This is a repost of Jonathon Austin’s thesis, for the Master in Art Studies: Museum and Curatorial Studies, at the University of Porto, Faculty of Fine Arts. Thank you for sharing your point of view with us, Jonathon.
Why The Tate Gallery is right to put on a queer art exhibition.
Issues in justifying queer art
by Jonathon Austin
Queer curating can be thought of as an attempt to dismantle heterosexist and normative concepts of society in contemporaneity embodied by the art museum. This means taking into consideration Art History’s discourse but also how history is being defined by values of present times. Sexual and gender dissidence is not usually taken into account in Art History as art and culture institutions remain rather conservative on the topic. One could even go to the length of saying one could attend a museum exhibition about Andy Warhol without learning about his sexuality. One could also claim that it is one irrelevant piece of information. Is identity irrelevant to the production of art? Are not sexual and gender identity part of one’s self construct? What or who determines its relevance to the production of art to the point of eliminating it from the historical discourse? Given the apparent irrelevance why does this seem to call forth a clash between outrage for censorship measures and free expression in a discussion still kept alive to this day? Queer art attempts to make the point that an alternative history can be told because Art History is generally uninterested in its issues. This is not to say that queer is the only account to be told in history’s discourse but it’s an account that has not been told for institutions keep choosing to maintain it that way. This paper finds its justification on the premise that a queer perspective is inviting to think of the multiple worlds in which art is produced and enjoyed and the difference of artistic expression in private and public forms. This paper is titled with the exact opposite premise of a famous newspaper article intended to perpass a queer art exhibition by The Tate Gallery as wrong and unnecessary. The arguments used here are made in an attempt to contradict the aforementioned article’s arguments while several past queer art exhibitions are brought up as support evidence to justify them.
Keywords: queer curatorship; Queer Theory; art; LGBTQI+
Following the celebration of half a century upon the decriminalization of male homosexuality in England, The Tate Gallery has announced its first LGBTQ-related British art exhibition with artworks ranging from 1867 to 1967. The Tate has given good grounds for the public to expect an exhibition where it will be possible to explore art from a century marked by the evolution of the concepts of gender and sexuality. From political to erotic themes, the artworks to be shown are to reveal a variety of personal stories from individuals whose identity and sense of belonging to a community were still in development as the LGBTQI+ acronym wasn’t yet recognized.
Views on why such an exhibition is wrong and unneeded have been expressed, this being a contested position in attempts to underline the necessity of the first exhibition of this kind to be organized by The Tate. The claim that our society has been losing the capacity to react to art freely because of its fixation on sexuality calls indeed for the recognition that the concepts to be dealt with by this exhibition reflect the dominance in our society of the concepts of gender and sexual identity – as these are dominant traits in our thinking. In spite of this, these definitions are a cause for celebration since the decriminalization of male homosexuality (as lesbianism had never really been criminalized by the law) marks an important turning point in the history of LGBTQI+ people.
The Tate exhibition proposes a queer lens through which great art can be experienced by the public. This is a valid analysis perspective of art by artists who might have identified themselves with the recently reclaimed meaning of queer to different degrees. This means a queer lens can uncover lost or hidden meanings and stories in art from a time when queer feelings, desires and thoughts were repressed or hidden for the simple sake of survival. A queer aesthetic might even be exposed since the imagery and self-expression of queer identities were kept out of sight or concealed from normative society, thus allowing the possibility of a new and informed gaze upon issues around gender and identity politics of the 19th and 20th centuries. This is only one way through which art can be examined as different stories can be told according to the lens used to find meaning.
The relevance of grouping artists such as David Hockney, Duncan Grant, Francis Bacon and Keith Vaughan based on their sexual preferences was also questioned. Queer is not equivalent to homosexual as it refers to a much extensive spectrum of identity possibilities through variation of the normative concepts of gender and sexuality. Thus, queer art exhibitions or art queering exhibitions promote a critical standpoint to the institutionalized art exhibition as a symbol of hierarchical power and the ways by which cultural institutions act as education mediators and influence thinking and taste in the making of history’s discourse. This can better be understood if linked to the theories and practices defended by New Institutionalism and Institutional Critique. These theories promote a series of questioning tools to a better understanding of ways art institutions can become more inclusive of the society they fit in and represent – this marks a move from the classical museum towards the new politically and socially engaged art institution which is critical of its own functions and mechanisms of action. These also attempt to analyze the way naturally taken historic discourses are in fact socially and politically constructed to maintain a status quo.
