Living in Queer Times

The vast history of queer art has been shaped by a tension between the historical need to conceal references to queer identities and experiences in the interest of personal safety, and a desire to create representations of them.

“Queer” is a complex and fluid term. Historically it meant “strange” or “peculiar,” but from the late nineteenth century it came to be used as a slur against people expressing same sex desires. The contemporary usage of queer as an umbrella term for people who are not heterosexual or cisgender began in the 1980s, when LGBT activists (as they were known at the time) began to self-identify as queer. This deliberately provocative reclamation of the word was seen as a radical alternative to the more limiting categories of identity that made up the LGBT acronym. From these activist roots queer theory entered the academy in the early 1990s, extending some of the philosophical approaches of gay and lesbian studies and women’s studies within a postmodern framework, before the term transitioned into broader cultural usage.

It is a very recent phenomenon for queer identities or experiences to be openly reflected in our culture. It was only in the final few decades of the twentieth century that homosexuality was decriminalised, with Tasmania the last Australian state to do so in 1997, and even more recent that majority support for equal rights has been achieved in this country. The early 1970s was a turning point in queer art and culture, with the Stonewall Riots of 1969 and the subsequent struggle for equal rights marking a shift towards greater visibility. In the years preceding this watershed moment, however, many artists had developed hidden codes and symbolism for subtly communicating queerness to knowing audiences. Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and Agnes Martin were all known to include covert queer references in their work. While we live in a different time today, with greater queer inclusion and stronger legal protections, many social and legal inequalities persist, and queer art remains a critical vehicle for communicating the realities of queer lived experiences.

The queer theorist David Halperin has argued that queerness is defined in opposition to whatever is deemed normative and is “available to anyone who is or who feels marginalised because of her or his sexual practices.” In particular, queerness sits in opposition to heteronormativity – the idea that heterosexuality is the normal, default sexuality in our society – and cisnormativity – the assumption that a person’s gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth. Queer contemporary artists have explored the radical, open, and fluid potentiality of queerness. This is perhaps unsurprising given the association between queerness and political action, specifically around the HIV/AIDS pandemic. This radicalism built upon the social movements of the 1970s, such as the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and the environmental movement, and was reflected in art practice, with the category of “queer art” retrospectively applied to art interrogating diverse genders and sexualities post-Stonewall. The refusal to assimilate to heteronormativity opened up creative possibilities for many artists. Embracing their marginality, queer artists have used this position to create empowered narratives that challenge and resist dominant understandings of gender, sexuality, race, and class. Queerness is by necessity intersectional and intergenerational as it has been socially and historically interwoven with other social, political, and equality movements.

The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) exhibition Queer: Stories from the NGV Collection (10 March–21 August 2022) examines and reveals some of the queer narratives that works of art can tell. The exhibition is comprised of works in the NGV Collection that “record and highlight the diverse experiences of queer communities, from Ancient Greece to the present day.” Many of the over 400 works in the exhibition are by artists who identify as queer, like Destiny Deacon, Leigh Bowery, and David McDiarmid, while other works are by artists who are not queer but have a connection to queer histories, expressions, politics, and sensibilities. Given the historical span of the exhibition, many of the artists included in the show lived in a time when queer identification was not possible. Diverse sexualities and gender identities have been part of human experience throughout human history, but haven’t always been understood to be queer. It’s problematic to assign identities to artists from the past who would not have had access to that identity, but we can nevertheless examine their work and their world through a contemporary queer lens.

Queer stories, like other marginalised histories, are often erased, suppressed, or absent within dominant archives, like art historical canons. This creates an ongoing challenge of representation and necessitates radical forms of recovery. Contemporary engagements with queer histories, including art histories, need to simultaneously work towards the recuperation of histories and a recognition that historical repression renders full recovery impossible, opening speculative and affective spaces. Queer artists, and in the case of the NGV exhibition, curators of queer art, interrogate these ruptures and slippages to create new alliances of representation and new ways of seeing. For Queer, this involves the NGV acknowledging absent archives and gaps in the NGV Collection and accepting that the art historical record has reinforced heteronormativity. Monash University Museum of Art’s recent project Queer Readings of the Monash University Collection, 2021, is another recent example of an attempt to redress this historical erasure or invisibility, commissioning writers to recontextualise artworks from a queer perspective.

The noted Black American writer Toni Morrison once wrote that “narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created.” Similarly, queer histories only come into being in the present moment in the narratives we tell ourselves. In recounting a history from a particular vantage point, whether through art or other cultural vehicles, we are recontextualising these histories in ways that encourage us to rethink our present, and by extension, our futures. For queer artists – and artists from other minority or oppressed groups, it should be noted – this process of recontextualisation has the potential not only to get us to think differently about our world, but to reveal the ways that we might continue to reshape it.  

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 58, 2022.

Queer: Stories from the NGV Collection
10 March–21 August 2022
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

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