation to the "inevitability" and "naturalness" of a capitalist system. Rising American affluence in the post war years, coupled with a foreign policy of containment that had far-reaching consequences domestically, most notably in McCarthyism, led to a recasting of the American polity into what has been called the age of consensus. It goes without saying that the Cold War era's "classless" consensus politics was a useful myth for a capitalist society that thrived on distinctions. And certainly it is the case that the defensively constructed rhetoric of containment was even more successfully mapped internally against any perceived threats to this new social contract, a contract notable primarily for its presumption of universal, "natural" agreement about fundamentals of government.
Widely influential books of the period like David Reisman' s The Lonely Crowd (1950) and William H. Whyte's The Organization Man (1956) helped define and characterize the creature who lived under this consensus and he ( I use the pronoun advisedly) became known as the Organization Man.11 (fig. 3) The Cold War policing of consensus along with the rising tide of American affluence constituted the immediate background to this historical moment. The rise of the Organization Man had profound consequences for the newly accomodationist Cold War politics, helping to suspend inquiry and debate into the distribution of power and resources, while reifying a conception of corporate hegemony leading to a truly classless society.
Moreover, this new Organization Man redrew the boundaries of the social self, now ubiquitously defined in terms of shared patterns of consumption and its attendant desire for social and cultural conformity--the ideal occupant of the suburban paradise. Organization Man discourse necessarily privileged sociology, the descriptive discipline, ahead of a host of more interventionist and logocentric forms of inquiry. And as that descriptive mode, in the form of the survey, came to supplant the ideological perspective, it further reinforced the incontestability of the status quo as the sole field of meaningful intellectual endeavor.
In seminal Cold War texts such as the Vital Center (1949), Arthur Schlesinger argued that the New Deal and its subsequent embodiments like the GI Bill had effectively confounded Marxist ideology by redistributing wealth voluntarily and meeting social needs through "a torrent of consumer goods."12 The Keynesian model of a social welfare state built on a capitalist foundation was increasingly cited by many period intellectuals as the most apt model for contemporary American life. Indeed, equality in America was increasingly characterized in terms of patterns of consumption, as Nixon's infamous 1959 "Kitchen Debate" made clear. In the Vice-President's speech in a model suburban ranch house built for the American National Exhibit in Moscow, Nixon asserted that the U.S. "comes closest to the ideal of prosperity for all in a classless society."13 He then translated his lofty terms into precise statistics for the number of radios, cars, television sets and homes owned by the America people.
Never before had so many intellectuals expended so much energy in securing a political accommodation that, while threatening their independence as intellectuals, insured inclusion, and concomitantly a good livelihood. Indeed, no less an anti-accomodationist than Harold Rosenberg took a job as the head of public relations for the Advertising Council of America. As Irving Howe diagnosed the problem in 1954, "established power and the dominant intellectual tendencies have come together in a harmony such as this country has not seen since the Gilded Age; and this, of course, makes the temptations of conformism all the more acute. The carrots, for once, are real."14
In part, the pressures of Soviet totalitarianism in a Cold War environment seem to have inspired this late conversion to uncritical patriotism among intellectuals, coupled no doubt with a fearful guilt over youthful flirtations with the Popular Front before the true horrors of Stalinism were known. I would argue, however, that there is another, equally important factor that must be recognized and analyzed. What was that? It was the seductive appeal of affluence.
Again and again, these intellectuals refer to affluence and its pervasive effects on American political and social life, generally with a tone of mingled self-satisfaction and alarm. As the Cold War enforced a permanent war economy and with it receding fears of a return to depression, affluence became the watchword of American political thought. It secured, ahead of Marxism, Socialism, and of course Communism, the dream of a truly classless society that intellectuals had long nurtured. In abundance, all could get what they needed.
The claims of spreading wealth were real. In 1956, the federal government issued figures that revealed that for the first time in American history more people were employed in middle-class jobs than in the traditional wage-earning tasks associated with manufacturing. In 1957, the government released figures indicating that despite slow inflation, most Americans were enjoying greater real income than ever before.15 Post-war America was booming and for the first time in American history, the vast majority of its population had at least the hope of becoming economically enfranchised.
