Oct. 9, 2003 – Vol. 23 No. 2

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    Lectures to explore postwar paradox in American culture

    By Seth Sanders
    News Office

    During the Cold War, the United States stepped onto the world stage as an artistic force, producing a bona fide national culture. Yet this period is remembered as a time of official cultural conformity—ironic “retro” postcards still depict stiff, smiling, straight 1950’s men and women in slick modern kitchens, energetically not being Communist.

    Which is why nobody knows what to make of the fact that so much of this national culture was actually produced by gay men. But starting at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday Oct. 14, some scholars at the Lesbian and Gay Studies Project will begin to ask why, as the “Queer Origins of Modern American Culture” workshop series begins in Classics 10, 1010 E. 59th Street.

    “It’s a paradox I’ve become increasingly interested in as I work on my next book on postwar culture and politics,” said George Chauncey, Professor in History and the College.

    “This was a time when homosexuals were demonized as threats to the American way of life with unprecedented force. But it was also a time when gay composers, playwrights and other artists who were closely linked through gay social networks, and who often shared a distinctly queer perspective on the world, played a crucial role in creating what came to be thought of as American national culture. When I read an extraordinary manuscript on the Copland-Thomson-Barber circle of composers by Nadine Hubbs from the University of Michigan’s music department, I realized it might be possible to organize a lecture series exploring the significance of this paradox.”

    Chauncey explained that this paradox was widely remarked on at the time. “Our fourth speaker, Michael Sherry, will discuss the anxiety many critics expressed about the ’dangerous homosexual influence’ on the arts in the ’50s and ’60s. Gay artists were often represented as part of a subversive homosexual conspiracy that had a stranglehold on the arts and threatened national cultural identity. Anti-gay discourse often resembled anti-communist and anti-Semitic discourses.”

    And yet, this striking fact has not struck most historians of the period. “It’s something we haven’t examined at all. Cultural historians have generally avoided the issue, or at best haven’t developed a sophisticated critical framework for thinking about it,” said Chauncey. “At the same time, gay historians have focused on the marginalization of homosexuals, which was certainly pervasive but doesn’t grasp the complexity of the situation.

    “One of my other aspirations for the series is simply to help pull together the really interesting group of Americanists now on campus: there have been a lot of terrific people hired recently, and we haven’t had enough occasions to get together. We’re holding a reception after each lecture in order to help strengthen the community of people on campus with interests in American studies, Performance Studies, and Lesbian and Gay Studies.”

    The program is as follows:

    • 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 14 Nadine Hubbs, music theory, University of Michigan, “Orchestrating National Identity: Queer Modernists’ Creation of ’America’s Sound’”
    • 3:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 22 Susan Manning, English and theater, Northwestern University, “Making a (Queer) American Dance: Josˇ Lim—n, Merce Cunningham, and Alvin Ailey”
    • Thursday, March 4 (time and location to be announced) Douglas Crimp, art and art history, Rochester University, “Coming Together to Stay Apart: Andy Warhol’s Collaboration with Ronald Tavel”
    • 3:30 p.m. Thursday, April 15 Michael Sherry, history, Northwestern University, “The Homintern: Critical Anxieties about Homosexual Influence on the Arts in Cold War America”

    For more information visit: http://humanities.uchicago.edu/cgs/lgspqueerorigins.htm.

    All events are free and open to the public, and will be followed by a reception. The program is organized by the Lesbian and Gay Studies Project and co-sponsored by the American Studies, Performance Studies, Social History, and Gender and Sexuality Studies Workshops.