Tom Cho is the author of Look Who’s Morphing, a collection of fictions published this month by Arsenal Pulp Press. Cho will be guest editing The Afterword all this week. Following the first installment of this two-part essay, Cho concludes his discussion of the work of renowned gay artist Tom of Finland.
Here’s something that I came to think about while writing some of the fantasies that fuelled my book Look Who’s Morphing: our most interesting fantasies aren’t safe.
Our most persistently compelling fantasies are far from benign: in fact, some of these fantasies can be despairingly bittersweet because they can never be brought to fruition. Even as such fantasies dramatize our desires (however transparently or opaquely), they also painfully mark our distance from the possibility that these desires can ever be satiated. We’ve all harboured such impossible fantasies, whether they might be the fantasy of being thin (and what we imagine that will mean), the fantasy that those who once left us will miraculously return, or some other fantasy that is beyond us – even if it is not beyond our desiring it.
In February this year, I had a four-day stay at the Tom of Finland Foundation. Based in Los Angeles, the Foundation’s purpose is to protect, preserve and promote Tom’s artworks, alongside erotic artworks by other artists. The Foundation is housed in a three-story, American-Craftsman-style home on a street lined with palm trees in the neighbourhood of Echo Park. Now a museum of erotic art, this was also the house where Tom stayed during his trips to the US, away from his native Finland. Tom lived in the house with Durk Dehner – originally from Alberta – who was Tom’s partner, friend and occasional model, and who continues to serve as the President of the Foundation that he cofounded with Tom.
On my first night at the Foundation, Durk led a group of people, myself included, on a tour of the house. Midway through our tour, Durk drew our attention to a framed Tom of Finland drawing in the dining room. This drawing depicted a group of men openly engaging in BDSM sex in a park – not the safest of fantasies to bring to fruition in real life. Yet, as Durk shrewdly pointed out, Tom depicted the scene as if it were perfectly safe to stage an all-male BDSM sex scene in a public outdoor area. As Durk noted, this scene – featuring two naked, bound men sporting erections while being seen to by three leather-clad dominants – had the casual air of a group of guys playing badminton on a Sunday. Part of the illicitness of the fantasy was its very imagined safety.
The predominant line of praise for Tom of Finland’s contribution to gay culture is that his depictions of hyper-masculine men were a brazen and much-needed counter to widespread representations of gay men as lisping and effete.
To be sure, this line of praise is, historically speaking, relevant to the social and cultural context out of which Tom was working and out of which his work was received during much of his life. It also acknowledges vital ways in which Tom’s work undoubtedly served as a salve for some men. As Durk told me of his early experiences of supporting Tom’s work: “I set up some public events for [Tom] and I got to, as they say, witness.… I got to hear one after another of these 21, 25-year-old boys come up to him and just, with heart, just – open heart – tell him that he was so important to them. That he was the one; that they saw his art in some newsstand in some bumfuck town, where they saw it in the drugstore and they knew.… They knew it was for them.… (I)t spoke to them.”
And yet, although it’s worth honouring this historical contribution of Tom of Finland’s work, what should we make of Tom’s work today? In much of gay male culture, c**k size and muscularity, among other attributes, are so entrenched in their supposed correspondence to ideals of hyper-masculinity that they have fallen into a particularly monotonous lockstep formation. These days, then, the line of praise that hails Tom’s work as an antidote to representations of gay male effeteness has worn thin. Not only is it open to the charge of being sissy-phobic and misogynist; arguably, the intrepid illicitness upon which it once rested has dated, crossing over into the zone of banal and “safe”.
On the last day of my stay at the Foundation, I sat with Durk and we discussed Tom’s work. Eventually, I said to Durk: “In Tom’s work, there are no…”
I hesitated, but Durk finished my sentence for me: “Asians.”[*]
So what is the contemporary relevance of Tom of Finland’s work?
A few years ago, I met a man named Richard who gently admonished me for my uncritically mechanical use of the term “safe sex” and then launched into a mini-critique of the discourse of safe sex (and safer sex). I was a bit surprised, especially because we were in a gay bathhouse at the time.
Richard and I subsequently became good friends, and he recently re-explained his critique to me: “We ought to be told the truth: sex is not safe…. The concept of ‘safety’ doesn’t invite as much attention to vulnerability. It lowers your guard and disarms your thought process since you’re telling oneself: ‘This is safe.’”
Instead, Richard believes that “sex is inherently charged” – not only physically, but “emotionally and energetically”. He said: “It’s more accurate and wiser to frame it from a degree of how much risk you want to take, how open and how much you want to share in this engagement, rather than parroting the language of safety for, really, what is a risky thing.”
For some men, gazing at the sexual fantasies in Tom of Finland’s artwork was a salve. However, we do not all bring to Tom of Finland’s work the same prospects for feeling spoken to, let alone feeling consoled or healed. But then, as I mentioned earlier: our most interesting fantasies aren’t safe – and this fact connects deeply and sometimes painfully with sexual fantasy because, like the entire terrain of sex, sexual fantasies are perpetually laden with risk.
Literary scholar Shirley Geok-Lin Lim once remarked: “It is difficult to be a representative. One must always be more than one is, and in like manner one is always less than one is”.
I first read those lines in a library in Melbourne, Australia, well over a decade ago, and I’ve never forgotten them. They certainly resonated with my personal experiences then, and they still do. But now I wonder: maybe what I also liked was their suggestion that representation could be metaphorically expressed with reference to changing physical proportions. Perhaps these lines helped to fuel my own artistic interest in the theme of morphing, especially my depictions of gigantism.
The men in Tom of Finland’s work have proportions that are both pleasing and displeasing to me. But, for all their physical bignesses, these figures are not so colossally monolithic in what they can be taken to mean. Because here’s the thing: Tom of Finland worked through embellishment. After all, Tom had a background in advertising illustration, he considered his homoerotic works to be pornography, and these works were spurred by his own sexual desires. That’s quite the platform for giving rise to embellishment.
From that platform, then, Tom came to draw beefcake men with c***s that were ludicrously large – in fact, so ludicrously large that it seems almost laughable that we would miss the comic irony: in amongst all those giant c***s, there are also cocked eyebrows.
On my first night at the Tom of Finland Foundation, Durk concluded his group tour of the house with this seemingly throwaway description of Tom of Finland’s work: “It’s all about c***s.”
But then he added mysteriously: “That’s the humour of it.”
Rendered larger than life, these depictions of over-sized men with over-sized c***s blatantly de-literalise what such bodies might mean. Writ large upon the page, we can gaze upon these depictions and be invited to read against the grain once more – to break up that lockstep formation in which c**k size, muscularity and, yes, whiteness, too, are made to march in plodding unison, choreographed in false correspondence to impossible fantasies of hyper-masculinity.
The cheerfully beefy men in Tom’s work invite our ironic reappraisal of this very procession and, in doing so, they also invite us to reappraise them. In all their super-sized irony, these figures remind us that they, too, need not mean the same thing every time, but might mean otherwise.
Author’s note: My thanks to Tom of Finland Foundation for their support and to Jackie Wykes for her editorial feedback.
[*]There is one illustration that Tom of Finland produced featuring an Asian man. However, an exploration of the racial dynamics of this work is beyond the scope of this article.