A.L. Rowse has been credited with writing one of the first unapologetic, academic histories of homosexuality. Rowse asserted that his work was “decidedly not pornography” but rather “a serious study” of famous men who were homosexuals: “kings like James I and Frederick the Great, artists of the stature of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, intellectual giants such as Erasmus and Francis Bacon,” and so on (xi). Rowse presumed that each of these men shared the same thing, i.e. a homosexual passion for other men. His approach was truly “essentialist” in that he assumed a homosexual by any other name was still a homosexual. However, because he did not consider the cultures in which each of these men lived, other scholarly studies appeared to clarify his work. Authors such as Kenneth Dover and John Boswell redressed the idea of homosexuality as it applied to specific cultures (respectively classical Athens and medieval Europe), often examining not just historical facts but material culture and literature as well. They put homosexuality in a specific historical context, but they maintained the essentialist idea that men who had a sexual interest in other men were homosexuals like those of today.
With regard to gay studies, “essentialism” refers to the idea of homosexuality as largely a biological construct and thus innate to the individual’s sexual identity. Whether the person lived three thousand or twenty years ago, a person sexually attracted to someone of the same sex is by nature a homosexual. Therefore, regardless of what society called them over time—catamites, sodomites, mollies, etc.—or how society treated them, homosexuals have always existed and are not unlike homosexuals of today.
In the discipline of art history, it seems always to have been accepted that Michelangelo was a homosexual. Victorian scholars such as Walter Pater and John Addington Symonds made the first conscious, if veiled, attempts to address homosexuality in Michelangelo’s works, but these were glossed over in favor of connoisseurial art-historical work by scholars such as John Pope-Hennessey (who reputedly was a homosexual) that consciously diverted attention away from Michelangelo’s homosexuality. Despite this (self-)censoring, other more current scholars such as James M. Saslow have shown that Michelangelo actively used the imagery of Ganymede in drawings and letters to young men for whom he had obvious affection. In this light, a work such as Michelangelo’s masterpiece the David, 1501-04 (Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence, image above courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art), could easily be seen as a gay work of art. From an essentialist perspective, the knowledge and evidence of Michelangelo’s homosexuality makes this sculpture of an idealized male nude more than just a Neo-platonic or political statement: it makes it a homoerotic icon. Borrowing from Donatello’s nude David from fifty years earlier (a bronze statue Adrian Randolph has argued was entrenched in homosexual politics in quattrocento Florence), Michelangelo modified the ephebe into a stunning exemplar of young adult male beauty akin to Greco-Roman works of art. The sculptural artistry of the penis and pubic hair alone could convince most people that Michelangelo consciously made this sculpture an exploration of his own homosexual desire. As a result of this essentialist approach, audiences perceive just about everything Michelangelo did as being “gay” in some way.
This essentialist approach in gay studies was based largely on the political desire of early gay rights activists to find their own history. As Whitney Davis has pointed out, “the gay liberation movement did provide a new sense of intellectual authority and flexibility for the individual gay and lesbian scholars who participated in it, despite their relative professional ostracism” (122). Indeed, the premise of essentialism was the homosexuality of the scholar himself. If gay rights activists could demonstrate that homosexuals had always been a part of history and included significant people in history, then heterosexuals would be forced to acknowledge and accept homosexuals for who they were.
The onset of postmodernism in academia brought new theories about sexuality that challenged the innateness of essentialism. This new approach was “social constructionist” in thought and led by critics such as Michel Foucault. His theories of the repressive hypothesis and power/resistance led to a reorienting of homosexuality and heterosexuality. Rather than perceive people of alternative sexualities as repressed and seeking acknowledgment, Foucault argued that power between peoples allowed for a discourse that flowed in many directions. For Foucault, power is not a single idea, but rather a nexus in the ongoing interactions of peoples where one is in charge and another is subservient.
Social constructionism found its allegiance in gay studies with what became known as queer theory, with scholars like Davis, David Halperin, and others arguing against the essentialist idea that homosexuality is a constant, preexisting identity. These scholars argue that there are varying factors at work and that no person from the past reflects a person of today because of the vast sociological, political, and cultural differences that take place over time. Therefore, homosexuality as it is perceived today can only be used to apply to the modern experience; it cannot be applied prior to its coinage in 1869 by Karl-Maria Kertbeny. As a result, social constructionists/queer theorists seek out new ways to interpret same-sex passion using methodologies such as Marxism and psychoanalysis, and thus as Davis claims, dehomosexualize homosexuality or homosexualize heterosexuality.
As a queer theorist and art historian, Davis has examined art by Eakins, Girodet, and others in an effort to explain how the nexus of sexual identity is so convoluted that neither heterosexuality nor homosexuality can be assumed in any work. From this perspective, it is worth considering a painting such as Jacques-Louis David’s Leonidas at Thermopylae, 1800-14 (Musée du Louvre, Paris, image courtesy of Web Gallery of Art), which shows the ancient Spartan king and his troops preparing for battle against the Persians. The subject alludes both to the legendary slaughter of the Spartans, but also their perpetual heroism (think of the recent movie 300, for instance). Little evidence suggests that David had sexual inclinations toward other men. If anything, David was an artist who knew how to use political propoganda and to appeal to popular taste, having moved from winning the Prix de Rome to a Revolutionary to a court painter for Napoleon. But a bellicose painting such as Leonidas is potentially problematic because of the homoerotically charged nude male bodies: some embrace one another, others stand in flamboyant poses, youths assist their senior officers (a reference to the same-sex passion associated with Spartan militarism), and all are guided by the central figure, the über-masculine general Leonidas whose penis is covered, yet accentuated, by an erect scabbard symbolizing his phallic masculinity. Considering the homosocial environment of David’s studio, with its mass-produced life studies of male nudes, and the general taste in Neoclassical art for nude ephebes in post-Revolutionary France (e.g., works by Fabre, Broc, and Ingres), it becomes apparent that if one were to consider this painting a homosexual work, it can only be seen as such because subjects from ancient Greek history and titillating views of Neoclassical flesh were popular, and David cashed in on these trends. Regardless of whether the subject or its audience is based on same-sex passion, Leonidas is an icon of homosexual desire because of its social construction, not because of the homosexuality of its painter or patron. This social constructionist approach thus has the viewer question what actually is homosexuality or heterosexuality—is it about individuals, images, or entire societies?
