18 February 2013

Why Should A 100-Year-Old Art Show Matter To Transgenders?

I believe that one reason why so many transgender people are involved with, or at least interested in, the arts is that envisioning and re-envisioning ourselves is not merely an intellectual exercise: it is an act of survival.

Through the years that we spend living in the "wrong" bodies, in whichever sex is indicated our birth certificates, we keep ourselves together with the hopes and dreams of the people we know ourselves to be, no matter how much they're buried in the costumes we don to get through our days.  Those visions might change over time, especially for those of us who do not begin our transitions until our fourth, fifth or sixth decades.  It's one thing to imagine yourself as a woman who looks like Rihanna when you're in your twenties; such a fantasy is silly or worse after we mature and encounter new definitions and images of womanhood.

In other words, we start to understand the essence or life force of the gender in which we want to live.  The great artists, I think, have always seen people in terms of such forces.  That is the reason why, I believe, photographic "realism" is not always the best depiction of a human being:  You might say that I'm one of those people who believes that an artist's job is to reveal, not to depict or represent.

Such notions have made one art show in particular controversial, even one hundred years and a day after it opened.  When the works of some 1200 artists--most of whom are familiar to us today, but of whom few Americans had heard up to that time--exhibited in the 69th Armory Regiment on Lexington Avenue in New York City, spectators were confronted with depictions of the human body that some thought shocking or even obscene.  And it had nothing to do with nudity.

You see, at the Armory Show, as it's now called, people were confronted with such works as Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending A Staircase", Henri Matisse's "Blue Nude" and Pablo Picasso's "Head of A Woman."  None of these works reflected, in any way, classical depictions of the human body seen in the Renaissance (or, of course, ancient Greece and Rome) or the more symbolic representations seen in, say, medieval art. Instead, artists like the ones I've mentioned and sculptors like Rodin were more interested in the ways human bodies move and change across time and space, and how certain energies possessed by the people who inhabited those bodies changed, or didn't.

In other words, the people in those artists' works weren't static, in the spiritual as well as the physical sense.  They were moving toward something or another; they were in a state of becoming--or, if you like, evolving.  And, really, what better describes the process of transitioning from a life in one gender to living in another?

I'll end this post with an interesting historical note:  World War I broke out the year after this show.  The US got involved in it three years later, and the Versailles Treaty was signed a year later.  Mustard gas and other chemical weapons were used for the first time, which led to some never-before-seen neurological as well as physical disorders. (In the years after the war, medical journals were full of references to "shell shock," which is more or less what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.)  These developments led to a lot of research in neurology and endocrinology, which were new sciences at the outbreak of the war. One of the researchers who started to work in those nascent fields around that time is someone you've all heard of:  Dr. Harry Benjamin.