Homofuturism Deferred: Galerie Bucholz Loses the Plot with the Confused Conceptual Goldmine of “Cosmic Communities: Coming Out Into Outer Space – Homofuturism, Applied Psychedelia & Magic Connectivity”
Maximin: ein Gedenkbuch by Stefan George. Poetry book designed and illustrated by Melchior Lechter
“The future is queerness’s domain. Queerness is a structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present…Queerness is essentially about the rejection of the here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.
-José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia:The Then and There of Queer Futurity
“There is a dearth of scholarship in relation to black queer performance in disco or electronic dance music culture….Black queer identity rejects binary assumptions concerning gendered-identity metanarratives that are primarily composed of desire for the opposite sex, as encoded in heteronormative gender performances and sexed bodies.
-Reynaldo Anderson, “Fabulous: Sylvester James, Black Queer Afrofuturism and the Black Fantastic”
Walking into Galerie Bucholz one sun-soaked Saturday afternoon in January, the effect was in equal turns overwhelming and energizing. Crammed so full with artworks and historical objects, the gallery resembled something closer to a kitsch-filled antiques store than a typical art show, tasteful as it was. To experience the curatorial jam session that is “Cosmic Communities: Coming Out Into Outer Space – Homofuturism, Applied Psychedelia & Magic Connectivity” was to be transported to a cross-historical salon-like space whose intentions remained murky, though clearly ambitious. On display was an assemblage of historical and artistic objects and media in the form of early twentieth century manuscripts, jazz and avant-garde classical record sleeves, afrofuturist costumes and comics, minimalist art,concert posters arranged catacorner to performance photos and videos, psychedelic art in the form of mandalas, and a wonderfully groovy copy of Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. Amidst this artistic and cultural historic mash-up was little to be found in the way of a thematic center of gravity. Instead, I felt pulled in countless temporal, philosophical, and aesthetic directions, the deluge of objects confusing any clear view of the artistic assemblage on display. As I continued to lap around the the capital-I-with-a-serif space, connections both obvious and perhaps imagined emerged at an exponential rate; one’s third eye spied a deeply complex wireless network of association; “a constellation of historical phenomena that branched out and evolved in various nature.” Those looking for a tidy thematic umbrella under which to make sense of the assorted movements and mediums would not readily find one as “Cosmic Communities” ultimately amounts to a series of unarticulated theses and conceptual suggestions that, in spite of itself, butts up against other strains of academic studies into
Typically, shows based around a curatorial concept are strongest when they feature anywhere between five and fifteen artists with intuitive commonalities, regardless of their medium, era, or context. While I certainly don’t believe it is a curator’s job to do the thinking for the audience--after all, it is a truly great joy to attend such a show and work one’s way through its logic until its full visage snaps into focus, the connections and their as if it was clear as day--it’s also not particularly fun to be confronted with an absence of meaning. Or to try and make sense of a conceptual sketch or, at worst, a caricature. “Cosmic Communities” is at its strongest when one doesn’t dig too hard in search of a greater significance, focusing rather on the objects and artworks themselves, many of which are lovely. Like its overcrowded title, curators Diedrich Diederichsen and Christopher Müller almost seem to deploying the gallery version of shock-and-awe, piling on the engaging art sans the conceptual heft needed to logically bring it all together.
According to the eight-page essay that accompanied the show, “Cosmic Communities” surveys a number of utopianary homosocial and queer communities that used visual art, music, and sex to posit a better, more inclusive world. In a nutshell, that seems to capture the general thrust of the “homofuturism” of its title and it’s one that could be represented through an entirely different program if it were not for the starting points the curators chose from which their exploration branches outward. As Diedrichsen and Müller explain in that text, their focus rests upon “artists who formulated strong, almost violent, and widely impactful and inspired claims, and who in this sense still bore out the myth of the artist hero, but did so always with the commanding need to form groups, families, or even monastic orders.” Given the profusion of aesthetic and mystical societies and micro-communities that have arisen around charismatic artists since the nineteenth centuries, little is given in way of explanation as to why the curators chose to begin with two exceptionally eccentric orders--German poet Stefan George (1868-1933) and his rigid, homoerotic Circle as well as organ builder and controversial writer Henry Jahnn’s (1894-1959) outwardly homosocial and polyamorous Circle of Ugrino. They do give a rather pithy justification in the accompanying text, writing “The George Circle and Ugrino–are nearly untapped treasure troves of queer life reform and artistic projects from which a multitude of lines lead first to the neo-avant-gardes and liberation cultures of the 1960s but also into the present.” It’s from these two men that a loose set of themes are identified that are in turn transposed upon a later group of artists who had little connection to either order, but shared both an attraction to hierarchy centered around a charismatic figure and, in the curators’ eyes, represented a queer actualization of the ideas that for George, Jahnn and their followers were uptopianary daydreams.
