Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Thousand Years of Don't Ask Don't Tell Starts to End

detail of Saint Eligius, 1449. The Met.
There are already two favorite quotes that have emerged from the repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" - one is by my wordsmith friend David Guinee: "Don't let the door hit you in the ass, don't ask don't tell" - and the other is by Congressman Barney Frank: "I do not think that any self-respecting radical in history would have considered advocating people's rights to get married, join the Army, and earn a living as a terribly inspiring revolutionary platform."  How else to commemorate this momentous event? How else to mark the day that ends the discrimination of asking people to put their lives on the line by serving in the military, but denying their right to identify by their sexuality? You can die, but you can't be yourself. You can prove your patriotism, but you can't profess your love.  The incredible harm and hypocrisy might just start to be over.  And so we are presented with that strange, but not unprecedented, phenomenon of civil rights being supported and defended in the military domain with more certitude and absoluteness than in the public sphere - think of the racial integration of the military in the 1960s (and isn't this an interesting volume?); now maybe think of the repeal of DADT.  I'd like to commemorate some of the momentousness here by considering a medieval painting whose visual representation of a male couple in the liminal space of a convex mirror embodies the occluded visibility of gay identity in this period. For the Middle Ages were a "Don't Ask Don't Tell" culture if there ever was one - if one did ask or did tell, persecution was sure to follow.  And so, it takes oblique readings and sidelong glances to realize medieval gay presence.

Petrus Christus, Northern Renaissance painter extraordinaire, can help us out here.  His painting of Saint Eligius in his Workshop from 1449 (of which you see a detail above), has become, thanks to the incredible work of Diane Wolfthal, a critical image in medieval art history's quest for understanding the visual representation of gay culture.  Her essay "Picturing Same-Sex Desire: The Falconer and His Lover in Images by Petrus Christus and the Housebook Master" (in Troubled Vision: Gender, Sexuality and Sight in Medieval Text and Image. ed. Emma Campbell and Robert Mills. Palgrave Macmillan, 2004: 17-46) remains one of the few to analyze an image of a gay couple.  Medieval literary criticism has here far outstripped art history: "queer theory" (a set of ideas that extrapolates from a marginal sexual position to decenter, destabilize, denaturalize any and all normative discourses) has informed fantastic scholarship on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, troubadour lyrics, Catherine of Siena (oh my, yes), the Roman de la Rose, the entire Arthurian Round Table, and much more. Chaucer himself has a queer nation.  Art historians have operated within the confines of the visible, I think to our detriment.  It seems absurd that art history should deal with invisibilities, with non-images, but it depends on what the goal of art history is: the history of sight, or the history of images.  I'm not going to tackle that here, I'm just trying to think around the limits of the field and why on the issue of gay culture, the two fields are so far apart.  Here's what else I'm not going to do: I'm not going to agonize over the historical parameters of gay identity (the debate goes: there have always been and will always be gay people; vs. gay identity, like every other identity, is constructed in historically specific periods.  For the former see John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality from 1980, for the latter, see Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality from ). I'm also not going to rehearse Diane's fantastic argument (it is far too cool and too complex to be dubbed here), but I will be influenced by it in everything that follows.

Petrus Christus. Saint Eligius, 1449. The Met.
As an image of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the detail of the male couple in the convex mirror evokes the whispers and the codes, the silences and the intimate knowledge, of identities marginalized by oppressive normative forces. The male and female couple looms large in the painting. His hand on her shoulder, and hers reaching for the gold that saint Eligius is measuring bespeak the possession and materiality of heterosexual couples, possibly of heterosexual married couples, if these two are in the purchase of a wedding ring.  Saint Eligius was the patron saint of goldsmiths and we see him here transported from his 7th century origins to a 15th century goldsmith's shop.  It's interesting to me just how material the world outside of the mirror is: the "stuff" of the shop is a marvel of oil painting, a treasure to the eye of desirable, transluscent surfaces (the decanters, the ivories, the corals, the gold, even the window panels are marvelous to behold).  The girdle (a kind of belt as virginal signifier) is draped upon the wooden counter that reads "Petrus Christus me fiat 1449" - even the painting speaks within the material world of the painting!  But the men in the mirror are silent, looking into the representational space of the shop from that of the street; looking into the social space of material normativity from the reflected (reflective?) space of dematerialized vision - they are an image within an image, and their interpretation necessarily puts us outside of the confines of the easily visible or legible despite attempts, the Met's among them, to chillingly reduce them to a moral anecdote.  You're much more than that when you reside in a mirrored world.

Here, I'm not operating within the confines of academe, so I feel no compulsion to have anything I write supported by more authoritative discourses. So I feel free to ask questions: What are they whispering to each other? What made them stop at this window? Is there someone inside the shop/the painting they recognize? Do they see themselves reflected back out? Is the falcon, bird of prey and signifier of the hunt for love, a gift? a flaunt? a dare? How do we think about the juxtaposed textures of the bumpy stamped coins and the smooth, glistening mirror? Who put the mirror there in the first place? Who else has passed within its frame? Who has freedom of movement here? Where will they go once they leave the shop window? They are out and about, but are they out?  It's this last question (though many more could be asked) that prompts the commemoration of the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell - the move from the margins to the center, from being an image within an image (an identity within an identity) to being a coherent part of a larger image.  There is perhaps a thrill, a romance even, to coded whisperings and furtive glances - but any power is contingent, and there is much danger of someone moving the mirror, and of thus being taken from view, erased.  Not now - not if our lovers can leave their whisperings and speak declaratively.  We can ask how this linguistic turn, this freedom of speech reclaimed, could repaint our image - who would stand where, or if some would leave the goldsmith shop altogether and be present elsewhere.

detail of Arnolfini Portrait. 1434. Nat'l Gallery, London

We can also ask after other mirrored couples - the Man in Red and the Man in Blue who face the Arnolfinis in van Eyck's 1434 painting. Why, we can start to question a lot things.

Carthusian. 1446. The Met

For now, I can thank Petrus Christus for his portrait of a Carthusian monk - not for any reasons of historical identity (although it's nice to think of him as saint Bruno, and it's nice to think of him as a man from 1446) - but because with him, we can look directly into the eyes of an individual who is himself central.  No mirrors or occlusions - no easy explanations of the self either.  There is an inscription that has the painting speaking again ("Petrus Christus made me" - "me fecit") - another (a greater?) voice in representation.  And it being medieval art, there is that fly on the ledge.  There is much to ask, and much to tell.


  1. Very interesting! Have I told you lately how much I love your blogging???

  2. You are so nice! It's become a place to think that I've come to treasure - a kind of placeholder for on-going conversations. This painting in particular, I've wanted to think through for a long time. And there seems to always be something going in our world that evokes questions asked (no matter how obliquely!) in the Middle Ages.