In 1952, two years into the McCarthy period, the Partisan Review editors decided to publish a three-part symposium called "Our Country and Our Culture." The editors of that publication-- long known for its critical edge on American cultural life-- asked a set of leading intellectuals a group of questions that seemed to confirm the abandonment of their once requisite alienation from American culture. (fig. 4) The editors asked, " To what extent have American intellectuals actually changed in their attitude toward America and its institutions?" and then, as if in answer to their own question, followed it up with "If a reaffirmation of America is under way, can the tradition of critical nonconformism (going back to Thoreau and Melville and embracing some of the major expressions of American intellectual history) be maintained as strongly as ever?"16
Most of the respondents agreed that perhaps as never before in American cultural life intellectuals had abandoned their historical alienation from American culture in favor of some measure of acceptance of its terms. As Partisan Review editor Philip Rahv put it, "It is true, of course, that of late American artists and intellectuals have largely come to terms with the realities of the national life. Hence, if they no longer feel 'disinherited' and 'astray' as the editorial statement suggests, neither for that matter are they attached to any more of the attitudes of dissidence and revolt that prevailed among them for some decades. As their mood has gradually shifted from opposition to acceptance, they have grown unreceptive to extreme ideas, less exacting and 'pure' in ideological commitment, more open to the persuasions of actuality."17
Rahv explains this ideological shift in grossly material terms, "Thus it is imperative not to overlook as direct and concrete a factor as the long spell of prosperity that America has enjoyed since the War. It has at long last effected the absorption of the intellectuals into the institutional life of the country."18
And how did artists fare in this Partisan Review discourse? The ramifications for Abstract Expressionism of this purported absorption of intellectuals into the consensus culture would prove extreme. Alienation was Abstract Expressionism’s stock in trade, and the intellectual class its chief broker. As Leslie A. Fiedler wrote in his contribution to the 1952 symposium, " I think we are in the position now to understand that the concept of the "alienated artist" itself was as much a creation of the popular mind as of the artist...The image of the drunken, dope-ridden, sexually impotent, poverty- oppressed Poe is as native to the American mind as the image of the worker driving his new Ford into the garage beside the Cape Cod cottage: together they are the American's dream of himself."19 It was far too easy to substitute the name of Pollock for Poe in the above formulation, an ominous development for any future critical reading of Abstract Expressionism as avant-garde. As Fiedler dismissively phrased it in his essay in "Our Country Our Culture", "Poe, Crane, Fitzgerald--each generation provides itself with its own lost artist--and their biographies are inevitably bestsellers."20
Remember that Fiedler is writing in 1952, well before the Abstract Expressionists were celebrated in precisely their alienated, drunken, poverty oppressed existence. Fiedler held that the performance of artistic alienation is but a necessary complement to the fact of bourgeois conformity--a kind of safety valve for an overregulated, consensus-based society. The combined forces of affluence and a policed Cold War accomodationist culture had already by 1952 turned the tide among many intellectuals away from credence in the dramatization of social alienation that was key to the discursive performances of Abstract Expressionism, well before those performances were even widely known by the general public.21
This process of the "embourgeoisement of the American intelligentsia"--whose precondition was the banishing of artistic alienation--was in the eyes of many a mixed blessing.22 The tone of the questions asked by the editors of the Partisan Review conveys a pronounced anxiety over the loss of that critical edge born of marginalization. Affluence and inclusion, and their corollary, the abandonment of dissent, entailed a Faustian bargain; pleasure at prosperity and the genuine benefits it afforded--not only individually, but for society at large--but guilt over a collective cooptation and the concomitant loss of autonomy. And a negative factor even more powerful than guilt offset these material rewards. The embourgeoisement of the intellectuals threatened their caste standing. They had become no different than those they sought to describe. They had become Organization Men.
