Are the Empire State Building and the Golden Gate Bridge queer?

In response to my “tribute” to the Empire State Building, Karl asked a simple question that caused me to do an extraordinary amount of thinking.  This post is the answer and it’s hardly a simple one.

I was gushing over my life-long fascination and love affair with the Empire State Building and its powerful iconic nature. Karl asked: “How much of your attraction to the building has to do with the architectural style itself? At first I couldn’t’ see how to separate the two but after a while it dawned on me that there was much more to the question than was immediately apparent.

I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between art, culture, politics, social movements and human psychology. Within a certain time and place, does a popular artistic style reflect or herald a burgeoning social movement and cultural shift? How much does an art movement actually influence culture and human behavior and how much does culture influence art? The answers to these questions often seem simple enough but never really are.     

I went back to my copious files of Manhattan photographs and quickly noticed two things that I’d not noticed before. First, my eye tends to prefer architectural and design elements of the Art Deco movement. Secondly, Art Deco may very well be the gayest and perhaps even ultimate and defining gay art movement. It’s easy to see this in Cole Porter and the sophisticated sets and characters of 1930s Hollywood, but what about in the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center and many of the luxurious apartment buildings soaring above Central Park West?

I’ve often argued that sexual orientation defines us in many more ways than just how we use our genitals and various orifices. No one argues with the notion that there are distinct male and female perspectives that profoundly color philosophy, art, politics and religion. The same, in my opinion, is true for gays and lesbians. Speaking as a queer, it is simple-minded, absurd and self-loathing for us to define ourselves or for non-Queers to define us simply on the basis of the sex act. The sex act is merely one manifestation of different wiring. One can easily and without controversy see the undeniably masculine in architecture and art and the same can be said for the undeniably feminine. Our society is less comfortable recognizing and accepting that the same can be said for a queer perspective. Obviously, we glibly joke about the gay man’s sense of style and how it takes “a queer to make something pretty.” In fact, there is a queer sensibility in art and style that is as distinctly different as the heterosexual masculine is from the heterosexual feminine. And no, I’m not talking about naked men; I’m talking about the use of line,form, texture, color and light in a way that is not quite masculine, not quite feminine but rather queer.

Are there shades of gray? Of course. As there are shades of gray in human nature, there are shades of gray in the artistic manifestations of human nature.

That said, I’m proposing that the Art Deco movement, magnificently exemplified by two of America’s greatest and most widely known icons, the Empire State Building and The Golden Gate Bridge is the consummate queer art form. In fact, are these two compelling landmarks the lodestones that drew queer Americans to New York and San Francisco? Are these two landmarks artistic manifestations of specific urban cultures that were most welcoming to and nurturing of queer psychology? Or both?

Born out of the chaos and revolutions of the First World War, Art Deco is an art movement involving a mix of modern decorative arts largely of the 1920s and 1930s, whose main characteristics were derived from various avant-garde painting styles of the early twentieth century. Art deco works exhibit aspects of Cubism, Russian Constructivism and Italian futurism with abstraction, distortion, and simplification, particularly geometric shapes and highly intense colors celebrating the rise of commerce, technology, and speed.

The growing impact of the machine can be seen in repeating and overlapping images from 1925; and in the 1930s, in streamlined forms derived from the principles of aerodynamics.

The name came from the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs Industriels et Modernes, held in Paris, which celebrated living in the modern world.

It was popularly considered to be an elegant style of cool sophistication in architecture and applied arts which range from luxurious objects made from exotic material to mass produced, streamlined items available to a growing middle class.

Anyhow, that’s the official definition of Art Deco but I’m proposing a very different one: The ultimate artistic expression of modern queer nature.

One cannot deny the flourishing queer sensibility of urban culture and the entertainment industry of the 1920s and 30s. How much of it was enabled, nurtured and inspired by the powerful environmental and visual vocabulary of Art Deco? Or was Art Deco just another manifestation of some underlying and pervasive social shift? Or both?

As I sift through my many photos of this city and consider my profound attraction to all things Art Deco, it becomes obvious to me that there is a unique, remarkable and profoundly emotional queer language found in this art form, a fantastic hybrid of masculine angles and sensual form interpreted with a unique color palette creating a style that is uniquely queer. Our society uses code words for Art Deco: stylish, cool and sophisticated but these are just euphemisms for queer. And I am in no way claiming or boasting that the queer perspective is superior (as suggested by words like cool and sophisticated) to a heterosexual masculine or feminine perspective, I’m just saying that it’s unique and distinct and a fully honed and definable perspective that deserves much more recognition than reality TV shows about makeovers and home design currently provide.  Society is comfortable referencing masculine and feminine in art and architecture, not so comfortable–to say the least–referencing queer, so we use code words like “sophisticated.”  Does this mean that heterosexual artists can’t produce “sophisticated” work? It depends on how you mean the word.  Sophisticated in the style of Cole Porter, Versace, Sondheim, Warhol, Bernstein or Philip Johnson?  Leave that to queers.

Of all the high-end luxury wristwatches available to the well-healed and/or self indulgent gay man the Cartier Santos stands out. Gay men seem drawn to its design in disproportionate numbers. You’d be hard pressed to find a gay man however who actually knows that this watch was one of the first examples of Art Deco design and that it was designed in 1904 by Louis Cartier for a gay man, Brazilian aviator and flamboyant queen Alberto Santos-Dumot. The commission was to achieve a wristwatch–which until Santos-Dumont–had been exclusively a high fashion accessory for women–that captured the spirit of the early days of the machine age and aviation. instinctively, it also seems to have captured something else,something that gay men in 2007 still sense and pursue. There’s just something queer and sensual about it.  PS In those days, “masculine” women preferred pocket watches.