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Tom of Finland: Life and Work of a Gay Hero Paperback – July, 2013
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Top Customer Reviews
TOM OF FINLAND: LIFE AND WORK OF A GAY HERO by F. Valentine Hooven III is a powerful statement about this always controversial an now completely respected artist. "My whole life long I have done nothing but interpret my dreams of ultimate masculinity, and draw them."--Tom of Finland He's the first name in erotic gay art. Tom of Finland's painstaking, perfect pencil drawings of macho, muscular men--big in every way that counts--influenced gay culture around the globe. As playful as they are sexual, as cheeky as they are fetishistic, Tom of Finland's works celebrate gay archetypes like construction workers and cops, soldiers and sailors, lumberjacks and leathermen, bikers and badasses. With an extensive biography, eye-opening photos and an authoritative collection of drawings, Tom of Finland: Life and Work of a Gay Hero by F. Valentine Hooven III brings this brilliant body of work to life. Grady Harp, December 12
The title is indicative of the tone — Tom of Finland is a gay hero whose rise to widespread recognition in the 70s and 80s is chronicled biographically. His story is full of detail; it was, of course, done with the cooperation of Tom himself. It provides interesting backstory on the inspiration behind many well-known works and much-imitated archetypes.
However, it also presents Tom as an unusually uncomplicated figure (unfailingly heroic, as the title suggests) and his work as artificially free of controversy. For instance, his early drawings of men wearing Nazi uniforms are discussed lightly and briefly—Tom himself disagreed with Nazi philosophies, and therefore the topic apparently warrants no deeper discussion. Yet interesting commentary can and has been written about the larger implications of Tom's usage of Nazi symbols and uniforms that were either directly Nazi or (later) Nazi-inspired. Instead, the author takes it for granted that such symbolism can easily be divorced from political and historical reality (blithely quoting Tom himself: "of course I drew them anyway—they have the sexiest uniforms!") and declines to acknowledge or discuss any further levels of meaning.
Similarly, there is a single page near the end devoted to Tom's depiction of black men, in which Durk Dehner writes that "he drew them just as he saw them—sexually virile and heavily male." This is followed by a well-intentioned but nevertheless very racist quote from the artist himself. Times change, of course, but given Tom of Finland's lasting impact, is it not worth at least trying to unpack his depiction of and attitudes toward race? What about the explicitly tribal, primitive roles that black men play in some of his drawings (which are not included in this collection)?
Lastly, what of Tom's impact on gay culture overall? This biography makes it sound as though Tom's drawings appeared, and gay men everywhere suddenly began to emulate the masculine persona that was clearly favored in his work. This was certainly the case for many gay men. But while the author is certainly justified in championing Tom's impact, it is overly simplistic to describe his work as a utopian development that uniformly propelled gay men toward greater happiness and sexual freedom. For example, by all accounts, Tom himself was repulsed by effeminate men. What implications does this have when coupled with the tremendous popularity and influence of his drawings?
It could be that a nuanced dialog around these issues is too much to ask of a book that will largely be purchased for its pictures. However, a complete picture of Tom of Finland's impact on gay culture must at least acknowledge the complicated way in which his work interacts with norms of gay culture — subverting cultural norms just as it establishes new ones. Such a discussion would not have to diminish Tom's monumental impact on gay culture, but would absolutely allow the reader to more objectively understand it.