As the term queer has evolved in meaning throughout history, Elena Coden asks how can “queer art” be defined.
The term “queer” entered the English vocabulary around the early 16th century. As the Oxford Dictionary points out, it has a doubtful origin, perhaps coming from the German quer, meaning “oblique, perverse”. Initially, it was used to describe something odd, unconventional, and strange, but by the late 19th century, it was used as a slur referring to gay people that was later widely reclaimed by the LGBTQ+ community. With gender theory becoming an official field of study and the deriving literature, the term queer started to be used more frequently as a marker of identity, indicating anyone who challenges the heteronormative structure of society.
Since this word acquired different shades of meanings throughout history, it is difficult to define what “queer art” is. It seems appropriate to say that queer art is every form of art that contests patriarchal and heteronormative art - and society more broadly. Unfortunately, this clarification doesn’t help since society, art techniques, and forms of expression changed immensely since 1700. Additionally, history and culture systematically erased and diminished the importance of queer artists, making it very difficult to have a consistent view of what queer art is, was, and – most importantly – could have been.
History and culture systematically erased and diminished the importance of queer artists, making it very difficult to have a consistent view of what queer art is, was, and – most importantly – could have been.
One of the most vivid manifestations of queer art arrived around the 1980s, with Keith Haring, an openly gay street artist who died of AIDS-related complications. Haring’s abstract art is the result of a huge movement of change within the arts that started around the 1950s when artists decided to go above and beyond the space where art was canonically inscribed. Visual arts blurted outside the galleries and the canvases and occupied objects, nature, people's bodies, and streets. This last space was the one where Haring made his art, which he used to raise awareness regarding AIDS (and not only) and to actively make this issue more visible to everyone, painting it on the streets and posters (see, by Keith Haring: Ignorance = Fear / Silence = Death, 1989 and Safe Sex, 1985).
It is also interesting to notice how the most notorious queer artists are mostly men, resulting in the exclusion of queer women and trans people. It was not until the 1970s that openly queer female artists started to be publicly acknowledged, a result of the public interest in women’s rights (beyond the right to vote) during the second wave of feminism. Unfortunately, this wave presented a feminism that was predominantly white, straight, and cisgender, giving very little space to queer and POC issues. This period still saw notable queer female artists like Anne Leibovitz, photographer and life-long partner of Susan Sontag, who took the famous picture of John Lennon and Yoko Ono just a few hours before the murder of the singer.
Identifying queer art always as going against the system deprives queer artists of the possibility of just doing art for art’s sake
Queer art has always been present in history, but it was often ignored by historians and erased from traditional narratives. For instance, there are several explicit representations of gay sexual intercourse in ancient Roman and Greek pottery, since same-sex relationships between men were common in these cultures. The Greek poet Sappho professed her love for women in her poems - but during her lifetime she was exiled to Sicily, and records of her poetry stored in Rome and Constantinople were destroyed in 1073. Writer Charlotte Bronte? wrote over five hundred love letters in twenty-four years to Ellen Nussey. Painter and sculptor Michelangelo wrote erotic poems to a nobleman named Tommaso Dei Cavalieri. And the list goes on. It appears that some same-sex pairs of historical figures described by historians as “roommates” or “extremely close friends” were, more often than not, lovers.
When it comes to more recent times, the main issue is that queer art is always seen as a form of activism. This is true to some extent, since society still sees queerness as something outside the norm, whilst every open manifestation of queerness is considered an act of resistance against straight, patriarchal narratives. But identifying queer art as always going against the system deprives queer artists of the possibility of just doing art for art’s sake. Many artists of the past that we now define queer didn’t think of art as a form of self-affirmation, but that was mostly because there was no space in the society of their time for openly expressing their personal feelings on this matter.
In our contemporary society, where the debate on gender theory is particularly lively, the goal should be to allow a rewriting of the history of art (and literature, and music) without straight-washing every queer person along the way. The ultimate goal should thus be to eliminate any form of discrimination, and rewriting cultural narratives that are taught in school (and, therefore, part of our general knowledge) could be a way to bring us a few steps forward in the path towards equality.