But, What Is Queer Art?: A Paradoxical Manifesto

By Cassie Peterson

On June 7th-15th Croatia-based curators Zvonimir Dobrovic and Andre von Ah will present the Queer New York International Arts Festival (QNYI). The festival is a new platform for contemporary, queer visual and performing arts, and includes artists from around the globe.

But what is queer art exactly? I mean, really? What is it?

In their curatorial vision for the festival, Dobrovic and von Ah said that they wanted to “break through dominant ideas that limit and marginalize queer art, by creating a new concept of queer as a wider platform for excellence in arts, capable of tracking, discovering, and interpreting new trends while daring to speak openly about the norms that constitute society and art practice.”

In this frame, queer operates as an act. A strategy. A practice. And a disruption to business-as-usual. Queer both blurs and challenges normative assumptions about the world and our place(s) in it. When linguistically re-appropriated and politically reclaimed, the word queer exists as an elusive and indefinable paradox because its task is to actually deconstruct static definitions and binary identifications. It’s function is to dis-identify sociocultural phenomena and to disrupt the ways in which dominant, (hetero)norms achieve a naturalized, unquestioned, and privileged position in society at large. In this way, queer is an anti-essentializing force that embraces its ambiguous “otherness” and opts for a discursive home on the fringes and in the margins. Queer rejects a legacy of dominance and works to explore and protect alterity in all of its multiple, irreducible manifestations.

Moreover, a queer politic or sensibility operates outside the bounds of traditional identity politics. It is more of a strategy or a perspective, as opposed to a total personhood, which makes it a very purposeful departure from a more mainstream, assimilationist gay and lesbian agenda. Queer is a radicalized politic and aesthetic practice that is more interested in diversifying the ways in which things come into being, rather than just working to include a greater diversity of people into the way things already are.

Queer – movement out of stasis. Out of status quo.

Therefore, in the context of this festival, queer art is not referring to LGBTQ-specific content per se, but is rather a meditation on a kind of embodied resistance and lived experience. Queer discourse is renowned for being consciously engaged with the politics of the literal body and the more figurative relationships between the social body and the personal body. And thus, this festival is focusing primarily on the “queer body” as an orienting feature and ethos. The queer body, in all of its connotations, is a critical site of resistance. Similarly, queer art is a kind of embodiment that challenges dominant modes of production, reproduction, and representation. Against essentialism and in favor of multiplicity in meaning, queer art aims to subvert traditional forms, genres, aesthetics, and structures. Queer art plays in the space of unreason. It is experimental. It is provocative. Suspicious. Queer art celebrates the failure to adhere to normative expectations and is pleased with itself as a conscious and exquisite transgression. The artists in this festival accept and employ this constellation of principles to make queer work.

So then the questions become, if queer art is a departure from narratives about LGBTQ-specific sexual identities, then who can be included on a queer arts platform? Do all the artists identify as queer? Can anyone be queer? Can anything be a queer art object? Can people who do not identify as queer be in a queer arts festival? Would they want to be? Would we allow them? What happens to our critiques of heterosexual power and privilege when queer is suddenly so generous and all encompassing? What makes art queer? The makers? The process? The content? Is there something inherent in a queer aesthetic and if so, who determines and regulates this? Is it up to the artists to call their work queer or can I call something queer that does not identify as such? Who polices what is normative and what is subversive? Who authors queer and who reads it? And the more we try to name or distill queer art, might it then risk losing its counter-cultural potency? And moreover, what does queer art mean in an international context?

Hopefully, this festival will provoke some of these inqueeries…

But ultimately, when trying to understand or determine queer art, let us remember that the beauty of queer is that there is no essential queer art object or subject. Queer art is not an objectifiable identity, domain, or dwelling, but is rather produced as a contrast against which normalcy is produced and codified. Hence, queer art never is, it never fully arrives. It is always, disrupting, refusing, and resisting the ever-shifting power of normativity and dominance, in an effort to carve out more material, affective, and aesthetic space for anyone who is brave enough to want it.

Cassie Peterson is a New York-based writer, thinker, and lavender menace. She works as a psychotherapist by day, and moonlights as a dance dramaturge, performer, essayist, & performing arts critic. Her extemporaneous musings and inqueeries can be found on her art & theory blog, Self & Other, as well as being featured in various performance publications.

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