How Alfred Kinsey Helped Protect Sexually Explicit Works of Art
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 George Platt Lynes, 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.
Through the years, these many sources contributed to the extremely wide-ranging material that comprises the collection today: from some of Hirschfeld’s correspondences to strange (and impractical) condoms, from photographs by the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe to 4,000 erotic sketches by anonymous prisoners (the largest such collection in the world), and more. The vast majority of the art Kinsey Institute’s collection holds has not been digitized, nor has it been exhibited. So the extent of its marvels must mainly be relayed by those who have managed to see the collection first-hand. “I was just kind of blown away. They have everything which has meaning in the history of human sexuality,” says Helmut Schuster, a co-curator of the exhibition at the World Erotic Art Museum.
And the history of human sexuality is one rarely told in all its complexity. Despite the fact the arts are generally seen today as progressive, the Kinsey Institute’s collection features “stories that have been missed by the mainstream art world,” says Rebecca Fasman, the collection’s manager of traveling exhibitions, who co-curated “Protected Beauty.” Recent years have seen artists frequently and openly dealing with sexuality, but “queer artists did not start working 15 years ago,” Fasman notes. To whit: The collection features the work of artists like Rembrandt, Picasso, Renoir, and other well-known figures, but it also crucially includes what Fasman calls “unsung heroes,” people who “either kept certain work hidden, or if they did sort of crack the door open a little bit and let people see it, their careers suffered for it.”
Several such artists join well-known figures like Mapplethorpe in “Protected Beauty,” people like Wilhelm von Gloeden, Marcel Vertes, and Andrey Avinoff, who was the director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural history in Pittsburgh for 19 years. Working in the early 20th century, his paintings of orchids and his collection of butterflies are relatively well known. But his works focused on men were overlooked during his lifetime. “They’re gorgeous, kind of trippy and psychedelic, and they’re ahead of their time in terms of what was happening in the art world,” said Fasman of the colorful drawings.
Interestingly, Fasman says that the exhibition was actually partly a response to the sexism present during the U.S. presidential campaign, particularly in the way it tackles questions of male beauty. “It was so interesting to read about how fascist masculinity became such a magnet for a lot of people,” Fasman said, suggesting that it made other less aggressive versions of maleness the subject of derision. The election of Donald Trump as president and the rise of far-right movements in Europe has made clear the enduring presence and appeal of white nationalism predicated on normative, violent notions of masculinity. But, she said, ultimately “this political change has made me far more resolute and far more interested in telling stories that perhaps were squashed, were minimized in a time when there were politically conservative things going,” she said.
The Kinsey Institute, despite offering safety for controversial material, has itself become a target of such conservative rhetoric. The recently elected governor of Indiana, Eric Holcomb, famously used it in a campaign ad in a 2000 election against a democratic rival. Holcomb accused his opponent of sponsoring “sexual related art, studies on bestiality, obscene photographs of children and its apparent support of homosexuality.” The charge was widely criticized for being misleading: It came about simply because Holcomb’s rival had voted for routine public funding of Indiana University, of which the Kinsey Institute is a part. (Holcomb lost that particular election.)
The Kinsey Institute and its collection is prepared to counter such attacks in the future and continue to grow and provide refuge for artworks and artifacts the world over that may come under threat. In the meantime, the Kinsey Institute’s collection continues to evolve. Currently, it reflects the time in which the vast majority of its holdings were assembled. It lacks in artists of color and tilts heavily towards gay men. So the team has worked to fill the gaps, adding transgender, lesbian, African-American, and Latino artists and more. If all goes according to plan there will be more exhibitions in the future and opportunities beyond “Protected Beauty” to showcase the works that are in—and will continue to be added to—the collection. “There are lots of stories to tell,” Fasman said. “This is just one of many.”