One result of this new, anxious consensus among intellectuals was a blatant attempt to rewrite American intellectual history in order to bring it in line with the new condition in which they found themselves. Essentially, they began to try to persuade themselves and their readers that the old story of ideological conflict had never actually been true. Daniel Bell, in a classic reformulation of American social history published at the end of the decade entitled The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties, argued--in the midst of one of the most turbulent and divisive periods in American history-- "For Ideology, which once was a road to action, has come to be a dead end." 23 He intended to show that the "failure" of Stalinism and the manifest success of capitalism had created among intellectuals a new consensus which obviated the need for political ideology.
What Bell had in fact done in his discussion of the "end of ideology" was to write the intellectuals out of a job. What need had a society rich in material goods for intellectuals? What good were they after all the old conflicts over power and privilege had been resolved? As Bell writes, "Thus one finds, at the end of the fifties, a disconcerting ceasura. In the West, among intellectuals, the old passions are spent. The new generation, with no meaningful memory of these old debates, and no secure tradition to build upon, finds itself seeking new purposes within a framework of political society that has rejected, intellectually speaking, the old apocalyptic and chiliastic visions."24 Bell further argues, "On the academic level, these re-evaluations called into question the populist basis of American radicalism and argued that the political conflicts of the Fifties, such as McCarthyism, were more fruitfully explained by sociological concepts such as 'status anxiety' than by the more conventional notions of class or interest group conflict."25
To explain McCarthyism through status anxiety, as Bell argued, rather than through interest group politics is ample testimony to the apotheosis of this new American politics of affluence. That Bell's presumed end of ideology in fact served to obscure ideologically motivated machinations of power and interest goes without saying. But it is remarkable to note how pervasive this sense of a natural consensus was, even among those intellectuals who--but ten years before--had defined themselves in manifestly oppositional terms.
By 1952, within the gathering of twenty-five intellectuals of nearly every political and ideological persuasion then current that comprised the Partisan Review Symposium, only a single one--the ever-stalwart Irving Howe--refuted the assertion that, in the words of the editors, "a reaffirmation of America is under way." Some greeted this phenomena with joy. Others rued it. None but one disputed its fundamental truth.
The editors introduced the symposium with a long statement claiming in part, "For better or worse, most writers no longer accept alienation as the artist's fate in America; on the contrary, they want very much to be part of American life. More and more writers have ceased to think of themselves as rebels and exiles. They now believe that their values, if they are to be realized at all, must be realized in America and in relation to the actuality of American life."26
For many of the intellectuals, the forum was an opportunity to engage in the kind of accomodationist rewriting of American intellectual history (that Bell was to expand on later) from a number of different analytical or methodological perspectives. Newton Arvin, the literary critic (and closeted homosexual who would later die in disgrace after being entrapped in a sex scandal) chose a psychoanalytic tack: "The negative relation to one's culture has great validity in certain periods; at others it is simply sterile, even psychopathic, and ought to give way, as it has done here, in the last decade, to the positive relation. Anything else suggests too strongly the continuation into adult life of the negative Oedipal relations of adolescence--and in much of the alienation of the 20's and 30's there was just that quality of immaturity. "27 Indeed, much Cold War rhetoric internalized this highly instrumental psychiatric discourse--in so doing papering over difference and history.
Mark Schorer, starting off from a historical perspective, offered a wholesale rewriting of American history to bring it in line with contemporary cultural needs, "Beginning with your final question, which pertains to 'the tradition of critical nonconformism,' I should merely like to ask where it is. If there is any dissent, where? It is in the most trivial places--in the stylistic pretentiousness of the silliest novels, in the intellectual ellipses of the most linguistically overblown poems. We have had almost no dissent worth taking seriously since the 1920's, when we really had it..." 28 Apparently, for Schorer, even the widespread social unrest of the Depression did not constitute dissent.
