Queer artists have always played an important role in the artistic panorama. Think of Michaelangelo, Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo, or Robert Mapplethorpe. Although many rose to prominence during their lifetime, it was only posthumously that their sexuality received due recognition from the mainstream art establishment.
Nowadays, artists’ queer identities are more visible than they’ve been in a long time, and have become integral to the conversation that surrounds their artwork, and how we perceive it. Queer artists now have greater accessibility to platforms where they can openly express their voices and stories, without fear of censorship or persecution. In the past, however, overt representations of non-conforming sexual identities were a risky, if not dangerous endeavor. Coded imagery and subtle symbolism were often used to navigate the artistic landscape without attracting unwanted attention.
Fortunately, the progression of society has allowed for greater visibility and acceptance, enabling queer artists to embrace their identities and showcase their talents more openly. While there’s still a long way to go, we can still look back and reflect on the road up to this point.
In honor of Pride Month, we want to celebrate the contribution that queer artists have made and continue to make to the world of art.
Queer Art and History
Context is key to understanding the relationship between an artist’s identity and their artwork. It gives the viewer crucial information that they might not be able to glean just from looking at the piece. What might at first appear like any other location could be a popular gay cruising spot, recognizable only to those in the know. Lavender flowers, handkerchiefs, and other secret symbols might appear innocuous, but signal community between queer individuals while flying under the heteronormative radar. And though there is perhaps less need for secrecy today than there might have been in the past, such symbols have become ingrained in a lexicon of queer visual language that even today might be unfamiliar outside of the community, amplifying what is already an impactful piece of art.
Understanding the context for that kind of discretion is crucial in discussing queer artists’ work. Was this work created at a time when homosexuality was commonplace, censored, or criminalized? Does the culture that this artist comes from view gender as a strict binary? These are all critical questions to consider when analyzing queer art.
Historically, queer peoples’ sexual identity has been downplayed in favor of assuming heterosexual identity–reducing same-sex lovers to “close friends,” citing gay peoples’ lack of heterosexual relationships as evidence of celibacy, dismissing bisexuality as definitively either straight or gay, and more. Some work only now gets recognized as queer now that there is less fear of punishment for being open about their sexuality or even posthumously for an artist who remained closeted even in death. Other works, while at the time of creation may not have been the subject of debate, may be looked upon with a contemporary eye that reflects less accepting societal standards, dismissing the work as degenerative despite the ideals of its time.
Often the source of motivation for iconic moments in queer art history is directly related to the state of the world around us. Intimate paintings and poetry dedicated privately to a lover from centuries ago–never intended for the public eye, but discovered long after their passing nonetheless as information–becomes more accessible. Activist artwork and photography surged during times of protest such as the Stonewall Riots–and the resulting birth of the Pride Parade–or during the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Now, artists continue this legacy, protesting new conservative legislation, advocating for bodily autonomy and many of the same freedoms that their predecessors fought for in the past, because, although we have come a long way, there’s still a lot to be done.
What Is It All For?
Some artists are loud and proud about the works they create–utilizing bold colors and imagery, an unabashed projection of themselves for all the world to see, without fear, or perhaps despite it. Others may rely more on subtle details, which only other queer people would be able to decipher. Being able to express queerness through art is a privilege that our predecessors have fought for, and today’s LGBTQ+ artists continue to fight for today.
While queerness is not a choice, the method of expressing it–and the choice to do so at all–is. Relying on coded imagery, promoting oneself as a particular label, defying social constraints to the point of jeopardizing their own safety, or avoiding the topic altogether–these are all choices that queer artists make in their work, informed by their experiences in the world.
Who are these labels for? Why do artists share these parts of themselves? Is it for other queer people, to let them know that they’re not alone, in the hopes that a viewer might identify with the artwork and feel seen and validated? Or is it to help bridge the gap between those who understand and those who do not?
Not Just a Queer Artist
While the term “Queer Art” refers broadly to art that specifically draws on LGBTQ+ imagery and addresses issues relevant to that community, it is not synonymous with “art by queer artists.” An artist’s queer identity certainly informs their work and gives them a perspective that they would not otherwise have, but it does not wholly define an individual artist’s practice.
Many queer artists make artwork that addresses entirely different subjects, both instead of and in conjunction with sexual and gender identity and expecting work from them that exclusively addresses queerness can be stifling. As with any other component of one’s artistic practice–medium, format, location, scale, etc.–an artist’s queer identity is just one of many contributing factors that go into the work they create, and should not eclipse everything else.
Likewise, authenticity is important, but the publicization of an artist’s identity is entirely up to them–nobody needs to justify their work by coming out if they don’t want to do so.
That said–it’s equally crucial not to get too caught up in trying to expose anyone’s queerness in an effort to connect with their work. At its core, making work about your identity is about individual expression, on your own terms, and not anyone else’s. We can read into peoples’ work all we want, but at the end of the day, it’s up to the artist to share what they intend to share, and they determine their work’s meaning regardless of external interpretations.
Despite the community’s struggles, both in the past and ongoing today, queer art is not all about pain–actually, very often it’s the opposite. That artists can create work that is explicitly about their identity in this way is already worth celebrating, and queer euphoria is just as worth exploring.
As a viewer, the most important thing to keep in mind is openness, whether or not the work is intended for you. Don’t shy away from discomfort you might feel, because that is how you learn about the unfamiliar. There is always more to learn, and the only way to do that is to pay attention. Listen to LGBTQ+ voices both nearby in your community, and from far away across the world. Go out of your way to understand the things you don’t, instead of waiting for someone else to guide you. And yes, it’s Pride Month, but come July queer artists will continue to exist, making art and exploring new ways of inhabiting a world that is still not quite ready to accept them for who they really are. Pride Month is all good and well, but let’s make it a whole year.