Citing the art historian Douglas Crimp, a figure whose photographs the Galerie has shown in the past, they note that the political programs of either order were not consciously enacted, creating “para- and political spaces” that Crimp has described as “queer before gay.” The curators seem to be enacting Crimp’s belief that cultural studies is a potent tool that enables art historians to collapse a certain critical distance and faulty sense of objectivity between themselves and their subjects of study. Cultural studies “defines itself as political specifically by recognizing that the political is the space of contestation itself. Needless to say, this thwarts the adoption of any particular politics in advance.” Such a non-prescriptive approach to art history and cultural movements enabled Crimp and other scholars to hone in on the often-hidden-in-plain-sight queerness as separate from a more rigid and prescribed homosexuality and thus could be seen as far more revolutionary. Taking a line from Marc Siegel, whom Crimp cites for commenting on the “strategic disruption of gender and sexual norms,” queer art often enacted itself by proliferating “queer challenges to the normalization of erotic life.” Speaking of sixties queer filmmakers like Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, and a host of other figures, Crimp notes that these artists “inhabited and helped make a world beyond their aesthetic endeavors, a world that devised innumerable means of resisting the forces of conformity and repression with radical hilarity, perverse pleasure, defiant solidarity.”
The lack of articulation around gay culture that existed throughout much of the twentieth century reveals a reveals countless openings into queer thought, reading what remains implicit while highlighting the explicit. However, is it a productive or even accurate reading? After a couple of months looking deeper into the show’s subjects and the scholarship around queer futurity, I’d argue it’s a highly selective one that ignores a number of salient historical facts and trends that both undercut and muddle their thesis. This makes for a particularly frustrating take-away when so much of the art on display seems to resonate with philosophies and theories that ultimately would have helped “Cosmic Communities” serve as a viable launching pad for the extremely salient concept of homofuturism.
Opening José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia:The Then and There of Queer Futurity is a quote from arguably that most well-known of nineteenth century homosexual artists who commanded considerable social attention and affection, Oscar Wilde, that states: “A map of the world that does not include utopia is not a map worth looking at.” Seizing upon Wilde’s sentiment, Muñoz writes in his book’s opening page, “Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality….We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as ideality that be distilled from the past used to imaging a future. The future is queerness’s domain. Queerness is a structuring and educated mode of desire that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present.” It is in reading Muñoz’s work that can help us to better articulate what a homofuturist practice might entai; a utopianary and proto-political form enacting of a certain potentiality through artistic creation, a fixation with the future informed by the past, steeped in the often under-articulated hope of what Muñoz describes as “a certain potentiality, a relational field where men could love each other outside the institutions of heterosexuality.”
Utopianary thinking and a concept of queer utopianism invites a characterization that finds such thought wanting for it is purely idealistic and not rooted in a practical political agenda. And perhaps this is why the curators only allude to utopia in the abstract, instead choosing to assemble a variety of artistic movements from the fifties onward. In attempting to posit the existence of a homofuturist impulse that coarsed through the historical throughlines assembled at Bucholz, Diedrichs embark upon a heterodox path forged by the writers Mark Dery, Kodwo Eshun and Mark Sinker in the 1990s whose respective work established the foundation of aftrofuturism. As articulated in his famous essay “Black to the Future” in 1994, Drery wrote, “Speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture--and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future--might, for want of a better term, be called ‘Afrofuturism.’” Eshun and Sinker expanded their afrofuturist purview to include music and visual art, though as Reynaldo Anderson notes in “Fabulous: Sylvester James, Black Queer Afrofuturism and the Black Fantastic,” twenty-first century afrofuturist are emerging in the realm of metaphysics, including cosmogony, cosmology, speculative philosophy, and the philosophy of science. While Anderson is quick to note that the “dominant expression of Afrofuturism lies in its aesthetic expression and appropriation of technological and or African cultural artifacts, to reimagine or reinterpret the past present or future,” he points to contemporary music and performance, in particular future-minded disco and the fervent dancing it inspires, as a fertile and underanalyzed manifestation of afrofuturism.
