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Before Gay Was Good: Bob Mizer’s Aesthetic Legacy

January 13, 2013, 11:38 am

Bob Mizer, @ 1942. Photo credit.

Yesterday your favorite Radical took some time off and bicycled over Manhattan to see the Bob Mizer show at Invisible Exports, a tiny gallery on Orchard Street. Born in southern Idaho, Mizer (1922-1992) was an early physique photographer, filmmaker  and the founder of Los Angeles’s Athletic Model Guild. This post over at Remains of the Web can give you a brief history of his career, as well as an account of the Bob Mizer Foundation, established to catalogue and preserve the capacious archive he left behind.

The gallery made the wise decision to show only a few conventional portraits. Much of the exhibit is made up of “catalogues,” storyboards Mizer created from contact prints, each of which depict an erotic scene (for example, “The Cowboy and the Bandit” or “The Unfaithful Sailor.”) Beefcake is beefcake, but by not abstracting a single shot from the whole reel, these layouts of contact prints show Mizer’s creative process, as well as a pansexual intellectual vision that lay somewhere in between photography and film. In “The Unfaithful Sailor,” for example, a sailor has picked up a woman, is “discovered” by his boyfriend, and is wooed back to the gay side of the fence.

I arrived just in time for a short lecture, given by artist and publisher Billy Miller, in which Miller noted that while Mizer is well-known for his portraits of male models, he photographed lots of women, friends and family members. From this I learned, among other things, that Mizer was a mentor to the better-known Tom of Finland, whose tough-guy drawings brought leather culture into the gay male mainstream in the 1970s.

Some of Miller’s history was a little loosey-goosey, causing moments of brief anxiety that were then dissipated by intellectual connections that were new to me. Certain scholarly ideas that GLBTQ scholars take for granted have certainly percolated out for general use, and that said, not always in the best way. For example, Miller urged us all to think about language as historically specific, but he was sometimes wrong in the assertions he made about important keywords. Mizer, Miller argued, did not think of himself as gay, which I do not doubt. This assertion was then followed up with the statement that no one used the word “gay” to describe homosexuals until after WWII, and that this usage “didn’t exist.”

Correction: gay was not a mainstream political identity until the 1970s, but for most of the twentieth century it was subcultural slang that anyone “in the life,” male or female, would have recognized and used to signal others. Note Cary Grant asserting that he “just went gay all of a sudden” in Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938):

This scene becomes particularly meaningful because there is good evidence that Grant was bisexual, and Hepburn (the other star of Bringing Up Baby) may have been as well. Hence, hairpins are dropping all around, indicating the narrative queerness of the Hepburn/Grant coupling in the film (a strange arrangement which is mediated by a leopard.)

Similarly, I was startled to hear Miller say — in support of his position that Mizer was not a pornographer —  that the word “pornography” was never used until 1968. As a scholar working on the subject, that seemed wrong to me, and I ran home to check it out.  A little research demonstrates (this link confirms the entry in my codex version of the Oxford English Dictionary) that the word was coined in the mid-nineteenth century as a word that described anything connected to prostitution. By the 1880s, when publishing of all kinds boomed, pornography had assumed its modern form as the verbal or visual depiction of the erotic.

These errors, made in good faith to forward the position that Mizer was not just a pornographer, also then suggest that there is a clear distinction between “pornography” and all other aesthetic work that draws on the erotic. I don’t think that this is a clear or well-established point, and deserves more attention.

Mizer himself considered what he was doing to be part of an embracing aesthetic vision about the human body’s potential for beauty. This strikes me as the place to start, along with the fact that the physique magazines he marketed are also the progenitor of modern gay porn. Mizer’s prodigious body of work could provoke really interesting scholarship on — to name a few — gay publishing, queer family networks, queer spirituality, the history of pornography, and the mid-century Los Angeles art scene.

This raises a question originally asked by Gayle Rubin in “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” (1983): if you are not making pornography, but people buy what you make as pornography, what is the significance of the work itself? Did Mizer see the marketing of his photographs to a range of men who were very interested in sex, but not in art, as a false genre distinction or a pragmatic way to support his art?

I think this is an interesting question, precisely because it infers a second inquiry: to what extent did First Amendment law, in its attempt to carve out a right to personal sexual freedom over the course of the twentieth century* also fix, and narrow, a category of visual images and verbal text as “pornographic” rather than “obscene”? To what extent did the successful creation of a legal commercial economy for queer erotica and so-called “adult materials” do the same thing?

Anyone looking at Mizer’s work will also notice that he photographed a fair number of boys, something that is a royal no-no today. This has always been illegal, but verbal and visual depictions of eroticized children have the distinction today of being the only sexual materials for which there is no First Amendment defense. One Mizer photograph here, for example, shows a young Arnold Schwarzenegger with his enormous hand partly covering a pubescent boy’s clothed privates. Indeed, the federal legislation that I am writing about, enacted in the 1980s and 1990s, was most effective in making certain kinds of erotic images marketable and others unmarketable. It established categories of “good porn” (sold to a hetero- and homonormative adult audience through controlled electronic media, and using adult actors) and “bad porn” (intergenerational sex featuring leal minors, or adults depicting legal minors.) Miller’s comments were, I think, too dismissive about how teenagers ended up in front of Mizer’s, or any other photographer’s, camera in the first place. However he also pointed out that because of laws passed after the work was done, a portion of the archive is legally off limits.

This is difficult stuff to write about: to what extent can scholars or archivists write about or utilize such images without reproducing them, potentially triggering very stringent child porn laws? Under what conditions can very young people consent to being part of an erotic image — and are such images only ok if it is “art” and not “porn”? Some of the images I have seen in the course of my own research on the 1970s and 1980s are disturbing and sad, depicting boys with empty, druggy eyes who got a quick payday for being posed and photographed doing sexual acts on adults and each other. That these kids were doing things that they also did on the street to survive (and that they were boys, not girls) did not make it less exploitative. Nor does it make possession of such materials, even as research, less illegal.

Much as I wish he had taken the issue of child porn more seriously than he did, Miller is absolutely right that exhibiting this work, possessing the images as research materials, or writing about several decades in which these materials were part of the trade in erotic goods puts one in a dangerous to impossible legal position. Hence, there is a whole history that is in danger of disappearing because the archives themselves are technically forbidden under federal law.

This may seem trivial to many people, but I think it isn’t, particularly since Miller pointed out Mizer’s aesthetic links to far more mainstream queer artists in later periods, such as Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Robert Maplethorpe. Mizer’s pansexual and aesthetic vision was taken up by a range of successful cultural producers, high-brow and middle-brow, who may have originally encountered it as pornography. In this way, the gallery exhibit is a huge success, because it is making the larger connections to a cultural past and present that historians have not yet developed.

And by the way? If you do go out to do research at The Mizer Foundation, give them some money. I continue to give at every queer archive I have ever worked at, most of which do not have anywhere near the money they need to acquire new collections and preserve the ones they have. It’s tax-deductible, and it’s a good way to give back to all of our elders who made the books we write possible, often at great risk to themselves.

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 *See Leigh Ann Wheeler’s new book, How Sex Became a Civil Liberty (Oxford 2012).

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