Queer is a term that sets out to question normative, and especially heteronormative, systems and relations within society. Queer Theory understands gender and sexuality as relational constructs, subject to historical and cultural variation. Because the idea of “queer” tries to go beyond the idea of a permanent and stable identity, it works to connect sexual orientation to other forms of identity rooted in the unstable ideological quagmire of “orientation,” such as race, age, or ethnicity. In this way, it incorporates the idea of intersectionality, showing how multiple modes of identification cross-pollinate.
From Dan Cameron’s very early Extended Sensibilities in 1982—a queer exhibition that strenuously avoided using any queer nomenclature in its title—to Jonathan Katz’s 2010 Smithsonian exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture (that notably did the same), the question of nomenclature has been a defining problem in queer exhibition making. In part this is because of fears of a prejudicial response, but it also reflects the rapid mutation of language referencing same-sex desire, and more to the point, its shifting ontological/ideological ground. Whereas gay and lesbian, for example, accepted a binary, totalizing structure for sexuality, one so complete that the few individuals who fell out of it earned their own sobriquet “bisexual,” with the advent of queer the very notion that human sexuality could be parceled out among different people as an essential difference has come increasingly under fire. Queer theory instead held that rather than reify a concept of sexuality as inherent, sexual differences were mere constructs, of no greater import than other questions of human taste, and like other such tastes, capable of change in a non-binaristic way.
Moreover, in distinct contrast to most minority politics, where representation and demographics are the key terms of contestation, in the art world, queer presence is hardly either marginal or something new. In fact, queer artists crowd our museums, and queer staff are central to the provision of modern exhibitions. The question here, in short, isn’t about literal presence; it’s about discursive presence, about how often, or not often, queerness is named, defined, or referenced.
“Queer” presents a challenge to the museum as a normalizing, meaning-making entity and asks how these concerns can be addressed in museum-practices, that have, for the most part, silently and unknowingly reproduced and solidified heteronormative structures and desires. How have queer issues, queer curators, and queer exhibitions shaken this up? How can queer desire continue doing so? What does queer change in the museum look like? Three main points emerged during the conference, on which this volume of “On Curating” is based. First: Queer exhibitions and queer curating interrogate the passive position of the viewer and demand active engagement, honest investment, and frank questioning, while also leaving room for unanswered questions, gaps, and fissures. Secondly, queer curating addresses the productive role of the body and its (queer) desires, even if the terms of that address are non-representational, and even utterly abstract. Third, queer curating must necessarily question and challenge the normative structures of the museum itself by addressing questions of the archive, collecting, and education as well as acknowledging and addressing a “queer” audience. Queer exhibitions disrupt any notion of a singular, unified, homogeneous audience, in favor of a plurality of audiences with a plurality of interests, experiences, and competencies. When conceived as multiple, audiences can register and produce very different kinds of knowledges. Queer curating starts with such simple things as the re-labeling of objects or changing a database but can graduate to innovative curatorial conceits, groundbreaking research, and unprecedented cultural programming and events.
Still, even the basic notion of a queer exhibition papers over significant distinctions. Queer exhibitions can range from an openness in auditioning queer biography on the part of individual artists, to an acknowledgement of queer themes in their work, to full scale exhibitions that make sexual difference their governing theoretical or socio-historical frame. The development of sexuality-themed art museum exhibitions is a relatively recent phenomenon, traceable only to the early 1980s. Even today, queer exhibitions are quite rare—there have been a total of under 50 across the world—and in many nations they are still contentious. Queer exhibitions tend to cluster around certain individuals and institutions, and are notably unevenly distributed across the globe and even among different regions of the same nation. In part, their advent can be said to track socio-political advances in queer civil rights, and as such are a function of regional and national politics. But even a cursory look at exhibition histories reveals that such macro phenomena as queer civil rights are a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the making of queer museum exhibits. Equally important are a range of factors from the style of art in question to its periodization, market valuation, funding stream, patronage class, scholarship, activist personalities, and the museum’s own culture and structure. In addition, contemporary critical fashions, theoretical paradigms and the perceived beliefs and wishes of the artists in question all govern the prospect of queer exhibitions as well. In short, with the emergence of a queer curating we have a delimited and highly specific lens through which to examine the many diverging forces that animate and structure the contemporary museum exhibition.
We thank Isabel Hufschmidt and the whole staff at the Museum Folkwang for their support, help, and encouragement in realizing the conference which took place there on the 19th and 20th of May 2017. Our thanks also goes out to the assistants at the Ruhr Universität Yvonne Schmied and Lena Dunker who helped to set this conference up. Without their support, it would not have happened.
Änne Söll is Full Professor for modern art history at Ruhr Universität in Bochum, Germany. She studied art history at Middlesex University, London, as well as at Frankfurt University and Rutgers University. She holds a PhD in art history and her thesis was published in 2003 under the title: “Arbeit am Körper. Pipilotti Rists Videos und Videoinstallationen.” An editor for the magazine kritische berichte since 2011, she has published on the topics of New Objectivity, fashion and art, and masculinity in art. Her book on men’s portraits in New Objectivity painting was published in 2016 by Fink Verlag. Currently she is working on the history and appropriations of period rooms.
Jonathan D. Katz directs the doctoral program in Visual Studies at the University at Buffalo. He co-curated (with David Ward) Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, the first queer art exhibition ever mounted at a major US museum, which opened at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, then traveled to The Brooklyn and Tacoma Museums, winning the Best National Museum Exhibition award from the International Association of Art Critics and the best LGBT non-fiction book award from the American Library Association. His next major exhibition, entitled Art AIDS America, co-curated with Rock Hushka, traveled to 5 museums across the US, accompanied by a substantial eponymous new book. A pioneering figure at the intersection of art history and queer studies, Katz was the first full-time American academic to be tenured in what was then known as Gay and Lesbian Studies and chaired the first department in the field in the US, at City College of San Francisco. At Yale University, Katz was founding director of its Lesbian and Gay Studies program, known as the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies, the first in the Ivy League. An activist academic, he founded the Queer Caucus for Art of the College Art Association, the professional association of artists and art historians, co-founded Queer Nation, San Francisco, and co-founded the Gay and Lesbian Town Meeting, the organization that successfully lobbied for queer anti-discrimination statutes in the city of Chicago. After many years as President of the Board, he is now the president emeritus of the new Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York City, where he curated numerous exhibitions.
Katz is now completing two new books, Art, Eros and the Sixties, and The Silent Camp: Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and the Cold War. He remains an active curator, and a major new exhibition will be announced shortly.