It’s in consulting the literature around afrofuturism that one can start to better understand what perhaps Diedrichsen and Müller were attempting in a show that takes in a multiplicity of forms--including speculative fiction like The Glass Bead Game and African-American science-fiction author Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren as well as Pedro Bell’s fantastical comic illustrations that adorned the vinyl release of Funkadelic’s Cosmic Slop--seeing them as artistic anticipations of utopianary ideals formulated by George and Jahann. Here is a good place to pause and acknowledge the curatorial fine print as Diederich and Müller write that “completeness and historical reliability” is not a primary concern of “Cosmic Communities.” “Rather, we begin with starting points that struck us and follow them, led by similarity and association, to variants and related phenomena or next stages.” The problem with this methodology is that it is all surface, eliding crucial biographical and historical facts that risk critically bankrupting the ideas pursued by “Cosmic Communities.”
But lest we get totally lost in the realm of critical theory that the curators briefly touch upon, rather relying on a speculative and ultimately selective reading of the principal subjects in which they choose to chase outwards from their assembled starting points of George and Jahnn. Ultimately, it is the latter whose permissive and mystical beliefs appears to guide the curators’ magical history tour. In particular, they look to the lives of musicians to articulate to seek an articulation of Jahnn’s musical idealism, informed by Hans Kayser whose philosophy of harmonics sought to uncover the eternal musical-mystical laws encased within the fluid medium. And informing much of the music they choose to look at, ranging from the proto-afrofuturism of Sun-Ra and his Arkestra and George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic order to more artworld-friendly examples like Karlheinz Stockhausen and La Monte Young. Thus, to better understand just where “Cosmic Communities” falters stupendously, let’s take a closer look at Stefan George whose utopianary beliefs took more of a fascistic form than the free love the curators see manifested in sixties psychedelic culture.
Once referred to as “the most powerful man in the world,” George wrote at a time when poetry was seen as a vehicle that could guide the future of a people. As one newspaper remarked in 1929 when printing a photograph of him alongside images of Gandhi, Lenin, and Woodrow Wilson, he was one of several “contemporary figures who have become legends.” Writing in his book Secret Germany: Stefan George and His Circle, Robert Edward Norton notes that the deeply political nature of George’s work and his own political influence “was pervasive, profound, and of extraordinary significance.” His influence and popularity rivaled contemporary writers including Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Gottfried Benn in terms of its ubiquity and it was unlikely any educated German would have been unfamiliar with his work. Although the curators briefly allude to the poet’s politics in the show’s text--referring to the “reactionary” nature of the George Circle and other like-minded “male collectives”--many scholars believe that his beliefs and those that adhered to them helped lay the foundation for Nazism to take hold. Describing George as “elitist, hierarchically minded, antidemocratic, and deeply suspicious of all forms of rationalism,” he embodied the beliefs that were endemic to antimodern intellectuals.
One of the more telling anecdotes about George’s core beliefs and how they blossomed into what would be by today’s standards considered to be a cult can be found in an exchange between George and one of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s admirers, recounted by Norton. The philosopher had famously broken ties with the composer Richard Wagner, publishing the essay Nietzsche contra Wagner in 1889 in which, having removed himself from the composer’s own circle of influence when he became disillusioned with Wagner’s anti-semitic views and conversion to Christianity, castigated him for being “against life” and that his art was not Germanic, but rather a product of religion. Questioning George about a statement he had made--“Nietzsche betrayed Wagner”--and arguing that Nietzsche had in fact been able to “see through” the composer’s work, George indicated that he actually disliked Wagner even more, but that his stance was one of principle. Nietzsche had famously acknowledged that it was his very split from Wagner that empowered him to articulate his philosophy. But for George, the breaking of “the union between disciple and master” was unforgivable, exclaiming that there would be “no Nietzsche without being awakened by Wagner.” This incident is just one of many in which George espoused his belief in the importance of remaining faithful to one’s meister or master, which was inseparable from pedagogy--by enlightening the masses with his poetry, they became irrevocably tied to him and in many cases, willfully submitted to his authority.
