Art & Queer Culture
Catherine Lord & Richard Meyer (eds.)
424 pages • Phaidon Press Ltd • 1 April, 2013 [HB]
Recently, the Museum of Modern Art in New York put on a small exhibition entitled ‘Rauschenberg and Johns,’ using works from the 1950s in their permanent collection to explore the relationship between the two great American artists, describing them as being “in dialogue with each other”. What the show’s curator failed to mention was that the two men were lovers for over six years during this time, and MOMA was accused of attempting to put Johns and Rauschenberg back in the closet, even referring to them at one point as “friends”. I was reminded of this by reading Richard Meyer’s introductory essay in Art and Queer Culture, a beautifully produced and expertly written survey of the relationship between visual art and transgressive sexualities, published by Phaidon.
Meyer tells the story of the nineteenth-century American socialite and photographer Alice Austin, who took thousands of photos of herself and her women friends, sometimes in cross-dressing poses, sometimes embracing like male companions. Austin lived for over fifty years with Gertrude Tate, until financial hardship in old age forced them apart. The farmhouse where they lived was recently officially designated as Alice Austin House, a museum devoted to her life and work. According to Meyer, “The House has let it be known, however, that researchers interested in linking Austin to lesbian history are not welcome. Although the website for Alice Austin House includes a wealth of information about the photographer’s life and work, the name of ‘longtime friend’ Gertrude Tate is mentioned once – and then only in passing.”
In a nice piece of coincidental counterpoint, Art and Queer Culture places work by Johns and Rauschenberg on the same page and says this:
Johns and Rauschenberg were circumspect about their relationship – neither secretive nor ‘out’ in the post-Stonewall sense – and the importance of their relationship has been a contested area in art-historical circles. ‘I remember once’, said Johns to critic Calvin Tompkins, ‘I was reading Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas to him, reading it aloud in the studio, and Bob turned and said, “One day they’ll be writing about us like that.”’
Complicated as it may have been, at least it doesn’t go ignored here.
It’s these issues of visibility that Art and Queer Culture seeks to address, as well as giving us a historical perspective on the development of the queer in art. Meyer’s essay chronicles the period 1885 – 1979, during which time the scientific category of the homosexual was invented, studied and categorized (gay individuals became predominantly visible as criminals or sick), up to the Stonewall riots and the birth of the gay rights movement. The second introductory essay, Catherine Lord’s ‘Inside the Body Politic: 1980 – present’, deals with the start of the AIDS crisis and responses to it in art, as well as widening the debate to include such topics as genderqueers, geopolitics, and issues around race and national identity. Both essays are lucid, informed, thoughtful and thought provoking. They are not overloaded with theoretical language, nor do they alienate with any narrow political agenda beyond presenting and re-presenting a range of work that is implicitly or explicitly queer. Even that contentious term itself is up for debate in Lords’ essay:
Acknowledging, once again, the insufficiency of language and the sway of insult, particularly in relation to sexual dissidence, let us call a queer a queer … like the other words with which we are tested, ‘queer’ comes loaded with meanings that are not entirely in our control. It surfaces – for instance in this volume – as a linguistic term for resistance to the norm. It signals the preposterous hope that one word might summarise the various subcultural permutations that function in opposition to a mainstream that is gendered as heterosexual and raced as white. But sex, sexuality and sexual practices are neither transcultural nor transhistorical. Meanings shift as sexual practices intersect with race, class and nationality – among other factors. To compound the difficulty, though the identities plausibly labeled ‘queer’ have multiplied with the flow of global capital and information, the word is not a transcultural signifier. An unwieldy piece of Anglophone baggage, ‘queer’ crops up in other languages as a loan word, stripped of the frisson of insult.
This is one of the best explorations of what it means to use that word – a word I have grown to love – that I’ve ever read.
The book’s main section is a catalogue of works that covers 1885 to the present day. Each artist is confined to one work only so as to be able to include as many artists as possible. Images are accompanied by short but informative texts that put works into context and give biographical details where appropriate. The almost exclusively figurative nature of the works featured confirms the notion that queer art tends to be written on the body. In those few works where the human figure doesn’t appear, words and text take its place. There is very little pure abstraction here, which raises an interesting question about what queer art is; abstraction can be there as a form of codification that usually still has the body as its reference point. There is so much to discover and enjoy in this part of the book that goes beyond the obvious or the well known to widen and deepen our knowledge and experience of queer art.
The final section of the book is inspired. Lord and Meyer have provided a compendium of documents and extracts from texts that are contemporary with the works selected. This not only contextualizes the art works but adds a whole extra dimension to the reader’s engagement with the relationships between queer art and wider political, social and personal issues. Whether it’s an extract from Derek Jarman’s diaries, the Riot Girl manifesto, or part of the transcript of Oscar Wilde’s testimony of his trial, these documents give us another historical survey that illustrate how far we’ve come and how much people have fought for rights and understanding.
Art and Queer Culture is an invaluable resource for anyone studying, or even just interested in, the history of transgressive sexualities and gender politics in the visual arts and Phaidon’s characteristically high quality production values make this a pleasure to read.