The exhibition “neoqueer” at Seattle’s Center on Contemporary Art (2004) makes an effort to contest the idea that queer art is always regarded in association with sexuality. As stated by the curators, instead of specifically looking for homoerotism and queer content, the show focused on modern art, with quality and originality as key concepts – and not sexual orientation. Although without a defining theme, or at least with an ambiguous one, the show asks the question of what it means to be LGBTQI+ and what role does sexuality play in an artist’s work – a necessary dialogue between queer artists and the public in order to dismantle preconceived ideas about queer art. The show does not portray the usual stories drawn up by queer shows that focus on the political statements of the previous century marked by the sexual revolution, nor does it solely present homoerotic drawings as art. Indeed, the collection of works selected by the curators range from the poetic to the provocative and the explicit. It tries to push queer beyond those boundaries, indicating an ever increasing trend towards “subtlety and individualism”.
Looking beyond the issue of whether Tate’s queer art exhibition should have gender and sexuality transgression as a worthy cause for celebration or should solely serve the purpose of reminding us of our obsession with these definitions, perhaps it would be more constructive when seen as a particular position or place that allows critical thinking about the paradigm of these issues given the symbolic date. By simply giving viewers a critical lens on why and under what circumstances gender and sexuality have become dominant in our thinking, this exhibition has a plausible reason to exist. Furthermore, it can help the public question the relationship between normative society and transgressive queer identity.
While trying to prove the point that this exhibition is wrong and unnecessary there’s a failure in questioning the definition of queer and the representation of queer in all its extension of identity possibilities. This is a common issue of art exhibitions titled and advertised as queer nowadays resulting in attempts to essentialize queer identity and stripping it down to the white homosexual figure. Queer art exhibitions are a way of depicting queer issues and experiences in an effort that stretches way beyond the necessity of making the institutional art world a more inclusive space. Museum studies and curatorship practice must be informed about Queer Theory in order to not pass on discourses perpetuating the construction of concepts such as gender and sexual identity based on normativity. This is where an intersectional perspective must be adopted in order to fully explore the potential of queer identity without neglecting other categories and dimensions of experience and sensibility.
Categorizing a queer show as gay is biased and reductive. This is not a promotion of the condition of being gay or queer but instead a question of visibility. Being visible means being acknowledged as part of society and thus, requires being given the opportunity to be seen, heard and represented. Being visible means existing. Essentializing queer down to the homosexual figure means omitting a wide range of fleeting self-identification possibilities between the gender and sexuality spectrum.
Attempting to pass through this kind of exhibition as unneeded by arguing that everybody knows there are artists who are queer only adds to the institutional conservatism in the art world that accounts as part of the reason why queer identities still lack representation. A queer exhibition makes a contribution so that queer identities and content aren’t still only tolerated by normative society. Whenever consuming any form of culture people tend to look for signs of themselves and of a community in which they fit. Queer individuals, perhaps to a greater extent than average exhibition visitors who do not identify as queer, seek these spaces that celebrate their community, culture and history.
Exploring and digging up queer content in works of art is different from searching for a queer sensibility hidden behind imagery but a combined approach of the two would be rather interesting in making perceptible to the viewer the intricate complexity of queer identity through its aesthetics, sensibilities and content, and also its difficult relationship with the normative workings of society. The viewer would be prompted to ask himself if some stories are queer in essence despite whether they portray or not queer content, and if some stories are not queer in essence (i.e. heteronormative) despite of whether or not queer content is portrayed. What then is queer content and queer sensibility?
There seems to exist understandable confusion as to what queer stands for in our days, with much prejudice arising from the distortion of its ambiguous meaning. It does not refer to an identity’s specific essence and thus, does not refer specifically and intrinsically to LGBT individuals. Queer can instead be thought of as the corporealization of an experience or sensibility which uses a discourse that intimately connects the personal/intimate and the social/public realms in an attitude of resistance and self-affirmation. Artistic production in this context aims the questioning and challenging of dominant ways of production and representation in art and it can ally itself with the subversion of traditional form, genre, structure and aesthetic in art. This approach consequently results in a form of provoking and experimenting which celebrates at the same time its transgressive characteristics – what keeps it from being absorbed into normative behavior and thinking.
In reply to the question of the validity in jumping to conclusions by labelling something or someone as queer, a queer perspective can be applied even to art produced by artists who do not specifically identify as queer. To queer or queering refers to this method which the institutional art world can apply to be more socially inclusive at least to the length of bringing visibility issues under the spotlight. Assuming this method is only concerned with exploring homosexual individuals and content in art is wrong as it concerns everything and everyone that characterizes as transgressive, as in not corresponding to societal norms in terms of sexual and gender identity and power structures based on that. Queering works of art not only contributes to making visible these individuals but can also provide viewers some initial support for understanding and accepting it. Furthermore, it can uncover hidden information that can be useful for another understanding of these works and artists. This does not mean ignoring already known traits of works as this method can additionally incorporate them into constructions of different interpretative meanings. A queer perspective on art does not neglect a work’s theme and try to replace it with the word queer – usually in association with sexuality. Moreover, it does not obliterate or deny previous values of an artwork but it can add more information to them. This is not to say that a queer lens is the only valid perspective an artist’s work is to be analyzed, interpreted or enjoyed.
