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.”