Art History and Critical Theory
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Sexualities, LGBTI studies, and Queer Theory Between the time of Sappho and the birth of Natalie Clifford
Barney lies a “lesbian silence” twenty-four centuries. Bertha Harris, Our Right to Love (1978)
So how do “Gender Studies” differ from feminism? What’s “queer” about Queer Theory? How do Gay and Lesbian Studies mesh with Queer Theory? Or with Gender Studies, for that matter? Why is that field called Gay and Lesbian Studies instead of LGBTI (lesbian/gay/ bisexual/ transgender/intersex) Studies?
All of these scholarly arenas share common ground, but there are distinctions among them, both in terms of their academic history and in terms of their areas of inquiry. Whereas feminism is particularly concerned with the social construction of women’s identity, Gender Studies is concerned with the social construction of all gender identities and experiences—whether man, woman, transgendered, gender-blended, queer, or something else alto gether. Gay and Lesbian Studies developed in the 1970s as a response both to feminism in the academy and to the lesbian and gay liberation movement (itself sparked by the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion, when a multicultural crowd of drag queens, trans sexuals, gay men, and working-class lesbians fought back against a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in lower Manhattan). Gay and Lesbian Studies provides a forum for recuperating the forgotten or concealed histories of gay and lesbian people, cultures, and institutions. Although you’ll still see this term, it is being sup planted by the terms Sexuality Studies or LGBTI Studies, which are more inclusive. Queer Theory has a political as well as a scholarly tradition. It emerged from and in reaction to the Gay and Lesbian Studies movement and the AIDS epidemic, calling for a radical reconfiguration of scholarship and politics and an examination of all forms of gender oppression.
In this section, I’ll provide an introduction to LGBTI Studies and Queer Theory’, discuss gender performativity—a key concept in QueerTheory’—and explore the practice of art history’ in relation to LGBTI Studies and Queer Theory.
so what’s normal—or normative? Feminists, gender theorists, and queer
theorists use the term “normative” to
identify and critique oppressive gender
standards and categories. Normative means
not what is “normal” but what is considered
“normal.” One of my queer students once
noted that just because heterosexuality is
more common in our culture, that doesn’t
make it normal, just as brown eyes may be
more common, but not more normal. Society
dictates that certain ways of living are
normal, and then coerces or persuades
individuals to conform to these standards
and perpetuate them. But when you look at
the range of human behavior, you soon
realize that there’s no such thing as
“normal,” however much society would like
us to think that there is.
The history of LGBTI Studies is parallel to and intertwined with political feminisms and feminist scholarship. Initially, like femin ism, the ambition of Lesbian and Gay Studies when it first developed was to document specific gay and lesbian identities and cultural practices. In art history, this meant researching artists who were gay and lesbian, and exploring homoerotic themes and subjects in works of art. Like feminist scholarship, LGBTI Studies retains strong connections with LGBTI political activism— especially around civil rights and the AIDS epidemic. Again, justas feminist studies are largely produced by self-identified feminists (largely, though not exclusively, women), LGBTI Studies are largely produced by scholars who self-identify in these ways.
Queer Theory is certainly related to LGBTI Studies, but takes a somewhat different approach. You probably know that the word queer means “weird” and has been used as derogatory slang for lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender people; it’s a word that some LGBTI people have reclaimed, using it proudly instead of “gay” to subvert its stigma. Queer theorist and literary critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick defines queerness as: “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances, and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically.”47 For Classics scholar and queer theorist David Halperin, “queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the
normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence.”48
The practice of Queer Theory is not so much about identifying and bringing to light particular LGBTI subjects and histories, as LGBTI Studies does. Rather, it focuses on tracing the power dynamics of what lesbian feminist poet Adrienne Rich (b. 1929) calls “compulsory heterosexuality,” the way in which hetero sexuality is placed at the center of society and other sexualities are marginalized.49 Queer theorists argue that homophobia is not just a byproduct of individual ignorance and prejudice, but an essential aspect of social organization and the distribution of power. Moreover, gender identity and sexual orientation aren’t natural, inevitable, or inherent, but created by society—after all, the terms homosexual and heterosexual, which you may think of as scientific and descriptive, were only coined in the late nineteenth century’. Of course, “queer” is itself a historically specific term, like “homo sexual” or “straight” or “man” or “woman.” Queer Theory isn’t any more inevitable or natural than anything else, but it is strategic ally useful: it makes sense to its practitioners as a way of analyzing the world. And yet as productive as Queer Theory has been, Teresa de Lauretis, the scholar often credited with introducing the phrase, later abandoned it, arguing that it had been co-opted by the very mainstream forces it was coined to resist.50
Michel Foucault, whose work is discussed at length in Chapter 5, was enormously influential in the development of both LGBTI Studies and Queer Theory. His multi-volume History of Sexuality (1978, 1984) argued that “homosexuality” should be seen as a histor ically specific product of a particular society. In the West, Foucault argued, the homosexual person was called into being by the legal, medical, and cultural discourses that created—and regulated—the category’ “homosexual” in the mid-nineteenth century’: “the sodo mite had been a temporary’ aberration; the homosexual was now a species.”51 Although Foucault’s work has been criticized for its lack of historically-specific analysis and its failure to recognize human agency; it did in many ways set an agenda for the study of sexuality as a cultural construct rather than as a biological given.
