Political and artistic controversies | Essay

Parma Violets


John Greyson

Read it in french

The following fake video script was written as a contribution to a particular debate among gay male artists that reached a head (so to speak) with an exhibition called Against Nature sponsored by the Los Angles artist space LACE in January 1988 (an earlier version of this script constituted my catalogue essay). The curatorial concept was inspired by Joris Karl Huysmans’s Against Nature, a satirical nineteenth-century French novel that celebrated artifice and dandyism. With tongue in cheek, it recorded the self-imposed aesthetic exile of Des Essientes, an aesthete languishing from an (unnamed) disease that suspiciously resembled ennui.

The curators sought work that referenced AIDS from a similarly ironic, campy perspective—work that was biting, irreverent, self-consciously decorative, elegiac, impolite, bad boy. In part, the show was a response to the recent emergence of activist AIDS art, as typified by Gran Fury, Testing the Limits, and ACT UP artists, among others. The show insisted on the relevance of a particular self-described dandyish, foppish fag sensibility in combating the AIDS Crisis.


Through simplification, I’ve already done numerous disservices to the artists in the show, the curators, the critics of the show, the activist artist, and the debate itself. There isn’t space to adequately represent the heated arguments that ensued and that continue. The point is that this debate is occurring among gay artists in many cities around the world. Fags everywhere feel the absolute urgency of responding to this viral holocaust, but we disagree about the aesthetic and political strategies that are appropriate. We especially disagree about what we variously mean by aesthetics and politics. It’s no surprise that we are so vehement—the stakes of this crisis are as high as they get. This fag debate between the dandy and the activist, which most agree is a false opposition, nevertheless forces the issue to the fore—to be debated, struggled over, and negotiated. The last thing we need are narrow manifestos prescribing that propaganda (or alternately expression) is the only correct response. Thanks are due to Richard Hawkins and Denis Cooper, curators of Against Nature, and Gregg Bordowitz, James Miller, Simon Watney, Tony Greene, and Douglas Crimp, activist/artists/(darling dandies all), for making me re-examine fundamental assumptions about the very “nature” of art and politics.

Scene One

Medium shot of Venice Beach in winter, with a few gulls and fewer bathers. An African green monkey strolls towards the camera. His movements are awkward, since he has been killed, stuffed and then mechanized.

Green monkey (sounding like Alistair Cooke): Good Evening. Tonight on The Wonderful World of Human Nature, we examine the bizarre and often misunderstood habits of “The Dandy,” or more popularly, the “White Fag.” This subgroup of the Homosexual species used to proliferate in nineteenth-century European artistic milieu, but its numbers have sharply decreased in the last few decades with the ascendancy of the more aggressive “clone.” The Dandy can be identified by its eccentric clothing, its erratic wrist movements, and its predilection for Parma violets in lieu of a cravat.

Camera cuts to medium shot of man in a beach chair.

Green monkey (sotto voce): Let us quietly observe the typical behaviour of the Dandy in its habitat. Our scientists have learned that this one goes by the name of Gustave Aschenbach.

Aschenbach is dressed in a white suit and boating hat, just like Dirk Bogarde in that Visconti film. After adjusting his pillow and pince nez, he petulantly turns the page of his book. Close-up of book: Against Nature, by Joris Karl Huysmans. Mahler plays mournfully in the background. A flowery script, the color of Parma violets, begins to roll over the screen.

Rolling text: White fags are a special breed of nature lovers, searching for those corners of the urban where the rural erupts. White fags seek out those bridges that traverse polluted rivers, whose deep arches cast dark shadows on both the water and the bank. They embrace the stench of tearoom sewers, casting their pollution into the drains that lead to the sea.

Green monkey: Like many of the Dandy subspecies, he is sick with a peculiar malady, which causes him to imagine things that aren’t really there.

Medium shot: Aschenbach looks up and out to sea.

Cut to: Long shot of an eighteenth-century cargo vessel in the fog. Its sailors (all naked) are leaping from the decks into the cold, grey water.

Rolling text: In 1721, the plague swept across Europe from the East, and reached Marseilles. The Dutch imposed a strict quarantine on all shipping from the east—even burning cargos and making sailors swim ashore naked.

Series of close-ups of mens’ bodies, shot from underwater, their thighs and forearms getting tangled with one another as they desperately battle the cold, polluted waters of Santa Monica bay.

Scene Two

Later in the afternoon on the beach.

Medium shot: Aschenbach has set up a writing table, and is sorting through piles of correspondence. He dips a quill in ink the color of Parma violets and begins to write.

