Reading Félix González-Torres in Times of Fascism

by Michael Anthony Farley on November 18, 2016 Recommendations

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, ‘Untitled (Perfect Lovers)’ 1991.

Félix González-Torres, ‘Untitled (Perfect Lovers)’ 1991.

Over the past week, several texts from previous rounds of the Culture Wars have been replaying in my head. Mostly, they’ve been screamed—I can’t stop listening to Riot Grrrl. I highly recommend it.

But a quieter voice has been steadily bubbling up, that of queer Cuban-American artist Félix González-Torres. His nuanced, thoughtful observations on sociopolitical conflict, the Right Wing agenda, and the Left’s dysfunctions are so singularly true and poignant that it’s physically painful to know he’s no longer with us. (Indeed, next time someone says “well, we survived the Reagan years!” I’m tempted to remind them of the hundreds of thousands of voices absent from the political discourse due to that administration’s failure to address the AIDS epidemic.)

In 1995, one year before his death, Félix González-Torres was interviewed by Robert Storr for the January issue of art press. That interview is well-worth reading in its entirety. They touch on everything from embracing—rather than explicitly challenging—artistic precedents to rethinking the false distinctions between critical/accessible/esoteric/personal/political in artmaking. Nearly every passage feels just as timely and relevant twenty years later. González-Torres’ judgement of the culture that condemned him to death is powerfully fair—his criticisms are more sharply focused than my own rage often is, yet far from hyperbolic.

I first read this piece in graduate school, in a seminar taught by art critic and historian Kathy O’Dell. This was shortly after the Occupy movement had imploded, largely from bickering over identity politics, and I was increasingly disenfranchised with both activism and theory.

Now, the piece feels eerily prescient:

Robert Storr: What is your guess about what the next phase of the cultural wars going to be? How will the whole NEA and censorship and multiculturalism proceed from here?

Félix González-Torres: I think we’ve gone through a cycle and I sense that it will change directions somewhat, but I’m not at all sure which way. It’s going to go on for a while, but first of all, we should not call it a debate. We should call it what it is, which is a smoke screen. It is no accident. As we know, everything, that happens in culture is because it is needed. There are certain things that happen to be there for a long time but they’re not needed, culture is not ready for that. That’s not the right social condition to make them be, to make them physical, to bring them to the forefront. Everything in culture works like that. So this is all a smoke screen. I just gave this lecture in Chicago and I read all this data and tried to make sense of what happened during the eighties, during the last Republican regime, how the agenda of the right was implemented and that was an agenda of homophobia and the enrichment of 1% of the population. Clearly and simply. But it is something we love. We love to be poor and we love to have the royal class. I know that deep inside we miss Dynasty, because that gave us the hope of some royalty, a royal family in America, which we almost had. But why worry about the fact that we have the lowest child immunization rate of all industrialized nations, right behind Mexico. Why worry about that when we can worry about $150 given to an artist in Seattle to do a silly performance with his HIV blood? Why worry about $500 billion in losses in the Savings and Loan industry when $10,000 was given to Mapplethorpe? Because the threat to the American family, the real threat to the American family is not dioxin and it’s not the lack of adequate housing, it’s not the fact that there has been a 21% increase in deaths by gun since 1989.


That’s not a threat. The real threat is a photograph of two men sucking each other’s dicks. That is really what could destroy us. It makes me wonder what is the family. How come that institution is so weak that a piece of paper could destroy it? Of course, you ask yourself, why now and why this issue and you realize that something else is happening. This is a smoke screen to hide what they have already accomplished.


The Right is very smart. Before they had Martians; well we proved that there’s no life on Mars. Then they said the Russians were ready to invade this country, but they’re not there any longer. Fidel is sinking, so what is there left that we can have that is visual and symbolic as that – the arts. Especially the arts that have, well, homosexual imagery. And that is one thing that bugs me about artists who are doing so-called gay art and their limitation of what they consider as an object of desire for gay men. When I had a show at the Hirshhorn, Senator Stevens, who is one of the most homophobic anti-art senators, said he was going to come to the opening and I thought he’s going to have a really hard time explaining to his constituency how
pornographic and how homoerotic two clocks side-by side are. He came there looking for dicks and asses. There was nothing like that. Now you try to see homoeroticism in that piece. There’s a great quote by the director of the Christian Coalition, who said that he wanted to be a spy. “I want to be invisible,” he said, “I do guerilla warfare, I paint my face and travel at night. You don’t know until election night.” This is good! This is brilliant! Here the Left we should stop wearing the fucked-up T-shirts that say “Vegetarian Now.” No, go to a meeting and infiltrate and then once you are inside, try to have an effect. I want to be a spy, too. I do want to be the one who resembles something else. We should have been thinking about that long ago. We have to restructure our strategies and realize that the red banner with the red raised fist didn’t work in the sixties and it’s not going to work now. I don’t want to be the enemy anymore. The enemy is too easy to dismiss and to attack. The thing that I want to do sometimes with some of these pieces about homosexual desire is to be more inclusive. Every time they see a clock or a stack of paper or a curtain, I want them to think twice. I want them to be like the protagonist in Repulsion by Polanski where everything becomes a threat to her virginity. Everything has a sexual mission, the walls, the pavement, everything.

Robert Storr: We’ve touched on this already, but you came up in a generation where young artists read a lot of theory and out of that has come a great deal of work which refers back to theory in an often daunting or detached way. And that has put off many people. In effect, they’ve reacted against the basic ideas because they’ve gotten sick of the often pretentious manner in which those ideas were rephrased artistically.

Félix González-Torres: It’s a liberating aspect of the way that most of my generation does art, but it also makes it more difficult because you have to justify so much of what you do. If we were making, let’s say, a more formalist work, work that includes less of a social and cultural critique of whatever type, it would be really wonderful. Either you make a good painting or you make a bad one, but that’s it. When you read Greenberg you can get lost in page after page on how a line ends at the edge of the canvas, which is very fascinating – I love that, I can get into that, too. But when some of us, especially in the younger generation, get involved with social issues we are put under a microscope. We really are and we have to perform that role, which includes everything. It includes the way we dress to where are seen eating. Those things don’t come up in the same way if you are interested in the beautiful abstractions that have nothing to do with the social or cultural questions. It’s part of the social construction but it has less involvement in trying to tell you what’s wrong or what’s right. These are two plates on a canvas, take it or leave it. What you see is what you get. Which is very beautiful too – I like that.

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