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Queerscope | Queerness and Art

Queerscope is a bi-monthly column by Aditi Paul that aim to look at queerness and its aspects, in concern with modern culture as well as lessons from queer movements across the world.

The debate on what art is, or better yet, what it is not, has been going on for a long time. There is no singular definition of art: often times, artists form their own personal definitions of it. Therefore, while a dictionary may define art as “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects”, it is not the only definition in existence. Leo Tolstoy defines art “as the activity by which a person, having experienced an emotion, intentionally transmits it to others.” What remains common across these, and all other definitions, is the belief that art is fundamental to human expression.

“Art is fundamental to human expression”

What an idyllic statement. Art has historically been involved in expressing dissent with the normative rules society imposes at any given time. It has and will always be a tool of subversion. It is therefore not hard to see why art is an attractive medium of expression for queer communities.

What is Queer art?

Queer themes are generally found coded, sometimes heavily. The mere existence of the term “queer art” suggests to readers that it is different than every other piece of art there is – which does not come with an associated tag. However, there must be an other to this term, by all logical means, shouldn’t there?

What do we call it then – “regular art”? Perhaps “straight art”, working under the widespread (and, to this extent, widely misconstrued) understanding that “queer art” implies art related and pertaining specifically to the LGBT community? This ‘other’ is simply called art, and exists without any of the presuppositions that queer art finds itself associated with.

If art is fundamental to human expression, it is important to remember that queer people have always existed. Queer art has always existed. The straight gaze has worked to create a binarization that did not previously exist. If queer as a term comes to denote anything that is odd, strange, eccentric and unexpected, queer art is surely avant-garde.

The issue of codification

Christopher Reed, author of Art and homosexuality: A history of ideas, certainly considers queer art as an “open secret” of the modernist avant-garde movement. A fundamental characteristic of modern avant-garde art was its ability to hint at aspects of society that were previously unacknowledged.

Homosexuality was one of the profound themes that adhered to this characterisation. He theorized that the modern bourgeois audience encouraged art that did not adhere to presupposed standards since it reinforced “the most fundamental of all capitalist values: individualism.” Bourgeois audience were able to indulge in expressions of individualism while still staying under the shroud of authority, which ultimately led to neither sides being able to acknowledge the “secret”, and instead only be aware of the fact that the other knew of it too. Thus, as succinctly put forth by Reed, avant-garde’s “perpetual rehearsal of homosexual shame and heterosexual privilege reinforces the sexual norms that avant-garde art seems superficially to challenge.”

June 2019 saw the record breaking sale of Bhupen Khakhar’s Two Men in Benares (1982) at Sotheby’s auction house, going under the hammer of “Coups de Coeur: The Guy and Helen Barbier Family Collection”. The painting, which sold for a whopping $3.2 million, was first unveiled by Khakhar in 1986, and is among those of his works which helped establish him as India’s pioneering gay artist. It depicts two naked men locked in an embrace, against the background of Varanasi, clearly directing the viewers’ attention to the contrast between the two. Sotheby’s, on its website, said that it “is the most explicit of what the artist himself called his “efforts to come-out in open”, and to create a new iconography of homosexual love”.

The fact that Khakhar’s coming out is described as an “effort” is a testament to Reed’s understanding of the art movements of the 1980s. Two Men in Benares and Yayati (1987) are two of Khakhar’s most subversive paintings, rife with coded language, that assists the dominant sexual strength as portrayed in these works. The existence of coded sexual language only serves to prove the point that queerness in art was seen as a deviance from the norm, and was thus not acknowledged publicly.

An artist who seemingly used this concept of an “open secret” to his benefit was Marcel Duchamp. With his Fountain (1917), he managed to convey the irony between segregation of art into sets of high and low, as well as suggest that pleasure could be found in public male toilets. For Gert Wollheim’s Untitled (Couple) (1926), androgynous fashioning helped codify the subjects as lesbians.

Contemporary scenario

Although artworks with queer connotations were veiled and not well received in the time of their creation, contemporary times have seen art galleries host exhibitions dedicated specifically to queer art. Tate Britain opened its first major exhibition on Queer British Art in 2017, whereas the Brooklyn Museum is currently holding Nobody Promised You Tomorrow, to commemorate 50 years after Stonewall. Better accessibility and greater exposure have allowed artists to flourish: Queer Habibi, Andrew Salgado, and Devan Shimoyama all have found success through social media.

It is thus no “secret” that contemporary times have seen a much more positive approach to queerness in art than ever before. Such symbolism is now encouraged, and cherished. It finally allows us to better interrogate the meanings and definitions of queer art. What parameters does this term include? Is the art queer due to the artist or the nature of the work itself? Who decides which work is queer? Is it the artist or the viewer? If queer art is all encompassing in rejecting the notations of just adhering to LGBT themes, is all subversive art queer?

None of these questions will ever have a definite answer. In that, we find our comfort: queer art is not singular or static. It is ever evolving, and is created to contradict and challenge perceived notions of what is dominant and in this act, is forever subversive.

Aditi Paul is a Research Associate with the Queer Resource Centre at One Future Collective.

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