Aschenbach (very faggy and affected): Dear LACE: I am thrilled to be able to participate in your exquisite exhibition Against Nature, though I really don’t know about the title. After all, my doctors specifically recommended the bracing sea air of Venice Beach as a tonic for my many maladies and ailments. Nevertheless, what a divine concept! An entire show devoted to our languid reveries, our elegiacal ennui, our plaintive sighs of capitulation in the face of mortality! We decorative dandies have been marginalized too long by those puerile politicos, those righteous gay libbers, those lesbians and feminists who on principle disdain both soufflés and sequins! It’s time to reclaim our rightful place as the arbiters of aesthetic transcendence! At last, a space of our own, where we may celebrate dillentantism as the penultimate expression of art’s true mission! A chance to spill our glorious seed, to let it go forth and multiply, so that we can wallow in our truly bitter harvest! A chance to finally, fully, go camping… !

FX: Phone ringing. Tight shot of answering machine and phone at his feet in the sand. Reaction shot of Aschenbach listening as people leave messages :

Voice on Machine: It’s Paul, calling from the hospital…

Beep. Another message: It’s Bill, I’m just on my way to the hospital…

Another: It’s Bev, we’re planning the memorial and we hoped…

Another: Please call Dr. Simian about your test results…

Aschenbach reaches for the phone, and then falls back, his listless hand falling to the sand. A delicate tear drops on the letter, mixing with the wet ink, blurring the word “reveries”…

Scene Three

Split screen of two maps of Africa, one negative, one positive (one black, one white). The head of the green monkey appears in the middle of each. The one on the left chants : “Activist”; the one on the right chants: “Aesthete”. Then, as the two maps and two monkeys heads begin to superimpose, the two green monkey speak in unison: “Within the AIDS movement, there exist two opposing polemics, two prescriptions for cultural practice, two roles for the artist addressing AIDS: the role of the aesthete vs. the role of the activist. Artists making work about AIDS are forced to choose an allegiance to one or the other, perpetuating a false opposition.”

Scene Four

Tracking shot follows the Green Monkey wandering through a toy store, past rows and rows of stuffed animals.

Green monkey: White fags express their relation to nature in peculiar ways. For instance, King Ludwig 2nd of Bavaria created an artificial rainforest and filled it with mechanical animals that he killed, stuffed and animated with wind-up clockwork mechanisms. That’s how I ended up this way (gesturing to his mechanical limbs). Sir Richard Burton, that brilliant Victorian anthropologist and close friend of Ludwig’s, similarly loved African animals and was an infamous adventurer. He translated the unexpurgated Arabian Nights, and developed a theory of sexuality based upon what he identified as the “sotadic zones.” He claimed that warm tropical climates encouraged the proliferation of homosexuality, while colder temperatures tended to produce heterosexual behavior. However, when he sketched out a map illustrating his theory, it proved to be wildly indifferent to equatorial temperatures, conforming instead to the moral and legal geography of the time. His sotadic zones, in fact, consisted of those countries uncolonized by Christianity where homosexual acts were tolerated (at least according to his freewheeling “research”).

Shot of Sir Richard Burton’s sotadic zone map, whichis then superimposed over a map illustrating the prevalence of AIDS around the globe. They do not correspond.

Scene Five

Long shot of Sir Richard Burton walking along Hollywood Boulevard. He has been alive now for 170 years and is at a bit a loose end. He recently joined ACT UP LA and has publicly renounced much of his racist and sexist Victorian ways, to much whooping and stomping of the ACT UP membership. He enters a sex shop. Interior: He gives the guy at the cash register a dollar. Camera follows them both as the guy unlocks a door and leads Burton down into the Sex Museum, pausing to switch on an audio cassette tape-loop of passionate groans and clanking chains. Camera surveys various dioramas, lit by spotlights. Each illustrates a category of sexual “perversion”, as identified and isolated by scientific study. Pedophilia is a young mannequin boy on a square of Astroturf. Necrophilia is a blond mannequin woman lying in a coffin, wearing a see-through negligee. All the mannequins are from the sixties—the women have flips and beehives, the men have Rock Hudson haircuts, parted on the left side. Burton moves the a pool of light depicting beastiality. A mannequin man is on his back, pink plastic legs in the air, being mounted by a huge, stuffed toy dog, the kind you win at the fair playing Racetrack with squirt guns.

Scene Six

Sir Richard Burton, sitting at a table in the Pioneer Chicken on Hollywood Boulevard. He is writing a letter with ink the coloir of Parma violets.

Dear LACE: I regret I can’t participate in your show, Against Nature. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to disclaim or disown my dandy comrades or their work. It’s more the premise, which runs the danger of being renamed “Against Responsibility,” which suggests that our artistic response to this health crisis has been nothing more than an ineffectual morbid flap of the wrist. Of course, we white fags may seem to shock or transgress the status quo by flapping our genitals in the face of respectability, but do we really produce anything more than titters (and titillation)? By refusing to make work that engages actual agendas of social change, aren’t we ultimately vulnerable to recuperation by the system that we pretend to disrupt? You deliberately exclude work by lesbians, marginalize gays of color, and discourage gay activist artists addressing the politics of AIDS. You provide LACE with an excuse not to do another “gay” show or another “AIDS” show, because of course, “We’ve already done one, it was called Against Nature.” White fag privilege becomes enshrined and enfranchised, reinforcing the sexism and racism of the mainstream art world…”

FX: Phone rings. Tight shot of Burton answering.

