…But I Know What I Like

Checking out news briefs recently, I found the story of Ceara Sturgis, an openly gay honors high school student in Wesson, Mississippi, just outside Jackson. She made the news when she requested, but was not allowed, to wear a tuxedo for her graduation photo. Only boys are permitted to wear tuxedos. Now, the American Civil Liberties Union is threatening action if Principal Ronald Greer does not reverse that decision.

Personally, I feel Sturgis should be able to wear a tux, if that’s her preference. I readily would bet that a change in the “only boys…” rule would not lead to a gaggle of senior girls clamoring to don full soup-and-fish, nor of boys avid to preen in cotillion frocks.

Sturgis’s Mom, Veronica Rodriguez, put it pragmatically: “The tux is who she is. She wears boy’s clothes. She’s athletic. She’s gay. She’s not feminine.”

Oddly enough, Sturgis’s dilemma made me think of the unique concept behind the stunning exhibit The Louvre and the Masterpiece that opened recently at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The pieces were selected not with a hortatory “Here are bona fide masterpieces—marvel at them,” but were chosen to question just when and why—and for how long—particular works of art have borne the label “masterpiece” or “chef d’oeuvre,” and when, why, and whether they should relinquish that title.

The 62 items, covering some 4,000 years, thematically probe the changes in historical and cultural definitions of a masterpiece; authenticity; connoisseurship; and—bottom line—how taste, ongoing scholarship, and technology impact our concept of “masterpiece.”

One stunning example is the tiny Egyptian sculpture Blue Head. Hugely popular for years, it was proven quite recently to have been crafted in the 1920s during the Egyptomania rampant in the wake of Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tut’s treasures. It’s a fake—somewhat shy of 3,000 years old—but is it not still a masterpiece?

Several drawings on view, once thought to be from the hand of Leonardo da Vinci, and now attributed to Italian artist Antonio Pisanello, are just as breathtaking.

Tenuous, perhaps, but my analogy offers food for thought. Categorizing, labeling, and pigeonholing may offer comfort to those doing the fastening-down, but they don’t change the essence of the butterfly pinned to the board.

Sturgis, whatever she finally wears for her photograph, still will be the person her classmates knew throughout their school years: honors student, member of the soccer team, talented trumpet player—and gay.

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