Speaking With Jonathan David Katz, Co-Curator of Hide and Seek

by Avram Finkelstein ,Spring 2011


Those of us only recently acquainted with Jonathan David Katz may have missed something important about this cultural firebrand, the co-curator of the controversial Hide and Seek: Difference, Desire, and the Invention of Modern American Portraiture at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Katz has been writing about the queer voice in American art for two decades, using Cold War America as a matrix.

Katz took a moment to speak with Artwrit between the closing of Hide and Seek and the mounting of his next major show, AIDS/Art/America, slated for 2013, to discuss silence, camp and the meaning of the word “queer,” not only in theory, but in practice.

AF: With the recent closing of Hide and Seek, do you have any parting thoughts?
JDK: I never thought of it as particularly bold. The images are familiar and the choices were canonical, as was the point of the exhibition, to “queer” the American canon. So it’s so funny that a show where every object has already been seen should be thought of as bold. Of course, it was because of the new discursive frame, but I really didn’t expect it to be so incendiary.

Did you have trouble assembling the work for the show?
Oh, my god, yeah. I had museum directors and collectors flat out refuse to consider a loan. And I had challenges to its theoretical import, even from gay people. One gay collector said that he didn’t think it was proper to address people’s sexualities. Now, he was of a generation for whom this was confined to the realm of the private, but as I tried to historicize the shifts in the construction of identity, I may have been a little ambitious to think I wouldn’t encounter this kind of reaction. We’re in a place where we have carved out a position for queers in popular culture, but not, if you’ll excuse the term, in high culture.

Is queer content still one of the third rails of the art world?
It is, and of course; it’s what happens whenever high value commodities meet sexuality, or at least, non-normative sexualities. We’re still plagued by the evil spirit of Jesse Helms.

You’ve referred to the transition from the highly masculinized world of abstract expressionism to the rise of pop art as the “homosexualization of American art.” What do you mean by that?
What I’m really trying to describe is the shift from modernism to post-modernism, from the idea that an individual innovator can create new forms of understanding to one that recognizes such innovations as pre-existing. All you can do is rearrange extant culture. What Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg did, along with Cage, Twombly and a number of others, was to give form to this recognition, a recognition that was somewhat overdue. It was odd, in the midst of McCarthyism, to be celebrating the lone individual inventing new possibilities when it was clear the dominant Cold War culture was actually quite conformist.

The “lone individual” being the abstract expressionist?
I’m referring more generally to the culture in which abstract expressionism took place. In the very same journals that celebrated abstract expressionism there would be articles about the great new conformity in American life. So here you’ve got the drunken, bohemian life of the abstract expressionist, and it is not exactly mapping against the dominant culture. And then here come queer individuals who have a fundamental and deeply personal recognition that we can never make culture for ourselves, because their experience of selfhood had always been a field onto which others projected meaning. But what makes this moment particularly resonant is that the queer subjectivity I refer to had for the first time become generalized across our culture, that queer and straight were following a parallel track because of the culture of constraint that developed around the Cold War.

So this was essentially a queer moment?
It’s a very queer moment. Out of the very particular social and historical conditions that greeted gay life in the 1950s, a pattern of culture developed that was rapidly recognized as being in sync with how we generally felt, whether we were queer or not, and we call this moment postmodernism. Queer individuals were the first to catch a whiff of this new cultural moment, because they had, in some sense, been preordained to [do so] by their own experience.

Everything in American capitalism is coded, but to be gay is to coexist with codes on a deeper level. Are codes an essential component of the “homosexualization”?
Not only are codes central, but indeed, so is a shifting sphere of possibility. The idea is actually much more modest among queers, who have experienced the degree to which audiences control meaning. And so, because you can’t account for how an audience will respond to you, then you come to recognize that meaning is the result of an interpretive move, an interactive move, over which you have no control.

You’ve also talked about silence as a resistance strategy during this turning point in art, particularly in reference to John Cage.
I was at first struck by the fact that it seemed awfully homologous that the guy some think of as the most famous closeted composer of the twentieth century would make silence the touchstone of his aesthetic. But he was not silent in the way that the silence of being closeted dictates. That form of silence is not visible as silence. In Cage’s work silence is one of the most audible aspects of his work. He was making it textured. He was performing it. These are acts that seem to me to be deeply political. His work also challenges the seemingly natural definitions we use to organize our lives. He says that silence is simply not paying attention to other sounds, sounds that are discarded or in some sense unworthy, and that all definitions exist not because they are true, but because they are given to us as true.

In Susan Sontag’s “Notes On Camp,” she refers to camp as the negation of content. But in your The Silent Camp: Queer Resistance and the Rise of Pop Art, you seem to see camp as political. Help me round this square.
Sure. Sontag was wrong. What camp does is to cite dominant cultural constructions in a way that reveals their machinery. It’s a kind of political defense that works by making all of culture unnatural, and showing the cultural construction of what we take to be nature. But let’s not forget: One reason she has to describe camp in defeatist terms was that at the time she was writing this, just considering camp seriously was dissident.

Your work traces the presence of the queer voice in American art. How does your upcoming show, Art/AIDS/America, fit into this continuum?
I’m interested in teasing out two defining strains of AIDS art and showing how they developed, their interconnectedness and their differences. Those two key strains are the following: one which is activist, and another which is, broadly, the inheritor of the postmodern tradition. If I can caricature the strains for argument’s sake, the postmodernist strain leads to Felix Gonzalez-Torres and the other leads to David Wojnarowicz. Instead of making work that’s transparently political, Felix devolved its meaning to the viewer and tried to seed our institutions with a queer voice. It’s a politic that, like that of Johns and Rauschenberg, keyed to the social context of its time. Then there’s the Wojnarowicz model, which foregrounds politics more clearly, works in an authorial voice and challenges the viewer directly. This seems to me to be a very different kind of queer art, one that was assertive and not only represented something that was new, it was transformative.

Postmodernism and queer theory are inextricably linked, but both are twentieth century notions. As someone who always has his ear to the ground for cultural evidence of the queer experience, do you hear a twenty-first century narrative yet?
What I’m hearing is the beginning of the dissolution of any categorical differences. It’s a reflection of a culture that’s increasing[ly] comfortable with the idea that sexuality exists among a range of other commonalities and differences and is neither greater nor lesser than those. I already see in my own students that the “naturalization” of sexual difference is the assumed ground of common experience.