By Paula Martinac
Perhaps to placate moderates within the Republican party, the Bush administration has announced that it is seeking a 15 percent increase to the operating budget of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Archconservative, anti-public-arts-funding GOPers are livid, with some right-wingers harking back to the NEA’s controversial funding of queer artists like Robert Mapplethorpe and calling for the agency’s complete dismantling.
But the president has his bases covered: the desired increase of $18 million, announced by First Lady Laura Bush, will help subsidize a traveling initiative called “American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of American Genius,” designed to bring great art to underserved communities in the 50 states. The first year of the program will highlight dance, music, and visual art. Given the administration’s negative stance on gay issues, it’s ironic that most of the canonical composers central to the NEA project were queer.
Of course, it’s highly doubtful that the NEA initiative will publicize that fact as a selling point. The lives of some of the most distinguished American artists and composers remain hidden behind a veil of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and a double standard continues to permeate American cultural history. While a famous artist’s heterosexual history is often perceived to have bearing on his or her work – especially if a lover or spouse was a muse or collaborator – homosexuality is still considered “private” information that shouldn’t be brought up in polite company.
Consider, though, that the work of Aaron Copland is slated to figure prominently in the musical component of “American Masterpieces.” Many of us learned in school that Copland was the one of the greatest of all U.S. composers, who gave us such beautifully haunting works as “Appalachian Spring.” We didn’t learn, however, that he was a gay man. Although he was out in music circles, Copland’s sexual orientation didn’t become public knowledge until after his death in 1990, because of the stigma attached to homosexuality.
So why is his sexuality worth bringing up now? According to his biographer, Howard Pollack, although Copland never wrote on overtly homosexual themes, some of his scores contained “intriguing homosexual subtexts” that spoke to gay audiences. Creative subterfuge was, in fact, common among queer artists of earlier eras who had to keep their sexuality under wraps. Oscar Wilde, for example, titled his celebrated heterosexual romantic comedy “The Importance of Being Earnest,” fully aware that “earnest” was code in gay British culture for “homosexual.”
Aside from the content of Copland’s music, though, his sexuality is worth discussing for another reason: He influenced and shepherded the careers of numerous younger composers, most of whom were themselves gay or bisexual. Indeed, 20th-century music would be very different and far less rich without the contributions of the many queer musicians to whom Copland lent a guiding hand, including Virgil Thomson, Samuel Barber (who is also featured in the NEA initiative), Marc Blitzstein, Ned Rorem, David Del Tredici, John Corigliano, and John Cage. In addition to profiting from Copland’s musical experience, Del Tredici told Pollack that his mentor showed him “it was OK to be making music and be gay” – an invaluable lesson.
The music of Leonard Bernstein, another Copland protege (and possibly lover), will also be showcased in “American Masterpieces.” In addition to his many works for the concert hall, Bernstein gave the theater such quintessentially American musicals as “On the Town” and “West Side Story.” The fact that he was married to a woman for more than 20 years is a matter of public record; but his intimate relationships with men – and the impact they may have had on his body of work – have remained largely in the closet.
Backing a program that celebrates great queer artists who lived at a time when silence about homosexuality was mandated – and rigorously enforced – strikes me as typical of Bush. As a candidate, Bush assured gay Republicans of his belief that sexual orientation is a private matter, irrelevant to the appointment of public officials; at the same time, his marriage to Laura was always on public display, placing his own heterosexuality front and center.
And now the Bush administration has made homosexuality a very political topic. The president’s support of the odious Federal Marriage Amendment, which seeks to write discrimination against one group of people into the U.S. Constitution for the sake of other people’s religious beliefs, is a brazen attempt to keep lesbians and gay men in their place – quiet, submissive, and compliant with their second-class status.
When the First Lady announced the proposed NEA funding increase, she remarked that “American Masterpieces” would help us all see that “there’s no limit to who our children can become.” But the message of her husband’s administration is that “our children” should preferably grow up straight or else placidly accepting the stigma of their homosexuality.