is there a homosexual face? per-haps an odd question, but one brought vividly to mind this week in the wake of the murder of David Buller, a senior lecturer in the department of fine art at the University of Toronto.As soon as I, and most of my gay friends, saw his photograph in the newspaper, we knew he was a gay man, even though none of us had ever met him. What is it?, we kept asking ourselves. A certain softness in the features? Better grooming than most men indulge at 50? Something indefinably knowing and sardonic about the eyes? Questions, I suppose, that buy into just about every gay stereotype there is, but there you are.
Stereotypes happen. They no longer embarrass. They are embraced. I have no way of knowing whether David Buller was in any way stereotypically gay (though some of the fond reminiscences at his overflowing and highly emotional memorial service January 27 suggested he was by no means excessively butch), but he did, it seemed to us, have a gay face. And we began to speculate about what might have led to his being stabbed repeatedly, probably in mid-afternoon, in his U of T office at 1 Spadina Crescent.
But we weren't, of course, the only people with an interest in stereotypes. Or in speculation. To the press, too, particularly the Toronto Sun, he was a homosexual, at least by implication, since there were few stories that did not mention his "commitment to homoerotic artwork.'
One of the Sun's headlines read "Prof may have died for his art.' Another headline asked, "Prof's Death Linked to Art?' and it was rare for a story not to contain some version of what unidentified "sources' were saying -- that his "unwavering commitment to his homoerotic paintings may have cost him his life.'
It is possible to view many of those paintings, works so steeped in what the Sun called "homoerotic leather and denim imagery' that they may have, in some mysterious fashion, provoked someone to a murderous rage.
There are at least two Web sites that feature Buller's work, and one is particularly useful since it places some 60 paintings, in thumbnail size, on a timeline stretching from 1979 to 1999 (http://ccca.webfarm.com/ccca/English/image_timeline.html?qartist=Buller%2C+David).
Most are abstracts, but even people who don't like abstract art are unlikely to consider its production a capital offence. What might be called homoerotic imagery does not seem to make an appearance until 1993, and though those images seem to dominate for the next few years, by 1996 we are seeing abstracts again, or works that are somewhat abstract in tone but might feature, as just one element, a fetching young man in a pair of white jockey shorts. As far as the lewdness quotient goes, I have seen sexier spreads in an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue.
Genitals are rarely visible. The images are, if anything, rather winsome and romanticized. They are "tasteful' enough that one was on display, on an easel, outside the Great Hall of Hart House where the memorial service took place, and was also featured on the cover of the program.
It shows a hot muscle guy from the waist up, contains the phrase "history counsels patience' and the word "Auden." I'm guessing the phrase is a quote from the poet, also a homosexual, which presumably doubles the impact it might have on those susceptible to the murderous rage that gets dignified, usually by defence counsel, as "homosexual panic.'
Unless there is a trove of works too lewd even for the Web, these are the paintings that, the Toronto Sun speculates, "may have cost him his life.'
Nonsense, of course, but you know why they're saying it and what they're trying to suggest. What they call "leather and denim' imagery is their code for a certain kind of dangerous sexual squalor, a world of aging gay men and none-too-stable teen hustlers, the kind of world an artist with a taste for the sexually and artistically arcane might cruise for "models.' And, one day, pick up the wrong one. And die.
Which, of course, may be exactly what happened. And that was a thought that also occurred to those of us who saw a "homosexual face' when Buller's picture appeared in the newspapers. Not, as the Sun implies, because homosexual life is intrinsically squalid, but because we know, from experience, that even in this enlightened city in this enlightened country in the year 2001, homosexual life is still dangerous.
Not as dangerous as it used to be -- but jeers and taunts from cars full of confused and angry youth can still echo down Church Street of a hot summer night. And sometimes, those jeers are only a prelude.
We do not know who killed David Buller, or why. But to suggest that it might be because of his homoerotic art is to get it exactly right and horribly wrong. Right because art often chooses to look fixedly at things some of us would rather not look at at all, and right because to look can be dangerous, and right because homosexual life itself is still dangerous.
And wrong, horribly wrong, because whatever the Toronto Sun may imply, there is nothing squalid about a taste for adventure and a curiosity about life beyond the polite fictions that circumscribe our lives. I do not mean to suggest that David Buller lived a life of adventure that might also have been dangerous. The attributes speakers stressed at his memorial included humour, generosity, his commitment to students and his passion for art.
But if he did, as artists often do, as gay men often do, occasionally walk on the wild side, then we should not be afraid to say that that was not a bad thing, that he did not deserve to die for it. Oscar Wilde saw both the fascination and the dangers and, without a hint of moralizing, called such a life "feasting with panthers.'
The death of David Buller is sad, the murder horrible. But let us hope, at least, that he died feasting.