Taken to its extreme, social constructionism argues that homosexuality itself did not even exist prior to modern times. This is perhaps the greatest disagreement in the essentialist/social constructionist debate. Essentialists have a vested interest in the preservation of gay history in order to sustain their own self-identity. According to Louis Crompton, men labeled sodomites or pederasts in the past are people “with whom the modern gay man may claim brotherhood and the modern lesbian recognize as sisters.” Crompton laments how social constructionism weakens the modern gay identity: “To adopt Michel Foucault’s view that the homosexual did not exist ‘as a person’ until  is to reject a rich and terrible past” (xiv). In contrast, Davis has claimed that gay and lesbian studies has its origin in homosexualism, “the Euro-American tradition of self-consciously—if obliquely—highlighting the homoerotic personal and aesthetic significance and historical meanings of works of art or other cultural forms.” Davis argues that homosexualism is a true belief, “the personal testimony of homosexuals that they exist” (115-17). By implication then, gay and lesbian studies only exists because it derives from ideas about sexual identities from the past. In other words, there really may not have ever been, or currently is, an identity called homosexuality or, by extension, heterosexuality.
These two camps oppose one another because of the very nature of the disciplines in which they are wrought. Social constructionism is based on theory, while essentialism comes from personal experience. Social constructionists argue for an alternative approach to understanding the past by drawing on external forces to construct sexual identities, while essentialists assume the foundation of same-sex passion as a given and build their ideas on an aspect of homosexual discourse. What is interesting, however, is that it often appears that this debate exists primarily in the minds of the social constructionists. As Boswell noted, there really isn’t a debate because “no [essentialist] deliberately involved in it identifies himself as an ‘essentialist’” (36). Essentialists do draw on cultures and how they develop sexual identities, and they do acknowledge differences in same-sex passion between, say, classical Athens and Victorian England. However, they still see the inherent nature of sexual desire as unchanged.
Scholars such as Boswell and Rictor Norton have accepted the essentialist sobriquet primarily because they do not base their research on abstract theories. Norton has written: “The history of ideas (and ideologies) can be interesting and valuable, but it is tragic that homosexuals have been subsumed totally within the idea of the ‘homosexual construct’. The result is little better than intellectual ethnic cleansing.” Boswell also critiqued the social constructionists’ mindset by pointing out flaws in their discourse, calling it a kind of “guerrilla warfare,” whereby its proponents spend more time pointing out weaknesses in essentialism than creating solid foundations on which to base their own theories. (37)
In the long run, both the essentialists and the social constructionists are seeking to explain, identify, and analyze how same-sex passion may have manifested itself in people and cultures throughout time. It is not so much the end result that is at issue in these debates, as is the methodology of how to get there. Curiously, both sides of the argument can be used in the case of some figures such as the Victorian artist Simeon Solomon. He was actively painting during the 1860s in London, when the social constructionist’s idea of the modern homosexual first began to coalesce. Thus, from their perspective, Solomon’s works could be perceived as truly homosexual in the modern sense. The fact that his extant letters and his arrest for attempted sodomy demonstrate an active homosexual lifestyle are largely irrelevant in social constructionism, although these aspects of his life are critical for the essentialist interpreting Solomon’s art. His paintings of the gods Bacchus and Eros, or his figures of priests and altar boys, such as A Deacon, 1863 (Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, England), are all representations of beautiful young men, and the essentialist will see these works as concrete evidence of a homosexual exploring his sexual identity through his art.
If scholars were to draw on both essentialist and social constructionist perspectives, they might be able to better demonstrate how the work of artists such as Michelangelo, J.-L. David, and Solomon could be seen as iconographically homoerotic. Admittedly, this pluralistic approach works more smoothly for modern (post-ca.1850) art. However, it may help the scholar examining works of the past by encouraging him to do theoretical and archival research in order to acknowledge that a particular figure and his art are homosexually based in some way. Rather than find opposition between these two poles, the “post-queer” scholar should consider ways of melding the two into one so that the ultimate goal of restoring homosexually-oriented artists and works of art to their rightful place of interpretation in the history of art can be done harmoniously, not antagonistically.
Boswell, John. “Categories, Experience, and Sexuality.” In The Columbia Reader on Lesbians and Gay Men in Media, Society, and Politics, eds. L. Gross and J. Woods, 36-47. New York: Columbia UP, 1999.
Crompton, Louis. Homosexuality & Civilization. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2003.
Davis, Whitney. “’Homosexualism,’ Gay and Lesbian Studies, and Queer Theory in Art History.” In The Subjects of Art History: Historical Objects in Contemporary Perspectives, eds. Mark Cheetham, et al., 115-142. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. New York: Random House, 1990.
Norton, Rictor. “Essentialism.” In A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory. Available online: http://rictornorton.co.uk/extracts.htm (visited October 13, 2009).
Randolph, Adrian W.B. Engaging Symbols: Gender, Politics, and Public Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence. New Haven: Yale UP, 2002.
Rowse, A.L. Homosexuals in History. Reprint. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1995.