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//Queer Art & Culture// Agnieszka Weseli

Queer Art & Culture Agnieszka Weseli

Agnieszka Weseli (b. 1975) – sexuality historian, feminist and queer activist. Since 1999, she has researched Poland’s sex life in the 19th and 20th centuries. She published texts and photographs in ‘Rita Baum’, ‘Konteksty’, ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’, ‘Polityka’, ‘InterAlia’ and other magazines. She drafted a report on the presence and activities of Polish lesbians, bisexual females, transgender and queer people in 1989–2009 for the 1st Women’s Congress in 2009. Member of Porozumienie Kobiet 8 Marca, Ulica Siostrzana and the jury of the Narcyza Żmichowska Award for a Feminist Book.

Queer Art & Culture

The pioneer album by Catherine Lord and Richard Meyer, a lesbian artist and art critic and a historian of gay art, covers the period of 125 years. The publishers take us on a journey, or rather on many journeys, with stops, hesitations and loops – from the era of constructing homosexuality as an identity towards the end of the 19th century, through various contexts of body and sexuality politics, to gender-queer theories and undertakings from the beginnings of our century.

In this gigantic publication, Lord and Meyer applied a division into periods based on key, breakthrough events for non-heteronormative people and communities. From the political perspective, it is a progress line charted by consecutive steps on the road to emancipation. Although the publishers adopted a chronological order, they did not commit a mistake that is so characteristic to many LGBT narratives, which paint a certain uninterrupted path towards a bright future, starting from the times of invisibility, discrimination and exclusion and ending with full equality, in art expressed through affirmative description of regained dignity, perfectly fitting – like little cut bricks – into the social construction of the normal.

Choosing queer art and culture (i.e. the ‘perverted, ‘strange’, ‘norm-violating’ art, not just lesbian/homosexual), Lord and Meyer also escaped the restriction that would have been imposed if they had presented only the artists identifying as homosexuals, ones that could identify as homosexuals or ones  that we wished would identify as homosexuals. The album does not present findings delivered by a search for visual representations of love and desire between same-sex individuals. What we will find are the effects – necessarily sifted and certainly not representative – of an analysis of the way in which the cultural codes of non-heteronormativity can be used creatively.

Do not expect this book to provide a full, coherent picture of the phenomenon: the publishers present historical, political and social contexts of art, using them as a background to explain how, at the same time and in the same space, bold declarations of liberation and acts of self-censorship and self-restriction may co-exist, together with the violation of social norms and attempts to adhere to the normative. The means of expressing one’s own identity once more, and very clearly, turn out to be fluid, changing, multiple and conditional.

Lord and Meyer, faced with the task of selecting from amongst many thousands of artists and their paintings, sculptures, photographs, installations and films, decided, blind to the weight and prestige ascribed to the names, to present in their album exactly one work per one artist – or maybe it would be more justified to use the broader term of ‘author’. The publication presents not only the works of famous professional artists, such as Aubrey Beardsley, Robert Mapplethorpe, Annie Leibovtiz and Catherine Opie, but also intimate diaries, amateur work, murals, leaflets and posters for political demonstrations – even anonymous pornography shots. Only a part of these works were created for presentation before a larger audience – some of them, quite to the opposite, were supposed to be forever hidden from the world. Also, not all of them were conceived as works of art. Using private, circumstantial material is actually a queer gesture, one that violates the existing order  and enables pushing the boundaries of what we consider to be art, to be valuable, worth preserving and displaying. It highlights the crack in the wall that usually separates ‘true’, elite, public art from popular art and also from the private non-art created for individual purposes.

The publishers divided this impressive, over four hundred page long book into three sections. The first includes two essays in which Lord and Meyer present a synthetic account, organised around specific problems, of the ways in which artist talked about non-heteronormative sexuality between 1885 and the 1980s, as well as in the last 30 years – up to the first decade of the 21st century. It should be noted that both sections, albeit devoted to periods of very different length, present more or less the same amount of material. Not that strange if we consider the conditions in which objects of non-heteronormative art were created and preserved in the past. The part entitled Works presents over 250 pieces described in short captions, explaining the context in which they were created. The album is crowned with a handy yet rich archive of documents that includes numerous resources and monographs: from artists’ notes, through exhibition reviews to manifestos and critical essays. Biographies of artists and authors, as well as the long list of references, are a true bonus.

As a reviewer from Central and Eastern Europe, I have to remark that this album is a monument to West-centrism. While presenting works and personalities from Western Europe and America, Lord and Meyer seem to be oblivious to the fact that their perspective is hardly universal, thus making it almost transparent – like the hetero-norm that they are trying to lay bare and expose in their book.