Max Lerner perceptively pointed out that, "It is striking that very few contributors to the symposium have shown any contempt for its concern with America not as a capitalist culture but as our country's culture."29 (original italics) William Phillips wrote, "The changes in American life and in the attitudes of artists and intellectuals to their country have so obviously taken place under our very noses that I cannot understand how anyone could have failed to see them--certainly anyone whose business it is to observe such things."30
Repeatedly Marxian notions of history were derided as an unfortunate European inheritance unsuited for the new socioeconomic climate of this new world. Sydney Hook wrote, "I cannot understand why American intellectuals should be apologetic about the fact that they are limited in their effective historical choice between endorsing a system of total error and critically supporting our own imperfect democratic culture with all its promises and dangers."31
Leslie A. Fiedler concluded his section of the symposium with a stirring account of the importance of the artist, "as the recorder of the encounter of the dream of innocence and the fact of guilt, in the only part of the world where the reality of that conflict can still be recognized. If it is a use he is after and not a reward, there is no better place for the artist than America." 32
Part 3: Organization Man Discourse and the Ascension of Johns and Rauschenberg
If we want to understand the rapid rise into critical as well as public prominence of artists like Johns and Rauschenberg, we have to look for it in the context of this increasingly accomodationist rhetoric, as exemplified by the Partisan Review debates. Their works satisfied an increasingly coopted class of American intellectuals and spoke to their social and ideological situation--what Fiedler characterized as their dream of innocence and the fact of their guilt.
Some of these Cold War intellectuals understood the work of this younger generation of artists in exactly the same terms they saw their own situation. For example, in the 1957 catalog accompanying the first showing of Jasper Johns’ work anywhere, Leo Steinberg writes:
"The legacy is a century-long record of rebellions against the canons of painting, rebellions which have been the condition, almost the guarantee of artistic success, culminating in America in the first post-war generation of Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Kline. By these men, the last upstanding remnants of the Western painterly tradition, were laid flat; so this second generation is deprived even of the tradition of revolt, for there is at the moment nothing to be overthrown."33
The sense that there was nothing to be overthrown was, of course, definitionally Organization Man language, which is to say an acceptance of prevailing conditions and the concomitant inconceivability of dissent. This is, as it were, an art historical "End of Ideology," paralleling Daniel Bell’s larger historical argument in which, too, there is nothing left to be overthrown. Remarkably, at the very beginning of their careers, Johns and Rauschenberg are explicitly aligned with an accomodationist Organization Man discourse. Steinberg continues his analysis of the work of these younger artists in an explicitly autobiographical tone that is in effect a restatement of the situation of 50's intellectuals:
"And now it is up to us to react to the forms going up under the hands of the new generation, the first generation that is not in revolt. For us, too, as spectators the old responses are cut off. Our grandfathers and fathers could react to new painting either by condemning it as subversive or by hailing it as a release from past tyrannies. In either case the response was largely political. But what we are called to do is carve channels of response to painting that has, so to speak, no fighting objective. "34
Steinberg's attribution of "no fighting objective" to the work of gay artists like Johns and Rauschenberg is absolutely to the point. The Abstract Expressionists had defined themselves in large measure against the precepts of Organization Man discourse and against a generalized, homogenized culture. They had stubbornly held fast to a largely pre-war heroic mythology of the disinterested, dissident intellectual capable of a utopian transformative enterprise through the labor of making art.
In contrast, gay artists did what they had always done-- because it was all they could do-- constructing distinctions through the recontextualization of the extant codes of culture, reworking those codes to their own benefit. These gay artists made an art, as they had made every other aspect of their lives, that appeared to function within the terms of the national consensus. Anything else was simply too dangerous. There was a particular resonance to this approach in the Cold War context, an acceptance of the contradictions of living under capitalism and a commitment to working within its rules. The work of Johns and Rauschenberg did not seek to evoke a world apart, a new utopia of the sublime like Abstract Expressionism, but rather took the commodified relations of everyday life and tried to do something with them. To angst-ridden heroic subjectivism, Johns and Rauschenberg offered unheroic reportage. To hot engagement with the self, they offered a cool reflection of the culture.
