The Supreme Court hearings on the Defense of Marriage Act (DoMA) in Washington this week, and the related polls about how public opinion is changing around the rights of gay and lesbian couples got me thinking. What role might artists and art educators have played in this shift?
While many contemporary art educators think Keith Haring is passé, he and his work were ground breaking in the 1980s when I was a kid. I grew up in the New York metro area with some relatively progressive teachers, at least one of whom was gay (though I didn’t know it at the time). Though I can’t recall the particular curricular context, one of those people taught me about Haring. I remember being fascinated by his process of drawing on blank subway ad space and by his fresh style. I remember learning that he was gay and that his work addressed HIV/AIDS. I passed his Crack is Wack mural, on the way to my grandparents’ house and browsed the shelves of his Pop Shop in SoHo on the weekends with friends. I am sure that he was one of the first gay men I was aware of.
Madonna also played a role in my burgeoning adolescent awareness of varieties of sexual orientation. Rumors of her love life were fodder for schoolyard debate and my friends and I devoured her videos on MTV after school. Her videos broke boundaries. (If its been awhile since you watched “Material Girl,” “Express Yourself,” or “Like a Prayer,” do yourself a favor and click on one of these links. Seriously. Then, if you’ve never indulged in anything Camille Paglia wrote about Madonna, you might try this little piece from the NYTimes.) Kids today take Madonna’s influence for granted. But the pop stars they adore haven’t forgotten. That’s why all the girls, Brittany, Niki, and Christina, want to make out with her any chance they can get.
It’s hard to say what impact any one influence makes on the development of a cultural value as deep as recognizing that people should have a right to marry whomever they choose, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomics. I know that I had countless other introductions to homosexuality and the struggles gays and lesbians face over the course of my upbringing. In Hebrew school we learned that homosexuals were tortured by the Nazis alongside our families. My aunt’s best friend was a tremendous queen with a fabulous sense of design and humor to match. He died under her care, from AIDS, when I was in college.
What I can say with great certainty is that teachers, and the content and manner in which they choose to teach, influence people’s world views. Sometimes this requires direct intervention like including gay and lesbian innovators in the pantheon of one’s field. At other times it can be more subtle, like not tolerating hate speech overheard in the hallway. Too often I find art educators hesitate to address homosexuality in their classrooms, even as they teach about openly gay artists, some of whose artwork is strongly influenced by their sexual identity and issues surrounding it. When I encounter them, I like to challenge those teachers to name the risks in doing so, and ask themselves if they might not be censoring themselves.
As young people’s support for expanding the definition of marriage to include a man and woman, two women, or two men suggests, it does get better. And artists and art educators are helping blaze the trail to the other side of that rainbow.