Featuring the work of over 200 artists, the magisterial Art and Queer Culture, edited by US academics Catherine Lord and Richard Meyer, is a serious and sleek undertaking whose length and breadth signifies an ambitious and laudable attempt to attain landmark text status. In at least one respect it succeeds: the book's impressive archival reach means the international curaterati will be leafing through its pages for years to come. But at a less exclusive level, does it--like perhaps John Berger's Ways of Seeing or Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation--have what it takes to be continually purchased, exchanged, reread, argued over and written in by artists, art students, aspiring theorists and general interest groups? Almost, but not quite.
Divided into three sections, the book opens with two introductory essays; here Lord and Meyer explain the principles underpinning their editorial decisions by surveying catalytic moments that propelled the exposure, contestation, integration and dissemination of queer culture circa 1885-2012. This includes the prosecution of Oscar Wilde, the invention of homosexuality as a treatable medical condition or illness, the liberal and progressive theories of sexuality espoused by sexologists Magnus Hirschfeld (Germany) and Alfred Kinsey (US), and the 1969 Stonewall riots.
Meyer is first out of the blocks with a pointed text spanning 1885-1975. The essential project of the book, he maintains, is to go beyond identity-based essentialisms and to look at homosexuality as a 'site of symbolic investment under continual negotiation, both by those who name themselves as gay or lesbian and by those who do not'. Expanding the field in this way leads naturally to the duo's second key idea, that queer is 'less an identity than a critique of identity' (Lord's quote), and that it should be understood as a term that refers to non-normative sexual and behavioural practice, its cultural contexts and representations. This is a crucial move that allows the inclusion of 'straight' artists who are interested in exploring queer culture and aesthetics, and foregrounds deviance and transgression as core queer qualities that have historically surfaced across divides of race, gender, class and culture.
Lord takes up the baton with an essay spanning '1980-present'. In it she explores the emerging status of the queer body, used as a site of socio-cultural and political signification during the 1980s AIDS crisis and the collective push for enfranchisement that took place under the banner of identity politics during the 1990s. The second, and main, section of Art and Queer Culture, then, comprising photographs of artworks and their attendant explanatory texts, traverses an image spectrum from quaint bourgeois pictorialism to a tougher, more confrontational and cocksure contemporary iconography. At one end sits Thomas Eakins's male-as-bathing-nymph painting Swimming, 1883-85, alongside amateur photographer Alice Austen's classic proto-dragking frolic Julia Martin, Julia Bredt and Self dressed up as Men, 4:40 p.m., Thurs., Oct. 15th., 1891; at the other is Berlin-based intersex artist Ins A Kromminga's drawing of a sphincter with teeth, Das Defensive Organ, 2010, and LA-based Wu Tsang's moodily matter-of-fact transgender night club interior Green Room, 2012. …