Towards a Repositioning of Queer Art

All the most interesting people are that way you know.

– Gertrude Stein

In June 2012, the Queer New York Festival burst onto the scene with a manifesto that argued queer art was an “impoverished reality” that had been “hijacked by the mainstream… absorbed and erased,” until “even artists often avoid the label since they see it as something that would narrow and define them in a limiting way.” (Dobrovic). This essay examines that premise and interrogates the ways in which queer art has been critically defined. Taking as a model the Guerrilla Girls’ critique of the erasure of women in the art world, this essay seeks a similar re-­visioning of art by queers within the historical context, asking “Where are the queer artists?”


In looking at the position of queers in the art world, one is faced by two dissonant realities: one is that the art world is honeycombed with homosexuals, and the other is the almost complete denial and erasure of that fact, as Laurel Lampela points out in her study on the handling of queer artists in art history curricula:
For centuries information about the sexual identity of artists who were lesbian or gay has been hidden from the average person. Unless one spent time researching the lives of individual artists such as Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Bonheur, and Brooks, one would not know that these artists had romantic attractions for members of the same sex. Speaking from experience, the sexual identity of artists was not overtly discussed in art history classes but assumptions were made that these artists were heterosexual. (Lampela, 146)

The reception within the art world of queers and their art is fraught with a strange dichotomy; “the queerness of artists perpetually fluttered between irrelevance and inescapableness, triviality and weightiness, invisibility and omnipresence.” (Sherry, 3) For the purposes of this discussion, I am defining as “queer” anyone who is not “straight” — that is, anyone whose gender presentation or preference of sexual partners place them outside the heteronormative hegemony, regardless of what terms they may have used to identify themselves. There is widespread respect of the “master” artists who fall into this category, from da Vinci, Cellini, Botticelli, Donatello, Reni, to name only a handful (and add to Lampela list above) Nevertheless, I will argue there remains a palpable discomfort in the visual art world around identified queers. Art history is rich with queers, but our acceptance seems to be dependent on our polite silence. This has put queer artists in a position of continually trying to assert their existence and prove their worthiness to a culture that both reviles and loves them.

This dissonance has a long history. From the turn of the last century, there has been an association (often negative) between the arts and homosexuality, as we see in the use of “artistic” as a slang term used to disparagingly question a person’s sexuality throughout the first half of the previous century — simultaneously an acknowledgement of the artistic contribution of queers and a homophobic pushing of queers deeper into the closet (Cooper, 15; Sherry, 18). Paul B. Franklin points to one of the twentieth century’s seminal works of twentieth-­century as one nexus of this identification:

Equating the art gallery with a pissoir, [Marcel Duchamp’s] Fountain affirmed the overlapping queer history of these two urban spaces, a history which itself made history in 1895 with the trials of Oscar Wilde. In their aftermath, every man who identified as an artist left himself open to being accused, like Wilde, of ‘posing as a sodomite’. The anxiety of such a charge probably provoked Marius de Zayas, a Mexican artist and New York gallery owner, to decry in 1915 that the American avant-­garde was infected by ‘the mentality of homosexuals’ who were ‘flowers of artificial breeding’. (Franklin, 48)

Through to mid-­century, queer artists were often held up to the world as paragons of American Art, while being simultaneously denounced for perverting and controlling the art world at home through a “gay Mafia” or “homintern” (Sherry, 1-­?2). During that period, queers were also sometimes identified as propelling Modernism and the artistic avant-­? garde, both by the movement’s detractors (Butt, 23-­?25) and its proponents, as for example, Duchamp, in a 1949 Round Table on Modern Art:

“I believe that the homosexual public has shown more interest or curiosity for modern art than the heterosexual [public].” In a 1961 interview, Duchamp reiterated this opinion: “the receptive public is often a homosexual public. The general public is not interested in new movements.” These statements as well as Duchamp’s oeuvre in the 1910s and 1920s suggest that during this epoch to be homosexual, in effect, was to be avant-­garde and perhaps vice versa. (Franklin, 48)