A queer perspective can be sustained by drawing up Umberto Eco’s discussion about the open work of art. The notions of completeness and openness refer to the viewer’s reception of a work as an authorial construction of communicative engagement with the viewer. Each individual can participate in dialogue with the piece through stimulus, being that this is dependent on their receptiveness, sensibility and capacity to respond. In this response, the viewer presents an overview of his own being, an amalgamation of beliefs, tastes, and prejudices. The original work’s meaning conceived by the artist is thus later adapted by the receptacle that is each individual with different perspectives formed by personal and cultural backgrounds.
Without invalidating any sense of original significance, these different approaches of viewing and understanding a work’s meaning make a work of art on the one hand open to numerous external susceptibilities of interpretation, and on the other a complete and unique product by the specificity imprinted on it by its maker. Assessing a work of art requires, not necessarily to the same degree, interpretation and performance, resulting in an intricate meeting between the viewer’s personal experience and the artist’s imprinted signifying connotations.
In this sense, a queer analysis of art proposes only one possible different approach which requires a new set of questions in finding meaning behind works. Queering, in a museum context, foresees the questioning of how museums collect. In curatorial practice, it questions the selection of the pieces altogether. In both cases, it makes the viewer wonder which narratives are depicted and which ones are omitted to construct a discourse or stimulate discussion.
Subjective perceptions of artworks by the viewer can be seen in parallel to the camp aesthetic. Although it is difficult to pin it down to a specific aesthetic, camp refers to a queer sensibility and sense of humor with its use of the theatrical and kitsch. Its discourse hasn’t always been so out and well integrated into popular culture as it is now with its beginnings reporting to a subversion of the mainstream and queer subjects being both the producers and consumers of this coded language. Camp was about elevating the low culture of the repressed, giving queer individuals opportunity to challenge representations in normative discourses. As dominant culture absorbed the camp aesthetic, a queer sensibility found its way to the core of mass popular entertainment. Although the glitter and diva-icons, as Gordon Hall points out, are essentializing images and direct references to queer, the camp sensibility hasn’t only been present in artistic expressions made by and for queers but extends itself to imagery with not necessarily queer innuendo.
Popular music by David Bowie and Cher – representing androgynous glam-rock and sense of style in the pop/dance music scene -, drag performance with satire and parody and the vogue dance style all make up references to burlesque entertainment and the MGM musical and film scene of the 40’s. Camp embodies this set sumptuosity, elaborate costumes, dazzling dance moves and stars such as Judy Garland – a timeless icon in queer culture. The spectacle element aiming the viewer’s fascination is adopted by camp to engage in dialogue with dominant culture, presenting resistance to normative values and representational systems mainly concerned with sexuality and gender. Androgyny, drag performance and vogueing are praised for the ability to dismantle the gender normative concept while presenting exaggerated forms of both edges of the binary. Theatricality, entertainment and humor are weapons used to show reversed social norms about gender and sexual identity. Drag and camp illustrate and support Judith Butler’s definition of gender as a performance as opposed to a false idea of gender identity based on essence.
Camp is also an open work as its nature is dual, lending its features to products that are not conceived as such by their creators. This sensibility can be either imprinted onto objects when they are consumed by the public – such as Judy Garland’s Dorothee in The Wizard of Oz – or be deliberately created by artists – this being the case of Andy Warhol or drag performers. Camp is thus found in the experience of the viewer and in the object’s traits.
Warhol’s persona adopted the camp extravagant sensibility although contemporary discourses on the artist have often been evasive on the subject of his sexuality, omitting the influence it had in his work and in the queer climate of the 60’s . Surely, a queer reading of Warhol doesn’t seem to be unconvincing if one takes the cover of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers depicting a crotch in skinny jeans, or the images of drag queens in Ladies and Gentlemen, or even the polaroids in Torsos and Sex Parts of men recruited in gay saunas having sex. Institutional and critical conservatism is rather obvious when works depicting queer content this explicit are not commonly shown and stay hidden in museum archives such as Warhol’s many experimental films – the most explicit being Blow Job showing an act of oral sex between two men and My Hustler with a plot of an intergenerational lust triangle involving three men.
