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Letter to Councilman LaBonge
Real People as Fictional Characters
Female Actors, Part Two
One Culture Hero Award
Adelante Gay Pride Gala
Best Work of Fiction?
Tom of Finland: Sexual Liberator or Enslaver
Lying Writers
Review of The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson
Promiscuous Thoughts
A Crime of the Heart
A Letter to Michael Silverblatt
"Have you no decency, sir?"
Political Incorrectness: Female Actors and Trojans
He Hugged Moms and Dads
What is a Girly Man?
Review of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
From Sunset Boulevard to Mulholland Drive
The Gay Mammies
A Writer Protests
Review of Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro
A Spirit Preserved in 'Amber'
The Supreme Court Case
Review of "Live from Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal"
Review of "Lost Years: A Memoir 1945-1951" by Christopher Isherwood
Review of "Out For Good"
Review of "Hoyt Street: an Autobiography"
Review of "Sergei Eisenstein: A Life in Conflict"
Review of "Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation"
Review of "Whores for Gloria"
Muscles and Mascara
Review of "Blonde"
Brother Paul, Sister Jan, Brother Hinn, God and the Folks
Advice to the Next Generation
Sins of the Fathers
Beatin' Around the Bush

Cruise Not Gay! The Judge Has Spoken

The Horror, The Horror
LA--a Cliché?
Dominick, Mark & Orenthal
Holy Drag!
Ms. Hill & Mr. Tom
George, Jr.
Mrs. guy Ritchie 
Supreme Court 
Tom Cruise 
Eminem 
New Times Article 


  
  
  
  
 

 

 

TOM OF FINLAND: Sexual Liberator or Enslaver?
(CONTINUED)

     The swastika is prominent in at least one drawing, bold, assertive, dominating the foreground of two men in a master-slave relationship, which recurs in the drawings. Shiny black boots are licked hungrily, whipping is courted and accepted ecstatically, hands beg for handcuffs. This is all willing, of course. There is never the suggestion of actual force. Instead, ecstatic faces celebrate their performance, a miming of violence, however suggestive it may be of actual violence, rape, punishment.

     Although the bodies depicted are outrageously muscled, they are seldom entirely naked--here and there a twisting body is glimpsed. Feet are always covered with boots. No trace of pubic hair peeks through the bursting pouches. For full display, the beautiful bodies here require camouflage, as if the naked body is not sensual enough, as if the participants need the uniform to sustain their fantasized performance.

     The point is often made that symbols lose their primary meaning, become merely decoration. True. But some symbols not only do not lose their symbolic power but gain strength as time puts into glaring perspective the events that they evoke, and so they become stronger. The Christian cross is one of those symbols, good or bad; so is the hammer & sickle.

     The Nazi swastika cannot be extricated from evoking one of the most monstrous events of the 20th century, and earlier, the systematic incarceration, torture, and annihilation of millions of Jews, gypsies, the handicapped. And homosexuals.

     How then to separate Mr. Finland's fantasy figures from the harsh--if perhaps deeply buried--suggestion of gay self-loathing, the celebration of a master race? How to separate the miming of the actual punishments gay people have been exposed to in a heterosexual world?--humiliation, incarceration, force.

      Many gay men--especially "leathermen" spawned by Mr. Finland --are able to disengage all symbolic resonance from antecedent cruelty, pointing out that the leather faction, among all gay factions, is perhaps the most tolerant and often generous to minority causes among homosexual groups. That is true. Certainly that faction is the least ageist, although no one in Mr. Finland's drawings appears to be over 30.

      And so, here now, in this exceptional collection, are all the extraordinary drawings, for the first time. They will unquestionably delight thousands of fans throughout the world who will argue against any negative insinuation, including mine. Others will be able now, with this collection, to scrutinize the drawings as to the reasons for their undeniable significance, positive or negative, within the gay world.


Postscript to article.
January 1, 2006

Chains, whips, punishing belts, tongue-polished boots, handcuffs, iron collars, harnesses--how to reconcile those props of enslavement with gay liberation? All are used in rituals of mimed punishment and humiliation in the turf of gay S&M; and all are celebrated in detail in the best-known drawings by that faction's hero-artist, Tom of Finland. A serious discussion of the symbolic implications of those props and rituals is taboo in certain quarters. Merely to attempt to explore such aspects is to invite a barrage of outraged criticism.

     It is important to emphasize that I once frequented gay leather turfs and experienced the excitement of its rituals. I do not speak as an outsider but as a former avid participant. I still retain the views expressed in the Foreword about aspects that are admirable in Finland's drawings--the democracy of sexual positions, the lack of shame among the protagonists in their overtly gay identification, the "outlaw" nature of their disregard for locations of sexual performance; i.e., everywhere.