Other scholars have remarked on the central role played by Warhol, Hockney, and other queer artists in Pop Art, and the identification of a “queer aesthetic” with the Camp aesthetic that defined that movement (Reed, 5; Finkelstein). In the 1980’s, the AIDS crisis created a moment, through the levelling effects of death, in which a few exceptional artists were allowed to be very out, and become well-­known and recognized for doing queer-­themed work:
Haring’s willing accession to the status of gay artist is exemplary of the 1980s, when an explosion took place in the number of artists unambiguously claiming a gay identity in the context of the AIDS crisis. In 1987 reviewers in New York commented on the ‘notable presence of gay-content art’ at the prestigious Whitney Biennial, connecting this trend to ‘the increased prominence of gays in the public eye— mainly due to the nightmare of AIDS’ (Meyer). The Biennial of 1991 featured, if anything, even more art related to gay identity and AIDS, including paintings by Haring, David Wojnarowicz (1954–92) and Thomas Lanigan Schmidt (b 1948), along with sculpture by Robert Gober and an AIDS Timeline created by Group Material, an artists’ collaborative. (Reed, 7)

This brief flowering, however, was followed almost immediately by a crack-­down that still resonates:

The cultural climate of 1991 is exemplified by the catalogue for the Biennial, which opens with an essay by the curator, titled ‘Culture under Siege’. This describes attacks on artists and galleries by right-­wing politicians across the USA, frequently over the creation and exhibition of art dealing with homosexuality. Analogous controversies arose simultaneously in Britain over ‘Clause 28’, which forbade tolerance of any form of gay expression by government-­funded institutions. (Reed,

Homophobia in the art world

Some may question the premise of homophobia of the art world today. In the US, we have seen a rapid rise in the acceptance of queers as part of the normal social fabric over the past few years. Though we still risk our lives in many spaces, we’ve never been safer. According to a poll by CNN/ORC International in May 2012, 54% of Americans now favor gay marriage, up 10% from 2009. 60% of Americans now say they have a close friend or family member who is gay, up 19% from 2010. One might assume that the art world, a cultural forerunner in so many areas, would be ahead of the general population in this area too. But one might be wrong. In an interview with Avram Finkelstein, Jonathan David Katz, the director of the doctoral program in Visual Culture Studies at State University of New York at Buffalo, stated: “We’re in a place where we have carved out a position for queers in popular culture, but not, if you’ll excuse the term, in high culture.” (Finkelstein, 1) Katz co-­? curated the 2010 exhibition Hide and Seek at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery the first major museum show of queer arts in the US. In response to the storm of controversy surrounding the exhibit, Katz went on to say:

“While we have known that many American artists are gay, that fact is routinely disavowed, especially in museums, and especially since the Mapplethorpe brouhaha of 1989. If you don’t know how aggressively museums police information about sexuality, you’ve just not been paying attention — just look at the way MOMA overlooks David Wojnarowicz’s gay politics in their wall labels, or how recent exhibitions of Jasper Johns or Robert Rauschenberg ignored the fact that these men were lovers during the most productive moments of their respective careers. Surely the fact that [Hide and Seek] is the first show of its kind, testifies to necessity of foregrounding sexuality as an interpretive matrix… [O]ur exhibition works to decenter a vision of sexuality delimited to biography for a much richer, more nuanced account of how sexuality governs not just the production, but the reception of works of art, how they are understood and misunderstood, and how that understanding changes over time.” (cited in Simon, 6)

It may be noted that inroads of queer theory into visual art reception seems to lag behind other artistic disciplines. Jonathan Weinberg, in the keynote essay to Art Journal’s 1996 queer issue, commented that “art history . . . among the humanities has been relatively late to raise the issue of the relationship of art and sexual identity in a sustained fashion. Although there has been an increasing number of essays on lesbian and gay themes in art, there are still only a handful of full-­?length studies of the subject.”( Weinberg,12) A quick glance at the shelves of the art library of the University of British Columbia confirms that this is still the case, showing volume upon volume dealing with queers in literature, film, and music, yet only a sparse handful on queer visual art. This is not to say homophobia is absent in the other disciplines. One of the spurs that prompted me to start this research was a conversation with a prominent arts critic for two of Canada’s major papers, The Globe and Mail and The National Post, recounted to me by Canadian concert pianist Dr. Rachel Iwaasa:

Critic: Queer art is basically crap.

Iwaasa: But W.H. Auden and Claude Vivier are two of your favorite artists! And they were queer.

Critic: Yeah, but they didn’t make queer art.

(Rachel Iwaasa, conversation with author, October 22, 2012.)

Bad Words

I think here I should make a note on dirty words.

