Whitechapel Gallery and the MIT Press recently published Queer, the latest addition to Documents of Contemporary Art, a popular series of anthologies on major themes and ideas in contemporary art. There may not be a single London-based student, scholar, or practitioner of art who has never consulted a volume from this series. From abstract themes like Memory and Utopias to more concrete subjects, these well-designed books aim to contribute to a thorough understanding of contemporary art, in a handy format. Quite surprisingly, the latest addition to the series — Queer was published in February, concurrently with The Magazine — is the also one of the only anthologies on queer contents in art.
Queer was clearly shaped by the interests of its editor, David J. Getsy, who teaches art history at the School of the Art institute of Chicago and whose approach to research draws amply from transgender and queer studies. Trying to give adequate representation to the different voices speaking the queer language must have been particularly difficult. Getsy smartly broke with the convention of the Documents of Contemporary Art series — which often features contributions from theorists and historians — by focusing almost exclusively on artists. As a result, readers get a fresher, more operative look at the subject, which is one of the book’s greatest merits. The volume includes more than 75 artists’ voices, spanning from the beginning of the 20th century to today; Roland Barthes is the only theorist-critic among the non-artists included.
Although every anthology can be criticized for leaving out contributions, Getsy put extra effort in trying to represent the different practices included under “queer,” which is, itself, very difficult to define. While the word is commonly accepted in the arts as an umbrella term that covers different practices dealing with alterity, the defining traits of “queer” are constantly being re-negotiated. In the introduction, Getsy acutely recognizes the subversive nature of the term:
Perhaps, the best way to understand the stance that self-nominates as queer is to see that it is, fundamentally, adjectival. It does not stand alone. Rather, it attaches itself to nouns, willfully perverting that to which it is appended. It is a tactical modification — this name “queer” — that invokes relations of power and propriety in its inversion of them.
Because “queer” contributes to defining identities, it engages with representation and self-representation — in other words, with aesthetics. The artists included in the book have all, at different times in history and different moments in their lives, dealt with the relationship between aesthetics and queer sexuality. Names from the “queer pantheon” — including Derek Jarman and Wolfgang Tillmans — are put next to less-known voices — like those of Karol Radziszewski and Ulrike Müller — widening the scope of the discussion.
To organize the book, Getsy grouped the different texts into thematic sections, which orient readers and make them more fluent. Although the term “queer” in its current acceptation consolidated during the 1980s, the first section of the book questions this time frame, collecting contributions from canonized queer figures, including Natalie Clifford Barney and Jean Genet, addressing earlier practices within the field. The second section of the book foregrounds the responses to the AIDS crisis in the ’80s and ’90s, the most dramatic and fundamental chapter in the queer community’s history, investigating anger as a medium to express dissent. David Wojnarowicz’s desperate voice reported the intolerable homophobic climate that followed the spread of AIDS in the US at the end of the ’80s, while the Lesbian Avengers developed an enjoyable handbook for strategies of protest.
The following two parts of the anthology emphasize art since 2000, bringing together examples of the vast production of queer practices, their different aims and interests. Reading through these sections reminds the reader that art is a powerful way of investigating sexuality, desire, and, ultimately, identity. From some of these contributions, the theme of homonormativity stands out as a crucial problem the LGBTQ community faces today. Those who don’t fit into the mainstream gay rights movement are often left behind by those who are getting homogenized into the so-called “normative” queer identity. Artists working against these assimilationist tendencies highlight difference in their work as much as possible. It’s the case of Ron Athey, who writes about his many identity crises through the years (with related changes of wardrobe), or Catherine Opie, who recounts the development of her iconic photograph “Self-Portrait Cutting” (1993).
Queer, by definition, is about otherness. A singular view on LGBTQ politics is not only reductive, but can also be dangerous, leading to insensitivity toward other differences such as ethnicity, religion, and class. The queer community has always been extraordinarily welcoming and receptive to difference; this isn’t the time to forget it. We must heed the words of Carlos Motta, from the manifesto he contributed to Queer: “Value critical difference instead of false equality.”