When “Queer” Art Becomes Commonplace

In The Estrangement Principle, author Ariel Goldberg warns against the dangers of overusing the word “queer.”

Ariel Goldberg, The Estrangement Principle (image courtesy Nightboat Books)

Reading The Estrangement Principle feels like walking alongside author Ariel Goldberg as they attend art openings and performances, mull over volumes at bookstores and the classroom, ask questions to poets, writers, and theorists at readings and panel discussions, and flirt at dance parties. Each of these events was tagged “queer” by organizers, participants, and publishers. Goldberg, a poet and photographer, began “collecting the phrase ‘queer art’ in all its sweaty megaphone pronouncements” in 2010. In 2012, this collection inspired an essay, self-published as a pamphlet, which Goldberg distributed at events like the aforementioned. In it, Goldberg forewarned of the overuse of the word “queer” and the dangers of doing so.

2012 was the year I personally stopped using the word queer as a descriptor of my identity. The term reclaimed by LGTBQIA folk in the late ’80s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, rang out like an S.O.S. call across the country, insisting on a radical platform that rejected the heteronormative agendas of the mainstream gay political movement. But by 2012, the term had reached the ears of marketing machines and retailers and it seemed like Urban Outfitters was trying to sell queerness back to me for a price heftier than an inflated sales tag. It seemed that everyone born after 1990s was dressing as if it was 1990 — a light-hearted regurgitation of fashion stripped of politics and the context of mass death.

Ariel Goldberg, “Rainbow Dreams” (2012), 17 x 22 inches, archival ink jet (image courtesy the artist)

In its worst manifestations, “queer” is used as a substitute for a politic, the veneer of activism without the action, only utterance. Goldberg’s choice to quantify the barrage of the word as applied to art rather than qualify the many permutations of the word itself was a wise one. The danger of overusing the word “queer,” Goldberg argues, is that it upends its very intention to resist definition, while depoliticizing it and placing incredibly limiting boundaries around the expansive space “queer” purports to be. For instance, there’s been an increasing use of “queer” as a kind of disclaimer for one’s positionality in the world. As a result, the category has been overgeneralized for a group of people with divergent, specific sexual practices and gender expressions. Goldberg, for example, writes from a “Jewish, white, lesbian, trans, middle-class, able-bodied, and united-statesian perspective.” Throughout the book, Goldberg, who is both a poet and visual artist, parses language, often with evocative and memorable word play. “Queer resembles an umbrella one buys that falls apart shortly after a rainstorm,” they write when considering canonic and contemporary works from the realm of visual art, poetry, fiction, and criticism.

Ariel Goldberg, Strand Bookstore “June is Gay Pride Month,” Cell Phone Photo Notes (June 2014) (image courtesy the artist)

In the book’s earliest chapters, Goldberg resurrects Berenice Abbott and Susan Sontag as examples from a previous generation who refused or did not disclaim their queerness. The shifting relationship to the coming-out story over time becomes an investigation of the queer self against the backdrop of a changing world. American poet laureate Kay Ryan’s self-censored lesbianism contrasts with current generations that actively market themselves as queer. Goldberg points out the intersection of identity politics and capitalism when artists are asked to professionalize and prioritize their public image as much as their actual work. Goldberg delves into the professionalization of the queer artist and the institutionalization of “queer art,” in programs such as the Queer Arts Mentorship, to suggest the ways in which positioning one’s identity at the forefront has become a sales tactic. Though not explicitly stated, this emphasis on the identity-as-marketing strategy has the potential to place the work beyond the reproach of critics belonging to a different identity group.

Ariel Goldberg, “Rainbow Drawing” (2014), 17 x 22 inches, archival ink jet (image courtesy the artist)

Just as interesting as attending to the proliferation of works and events tagged “queer,” Goldberg also takes note of “the palpable silences around events that could have used the word ‘queer’ as a descriptor, but didn’t,” usually when race or multiple subjectivities enter the mix alongside gender and sexuality. Goldberg’s collection of press releases, flyers, and postcards reveal who, when, and how one is tagged with “queer” — almost as metadata that structures where content circulates IRL and in the invisible cloud of capitalism.

Ariel Goldberg, “Missing Photo of Fran Lebowitz from Peter Hujar by Peter Hujar (1990),” Cell Phone Photo Notes, (June 2013) (image courtesy the artist)

Goldberg’s critique is multipronged and, as such, revels in an ambivalence that is refreshing for acknowledging how the questions at stake are complicated. Maintaining this ambivalence is a difficult feat that Goldberg does well. To come to a more direct point, would be, well, too phallic an approach. There are no easy answers as the stakes of visibility are intertwined with cooptation. I appreciate the way in which Goldberg lingers in the folds and dark corners of questions about the relationship between aesthetics and identity, rolling experiences and words around their mouth in a poet’s exploration of textures, tastes, and sensations of language as they attempt to get closer to the core of “queer.”

When Goldberg started this project more than seven years ago, they were “young(er) and hadn’t been in one place long enough to contribute to various communities built around shared interests and experiences. [They] could only have been compelled to write this book at that acute moment of estrangement.” The eponymous “estrangement principle,” then, points to the etymology of queer as strange, but also stranger, and one step further to estrangement. Distance, in both its critical and alienating forms, is considered at length in the subtext of the book: How does one formulate and maintain a critical position while immersed in a community of makers, writers, and thinkers who are also friends? As the book surveys the territory where “queer” is staked, it ultimately constructs a portrait of a community of people at various stages of mobilizing. It’s here that I should tell you that I’m in the book, as are a number of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. I was in the audience with Goldberg during many events, though not literally by their side. They recount the conversation we had on the 25th Anniversary of a Day Without Art, for which I curated a project by fierce pussy and Alex Fiahlo led a group from the West Village to the Chelsea piers, stopping at the former homes of artists like Cookie Mueller. It was a joy to revisit the past seven years with Goldberg guiding me through my memories. For the reader not immersed in this community, the book constructs an archive of ephemeral conversations. One is privy to the inside of the “queer” art world as Goldberg centers this self-fashioned community and flips the terms of estrangement.

Ariel Goldberg, “Rainbow Slice” (2014), 17 x 22 inches, archival ink jet (image courtesy the artist)

Ariel Goldberg’s The Estrangement Principle is out from Nightboat Books

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