03/16/2012 12:05 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Do You Hate Homoerotic Art? Is It the Art, or Is It You?

Did you think homoeroticism in art was just a late-20th-century phenomenon, that artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Bruce Weber, and many others were something new under the sun?

When the European publishing house Bruno Gmünder asked me to create a new book of art featuring male nudes, for my introduction I decided to search for surprising works by well-known artists of the past. My new book is called Gorgeous Gallery and features more graphic and edgy art than do any of my past collections. But now that the collection is finished and ready to be published, I got to thinking: is this art really that edgy, historically speaking?

Maybe it only feels like it pushes the limits here in America, because of so much political hoo-ha from Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, and their noisemakers, as they flood the airwaves trying to frighten us all. I don't write political diatribes, but I am anti-prude.

If you follow my books and my blog, you know I am all about celebrating our new, 21st century -- and rejecting those who want to pull us back into the past. I was born in 1930, and take it from me: we do not want to go back there. A lot of us over 65 don't avoid sex as we get older. (I call our group the "sextennials." Do you like my new term?) We don't yearn for the past. If everyone else did the same, wouldn't the world be better?

But are these "conservatives" really resisting a very modern trend, as they say they are? They should just forget it. We all might as well face it: homoerotic art did not break loose in the 20th century; it has been with us always, no matter how the art experts might choose to interpret it. Many in our society, and in the art world, do not like to admit that a work of art can be of a very high level and still be homoerotic -- erotic, maybe, but homoerotic? Horrors! Sorry, we may be able to excuse those flat-fronted Egyptians, but all those Greek Eros representations created for centuries weren't made to turn on the ladies.

Sure, fine art can come under the heading of pornography if your definition of pornography is "sexually arousing." That's hard to deal with in the ever-so-repressive United States. Now porn is something that comes in a plain wrapper and that, more and more, you search for on your computer. Well, pre-Internet, you used to find these things on the walls of famous museums (you still do) and in public statues. Are you going to try to tell me that Michelangelo's "David" is not sexy in all that nakedness? Come on.

Since it is dawning on us that fine art can be sexy, and because we are in such a hyper-political frenzy, soon Republicans are bound to start demanding yet again that certain kinds of art be taken out of exhibits, claiming that the art is "offensive." The Smithsonian in Washington went through this song and dance not too long ago, and it just made them look silly and out of it.

Homoerotic Art Through the Ages

Certainly way back when, the ancients knew that art could turn you on. Of course, they probably didn't think of "fine art" and "popular art." They probably didn't even think of it as "art." The statues of naked young men that must have been everywhere in public places were certainly to honor the beauty of these young men. And in addition to their beauty, they were also sexual. Beauty and sex operate in the same area and on the same plane. And certainly we know that Greek men much admired the beauty and sexiness of younger men. Their pottery reveals that fooling around was an essential part of their culture. The Greeks, and later the Romans, did not, of course, have our contemporary notion that there is something wrong with sex and that it is inextricably locked in with feeling guilty. The fact that they had all those athletic meets where men wandered about naked tells you that the public liked to take a look -- the public that did not include any women, who were all at home. However, the female nude was equally displayed in public as statuary, and certainly for the very same reasons. Sex was in the air, and all the time.

Depicting hot guys went very much out of style with the fall of the Roman Empire and those dark, dark ages that pretty much lasted until the Renaissance. But when in the 1400s in Italy they began to dig up those sexy statues, art got a whole new head start. Artists not only copied the work of the past but sometimes imitated it and tried to pass it off as from the earlier time. Michelangelo was much inspired by the classic period, and anyone who has closely observed the Sistine Chapel can see that it is jammed with paintings of very hot guys (and the women look very much like men). Art historians excuse this by saying women were not available to pose nude. I wonder.

History seems to repeat itself, because after all those male nudes were on view, both in art and around town, suddenly the Catholic popes insisted that a lot of fig leaves be painted over the offending male regions. Some popes even sent off crusading mobs to chop off the winkies from sexy statues. But it is still obvious that these men were supposed to be sexy. They didn't all have to have their clothes off. Anyone who has read the graphic novels of Teo Jodorowsky has seen that he imagines an affair between the pope of that period and Michelangelo, even depicting the two men in bed repeating the pose of God creating Adam with a touch of his finger.

When we move on to the period of Peter Paul Rubens, who painted a ton of work with the assistance of helpers, we see religious paintings still offering us homoerotic titillation. In his "The Enthroned Madonna Surrounded by Saints" there is a near-naked saint in the foreground being given some special attention by an admirer/persecutor in black armor. The saint seems to be relishing it. This kind of naked image was certainly to show off somebody with a great and sexy body. And again, I don't think it was for the ladies of the time.

