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Detail from Dancing Sailors, by Charles Demuth (1917)
Detail from Dancing Sailors, by Charles Demuth (1917)

Visual arts

It’s here, it’s queer, but who is it for? Add to ...

  • Title Art & Queer Culture
  • Author Edited by Catherine Lord and Richard Meyer
  • Genre artAndDesign
  • Publisher Phaidon
  • Pages 412
  • Price $75

Of all the neologisms and reclamations to have sprung from the activist and academic worlds of the 1980s, “queer” is the most embattled. When I came of queer age, in the mid-to-late nineties, I understood it as a term meant to stand as a defiant departure from “gay,” “lesbian” or “bisexual” (whose identities were themselves tethered to “straight,” if simply by opposition – or so the thinking went). It always had a clear political aim and purposefully hazy definition: to resist categorization, to disrupt binary thinking about sexual identity.

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Since then, “queer” has entered into the politically correct mainstream, and its thorny refusals have been pruned. It is now invoked to stand as a hasty gesture of inclusivity, as a means to elide wrestling through the ever-expanding acronym of LGBT. I’ve heard it used to refer to a category as narrow and exclusive as “gay men,” all the while enabling the speaker to project a disingenuous political sensitivity. All of this is to say that queer, as a noun, is a shell of its former self. And all of this is to say that I do not envy Catherine Lord and Richard Meyer.

They discuss this particular issue – the porosity of the definition of “queer” – in their introduction to Art & Queer Culture, a new coffee-table book published by Phaidon. They use it in its expansive, inclusive sense, while still insisting on the political spirit of its coinage. This is one of the great strengths of Art & Queer Culture. Curating queer art-making practices, from the dawn of modernity to now, can be a crippling task, but Lord and Meyer acknowledge their own frames of reference, as well as the necessary arbitrariness involved in assembling such a collection, and they briskly and confidently soldier on, through two essays, 250 colour plates and 94 pages of textual addenda.

Art & Queer Culture is divided into three sections: Survey, Works and Documents. Survey consists of two contextual essays: Meyer tackles the late 19th century to the mid 20th, and Lord picks up the baton and ushers us into the present. Lord is the better writer of the two, her essay the more graceful. Granted, she has the easier task: After the Stonewall riots of 1969, a heretofore-timid community all of a sudden emerged as highly visible, highly organized and capable of serious damage (say what you will of the Mattachine Society, but none of them ever set fire to any SWAT cars).

And then, the AIDS crisis galvanized queer artists like nothing else has, before or since. So Lord has a clear structuring principle, whereas Meyer has to do his best to hopscotch through 100 years of between-the-lines coded art making, and so his section seems like a particularly hurried and impatient guided tour. Nevertheless, he is cogent (if a little too efficient), and between the two, they hit all the appropriate nails, but ultimately make no substantially novel interpretations or assertions.

The Works section is more interesting: Books like these generally trade on a combination of recognition factor and titillation – nothing sells anything faster than good ol’ fashioned full-frontal, by names everyone knows. But Lord and Meyer are intent on making a political point: queer art can (and should) include erotic sexuality, but more important, it is constituted by political intent: sexuality as a means of defiant resistance.

And so there are some surprising inclusions here – works by artists with little-to-no art market visibility, such as Patrick Angus, whose sweetly lurid paintings documented the sexual demimondes of Los Angeles and New York; and works by artists who always should, but never seem to, make it into these hardcover extravaganzas – I was delighted to see Canadian artists Stephen Andrews, Paige Gratland, Kent Monkman and Nina Levitt included.

The book winds up with Documents, a 100-odd-page anthology of excerpts of important texts from all the decades that Lord and Meyer include in their survey. Of all the organizational quirks of the book, this is the best, and the smartest. With this textual inclusion, Lord and Meyer insist on the dialogue between theory and practice, between the image and the written word. Not only does it contextualize the Works section in a way that the introductory essays never could, its presence fleshes out both the artworks and the excerpted texts, recognizing that they were and are all active voices in a broader cultural discussion that goes beyond the limits of their respective media.

And so, in the end, who is this book for? It’s a question that nagged me as I made my way through it. Those intimately familiar with the subject will be hearing a simplified version of everything they already know. Total outsiders will find themselves perplexed by a series of political and theoretical stances and gestures. As I read, I kept picturing myself as a young man, cruising the cultural studies (read: gay) sections of bookstores, looking for titillation in art books because I was too shy to be seen looking at skin mags in public. That is who this book is for: The kid coming of queer age, who thinks himself alone in his confusion and anger, who can hold this resource in his hands and have at his immediate disposal a whole universe of forebears and contemporaries, forging their own queer culture.

Sholem Krishtalka’s work has been exhibited in Toronto, New York and Berlin. His writing has appeared in various publications including Canadian Art, C Magazine and Bookforum Online.

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