While a consensual mass culture had always been the fiction against which avant-gardes sought to define themselves, Abstract Expressionism's peculiar faith in a prelapsarian, essentialist mythology of the artist as seer came to seem increasingly anachronistic in light of the policed consent of the Cold War years. As a discursive strategy, Abstract Expressionism and the progressively discredited culture of alienation of which it was part, was uniquely unsuited to the accomodationist climate of the period. It was becoming an increasingly isolated and disturbed barometer of a manifestly fictive discursive resistance, made yet more untenable by the skyrocketing prices of a handful of its founders.35 By the mid-fifties, many intellectuals had simply lost faith in the transformative potential of engaged work and instead learned to operate within the Cold War settlement. Indeed, never before in American history had so many intellectuals expended so much energy in securing the very consensus against which the Abstract Expressionists defined themselves.
Intellectuals, increasingly advancing a "mature" and "healthy" accomodationist orientation towards Cold War affluence, were thus fast losing whatever distinctions separated them from the run of the mill Organization Men. They needed somehow to find a way of indicating that while they worked for the Organization, they didn't belong to it as well. Many sought to maintain a distinctively independent, self-critical core identity within the terms of this national consensus, a way of marking resistance while still paying obeisance to the outward requirements of the Cold War accomodationist hegemony. For them, there was the possibility of working for change from within, of adopting the camouflage of consensus in order to effectively seed dissent. For these thinkers, consensus need not necessarily imply consent. As Whyte said of the Organization Man.
The man who drives a Buick Special and lives in a ranch-type house just like hundreds of other ranch-type houses can assert himself as effectively and courageously against his particular society as the bohemian against his particular society. He usually does not, it is true, but if he does, the surface uniformities can serve quite well as protective coloration. The organization people who are best able to control their environment rather than be controlled by it are well aware that they are not too easily distinguishable from the others in the outward obeisances paid to the good opinions of others. And that is one of the reasons they do control. They disarm society.36 (my italics)
Whyte’s The Organization Man offered a subversive account of other possibilities of life and work within consensus, a guide to recuperating one's identity and individuality within the system, but leaving the system itself, and the consensus that ensured its continuation, unchallenged. As Whyte put it:
"This book is not a plea for non-conformity. Such pleas have an occasional therapeutic value, but as an abstraction, nonconformity is an empty goal...I am not, accordingly, addressing myself to the surface uniformities of U.S. life...I do not equate the Social Ethic with conformity, nor do I believe those who urge it wish it to be, for most of them believe deeply that their work will help, rather than harm the individual...Neither do I intend this book as a censure of the fact of organization society. We have quite enough problems today without muddying the issue with misplaced nostalgia...I speak of individualism within organization life .37 (original italics)
It is this prescription of "protective coloration," of "individualism within organization life" --as a means of surviving, indeed thriving within consensus culture-- that brings the accomodationist intellectual and the closeted homosexual together into, as it were, the same discursive closet as Organization Men.
For perhaps the first time in American history, and at a time that would seem, on the face of it, the least congenial moment for their co-habitation, closeted queers and Organization Man intellectuals discovered a profound commonality. Both sought individuality and freedom within the terms of the national consensus, a means of opposition without the dangers of oppositionality through the use of "protective coloration" we call the closet.
