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David Rimanelli: Tom of Finland has become the Hello Kitty of gay culture


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In this month’s issue of Artforum, David Rimanelli writes about Artists Space’s recent Tom of Finland retrospective, saying the artist has become the “Hello Kitty of gay culture.”

There’s something about the knowing grasp of the cognoscenti pulling the formerly-counterculture into its intellectual gaze that feels uncanny here. Does a respected Manhattan art institution mounting a Tom of Finland show mark the total demarginalization of gay culture? Rimanelli writes:

Bob Ross, Margaret Keane, and R. Crumb all used to be on the outside, but things change; the cognoscenti have them in group shows. Books I read in college, from Peter Gay’s Weimar Culture to Derrida, helped permit the absorption of the outside into correct culture, which is to say, the process of assimilation. In those years of dedifferentiation, Tom’s drawings could be found at a magazine shop near campus in a range of publications from hard-core porn to Representations."

And his unstoppable last paragraph:

“I believe in fact that attempts to bring political protest together with ‘popular music’—that is, entertainment music—are . . . doomed from the start,” Theodor Adorno once said. “And I have to say that when somebody sets himself up, and for whatever reason sings maudlin music about Vietnam being unbearable, I find that really it is this song that is in fact unbearable, in that by taking the horrendous and making it somehow consumable, it ends up wringing something like consumption qualities out of it.” The elements of Tom’s work that have been most celebrated since his death—its aesthetic precision, its cheery inclusiveness, its “brandable” consistency—are often the most lauded as liberating and populist. It is this reception that encourages the sort of broad public amusement that Adorno finds unbearable. The mass marketing of Tom’s images via clothing lines, bedsheets, toys, and relentlessly upbeat postage stamps somehow creates a tyranny of “desire.” I hate desire. It’s always about belittling people while “liberating” them. The apparent simplicity of Tom’s trajectory, from transgressive outsider to the Hello Kitty of gay culture, when presented as purely celebratory, even “inclusive,” is troubling. As a Dutch leather-shop owner once said, “These works are not conversation pieces, they’re masturbation pieces.”

Read the full version on Artforum here.