     The leather faction is deadly serious and passionately defensive in its attitudes and rites. "Perfect trust" between "master" and "slave" is proclaimed as its underlying rationale for ceremonies of mimed punishment--which, however, often spill into untrustworthy excess. Dozens of advertisements for leather bars in a gay San Francisco newspaper include one that vaunts a "Pig Trough" and shouts this exhortation, "Fuck my mouth, swine!" (A touch of welcome gay wit is provided by another advertisement on the following page; it despairs: "It is not difficult to find a good harness, but very hard to find a good cologne.")

     Some of the symbolic implications of the props of punishment and humiliation drawn lovingly by Finland seem to me to be inescapable. Consider the costume itself. Undeniably visually striking--spatters of glisteny studs upon velvety black leather, enhanced by intricate configurations of crisscrossed sequiny belts--it is also camouflage; a hood or mask often is added as further disguise. The transformative power of the costume is so strong that the mild-mannered antique dealer of gay lore (physically not unlike Tom of Finland the artist himself), may appear, once decked out, as a messenger of dark power.

     That transformation is dramatic. In my incursions into the world of leathermen, I found that some of the most menacing and dedicated performers in the theater of gay S&M were, out of their role-playing uniform, among the sweetest and kindest men of my acquaintance.

     In leather bars, the costume may become the main bait for cruising, rendering what is under it, the body, less seductive. I have seen men completely covered in leather--pants, boots, jackets, gloves, masks--cruised hotly. No sliver of flesh is uncovered. (There might be an implicit puritanistic aversion to the naked body in assigning it such a lesser role.)

     In its basic extremity, the antecedent of this costume is that of the medieval executioner, boots, leather chaps, a hood, a whip. More contemporary antecedents, all revered in Finland's drawings, are cops, militarists, storm troopers. All are representative of legendarily heterosexual homophobic forces; cops arrest us, the military labels and shuns us, storm troopers rounded us into camps.

     In Tom of Finland's drawings, just as in rituals of S&M, the leering sadist may become the pleading masochist. In his exploration of masochism and sadism in "The Trial of Gilles de Rais," French philosopher Georges Bataille advances the notion that the language of S&M is the language of the victim. That is consistent with the telling irony that the designation "S&M" refers as easily to "sadist and masochist" as to "slave and master." Thus the revealing and leveling equation: "sadist-slave," "masochist-master," both alternating as victims.

     Finland's fans do not hesitate to laud him as a worthy artist; gallery exhibitions of his work draw myriad admirers. How does he compare with other gay artists of the time? Kris of Chicago produced spindly drawings, ghosts of muscular figures; they amount to no more than bad sketches. There was Quaintance and his lithe men, cowboys and Indians often posed in a Western bar, sinewy muscles kissed by silvery moonlight; the best of Quaintance's drawings have a romantic three-dimensional quality.

     Much more seriously: Audrey Beardsley's drawings are notably satirical and witty. The giant phalluses--celebrated religiously by Finland--become comical May poles to be garlanded and danced around with feathery dusters. In Cocteau's erotic drawings, an economy of white lines against a black background and black lines against a white background appear strikingly fluorescent.

     Paul Cadmus's paintings are gorgeous, a feast of bold colors; they are also unblinking representations of some aspects of the gay world. In "Bar Italia," the faces of the desired are beautiful and grotesque, a combination of the two extremities of Dorian Gray, what he is, what he will become. Grotesqueness is exaggerated into depravity in the surrounding faces bloated by lust. Those intimations of sexual anarchy are contained within an architectonic symmetry. Highly erotic paintings often comment on social issues--strikebreakers in the "Herrin Massacre." A discarded newspaper announces the death of thousands killed in war as, in the foreground, sailors and whores revel drunkenly on a lawn in "Sailors and Floosies."

     Finland's drawings are devoid of satire, lacking in reflective commentary, largely wanting in wit. (There are exceptions, a good one in which a dowager is poking with an umbrella the bubble butt of a muscular hero flirting with another). Finland's drawings are cartoons, one-dimensional. Paradoxically, his supermen may become feminine in their exaggerated musculature. Round pectorals without natural striations look like breasts atop wasp waists. Finland's primary effect is to arouse sexually--and there is nothing wrong with that, a noble goal indeed. The allure he excites among legions of gay men testifies to his enormous success, acknowledged and respected.

     For me, the relevant question is this: What is the real reason these figures, these masturbatory images, fascinate gay men so powerfully?--and the fascination extends to scores of gay men far beyond the demarcations of leather quarters, including even some who disdain more conventional pornography. What so fascinates in the famous drawing of a man enchained by a tight iron collar and ankle holds, nipples clamped, genitals squeezed into bursting engorgement as two uniformed men, a pseudo- "executioner" and a pseudo-SS man, prepare to punish him further? Is the sexually arousing element the muscular bodies and the monumentally aroused cocks of the three protagonists?

     Or is it the powerful suggestion of punishment for gay desire?

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