In 1959, the noted sociologist Erving Goffman published a text that reads like an allegory of the hegemonic operations of the organization . The book was entitled Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates and it is an analysis of individual responses to asylums, prisons, and other totalizing institutions that sought to regulate and control all aspects of behavior.38 (fig. 5). Goffman concluded that the loss of personal autonomy in such places engendered strategies for survival like role playing, dissimulating, hiding, self-silencing, and denying-- thus documenting on the micro scale the sociological tendencies of the closet among individuals who were not necessarily gay. Indeed, Goffman makes the analogy explicit, comparing a mental patient's acceptance of their illness with a homosexual's acknowledgment of their sexuality. The historian Jackson Lears offers a beautiful summary of Goffman's analysis of these strategies for surviving asylums that could equally serve as a description of the strategies of the closet employed by Organization Man intellectuals:
The only solution that Goffman could imagine was an ironically detached acceptance of the fragmented, role-playing self--the discontinuous identity promoted by the bureaucratic organization of experience. The self-conscious awareness that one was in fact engaging in a theatrical social performance constituted at best a Pyrrhic victory; the only triumph available was a psychological and aesthetic one--the role-player's realization that he was observing a flawless social performance: his own.39
Out of this frustration with constraint, as the only tonic to one's powerlessness, came the pleasure of eluding recognition, the pleasure of lying, the pleasure of self-silencing, the pleasure of role-playing--in short precisely the pleasures of the closet. As Jasper Johns once said,
I have attempted to develop my thinking in such a way that the work I've done is not me -- not to confuse my feelings with what I produce. I didn't want my work to be an exposure of my feelings. Abstract Expressionism was so lively -- personal identity and painting were more or less the same, and I tried to operate the same way. But I found I couldn't do anything that would be identical with my feelings. So I worked in such a way that I could say that it's not me. That accounts for the separation.40
Lears identifies in Asylum three central characteristics of postwar social thought: the irrelevance of politics, the sense of being trapped in the System, and the tendency to cultivate a spectatorial, aesthetic outlook on the world. Thus the "fragmented, role-playing, discontinuous identity" embraced by the Organization Man and queer artists alike was also a way of maintaining a distinctively independent, self-critical core identity under the terms of the totalizing system. Daniel Bell betrayed his hand and revealed his affiliations with Goffman in this supposedly "un-ideological" age when he wrote in The End of Ideology, "At the same time, greater mobility, spacial and social, intensifies concern over status. Instead of fixed or known status, symbolized by dress or title, each person assumes a multiplicity of roles and constantly has to prove himself in a succession of situations. Because of all this, the individual loses a coherent sense of self." 41 As Fairfield Porter wrote in an early review of Johns’ work, "What does he love, what does he hate?"42
Part 4: "What does he love, what does he hate?"
Let me explain the point of this long analysis of Cold War cultural values. It is, stated plainly, the loss of faith in a coherent, masculinist oppositional posture, what Bell called "a coherent sense of self;" and what Arnheim characterized as "the masculine quality of creating things." Arnheim saw the loss of faith in this approach as passive and aligned it with stereotypes of gay male sexuality, in large measure, I think, because at one level it simply replicates familiar cultural codes, rather than forging new ones.
But on another level, these familiar "copies" of the cultural codes are indeed powerfully transformed. For example, Alfred Barr, Jr. wanted to immediately purchase Johns’ famed Flag of 1954 right out of its first showing at the Leo Castelli Gallery, but then lost his his nerve out of fear of controversy.( It was left to Phillip Johnson to make the purchase; he only donated the work decades later in memory of Alfred Barr.) That's a strong argument for the transformative potential of what may seem like passivity, especially for those without the power to define official culture. Remember that Calas’ almost subversive description of Flag as "a sign that has lost its significance" was penned at the height of Cold War jingoistic nationalism. Like so many gay men before them, instead of making statements, these queer artists marked out their resistance through nuanced allusion and the manipulation of things.43
What was once a specifically gay mode of social negotiation, the closet, was articulated and figured across Cold War culture, and its tropics of a discontinuous or performative identity generalized, even prescribed as a means of coping with consensus. By the late fifties, gay artists thus fortuitously replicated the increasingly hegemonic models of straight cultural negotiation, lending legibility to what were once fully subcultural practices. (fig. 6).
It is thus possible to conclude that the unprecedented popularity of these post-Abstract Expressionist artists was at least in part a product of a narrowing discursive and social distance between gay culture and straight intellectual culture in the fifties. So why did I entitle this essay "Passive Resistance?" Because I see Johns and Rauschenberg as being able to use what others called "passivity" as a mode of resistance keyed to the pragmatics of survival in a hostile culture.
1This essay is dedicated to Moira Roth, without whom it simply could not have been, in ways she knows and others she does not.