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Disentangling ‘being queer’ from LGBTQ+ identities in queer art history

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 5 Aug 2018, 19:09

Gay Art? Disentangling ‘being queer’ from LGBTQ+ identities in queer art history’.

 Are there valid connections to be made between the concepts of ‘homosexuality’ and ‘art’? To what extent do queer theory and performative approaches to identity challenge the formulation of these categories?

A discussion point: How useful is this table?

Saslow, J.M. (1999) Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts New York, Viking, Penguin Group.

Reed, C. (2011) Art and Homosexuality: A History of Ideas Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Barlow, C. (Ed.) (2017) Queer British Art 1861-1967 London, Tate Publishing.


Concepts of Homosexuality


Normal Part of Maturation

Encounter of One Normal / One Deviant

Separate Identity

Performative Role

Depictions by insiders

Greek vessel paintings

Brassai’s photographs


Gauguin’s Polynesian paintings of mahus

J.E.B.’s photographs

Tokugawa prints


Delia Grace’s photos

Depictions by outsiders

Photographs of Sambia by anthropologists

Northern Renaissance witch paintings

Medieval Church carvings

Eroticised Objects

Sambia flutes

Sailors’ uniforms and leather motorcycle gear

Props from Greek vase paintings in Aesthetic photography

Japanese harikata

Products of Sexual Minorities


Berdache textiles

Harmony Hammond’s sculptures



Table 1: A table from Reed showing relationships of art to different concepts of homosexuality (2011:8)

Reed’s (2011) book attempts to plot different concepts of homosexuality found in its historians with modes of art that have varying relationships to these concepts. His views (with examples of the art he uses in the book) are summarised in the Table, together with a very personal set of terms to name his categories in each case. What remains clear is that homosexuality, though varying in terms of conceptualisation, is recognisable as an entity within each concept. Reed performs here a sleight of hand that is precisely involved in rescuing the tern ‘homosexual’ from any fundamental deconstruction such as that attempted by Sedgwick Kosofsky in The Epistemology of the Closet. In her formulation, the retention of this term by necessity imports the dualism in which the terms heterosexual and homosexual define each other. More importantly it fixes the latter term as ‘the other’ in terms of some kind of priority, of quality or quantity to the former. Hence to be ‘a homosexual’ is to be a quantitative minority or possess a less normative sexual identity. This blog is written in order to ask myself and anyone else who will comment whether we need accept or not that the term ‘homosexual’ is a valid term and whether it necessitates the sequelae that follow on from it according to Kosofsky Sedgwick.

One concern I have is that using the term retrospectively and using it to colour the future, probably oversimplifies the situation in both cases. When used of the past it is used to stereotype somewhat, as we often see in the case of minbor figures like Horace Walpole and Thomas Gray in the eighteenth century, even by Schama but of more concern, even  in Saslow. In both cases Walpole as both odd and possessing an understanding of himself inferior to ours. The issues when we deal with other cultures may even be greater.

Reed’s table does introduce a column based on performative theory (after Judith Butler) definitions but applies it only to post-modernism in effect or to instances where theatrical metaphor was already a part of the art concerned, as in Japanese Tokugawa prints, with their interest in the different between appearance and meaning – which they often exploited by using calligraphy to textualise pictures just as pictures visualised calligraphic patterns.

I’d like to be able to insist that ‘queer’ alternatives exist whenever conventions in a picture are multiple, mixed and sometimes contradictory – when viewers have to make choices to find a repertoire of meanings. If queer and performance theory stress that identity is a choice, Reed feels that this almost nullifies the voice of a group who existed trans-historically, whenever they happened to be named and who, in the name of justice and truth, need identifying in earlier avatars (classical, medieval and Renaissance).

My own prejudice at the moment is that ‘hunting the homosexual’ is a thankless sport, and like all hunting is, in the end, cruel. I wince when I read the descriptions of the Aesthetic movement in Saslow for instance just as I do those of Horace Walpole. We objectify short-sighted views here, making Pater and Wilde laughable (and sad) clowns. It also confines gay art-history to the closet or the ghetto. Queer perspectives have a lot to say about heterosexual image-making – Bonnard and Caillebotte for instance, as well as more obviously the more performative Picasso. They are not the same as LGBT+ identities because they are only chosen over a deeper determining structure – but one that is less known than anyone thinks (and maybe interactional between determinations). But we can still choose to accept or reject the appearance of the current cultural forms of those identities. Chinese, Japanese and Indian art was particularly good at this before the colonialists took a hand it appears.

Unfinished thoughts.


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