Rant on/ I want to get one thing straight (pun intended) I’m going to use a lot of buzz words, words that can shut some minds off when they hear them. Something happens when these words are spoken, some switch is thrown, a light is shut off, a brake applied. They think, “This is not about me,” or “This is too intense” or “This is bad, bad.” Something. Happens. I know because I’ve been using these words for a while. It’s just a word, a word for something close to me, or part of me, not a bomb, why do you act like I threw a bomb, like the word could blow up in your face. Feminist. Queer. Anarchist. Dyke. People of color. Politically correct. Witch. Jew. These words may not mean what you think they mean, they are not that scary or foreign or bad. Really how can folks that use a rainbow flag be scary? It’s like being prejudiced against Kermit the Frog. But people are still dying of homophobia, by their own hand or others, and there’s the rub. /Rant off.

It seems to me it’s the speaking of the words themselves that is the problem. If queers go unnamed and invisible, it’s not an issue. Although all the art included in Hide and Seek, was well-­known, widely shown, canonical works of contemporary art, the show itself was, as Katz described it, “incendiary”. (Katz, 1) It was criticized for “outing” deceased artists who were widely known as queer (I guess it wasn’t supposed to be spoken of in polite company). The very idea of framing a collection by the artists’ sexuality was denounced. It wasn’t the art or the artists that were controversial. It was the naming.

We are welcome in the art world (Auden is loved, the art in Hide/Seek is canonical) as long as we don’t flaunt it (but don’t call their work queer). One of the strongest examples to make this case is Andy Warhol. Michael Lobel argues convincingly in his article “Warhol’s Closet” that Warhol never got a break until he inned himself, that is, stopped being such an out homo. He started as much more swish, more open about his sexuality, more out of the closet. Galleries rejected his early, overtly gay work. (Reed, 7) In response to homophobia, Warhol mythologized himself in many ways, one being as a kind of “asexual dandy”:

“Warhol was seen as too suspect a character to become an artist before 1962.
. . [H]is abjection from the art world was maintained by the circulation of malicious gossip . . . about his flagrant homosexuality. . . [S]uch gossiping subsides in the wake of Warhol’s successes, and . . . a new regime of talk begins to frame and construct him as the now familiar asexual postmodern dandy. (Butt, 13)

When Warhol stopped talking about his sexuality was when his work began to be recognized. Warhol himself displayed a very gay personality, but just let others decide what that meant. He let everyone talk and gossip about his life, while himself remaining silent, answering speculation about himself in cheeky aphorisms, confounding mumbles, or not at all.

Even writing this paper, the doubts swarm, reasons to just keep quiet that I’ve heard so many times. Why talk about it? Sexuality is private. It has nothing to do with art. Why do we need to drag sex into everything? Why pigeon-­hole yourself? Why limit your audience? What does it matter who art sleeps with? Great art is universal.

I turn to Trinh Minh-­ha for advice:

“How do you inscribe difference without bursting into a series of euphoric narcissistic accounts of yourself and your own kind? Without indulging in a marketable romanticism or a naïve whining about your condition? . . . How do you forget without annihilating? Between the twin chasms of navel gazing and navel erasing, the ground is narrow and slippery, and none of us can pride ourselves on being sure-­footed there.” (cited in Hammond, 9)

It is the ground between navel-­gazing and erasure that we attempt to walk. And we are not always graceful. But if we never speak of queerness, we are assumed out of existence. There is no unclaimed neutral ground between queer and straight where one lives when sexuality is not mentioned. If you don’t say the word, the world assumes you’re straight. That’s why they call it heteronormativity.

Defining Queer Art

Definitions of queer art have often unconsciously embraced limitations and preconceptions. One of the preconceived notions is that queer art is only camp or identity art or representational art, and that the subject matter is always, only explicitly homosexual. As a director of a professional queer arts festival, I hear negativity from some queer artists themselves, some who say they don’t want to exhibit out of fear of being ghetto-­ized, others who claim not to make queer art, meaning not camp, not representational, not identity art. But I believe the most useful definition for queer art is art made by queers, regardless of content or form. So what then falls under this umbrella? A tiny sampling of some contemporary queer artists: Francis Bacon, Catherine Opie, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Keith Haring, Jean-­Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Paul Cadmus, Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, Robert Mapplethorpe, Chip Kidd, John Cage, Duane Michaels, Annie Leibovitz, Cass Bird, Romaine Brooks, Bernice Abbot and Nan Goldin Richard Attila Lucacs, Okuhara Seiko. I cite mostly many of the well-?known men here, consciously in naming mostly the men in the paper, I am working within the hegemony of the “straight” high art world and what is most recognized and undisputed as good art. My program in this essay is not so much a “is she or isn’t he,” but rather an attempt to combat the dismissal of queer art as unworthy. If this is the company of contemporary art queer artists, why then is queer artists still ghetto-­ized and degraded?