Starting out his career as a lyric poet in the French symbolist tradition in the 1890s and considered to be one of the most accomplished poets of his generation, George’s ambitions sought to bridge the aesthetic and the political, extending his considerable influence into both domains. He was the founder of the journal Blätter fur die Kuns, which was a platform for his rejection of the naturalist philosophy that was popular amongst German intellectuals alongside any work that contradicted his own beliefs. For him, the idea of Führerprinzip was central, meaning that he believed Germany desperately required a strong leader to restore it to greatness. Whether or not he considered himself to be this leader, over the course of four decades, he transmuted his beliefs into an actual practice through the creation of his Circle that assembled many of the most accomplished academics and writers in Germany at the time, they could teach their younger members and empower them to create their own art through what they considered to be divine inspiration. In his eyes, he was living in a “fake” Germany and it was by establishing his Circle that he was able to construct a “real” or idealistic version of his country in secret, one in which he was the meister, leader, and savior all in one.
One aspect of his personality that was likely instrumental in his transformation from exuding priestly and messianic qualities to actually seeking such a role was an idealized homoeroticism he sought to enact with a number of younger boys. Though George was adamant that his intentions were intellectual and not sexual, his actions suggest a deeply repressed man who sought to rationalize his desires as being of a “higher” order than love. One early incident of note occurred when, at the age of twenty-one, George fell madly in love with the seventeen year-old poet Von Hofmannsthal, a precocious teen already known outside of his home in Vienna and still widely regarded today, unlike George. Traveling to Austria, George began following the boy home from school in addition to sending lavish bouquets of flowers and offering him writing assignments for the Blätter. Eventually the young man told his parents of George’s actions and was asked to leave the city by Hugo’s father. When George’s obsessive letters were rebuffed after years of pursuing a relationship with Hugo, he viciously turned on the young man and repeatedly denigrated his writing.
However, it was his love for thirteen-year-old Krone Maximilian that would push George’s sexual politics into the public light following their introduction in 1902. The boy’s parents allowing young Maxi to come under George’s tutelage despite the poet being thirty-five, George went on to enact what can be assumed to be his many unfulfilled desires as he began grooming the boy for greatness, going so far as to deify him in the heavily homoerotic book of verse Der Siebente Ring, or The Seventh Ring. Though Maximilian’s parents started to become understandably wary of George’s intentions, the boy was falling fully under George’s spell, whom he took to calling his Meister by March of 1904. The following month, tragedy stuck when, one day after his sixteenth birthday, he died of meningitis. Bereaved by the loss of such a promising and beautiful young talent, he channeled his grief into the creation of Maximin: ein Gedenkbuch (Maximin: A Memorial Book) featuring erotic, half-naked photos of the young boy on display as part of the exhibition.
Marcus Behmer,“Prometheus (Stefan George)”, 1908
From that moment on, George was a changed man and set his focus upon becoming “wholly” German as the circle of acolytes that had begun to arise around him in 1892 began taking on a much more formalized and almost religious quality. Meetings would begin with a reading of the Blätter’s manifesto and George’s obsessive and controlling nature was permitted by willing followers to run wild as he began exercising control over their clothes--an ancient folkloric dress was preferred--and their personal lives. Despite his own well-known homoerotic predilections, openly out members, including the artist Marcus Behmer, were shown the door. Behmer’s painting “Prometheus” was on display at Bucholz and it shows George seen arrogantly leading such esteemed followers as Karl Wolfskehl (1869–1948) and Friedrich Gundolf (1880–1931), not to mention the Stuaffenberg brothers who were part of his inner circle. That such highly regarded academics and writers were so entranced by George speaks as much to his magnetic personality as to their shared interests, which touched on mystical and political themes shared by the Conservative Revolutionary Movement, which sought to eradicate all traces of liberalism in Germany in favor of a new political order based on conservative concepts. Still, the desire to ascend to the Circle’s upper echelons was a powerful one that would inspire the novelist Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. With an especially groovy copy on display, Hesse’s novel contains many of the themes the curators seek to chart, including a desire to find meaning in life, the role of apprenticeship in the passing of knowledge, and the importance of meditation and spirituality.
