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.

9 thoughts on “But, What Is Queer Art?: A Paradoxical Manifesto”

  1. Ryanna Gacy says:

    I'd like to push back a little against this notion that a person cannot "be" queer. When a girly boy walks onto a playground, he is queer. And everyone can tell. And he gets punished for it.

    You're right to bring up this question: If queerness is no longer about LGBTQ politics, then who can be queer? Because for a lot of queer people–and I don't mean intellectual/academic/artist queers; I mean butch dykes raising children in the south; I mean trans folk trying not to be attacked in Detroit; I mean fags driving forty miles just to get to a gay bar in butt fuck nowhere–being queer is not a "performance" per se, in the sense that they are not enacting a strategy of political defiance just to prove a point: They are just being themselves, and as themselves, they are queer, and the straight world is lying in wait, trying to kill them.

    While yes, gender and social sexuality are performative, at some point, they are actually natural expressions of a who a person is.

    I think we loose something vital and, dare I say–real–when we take the position that queerness is only some kind of self-conscious behavioral agenda. My nephew wants to be a princess and wear dresses and glitter and tiaras. He's not doing it as a political strategy to subvert social norms. He just likes to wear dresses and glitter and tiaras. And that makes him queer.

    I'll be covering this festival over at Claudia La Rocco's Performance Club. So let's keep in touch, and in conversation!

    xxxy,
    R

  2. Cassie Peterson says:

    Ah ha… my long lost queen! I love it when you "push back"…. yes, I hear you. I do think people can "be" queer, but I don't think that we have some essentialized identity that is somehow separate from the social context from which it arises. I don't believe in "natural" expressions because "natural-ness" is socially constructed.Heterosexual, heteronormative versions of sex and gender and sexuality have been naturalized, rendering queer folks like us as "unnatural." I don't want to say to the world, "look, I am just as natural as you are…" I would rather say, "You're not "natural" either… we are all socially conditioned to identifiy in particular ways and your privelege is that you are told that yours is "natural." It's a subtle difference. I don't want to be measured or given value on a heteronomative scale or terrain — I'd rather create or subscribe to something different.

  3. Cassie Peterson says:

    We say that your nephew is behaving effeminately because we think of princesses as being effeminate because we have a socially constructed gender binary that tells us that is what he is doing. And in fact, he IS subverting social norms, maybe not consciously or because of an intentional political agenda, but his actions are political and subversive nonetheless because he is unsettling dominant assumptions about what a young "boy" should be. Right? I am also genderqueer and identify as queer and feel as though this is something that is inside of me, but my expressions or performance of myself depends on our current social discourses to be known or legible. I think all expressions of self are a performance. Do I think that this somehow makes safety for queer folks a non-issue? Hell No! I get that, the risks, the dangers. (I grew up in the middle of Wyoming, working class community… I understand safety issues).

  4. Cassie Peterson says:

    But I do think that a queer frame allows for a more intersectional look at ourselves… a frame that attends to race/class/gender/etc and might allow for coalitions to develop through the segregated boundaries of our current notions of essentialized sexual identities. Moreover, I was talking about "queer" in this peice in a way that specifically addressed an artistic and aesthetic practice. What does queer mean in the context of an arts festival? What does queer mean in the context of an international arts context? I was just trying to complicate the notion that queer art is somehow only about living as an LGBTQ person. And besides, I totally agree with you throughout the piece… I talk about queerness as an "embodied resistance and lived experience." This queer lived experience is the thing that I refer to instead of an essential identity. It's about growing up on the "wrong" side of power, and then hopefully, finding a way to take your power back. Anyway, I am rambling.

  5. Cassie Peterson says:

    I always appreciate your critiques and insight… but I don't think we are that far away from one another in our conceptions of queer. I think I am just very interested in what queer "does", as opposed to what it "is." This is the inquiry that interests me the most…. Hope to see you at the festivities. Keep me posted to your whereabouts! (Sorry, I had to break up my comments because my response was too long…)

    xoxo C

  6. Jeremy M. Barker says:

    Ryana–Hope to meet you tonight with the other P-Club kids! Otherwise, reading your comment, the question that came to my mind was one of power. Is "queer" the definition placed upon a princess-y kid, or is something enacted by the individual?

  7. Ryanna Gacy says:

    Sorry to be responding so late. I was busy "doing" queer. (just kidding)

    You're right. And we agree on many levels. And after the long table discussion at Abrons last night (Jeremy, nice to meet/face-off with you!), but I don't see any danger in believing that expression can be essential/ized. When I hear other gays complain about femme gays and accuse them of being "affected" or "learning" to behave that way, I think of kids, and I know that some kids just "are" that way–different; too femme; too butch; not interested in the "appropriate" things. I feel like to say that there is nothing essential about expression/behavior would belie observable evidence. Maybe think of twins separated at birth who, reunited decades later in life, realize they behave in remarkably similar ways. I feel like social construction-v-essentialism is the new nature-v-nurture. And maybe the "truth" (if that exists) might be a mashup of both. Or whatever. 😉

    1. Ryanna Gacy says:

      P.S. There's something really strange about sentence #3, and I'm not sure what I meant to write. But please, just read around the garble.

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  10. chefpaulcasey@gmail.com says:

    What Has happen to people I love all but these are strong words ,Really think before you trash someone and if your around someone trashy your friends or people in general your time will come get away from gossip and mean spirited ways please love really is better than hateful ways I have always know people to tell me there secrets and I have never revealed any no matter what they have done to me so if I can keep that in people should be able to just leave people alone and do good deeds I have home chefed bad and good people and the one thing that all have in common is we all hunger for love

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