IMAGINE ENCOUNTERING A plastic duplicate of Canova’s neoclassical marble sculpture The Three Graces (1814-1817) in a lesbian pub. Three pale white female figures in the nude, their genitals covered by a ribbon, hugging each other. The “grace” in the middle is being kissed by the one on her right, her right breast held by the one on her left with a look of admiration. Or imagine viewing a print of Cezanne’s The Bather (1885) in a gay club (most certainly a cheesy one). A flat young man, clad only in white underpants, stepping hesitantly out of a mist of gray towards the viewer but avoiding eye contact. These alternative contexts evoke uncanny interpretations of the works, one rather different from any made, say, at the Hermitage or MoMA. They play with our assumed knowledge of the works, and are so convincing that we are left confused.
Catherine Lord and Richard Meyer’s Art and Queer Culture, its size and weight that of a general art history textbook, offers such an alternative way of seeing, reinforcing a chapter otherwise long missing from the narration of visual art. More significantly, the book provides a scope of “anti-normative strategy,” and signals “a code for those in the know”—as well as for those who aren’t. Rather than a catalogue, the book itself is an intensively curated exhibition on paper divided into three parts. The two-part opening essay “Survey” explores the gender politic, or as Lord put it, the body politic—sexualities and metaphors, and how they appeared, evolved, and were interpreted in art and visual culture at large. The second part, the “Works,” is a collection of artworks arguably as important as those that have made their way into the museums, but haven’t—such as the plaster penis of Jasper Johns’ Target with Plaster Casts (1955). The last part, “Documents,” compiles a rich selection of texts and writings ranging from Oscar Wilde’s 1895 Testimony on Cross-Examination to the transgender artist Wu Tsang’s “Untitled” essay from the 2012 Whitney Biennial.
This book is a parade through the last 125 years of Western art and cultural history, a documentation of queerness that, for those of us who have not played witness to the open secrets and impulsions that motivated its rise, is an essential reference and reminder. Though probably unintentionally by the authors, Art and Queer Culture is an affront to an otherwise impassively straight-washed art history, and a vindication for those who have long suspected art can swing both ways.