This review of Art and Queer Culture was published in Art Monthly issue 370, October, 2013
Featuring the work of over 200 artists, the magisterial Art and Queer Culture, edited by US academics Catherine Lord and Richard Meyer, is a serious and sleek undertaking whose length and breadth signifies an ambitious and laudable attempt to attain landmark text status. In at least one respect it succeeds: the book’s impressive archival reach means the international curaterati will be leafing through its pages for years to come. But at a less exclusive level, does it – like perhaps John Berger’s Ways of Seeing or Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation – have what it takes to be continually purchased, exchanged, reread, argued over and written in by artists, art students, aspiring theorists and general interest groups? Almost, but not quite.
Divided into three sections, the book opens with two introductory essays; here Lord and Meyer explain the principles underpinning their editorial decisions by surveying catalytic moments that propelled the exposure, contestation, integration and dissemination of queer culture circa 1885-2012. This includes the prosecution of Oscar Wilde, the invention of homosexuality as a treatable medical condition or illness, the liberal and progressive theories of sexuality espoused by sexologists Magnus Hirschfeld (Germany) and Alfred Kinsey (US), and the 1969 Stonewall riots.
Meyer is first out of the blocks with a pointed text spanning 1885-1975. The essential project of the book, he maintains, is to go beyond identity-based essentialisms and to look at homosexuality as a ‘site of symbolic investment under continual negotiation, both by those who name themselves as gay or lesbian and by those who do not’. Expanding the field in this way leads naturally to the duo’s second key idea, that queer is ‘less an identity than a critique of identity’ (Lord’s quote), and that it should be understood as a term that refers to non-normative sexual and behavioural practice, its cultural contexts and representations. This is a crucial move that allows the inclusion of ‘straight’ artists who are interested in exploring queer culture and aesthetics, and foregrounds deviance and transgression as core queer qualities that have historically surfaced across divides of race, gender, class and culture.
Lord takes up the baton with an essay spanning ‘1980-present’. In it she explores the emerging status of the queer body, used as a site of socio-cultural and political signification during the 1980s AIDS crisis and the collective push for enfranchisement that took place under the banner of identity politics during the 1990s. The second, and main, section of Art and Queer Culture, then, comprising photographs of artworks and their attendant explanatory texts, traverses an image spectrum from quaint bourgeois pictorialism to a tougher, more confrontational and cocksure contemporary iconography. At one end sits Thomas Eakins’s male-as-bathing-nymph painting Swimming, 1883-85, alongside amateur photographer Alice Austen’s classic proto-drag-king frolic Julia Martin, Julia Bredt and Self dressed up as Men, 4:40 p.m., Thurs., Oct. 15th., 1891; at the other is Berlin-based intersex artist Ins A Kromminga’s drawing of a sphincter with teeth Das Defensive Organ, 2010, and LA-based Wu Tsang’s moodily matter-of-fact transgender night club interior Green Room, 2012. While the concept of queerness as implicit deconstructionist identity critique is promising, Meyer and Lord’s selections largely privilege overtly sexual, erotic, campy and/or butch figurations. As a result, the cumulative effect is one of displacing heteronormative identity constructs with queer ones. Identity emerges unscathed.
Still, Art and Queer Culture’s real draw isn’t as a groundbreaking gender studies text with an innovative, watertight thesis. It is as an exhibition in book form: a potentially groundbreaking, long overdue exhibition that it is impossible to imagine a large-scale international institution having the courage or, perhaps more accurately, the corporate support to stage. Triumphalisms aside, the book does have its shortcomings, one of which, perhaps unavoidably, concerns Meyer and Lord’s curatorial and editorial remit. With a focus on transgression and deviance, the selection process of what is included and excluded seems surprisingly narrow. For example, why include work by the irrelevant (in this context) Yinka Shonibare and not Vaginal Davies’ highly influential VHS video-zine Fertile LaToyah Jackson, c1980-90?
The third section of the book is an impressive archive of reprinted documents. These articles and essays form a significant collection of texts linked to key historical moments, struggles or theoretical formulations in queer cultural history. But with the book’s hefty price tag and foreboding heft, it is unclear just who the book’s prospective audience is, and subsequently who will read it. I suspect the answer to both questions may, rather depressingly, be ‘arts professionals and academics’. This is the result of a fundamental contradiction at the book’s core: a nonconformist, trailblazing rhetoric formalised in a conservative and expensive coffee-table design. The problem is that the trio of Phaidon, Meyer and Lord have unswervingly followed a publishing model – despite the current economic crisis – that will lock out vast swathes of the public who simply cannot afford the book, or the astronomical tuition fees of art schools that may stock it in their libraries. It is necessary to highlight these shortcomings because we are living in a time when homosexuality is becoming criminalised across the world – we can see evidence of this in Ghana and Russia, with Greece hovering on the brink. In this climate of fear and ignorance the portability and accessibility of a publication that maps a potentially inspirational genealogy of queer art and culture becomes crucial, particularly if it is to reach people beyond those privileged enough to live in tolerant societies. That said, Meyer and Lord have produced a magnificent book, but in being blinded by the brilliance of its content, they let the limited nature of its form pass by.