Queer speaks of an unstable and precarious position towards dismantling normative constructions of the self. This position is fundamentally a sensibility – not an essence of gender or sexual identity or any kind of essentialism – engaged with the ways of being oneself. The aesthetic of the queer work of art is related to art production in the context of the civil liberation movements of the 70’s, and more prominently to feminist art. This means queer art reclaims experiences that aren’t “historically valued in the white-hetero-masculine system”  as a form of attack of political and social structures of gender and sexuality. With its unstable and undefinable nature, queer seeks to destabilize the sense of established natural being, the performance of everyday normative life, queering the status quo instead of reaffirming it. Queer’s refusal to support and perpetuate societal norms and power structures strives for other possibilities to be constructed, which is why queer opens a whole dimension for new perceptions in art.
Artworks speak a lot about their makers and what significance they have received by their makers’ specificity. What if they could teach us a lesson about the ways we perceive? Gordon Hall claims they show how to see gender and bodies differently in a non-normative way, which means art could be a valuable resource for thinking about sexuality and gender even if imagery of queer experiences is not depicted. Artworks are usually described as queer when portraying LGBTQI+ individuals, when produced by LGBTQI+ artists or when referencing to their culture by including tangible forms of queer aesthetics. Hall references characteristics that immediately refer the viewer’s mind to queer aesthetics, taking this phenomenon as an essentializing issue: “[…] the glitter problem. Or the leather problem. Or the pink-yarn, 1970s-crafts, iconic-diva, glory-hole, pre-AIDS-sexuality, post-AIDS-sexuality, bodies and body-parts, blood-and-bodily-fluids problem”. This calls forward the question if it’s possible to find queer meaning in non-representation or pure formalism without any kind of overt queer context such as “dicks, vaginas, menstrual blood, references to Jean Genet, cum, anuses, bondage, surgery scars, reclaimed pronouns”.
Hall takes the difficult example of minimalist sculpture – as objects with no apparent resonance of gender in their form – in relation to queer content. If it’s possible to point out gender constructs in blank, monochrome and consistent objects it means a queer gaze of physicality and psychological associations can be applied to objects that are not queer in essence even when queer content is not portrayed – as minimalist sculpture appears completely devoid of narrative and symbolism. The only communication being made is through their placement in time and space – it’s the physicality of objects what allows intimate interaction with the viewer’s position and architectural setting.
Without wanting to claim that only queer art exhibitions are targets of controversy and censorship, they are no strangers at all to one another, despite this being an era where supposedly queer people are seen as equal. As expected, anything that disturbs the normative functioning and thinking of society always generates some critical backlash. The negative response, coming either from the public, institutions or patrons, seems stronger when political and religious views are put up against a wall to be challenged and objected.
Warhol’s mural 13 Most Wanted Men (1964) for the World’s Fair depicts prison photos of outlaw men in America. The work caused political controversy and was ultimately erased despite the artist’s already established status. The choice of subject challenged norms of taste in society and in the arts, containing coded language reporting to queer desire, thus being dissed by critics and censored by authorities. The images present the double meaning of most-wanted, as in criminals searched by the police and receptacles of desire. Moreover, this represents a form of outlaw desire if the gaze is male.
Three queer art exhibitions illustrate the sort of censorship that lies deep in the art world nowadays as it did back in 1964. The recent “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” (2010-2011) at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery was targeted by right-wing political and religious figures demanding control over the choice of works to be displayed. It was demanded the removal of Wojnarowicz’s video Fire In My Belly (1987). This piece, an excellent metaphor of the AIDS crisis, showed a crucifix covered in ants. The pressure was felt as the building was threatened to be closed in spite of the exhibition not being funded by public money. The video ended up being removed but the issue gave rise to a necessary discussion about what art was worthy of public funding and what kind of art was really displayed at public art institutions if not one censored within a controlled constructed discourse.
The slogan “silence = death” doesn’t seem so far removed from the reality of nowadays as artworks and artists continue to be erased from sight to protect and not offend others. One of the show’s curators, Jonathan Katz, has spoken about the urgency for “queer political advocacy” taking into consideration that this show had been numerous times rejected to be presented at various museums throughout the US.
Public funding of art exhibitions has some history of controversy. Regarding the issue of the AIDS crisis, the exhibition curated by Nan Goldin “Witnesses: Against our Vanishing” (1989), in part funded by public money, was caught up in great scandal created by political forces as well as the public. The exhibition catalogue criticized the lack of government and church funding for the AIDS cause, resulting in the cancellation of the grant given the public pressure to cut back on what kind of art should receive federal funds.