Assorted ephemera from the Circle of Ugrino, including examples of the group’s interest in harmonic philosophy and sepulchral architecture.
Jahnn was considerably more progressive and permissive in his beliefs and practices--indeed, one wonders why the curators simply didn’t choose to focus solely on this oft-overlooked historical figure. Jahnn had met his life partner Gottlieb Harms in 1911 while in high school and they soon married two years later in a “mystical weddings” at the school in a ‘mystical wedding.’ Jahnn soon began rebelling against the cultural mores of his bourgeois norms of his home town, composing works like the 1917 play Pastor Ephraim Magnus that was considered nihilistic, perverse, and overwhelming sado-masochistic. The following year, Jahnn met Elinor Philips and in 1919 he founded the Circle of Ugrino with the sculptor Franz Buse.
Ugrino was a polyamorous, pansexual commune with both Harms and Jahnn later marrying women as well. Nonetheless, both orders imposed strict protocols upon its members with the member of Ugrino sharing similar aesthetics and beliefs when it came to such topics as sepulchral architecture, design, clothing, and music. Jahnn fashioned himself a modernist writer in a post-Christian world where, similar to other German philosophers of his generation like Nietzsche, he sought to conceive a new manner of existing “after the twilight of his idols [had] faded.” For Jahnn, the body was the central site of eroticism and raged against societal norms, once writing, “In my whole life, I have never met a ‘normal person.’” As such, he openly espoused an uncurtailed expression of sexuality and openly advertised his bisexuality both within the Circle and his writings.
Fats Domino “Million Sellers Volume 3” Liberty, 1968
LP record with sleeve design by Hapshash and the Coloured Coat
The idea of encoding concepts of awakening, liberation, and expansion--what Diedrich and Müller call ”aesthetic cover stories”--within esoteric audio and visual mediums was one that received new attention within the psychedelic movements of the sixties. And this is where Cosmic Communities’ thesis and curation becomes both more tenuous and engaging. Much of the show’s content comes not in the form of ephemera from either Circle--as intriguing as it is--but rather through their historical resonance, found primarily in sixties psychedelia and its immediate precursors and aftermath. Though plenty of attention is given to the presence of Stockhausen, even if just through record covers and photos--the Sun Ra ephemera is much more extensive and aesthetically resonant with the themes of musical mysticism--visually some of the earliest work on hand is Jordan Belson’s astoundingly familiar yet totally other Brain Drawings. A concentrated attempt “to isolate cognition itself from an artistic perspective and turn it into an object that can reveal itself to the artist,” the work serves to represent the type of revelatory experience found in psychedelia that is rooted solely in the observer of the phenomenon, real or otherwise.
And while many of the show’s inclusions require the paragraph or longer quasi-biography to explain the reasoning behind their inclusion, ultimately the selection achieves some kind of meta-harmony. From Fluxus member the much more maximal yet organically geometric mandalas of John McCracken, there’s an uncanny immediacy to the show despite its extreme artistic variance. Sure, the photograph of Hans Henny Jahnn inspecting the St. Ansgar organ from Hamburg, 1931 jives with the disassembled and meaningfully mangled “Organ Pipes” by Lutz Bacher, but the effect is much more profound than its description might imply as the pipes take on a symbolic layer, representing both the realization of Jahnn’s dreams as well as the costs they have incurred over the past several decades.
