Unfit Art History: Queering the Study of Art

As labels tend to oscillate between overestimation and meaninglessness, the notion of a Queer Art History requires double caution: As a discipline it may either risk domesticating a radical movement through institutionalization, or be derided as ‘unscholarly’ activism. While the latter objection may even confirm the effectiveness of queer initiatives, the former requires a constant questioning of the objectives being pursued. Charting the path forward for Queer Art History means facing these issues head on.

If one of the primary goals of art history is to establish principles of organization according to which works of art can be compared, subdivided, and classified– as popular narratives of the discipline suggest – the notion of a queer art history can appear paradoxical. Combining a highly normative endeavor connected to a tradition of privilege and power with a slur is perhaps enough of a challenge in itself. After all, that slur was for many years applied to people and groups who failed to meet standard expectations as how to one should live, especially in terms of their sexual, amorous, and gender expressions.

Between Authority and Transgression

A certain dichotomy between authority on the one side and transgression on the other is evident. Yet considering the wide spectrum of approaches, it is difficult to discern a single, clear, and systematic trajectory of traditional art history either. Such methodological messiness, however, does not make it queer, in the sense that it challenged hegemonic social orders and structures of power. Quite the opposite, as early critiques of canonical research have shown.

Since its institutionalization as an academic discipline in the 19th century, art history has been largely concordant with the standards and dominant precepts in Western, post-enlightenment knowledge production. Monica Juneja stresses how “the disciplinary frameworks and institutional settings of art history have been constituted according to fixed and stable units such as the nation-state or civilizational entities dating to the nineteenth century,” a connection that “retains its hold over imaginations in varying though mutually constitutive ways.”

“Sexuality as a normative and normalizing factor … was targeted by critical scholars in Gay and Lesbian studies on a broader scale during the 1980s.”

This has led to studies ignoring, neglecting, and disparaging existences excluded from those frameworks. At the same time, an exclusionary, hierarchical, and violent status quo was confirmed and sometimes even reinforced. Since the 1970s, initiatives pushing feminist, Marxist, and post-colonial perspectives into the field successfully expanded the disciplinary spectrum by inserting categories of gender, class, and race into the discourse.

Sexuality as a normative and normalizing factor, i.e., the universal application of a heterosexual subjectivity, was targeted by critical scholars in Gay and Lesbian Studies (GLS) on a broader scale only during the 1980s. The new discipline demanded recognition of homosexual life and desire as an area of study and knowledge in art both past and present. It also advocated for an exploration of a presumably hidden legacy of gay (and lesbian) artists. The picture, so to speak, was incomplete.

The Rise of Queer Theory

By the beginning of the 1990s such tactics were increasingly questioned. Rather than adding ever more subject positions – sexual and otherwise – to the dominant discourse, attention was given to structural exclusion from that very discourse under the term ‘queer theory.’ Teresa de Lauretis described its intent as to “problematize some of the discursive constructions and constructed silences in the emergent field of ‘gay and lesbian studies,’” and to explore “common grounding of current discourses and practices of homo-sexualities in relation to gender and to race, with their attendant differences of class or ethnic culture, generational, geographical, and socio-political location.”

As all these areas mark potential sites of stigmatization, the political implications of queer approaches expanded the claims of Gay and Lesbian Studies considerably. The focus would not lie solely on sexual deviance, but the mechanisms through which social norms are applied and divergence is ostracized. Queer approaches require a “positionality vis-à-vis the normative,” a positionality that, however, can only be provisional and never actually be inhabited, as José Esteban Muñoz has emphasized.

“Although there never has been one art history, important blind spots and homogenizing authorities remain prevalent.”

This is of course a highly abridged model of the ways scholars in different communities and contexts – together with activists, artists, and audiences – contested art historical legacies (or sought to protect them). And although there never has been one art history, important blind spots and homogenizing authorities remain prevalent. This is not art history’s fault alone. As with all disciplines, critical lacunae reflect those in wider society, and are equally subject to the same highly entangled global, political and social history and present. Queer approaches in the humanities have not been free from these fallacies either.

Resistance and Invention

A common misconception is that queer theory, and its offshoot queer art history, promotes simple notions of identity or straightforward identity politics. If anything, queer approaches have sought to circumvent the pitfalls of assumedly clear and stable identity categories. They have investigated and continue to investigate the production of such identities and their effects, with a historically prominent – but never exclusive – focus on sexuality and gender.

Critics of queer theory often argue that despite its claims of subversion and refusal, it has failed to meet its own standards and instead has become comfortably situated within institutional structures. Such charges cannot be fully denied. But how comfortable is this spot really? To perform one’s scholarly practice queerly still means to be positioned at the fringes of academic art history, just as feminist art history, for instance, has always remained at a distance from the resource-rich centers of academic gravity. Given the current rise of far-right politics, nationalism, austerity, and warmongering on a global scale, counter-hegemonic programs may face increasing hostility.

“Insisting on queer and feminist approaches to the study of art, cultures, and genders is only one of many ways to confront inequalities and violence on a larger scale …”

And yet, they may also provide the forum to maintain tried strategies of resistance as well as to invent new ones. Insisting on queer and feminist approaches to the study of art, cultures, and genders is only one of many ways to confront inequalities and violence on a larger scale – in discourse as well as the myriad micro-political struggles of everyday life.

How can queer approaches help to shape other ways of knowledge, other forms and materialities of existence? How can these configurations challenge common ideas about bodies, abilities, and desires? What temporalities are evoked, and which notions of family, companionship, or care and responsibility are outlined? In what ways are subjectivities and agencies designed to point beyond the human as the ultimate center? What epistemologies can be encountered in figures of excess, the abject, vulnerability, or the unfit? And how do aesthetic qualities, the in-/visibilities, sounds, and other qualities of sensual experience play into resultant social and political frameworks, often developed from a perspective of white male supremacy?

Undivided by the weaponization of identity politics, but sensitive to different modes of stigmatization, exclusion, offense, as well as privilege, such questions can only give a glimpse into potential focal points for queer projects in art history. They may provide tools against normative structures underlying supposedly standard and unquestioned modes of governance. They do so, however, without providing total solutions or relief, and while yet being vulnerable to appropriation, commodification, and domestication. All this does not necessarily need to be called queer. But it can.

[Title image: Hieronymus Bosch – The Garden of Earthly Delights at the Museo del Prado, via Wikimedia Commons]

Susanne Huber

Susanne Huber works as a researcher for art history with a feminist, queer, and decolonial focus at the University of Bremen. Her research includes fetishistic and fetishizing practices, aesthetics of touch as well as queer ecologies.

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