Aschenbach: Mary dear, what is this tripe about not being in the show?

Burton: Trust you to jump on the gossip. Let’s meet at the Natural History Museum in New York… we can talk about it there…

Scene Seven

Long shot of them embracing in the vaulted entrance (discrete European cheek pecks), and wandering up the stairs. Leisure tracking shot follows them as they wander past the dioramas, where herds of mammals and flocks of birds have been frozen for a century. They pause to admire the marsupials, the leopards, the buffalo, the African green monkeys, paying special attention to those species which have become extinct. A crane shot follows their heated argument around and under the giant blue whale.

Just off the blue whale is a hallway filled with pictures and captions. A history of epidemics. From the black plague to AIDS. They try to picture the curator who pulled it off. Someone young, well-meaning, who had read Sander Gilman’s Disease and Representation but not really understood it, someone who had probably lost a friend seven months earlier, after protracted bouts with pneumocystis. They proceed through the woodcuts, the engravings, the stigmatas of syphilis, leprosy, bubonic plague. They reach AIDS. It’s a rear-projected slide show of photos of PWAs from Miami, Brazil and New Jersey. Men in hospitals, wrapped in IV tabes instead of leather straps, with lesions instead of bruises. The new SM. Real kinky.

A grade-school class in search of the African dioramas accidently enters the exhibit. A little boy glances, freezes. Ina split second, without the aid of captions, he can “read” the image. Nine years old and he has mastered the visual semiotics of a purple splotch on a forearm. It takes him two seconds. “AIDS,” he screams. The others, the same age, freeze, glance and get it. They too can read. They giggle. They scream “AIDS!” They stampede, their terror cut with glee, a herd of unstuffed little animals fleeing from visual contagion, half-convinced the KS lesions could leap from the projected-slide image onto their pre-pubescent bodies. (Perhaps they are not so sophisticated— perhaps they don’t know the différence between front and rear projection, perhaps they believe that they could interrupt the beam of light and cause the image to spill over their bodies.)

Cut to: Scene from biblical film by Cecil B. DeMille where Saint Veronica wipes Christ’s face on Calvary and the cloth is imprinted with his image.

Cut to: Clip from Star Trek episode, where alien woman “cures” Spock and Kirk by transferring their lesions to her own arms.

Scene Eight

Panoramic view of Black Sand beach, a gay nude beach just across from the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco.

Green monkey: Aschenbach, the aesthete, turned to nature for a cure and was deceived. Sir Richard Burton, the activist, turned to nature for an explanation and was betrayed. As representatives of a species facing extinction, they have turned “against nature.” At the same time, the sea wind sharpens their senses. They are less cynical, more critical. They are beginning to turn “against culture.”

Long shot of Aschenbach and Burton standing on cliff, looking out to sea. Their POV: the eighteenth-century cargo vessel reappears in the bay, with naked sailors leaping from the deck into the water, attempting to escape the plague.

Cut to: Tight shot of Aschenbach and Burton, transfixed (slipping into a reverie), unconsciously stepping nearer the edge. Mahler. The waves pound below.

Green monkey: That peculiar species, the Dandy, flourished in societies of unquestioned privilege and inflexible stratification. In this moment of turmoil and crisis, the Dandy is threatened with extinction. Like all species, it must adapt or perish.

Rolling text: The ritual plunge, leaping from the cliff into the brine, recurs again and again in diverse cultures. For some, it could cleanse the body and soul. For others, it could appease wrathful gods and fend off earthly demons. Sappho, the most famous of divers, was claimed by Pliny to have been reborn as an androgyne through her leap, while others say she was transformed into a bird before hitting the raging surf and flew far out to sea, to the sunset and beyond.

Possible Conclusions

1, Burton and Aschenbach join hands and leap into the frothy waves. Swimming out past the treacherous rocks, they join the naked sailors in the bay, and commence with some impromptu water ballet. A helicopter shot reveals their complicated formation of intertwined limbs, which spells out: “AIDS Action Now!”

  1. They pause on the cliff, undecided. After much hemming and hawing, they pull out sketchbooks and begin to draw the drowning sailors, with ink the color of Parma violets.

  2. They split ranks. Aschenbach sketches while Burton leaps.

  3. They debate their options. Aschenbach argues that the leap is a cop-out, romantically embracing the utopian “image” of collective action while denying their own subjective experiences, of AIDS and of art. Burton concedes that Aschenbach may have a point, but argues that sketching the death throes of anonymous “victims” is hardly a viable (let alone an aesthetic) alternative. Achieving no satisfactory solution, they appropriate the helicopter (which has been waiting around all day on the off chance that the Esther Williams shot might happen) and commence with an air rescue of the men. Having nowhere better to go, they fly downtown to the opening of Against Nature at LACE. The arrival of two dozen naked sailors causes quite a stir, naturally, and the debate continues at a feverish pace…