Coming out or simply coming to terms with one’s sexuality and one’s actual self can be a profound experience as it often involves the shedding of a homophobic ideology or religious indoctrination, a desire to cease living a lie and start simply living. Even those raised in permissive and supportive environments inevitably have to deal with the social coding that occurs outside of their home, inevitably becoming contaminated by a puritanical residue we have yet to shed as a country and culture. The fact that the art and music of the eighties—when the genocide caused by AIDS was taking place and being ignored by the government and media—is wholly absent feels like a truly missed opportunity. Here was a period in which utopianary thinking, the belief that the entire homosexual population of the world would not be wiped out by puritanical politics, manifested itself in the riotous activism of ACT UP and the art and music of David Wojnarowicz, Patrick Cowley, Arthur Russell, and so many others. It was individuals like these, whose work pushed beyond the staid modernity rampant throughout “Cosmic Communities” into new and fruitful potentialities. These are just a small sample of the salient examples of homofuturist art that arguably have more of an historical and artistic import than the often banal psychedelic art on display, including John McCracken’s superficially pretty mandalas and the poster and album art of Haphash and the Coloured Coat.
In a show seemingly defined by a futurist agenda, the deeply philhellenic interest in ancient arts practed by both orders, be it Jahnn’s fixation with sepulchral architecture or George’s fetishizing of Ancient Greece’s homoerotic modes of pedagogy, show two orders whose aesthetic agendas were decidedly nostalgic. As we’ve already noted, a homofuturist program can be as informed by the past as it is enamored by future’s potentiality. But what makes both George and Jahnn such dubious subjects around which to construct a show is the fact that outside of their time and country, their Circles and actions had no real direct influence on those later-day enactors of their supposedly utopianary agendas--and for who exactly were their utopias for? Indeed, it is almost cruelly ironic that the music and art fostered by Sun Ra and George Clinton, let alone any idea of racial harmony, was wholeheartedly absent from both orders, with George coming quite close to endorsing the Nazi party prior to his death in 1933.
The curatorial rationale for Clinton’s and Sun Ra’s inclusion is that they both represent an embodiment of the tension that so often arises between one being a charismatic personality one day, a controlling tyrant the next as George was infamous for his shifting alliances and callous banishment yielded out to those who fell out of favor. This paradoxical thread looking at how such utopianary-minded orders can foment autocratic tendencies is explored by looking to a disparate array of mid-century composers and their own circles of acolytes--not to mention dissidents, such as Tony Conrad who later took umbrage with the rigid hierarchy of Young’s vision. In Sun Ra’s case, the Arkestra was “a highly disciplined but also utopian sect” and like Jahnn’s community, its members lived with another for periods of time--though this was often in the form of necessary touring as a means of income--and were expected to adhere to the commands issued by their master/bandleader. Here Stockhausen in particular is cited as a significant contemporary as both men saw “a close relationship between aesthetic, social, and technical progress” with the avant-garde composer seeking to control his players’ lives down to their diets, composing scores designed for particular players’ physicalities and individual qualities.
At the same time, when one starts to extend this connective logic outside of the show’s purview, figures like Harry Partch emerge as curious and noteworthy absences. The openly gay and philhellenic composer was active between 1920 and 1970, employing the mathematical theories of Pythagoras and many others to arrive at his own forty-three note octave--as compared to the traditional Western twelve note structure. He also oversaw his own coterie of players whose bodies and movements he closely dictated in the playing of the instruments that he created to realize his vision, mirroring the student-teacher dynamic that was a hallmark of the George Circle.
The linear, causal logic at work goes some way to possibly rationalizing noteworthy absences like Partch as the curators ultimately arrive at Sun Ra and Stockhausen through their shared interest in the philosophy of harmonics as devised by Hans Kayser, who was also a primary influence on organ builder Jahnn. Kayser’s theory of world harmonics was inspired by The Pythagorean Table, or Lambdoma, and discovered within nature that these harmonic fundamentals remained the same. Looking to scientific and mathematical ideas and concepts from across history, Kayser conceived of “eternal harmonic laws.” The curators hone in on art that was preoccupied with the hidden structures of the universe, often believed to be found within esoteric music theory. This means that much of the art and historical objects on display are of a diagrammatic nature, be it Hans Kayser’s weirdly charming network of Circles, lines, and harmonic proportions—his philosophy of harmonics was a big influence both on Jahnn as well as Stockhausen and Sun-Ra—or Leo Gosewiz’s minimalist geometric renderings of personal history and other artistically ineffable moments. Nearby were hung a bevy of cosmologically-informed Sun Ra record sleeves as well as legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane’s “The Circle of Fifths,” which represents an esoteric music theory that Coltrane sought to transform into a “world formula.”
