The Orlando massacre last weekend gives a whole new dimension of meaning to a classic work of mid-twentieth century art, Jasper Johns' Target with Four Faces from 1955. Below are some pictures I took of it in the Museum of Modern Art here in New York in 2013.
Textbooks describe this painting as a magnificent example of the visual semantic games Johns is famous for. It is a target, a pattern that we are supposed to shoot at that is supposed to be clear and easy to read from a great distance. But, instead of the usual cheaply printed target on paper, Johns paints a target on a wood panel with multiple layers of transparent encaustic paint (pigment mixed with wax) and shredded newspapers. It is a carefully built up surface requiring a lot of time and patience to make. In other words, it is a painting too, and those exquisite layers of transparent paint make the target less clear across a distance and complicate the target's usually clearly stated purpose.
Johns added to this painting a hinged wooden box with four plaster casts from the face of the same model made over a period of months and arranged in a random order. This complicates the target even further, implying some kind of human presence behind it.
For many years, these were the standard textbook talking points about this painting. In recent years, critics and historians talked about the painting's historical context in 1955, the height of the Cold War Red Scare, and a period when people expected sudden nuclear attack, building bomb shelters in back yards and holding emergency drills in schools. Everyone felt like a potential target at that time.
And now there is a whole new way of looking at this painting since Jasper Johns came out of the closet as a gay man. The year 1955 was just after the height of the witch-hunts of the Red Scare era; the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and numerous other local efforts to smoke the Reds out of hiding, official and unofficial. Gay men and lesbians were the primary targets of those witch-hunts leading to wholesale purges of gay employees from government agencies, the military, from government contractors, private businesses, schools, and universities. Gays and lesbians were described as perversions of nature whose loyalties were dubious and who were inclined to crime, especially sexual crime. They were considered a menace to national security and to children. For gays and lesbians, the 1950s was a frightening dark age of constant fear of the consequences of being found out: unemployment, eviction, imprisonment, or worst of all, court ordered "treatment" in a state hospital that involved "treatments" such as electric shock and chemical castration. While the general public in the USA may have felt like targets, gay men like Jasper Johns really were targets in 1955.
When the massacre happened last weekend, my second thought after the shock and horror was that it finally has happened. The change from retail to wholesale murder of gay people finally happened in the biggest gun massacre in US history. After so much triumph and success for advancing the cause of gay liberation over the past decade, and the extraordinary acceptance of LGBTQs by so much of the population, now we are all literally targets once again. We got a horrific taste of what other gays and lesbians face in the Muslim world, in central Africa, and in Eastern Europe. We've never really stopped being targets. Soon after the massacre, many of the professional homophobes doubled down declaring that we had it coming and praising the murderer. Their agenda is now naked and exposed for all the world to see; the extermination of LGBTQs, physically if necessary.
Of course this event affected me like just about every other LGBTQ person that I know. I've lost sleep over it as have a lot of other people I know. Those feelings of horror, grief, and anger persist days later and I don't expect them to become assimilated any time soon. I'm still processing all of this. A lot of our straight allies seem to be facing the same thing and may well be targets themselves.
I've always had a certain sympathy for the Black Lives Matter movement, especially in the wake of Trayvon Martin's horrific murder and the perversion of justice that followed. But now, I think I get it. The tendency to generalize the massacre, especially by right wing politicians and pundits opposed to treating gays as people, is infuriating. No, America was NOT the target. All people were NOT in Omar Mateen's gunsights last weekend. Gays were, especially gay men. He deliberately targeted the most popular gay night spot in Orlando on its busiest night. He knowingly struck in June when all of gay America observes Gay Pride Month.
Omar Mateen declared his allegiance to the Islamic State in the midst of the attack, but who knows what really set this guy off. As information emerges, Mateen looks less and less like some diabolical sleeper cell member of an international terror network, and more like another pathetic sociopathic fuck up able to buy a military assault weapon in Florida. He seems to have appeared frequently at the very bar he shot up, and to have used gay dating apps like Grindr and others. Maybe he was a self-loathing closet case committing suicide as well as mass murder. Or maybe he was simply scoping out potential targets. We may never know. Adding to the outrage was the fact that he was able to buy a military assault rifle so easily. A man under FBI surveillance, on a no-fly list, with numerous complaints against him for violent behavior bought a military weapon with no questions asked, not even a waiting period, and it was all perfectly legal. Doubly infuriating are all the people who think first and foremost about their guns instead of all the people killed and injured when events like this happen. I think military weapons should stay in the military where they belong. If you want to play with one, then head down to the enlistment office and sign up for duty.
I seriously considered taking a pass this year on marching in the Gay Pride parade, but I will be there this month on Fifth Avenue. Our work clearly is not over. We are all still targets.