Thomas Waugh likes to look at dirty drawings. “I think they’re very rich in terms of culture and social dynamics,” says the professor of film studies and sexuality studies at Montreal’s Concordia University. “The bottom line is they turn me on.”
He’s already published two books of dirty drawings, Lust Unearthed and Out/Lines, featuring archival, pre-1970s graphic erotica which, Waugh says, explore both lost or forgotten history, as well as the “validity and beauty of lust and arousal–even though some of the pictures are very raunchy.”
“There’s a kind of beauty in this kind of rawness that I think is a theme going through the three books. I think there’s also a recognition of these artists who worked underground,” he says.
What makes his latest endeavor, Gay Art: A Historic Collection, different from his previous books is that it’s a “reasonably faithful facsimile” of the well known 1972 book of the same name, by Felix Lance Falkon.
“It was quite a surprising book,” Waugh says of the impact the original book had on him as a 24-year-old film scholar then just inching out of the closet. “My generation, who came out just after Stonewall, didn’t really appreciate or really know about our predecessors and it was quite a revelation to see all these people working in the 1940s and 1950s.”
In this new edition, Waugh teams up with Falkon, the book’s original author, who is now in his late-70s. The collaboration made for some interesting editorial meetings. “I don’t think he thought of [the original edition’s art] as archival, vintage materials,” muses Waugh. “He was a lot closer to them, historically. A lot of the artists were his friends. A lot of his own work was in the book.”
And while Waugh says Falkon was “very generous and had a lovely sense of humour” in their meetings, he still isn’t sure if the man “completely understood what we were trying to do. We were trying to make a facsimile re-edition of the book 34 years after, and he was always trying to update it and get new stuff.”
It is important to preserve as much of the original material as possible because it’s a monumental document that this era existed, Waugh explains; that gay men used the pencil as much as the penis to create their identity.
For Waugh, these dirty drawings of lust and perversion have the profundity of prehistoric cave paintings.
The book features artists such as Etienne (whose drawings, says Waugh, are “about power, fantasy and sometimes they’re over the top, extreme and they have a kind of wry sense of humour that I really like”); Blade (“He’s from an earlier generation,” says Waugh, describing his drawings as “very lustful and intense”); and, of course, Tom of Finland (“He’s enshrined as the Big Guy in this whole field and I objectively really respect his artistry but he’s not really my cup of tea”).
Waugh says his favourite artist is Steve Masters. “His ink drawings are very special, spontaneous. They’re these orgy frescoes that seem to have been directly transcribed from the fantasy part of his brain onto the paper.”
But Gay Art is more than dirty pictures for educated, horny eyes. It’s also a crash course in how to publish a dirty book without going to prison. What makes Gay Art such an eye-popper isn’t its dirty pictures but the dirty pictures that got cleaned up (Waugh prefers the term “cropped”) for publication.
“In 1972 you could do much more than you can now in terms of certain taboos, specifically intergenerational sexuality,” Waugh laments.
It was the “age of innocence,” he explains in his introduction to the book. In those days, you could include “frank imagery of under-eighteen sexuality as part of the spectrum of the developmental and social construction of the human libido.” It wasn’t even considered “especially daring,” he adds.
Times sure have changed.
Since the late 1970s, social norms have shifted and “rigorous attempts” have been made to conceal, repress, or ignore the reality and dynamics of child sexuality, Waugh writes.
“The embargo on images and discourses of child sexuality and intergenerational relations, instituted around 1980, not only prevents our culture from thinking and learning about child and teen sexual agency and intergenerational interactivity,” he writes, “it also prevents us as social/cultural historians from exploring and understanding the twentieth century before 1980 when vigorous debates about these issues, now muzzled, animated a range of disciplines, from psychiatry to the arts.”
Into this general climate, add a Stephen Harper-led government intent on criminalizing adolescent sexuality, and what was once not particularly daring now requires tremendous courage indeed. (Especially since Canada’s Criminal Code makes it illegal to publish anything depicting youth potentially under the age of 18 in any kind of sexual manner.)
But that didn’t stop Waugh, Falkon or their publisher, Arsenal Pulp Press–at least not entirely.
Loathe to simply drop entire images of youth sexuality from the new edition, they decided “the best thing to do was to give the reader an idea of what was in the original, both visually and descriptively, and put it out on the table without causing a problem for distribution of the book in bookstores and without incriminating ourselves,” says Waugh.
“We have done our utmost if not to preserve intact the original edition, at least to present a self-censored version of it in as transparent and self-critical a manner as possible within the bounds permitted by the existing legal frameworks and para-legal marketing constraints of [Canada and the US],” he explains in his introduction.
“I like to think of myself as a radical but I’m also a realist,” Waugh says. “I’m someone who believes in making an impact in the real world rather than clinging to a dogmatic political stand that doesn’t negotiate with the real world. It’s important to be able to sell this book at the bookstore and to stay out of jail at the same time.”
Still, he admits the preemptive self-censorship has “irremediably compromised” his “obligation to record the historical record of 1972 fantasy and art.”
In the end, Waugh managed to maintain much of the first edition’s original imagery, including a few daring drawings of coach-student relations, but he admits that seven of the book’s original drawings were “cropped”–none so extensively as Figure 101.
“That was probably the most radical one,” Waugh says. “I thought showing just the one little corner of this huge picture and leaving the rest of the page blank was very expressive.
“This is a good artist,” he adds. “Even that tiny little torn-off corner is actually quite lovely and it really tells everything about the picture. The caption says what’s there and I just love the corner.”
The image, first in a series of nine, is supposed to depict an “After School” scene setting the stage for a small intergenerational orgy to come.
Ultimately Waugh thinks Gay Art is “about collective memory and about our ancestors and their lives and everyday fantasies.”
He considers the book a fitting tribute to its brave, daring artists, most of whom are now dead. “If they’d been caught by the wrong people they would have been imprisoned or faced psychiatric incarceration,” he notes. “Happened all the time.”