Hartmut Geerken, “Omniverse Sun Ra” first edition, 1994. Left: Val Wilmer. John Gilmore, Morton Street, Philadelphia, June 1979. Right: Val Wilmer. Marshall Allen do the ‘numbers’. Morton Street. Philadelphia, June 1979 & John Coltrane "The Circle of Fifths", 1961, 2 diagrams.
In combing through the surplus of artworks and relics from the psychedelic period in America, the curators see a future realized, one made possible through a combination of mind-expanding drugs and crucial historical events. It is true that, with the psychedelic movement on the one hand and the appearance of an overtly queer art on the other, the strict group things seem to dissolve or be swallowed up by sexually and musically liberated hippies. However, many motifs survived without simply being incorporated into the narratives of liberation, and not just in the artistic projects and developments that emerged from the complicated common history of mystical modernists and homofuturists. For us, the diffuse phenomenon of psychedelia is most immediately recognizable in the applied arts, as applied psychedelia: on posters, record covers, and in the aesthetics of everyday life. This is the case not least because the life reform agendas of the movements we thematize also wished to close the gap between autonomous form and (erotic, social) application. For applied psychedelia is “applied” in another sense as well. The artworks, covers and posters, and light shows were intended to be immediately usable; they were supposed to be tools with whose help–and that of drugs–higher states could be directly accessed. In taking a “hands-on” approach of this kind precisely in the spiritual realm, this psychedelic applied art became a twofold scandal for a hegemonic art that prided itself on its refusal to develop any immediate use values but also on its refusal to entertain such intellectually discredited objects as cosmic/musical spiritual orders. Of course, as we now know, it all was ultimately a vaguely utopianary moment that ended up being indefinitely deferred as the sixties came to a close and the neoliberal agenda that would bring Reagan to office began to be pushed through many of the west’s most influential academic outposts, such as the Chicago School of Economics.
Moving beyond the sixties, we encounter the legendary German New Wave director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, an artist’s whose romantic preoccupations and themes of obsession and the suffering it can bring were explored in the 2014 Romantic Anarchist film series at Lincoln Center, made dozens of films that touched in one way or another on both unbridled sexual freedom and the sense of alienation society can still impose. He also made a film that directly mocked the cult of genius that surrounded the Circle of George in his 1976 film Satansbraten about a German poet who deals with writer’s block by believing himself to be living reincarnation of Stefan George, paying young male prostitut.es to help him in reenacting the ritual readings for which the Circle was famous. Here we have the spiritual becoming contaminated by bodily desires, a reminder that for all of the high-minded ambition of either Circle, they were still confined in some way by libidinal impulse, although George ineffectively sought to bring order to the wonderful chaos that is desire.
The film also serves to signal where Cosmic Communities’ greatest weakness lies and that’s in rooting a concept with such universalist implications within an excessive indulgence and highly selective reading of German modernity. Furthermore, the futurism on display here is not particularly evident as such as it refers more to the utopianary thinking underpinning both the Circles and the psychedelic movement as a whole than any real example of artistic futurism outside of the tokenistic-feeling inclusion of those afrofuturist totems, Clinton and Ra while eliding the futurist-performative work of black disco icon Sylvester. Ultimately, “Costmic Communities” mounts to a ad hoc attempt to present some starting points for what a working homofuturist reading of history could entail, but ultimately, the onus is placed on the viewer, the critical thinker to delve past the surface level resonance points and formulate a working framework that could open up a new approach to queer scholarship. Whether futurism and utopianary thinking represents two different political programs or form a theoretical tautology, and how either program would serve to buttress the loosely-defined “homofuturism” supposedly connecting these different art historical and cultural branches is ultimately a question to be answered by academics like Muñoz or viewers like myself who were attracted by the ideas and left unfulfilled by the lack of substantive content.