When powerful governments, looking to enforce a milquetoast morality, attempt to censor sexually explicit works by gay and queer artists, where do the images end up? Many are of course destroyed or publicly ridiculed. But others go underground, to the periphery, into dormancy, or into hiding—anywhere that is safe. And for nearly eight decades, some of that work has found such safety, bizarrely enough, in the small town of Bloomington, Indiana, thanks to the little-known but expansive art collection of the Kinsey Institute.
Today, the Kinsey Institute’s collection holds some 100,000 works of film, painting, photography, and more created by both famous and entirely anonymous artists. Only a small fraction of the pieces have ever been seen by anyone other than curious researchers. Now, “Protected Beauty,” a new exhibition of some 40 works of art from the Kinsey collection on view at the World Erotic Art Museum in Miami Beach, is looking to change that.
Famed researcher and father of the sexual revolution Alfred Kinsey founded the controversial institute at Indiana University in 1947 and made the study of human sexuality its focus from the outset. The issues Kinsey researched were seen by society at the time as taboo at best and at worse, criminal—some remain so. And over the years, Kinsey’s reputation for openness to a broad range of sexual identities beyond monogamous heterosexuality grew, even extending across the ocean. When the Nazis ransacked Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft in Berlin, a precursor to the Kinsey Institute, some with art and research they feared would be labeled degenerate by the fascists sent it to Kinsey in Bloomington for safekeeping.
Homophobia and the criminalization of so-called “deviant” sexuality is not simply a foreign speciality. And through the years the Institute amassed work from across the United States as well. Some objects were donated by owners who found themselves under duress, other pieces were sent to Kinsey for research purposes after being confiscated for their contents by police forces or prison wardens. Photographer
, whose images of gay men feature heavily in “Protected Beauty,” feared that sending his pictures to Indiana would violate a 19th-century statute known as the Comstock Law, which criminalized mailing pornography through the USPS. So, to protect them, Kinsey made trips across the country to hand carry the work of Lynes and others to Bloomington, forging personal connections with the artists in the process.