Even a cursory glance at that list in its huge variety and multiplicity suggests one cannot define A Queer Sensibility. I believe in a much more pluralist concept, as in multiple queer sensibilities. Our multi-­layered, intersectional experience of course makes us (all of us, of every sexuality) who we are artistically. A positioning of queer art defined wholly by who makes it rather than what it entails allows for difference, contradiction and fluidity, and avoids the pitfalls of an essentialist paradigm that seeks commonalities or universalities:

As a category of historical analysis or lived experience, sexual identity is characterized by change and debate. This dynamism should not be interpreted as a sign of weakness or irrelevance, however. On the contrary, it is because sexual identity is crucial to so many artists and audiences that its visual manifestations arouse such passion and creativity. (Reed, 8)

Art is evolutionary, in the sense that it coincides with and harnesses evolutionary accomplishments into avenues of expression that no longer have anything to do with survival. Art hijacks survival impulses and transforms them through vagaries and intensifications posed by sexuality, deranging them into a new order, a new practice. Art is the sexualization of survival or, equally, sexuality is the rendering artistic, the exploration of excessiveness, of nature.

-Elizabeth Grosz, Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth (2008)

Thinkers from Darwin to Freud to Deleuze to Grosz, have argued that the production art is in some way a function of sexual desire. (Grosz, 64) While they may disagree on what exactly that relationship entails, the voices are too eminent and too numerous to be simply discounted. If we accept the premise that art and sexuality are connected, then it follows that to silence or ignore artists’ sexuality impoverishes our understanding and appreciation of their work. Maintaining a culture in which artists fear openly identifying as queer for fear of their work being ghettoized creates an unhealthy climate of self-­?censorship. Queer theory, in its Post-­modern validation of popular culture, has yet to make many inroads into the rarified world of contemporary visual art.

Its time has come.

Lampela has argued for the importance of recognizing queer artists in art education curricula for general well-­being:

Lipkin (1999) noted that few school leaders recognize how homophobia is linked to serious student problems such as suicide, substance abuse, and promiscuity He noted that many juveniles are arrested or violent crimes because they take foolish risks to prove they are not gay. Lipkin urges educators to become informed about gay, lesbian, and bisexual people and to create a safe and equitable classroom; and be role models of acceptance. Those teachers who include a multicultural focus in their curricula can address and celebrate the differences among their students, such as race, ethnicity, and sexual identity. Just as not all students share the same race or ethnic heritage, not all students share the same sexual identity. One way to acknowledge different sexual identities is to recognize the contributions that lesbian and gay artists have made to the visual arts. (Lampela,148)


Butt, Gavin. Between You and Me: Queer Disclosures in the New York Art World, 1948-­1963. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2003.

Cooper, Emmanuel. The Sexual Perspective: Homosexuality and Art in the Last 100 Years in the West. London; New York: Routledge, 1994.

Dobrovic, Zvonimir. “About Us.” Queer New York, n.d.

Finkelstein, Avram. “Speaking With Jonathan David Katz.” Art Writ Spring 2011.­finkelstein-speaks-with-jonathan-david-katz/

Franklin, P. B. “Object Choice: Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain and the Art of Queer Art History.” Oxford Art Journal 23, no. 1 (January 1, 2000): 23–50.

Grosz, Elizabeth A. Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth. Columbia University Press, 2008.

Hammond, Harmony. Lesbian Art in America: a Contemporary History. New York: London: Rizzoli; Troika, 2000.

Lampela, Laurel. “Lesbian and Gay Artists in the Curriculum: A Survey of Art Teachers’ Knowledge and Attitudes.” Studies in Art Education 42, no. 2 (January 1, 2001): 146–162.

Lobel, Michael. “Warhol’s Closet” Art Journal, Vol. 55, No. 4, We’re Here: Gay and Lesbian Presence in Art and Art History (Winter, 1996), pp. 42-50

Reed, Christopher. “Gay and lesbian art.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, accessed November 13, 2012,

Sherry, Michael S. Gay Artists in Modern American Culture: An Imagined Conspiracy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Simons, Max. “Is the Smithsonian’s New Queer Art Showcase Bad for Contemporary Art?” Queerty contemporary-art-20101104/

Weinberg, Jonathan. “Things Are Queer.” Art Journal 55, no. 4 (December 1, 1996): 11–14.