The French Revolution brought another burst of interest in naked men in paintings, harking back to the distant Greek past. The men who led the revolution loved being likened to those long-ago heroes. Painters like David and Girodet and Girard created a large number of works for public view with lots of naked guys. Girodet's "Revolt in Cairo" has a central figure of a splendid, nude Egyptian guard defending his swooning leader, almost every square inch of his fabulous body on display. Most of the artists of that time were trained in Rome, and their training included much viewing of the male nude (which is rumored to have taken place in their homes quite often).

In the 1830s, during the Romantic period, the female nude came to occupy a much more prominent position in public art, but the male was also shown. The not-so-famous William Etty painted a beautiful, black male nude in a non-classical pose, so obviously it was less necessary to recall the past in presenting the naked male figure.

As the 19th century progressed, people got more uptight about seeing the male nude (which means to me that they were getting gayer and gayer). Oh, boys, boys, boys!

Toward the end of the century, famous artists like John Singer Sargent were painting the male nude quite a lot in outdoor settings, but these paintings were not shown to the public. Victorian attitudes had set in, and only the female nude was publicly shown. But curiously, the male nude was still considered an acceptable subject for public statuary. There were a lot of larger-than-life-sized men in marble around all major cities. Most had only a bit of flying drapery covering up their vital parts. And these statues were sexy, even if no one wanted to admit it.

In France even a quite conservative artist like Gustave Caillebotte, famous for his Parisians in the streets of the capital, did a lot of working-class men cleaning up in the altogether. His men were very sexual. He had a good eye for a good body.

The erotic male nude began to emerge into public view again in the United States in the mid-20th century. The Magic Realists (who were linked to photography, as well) included a lot of men with their clothes off in their paintings. Pavel Tchelitchew came from Russia, was enthused over by Gertrude Stein in Paris, and came on to New York to find fame. His magical work was highly regarded, and his very overt homoerotic drawings and paintings found a market, too. Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Bernard Perlin were other artists of this school. I know -- I did a book on them.

Here We Go Again...

Now in our new, 21st century there is a certain amount of shock at the suggestion that homoeroticism and art may exist in a single piece. But as we discard our worries about what the neighbors might think of us, there is more and more sex on view, and more and more acceptance that many of the artists might like guys as much as others like gals. Certainly there seems to be more interest in the male and his parts in contemporary art than views of the female -- perhaps because the female was considered much more acceptable over most of the past two centuries?

So, here we are again. Is this a new Renaissance? Is it now time for yet another burst into view of men in the altogether, mostly for the eyes of other men?

It's bound to arouse the ire of those who wish to plunge us back into depths of the 20th century (it certainly does feel like the 1950s all over again -- and not in a good way), or maybe even back to the 19th century. Mitt, Newt, Rick, and Ron seem a lot closer to the views of Queen Victoria than they do to contemporary folks (all over London, the queen had ready-made fig leaves put over the male nude statues that offended her). And what about poor Rush Limbaugh? I'd like to hear his reaction to the sexy art jumping off the pages of my new book. Please. Oh, Rush Limbaugh, what gives with all this anti-sex stuff? Other people already call me an 82-year-old slut; you don't have to do it for them.

When I was growing up in the 1930s, no one even knew what the term "homosexual" meant. We've come through decades of recognition, rejection, persecution, and comprehension. Through all these phases, the past always existed: homoeroticism and art met long ago; it's not something new to get all worked-up about.

I don't want to bore you, but the point I am making is that those who are the most disturbed may be those who are the most worried about their own emotions. Do you know about the famous penis study of homophobic men? Heterosexual men with the most anti-gay attitudes claimed that they were not sexually aroused by gay male sex videos, but their penises reported otherwise: the homophobic men in the study were the ones most sexually aroused by viewing gay male sex acts. And there seem to be a lot of those anti-homoerotic persons out there. Might many of them be harboring secret feelings for their own sex? Dr. Kinsey may have underestimated in his figures a lot.

Who knows? The Greeks didn't seem to think there was much different between looking at a man's crotch or looking at his ear. Isn't it time we all grew up and learned to love the world around us instead of being afraid of ourselves?

David Leddick's newest book is called Gorgeous Gallery, to be published by Bruno Gmünder (Berlin) for worldwide release in May 2012. The book is 165 pages long and hardcover, and it includes 47 artists, with some very surprising works by major names like Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Don Bachardy, and Paul Cadmus. Says Mr. Leddick, "It's the most graphic and sexy book ever to feature the fine art of the homoerotic. It's very 21st-century."