In comparison, “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment” (1990) has also seen a huge proportion of backlash against the homoerotic themed photographs it displayed. The CAC’s director was even legally charged for promoting obscenity in some of the show’s explicit photographs displaying S&M gay sex and child nudity. The show, intended to be a retrospective view on the late openly homosexual artist’s work, ultimately came under the spotlight of the public, resulting in political debates about federal art funding. These debates mainly approached the topic of depiction of gay S&M imagery.
The exhibitions, even though different in terms of aim for public audience and location, suffered immense backlash from the public against queer content, resulting in chaos for political forces in managing the issue between funding and explicit content. Both exhibitions from last century, distant in two decades from “Hide/Seek”, show public rage toward queer art funding and is still present nowadays although a dramatic shift has been felt in public opinion with greater acceptance becoming the norm.
Bastos-Stanek, M. (2016). The Contested History of Queer Themes in American Art Exhibitions. Retrieved December 14, 2016, from https://umasshistory.wordpress.com/2016/07/11/the-contested-history-of-queer-themes-in-american-art-exhibitions/
Earnest, J. (2013). Contemporary Art and Queer Aesthetics. San Francisco Arts Quarterly. Retrieved December 15, 2016, from http://sfaq.us/2013/10/contemporary-art-and-queer-aesthetics/
Eco, U. (1989). The Poetics of the Open Work. In The Open Work (pp. 1-23). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Hall, G. (2013). Object Lessons: Thinking Gender Variance through Minimalist Sculpture. Art Journal, 72 (4).
Hirsch, F. (2011). Hide/Seek Curator Speaks Up at CAA. Art in America. Retrieved December 15, 2016, from http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/news/caa-jonathan-katz/
Jagose, A. (1996). Queer Theory: an introduction. New York: New York University Press.
Nguyen, V. T. (2013). Towards a Queer Intersectional Museology (Masters dissertation in Museum Studies). University of Sydney.
Prono, L (2007). Encyclopedia of gay and lesbian popular culture. Santa Barbara: Greenwood.
Sirkin, H. L. (2016). Why I defended Mapplethorpe’s ‘obscene’ ‘Perfect Moment’. The Washington Post. Retrieved December 15, 2016, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/06/10/why-i-defended-mapplethorpes-obscene-perfect-moment/
Steorn, P. (2010). Queer in the museum: Methodological reflections on doing queer in museum collections. Lambda Nordica, (3-4), 119-122. Retrieved December 15, 2016, from http://www.lambdanordica.se/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/2010-34-Steorn-Museum.pdf.
Street-Porter, J. (2016). The Tate Gallery is wrong to put on a ‘queer’ art exhibition. Retrieved December 05, 2016, from http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/tate-gallery-wrong-put-on-queer-art-exhibition-a6996351.html
Tate (2016). Queer British Art 1861–1967 – Exhibition at Tate Britain | Tate. Retrieved December 5, 2016, from http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/queer-british-art-1861-1967
Trescott, J. (2010). After Smithsonian exhibit’s removal, banned ant video still creeps into gallery. The Washington Post. Retrieved December 14, 2016, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/12/06/AR2010120607328.html
 Tate (2016).
 Street-Porter, J. (2016).
 Potterf, T. (2004).
 Potterf, T. (2004).
 Street-Porter, J. (2016).
 Nguyen, V. T. (2013).
 Hall, G. (2013).
 Eco, U. (1989).
 Steorn, P. (2010).
 Prono, L (2007). P. 52
 Prono, L (2007). P. 278.
 Prono, L. (2007). Pp. 276-277.
 Jagose, A. (1996). Pp. 76-77.
 Attribution to each gender of a fixed essence taken as natural, which is determined by biological, physical and psychological traits.
 Earnest, J. (2013).
 Earnest, J. (2013). Reference to Judith Butler’s theory of performance of gender in which gender is seen as a performance and thus, an exteriorization of identity through behavior and physical appearance. This performance of gender can perpetuate societal constraints that support the gender binary system – as in taking on a role from the binary to reproduce and reaffirm it.
 Jagose, A. (1996). P. 76-77.
 Hall, G. (2013). Pp. 46-57.
 Hall, G. (2013). P. 47.
 Hall, G. (2013). P. 47.
 Trescott, J. (2010).
 Reference to ACT UP’s 1987 activist project that draws a parallel between the governmental indifference toward the AIDS crisis and the Nazi period concerning the oppression the homosexual community has suffered.
 Bastos-Stanek, M. (2016).
 Hirsch, F. (2011).
 Contemporary Arts Center Cincinnati.
 Sirkin, H. L. (2016).
 Bastos-Stanek, M. (2016).
 Bastos-Stanek, M. (2016)