Gender performativity, a key queer idea Judith Buter’s work on gender performativity has been central to the development of queer theory.52 She argued that gender is per formative —that is, a sense of gender identity for an individual or
group develops via actions such as wearing certain clothes (skirts and dresses for women, ties and jackets for men), engaging in cer tain rituals (such as marriage), taking certain jobs (women don’t typically work in construction), and employing certain manner isms (girls are quiet, boys are rowdy); there is no natural, true, or innate essence to gender—or any other identity, for that matter. For Butler, identity is “performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results.”53
According to Butler, this performance functions according to two basic mechanisms: citation and iteration; she notes “femininity is thus not the product of a choice, but the forcible citation of a norm.”54 (And I would point out here that the same can be said for masculinity: men may end up with much more social and economic power than women do, but the process of masculine gendering can be just as constraining.) Citation is copying others, a performance.
Butler points out that change happens—and that there’s poten tial for resistance—because it’s impossible to copy or to repeat things exactly.55 Think about playing the game “telephone” or “Chinese whispers” and how much the message changes by the time it goes around the circle, sometimes by accident and some times because a player deliberately introduces a change. From a performative gender perspective, not only do artists themselves sometimes perform or undermine mainstream (normative) gen der identities and sexualities (male/female, straight) in their own lives, but they also sometimes create images that can perpetuate or challenge mainstream gender identities and sexualities.
LGBTI/Queer art history
The art historian Jonathan Weinberg has noted that among the humanities, art history has been relatively late to address the inter relationship of art and sexual orientation: “From its beginnings in the writings of Johann Winckelmann, art history has been a closeted profession in which die erotic is hidden or displaced.”56 Although there has been an increasing number of essays on lesbian and gay artists and images, there are still few full-length studies of these subjects, and work on transgender, intersex, gender-blending, bisexuality, pansexuality and other gender identities and sexualities has yet to emerge fully. The critic Laura Cottingham has pointed out the near invisibility of lesbian artists and themes in art history: the challenge may be to face the double whammy of homophobia and sexism.57 Confronting such gaps, some scholars acknowledge that
“Queering” works of art (that is, destabilizing our confidence in the relationship of representation to identity, authorship, and behavior) is im porta nt, but they also emphasize that this approach should not completely supplant the process of recovering LGBTI icono graphies and historical moments.
In the end, many art historians combine LGBTI and Queer The ory approaches—mining archives and museums for information about LGBTI images, artists, communities, and institutions, while employing Queer theoretical frameworks. A landmark in the field is a collection of essays edited by Whitney Davis, Gay and Lesbian Studies in Art History (1994), first published as a special issue of The Journal of Homosexuality. The essays raise a number of critical ques tions, and provide methodological models as they engage with specific images, from Boucher’s paintings of women in bed to gether to Safer Sex posters. Also an important study is Jonathan Weinberg’s Speaking for Vice: Homosexuality in the Art of Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, and the First American Avant-Garde (1993), which explores how Demutli and Hartley reconciled the tensions bet ween the creation of their self-consciously “American” art and the representation of their own marginalized sexuality, Weinberg also reflects on the ethics of research, the process of “outing” artists who felt compelled to conceal their identities and desires in their lifetimes.
The study of sexuality crosses boundaries in multiple ways, reminding us that “queer” and “straight’’ are not necessarily oppo site terms, especially in relation to other cultures and periods in which such categorizations and identities do not exist. One good example of this is an edited collection of essays entitled Sexuality in Ancient Art (1996). Studying sexuality, art historian Natalie Kampen reminds readers in the introduction, is not the same as studying the erotic (that which attempts to arouse the viewer). The study of sexuality encompasses the representation of the (clothed and nude] body, the ways in which sexual identity and sexual conduct define social categories and individuals, and the way that imagery allows human beings to find and measure themselves as sexual.58
Practicing Queer/LGBTI art history
In the first half of the twentieth century, the American artist Charles Demuth (1883-1935) produced a series of watercolors that represent men’s homoerotic desire. This example, Two Sailors Urinating, provides an opportunity to consider a number of ques-
3.6 Charles Demuth, Two Sailors Urinating, 1930. Watercolor and pencil on paper.
tions from the perspectives of LGBTI Studies and Queer Theory (Figure 3.6). It’s often very difficult to analyze the role that the artist’s own sexual orientation and identity play in the production of works of art, especially when an artist lias left few statements or images that give us insight into his or her own sense of self. An artist’s identity’—including but not limited to sexual orientation— also has to be seen in the context of the larger society.
► How does the artist visually construct homoerotic content? (Think about the focus on genitals, facial expressions, ges tures, and the viewer’s implied position in the scene.)
► What were the possible sexual identities at this time? Was the artist expressing or forging a new kind of identity through this image? Or conforming to an available identity through this imagery?
► How does this scene represent the idea and experience of homoerotic desire in the 1930s? Why sailors, for example? (There was enormous oppression of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people at this time. Same-sex sexual acts were outlawed in most states—as they still were in some states until a 2003 Supreme Court ruling banned such discrimination— and meetings had to be clandestine. Such sexualities could be