Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Recovering the Queer Artistic Heritage

For this seventh and final installment of The Wild Reed’s special “Gay Pride 2010” series, I share an excerpt from the introduction to The Queer Encyclopedia of Music, Dance, and Musical Theater.

When I first shared the title of this book to my (straight) friend John, he wryly remarked, “Well, what other type of encyclopedia would it be?” It seems that when it comes to music, dance, and musical theater, the prominent role and presence of “queer” men and women is somewhat of a given. Why is this? Has this queer artistic heritage always been present, accepted and celebrated? If not, why?

Edited by Claude J. Summers, The Queer Encyclopedia of Music, Dance, and Musical Theater seeks not only to “place portrayals of same-sex desire in historical context [and] provide accurate biographical information about artists who have contributed to queer artistic traditions,” but to also “explore important questions about the presence of homoeroticism in the world’s artistic legacy.”

The Queer Encyclopedia of Music, Dance, and Musical Theater is at once a documentation and reclamation of this distinct homoerotic cultural legacy - one that some have argued can be discerned in the pomp, rituals, and art of the Roman Catholic Church (see
here, here, here, and here). The book therefore “participates in a long endeavor by queer men and women to recover a social and cultural history that has frequently been deliberately distorted and censored.”

In the following excerpt from the book's introduction, Summers explores important and often vexed “theoretical issues” related to any study of the queer artistic heritage.


Because human sexual behavior and emotions are fluid and various rather than static or exclusive, the sexologist Alfred Kinsey and others have argued that the terms homosexual and heterosexual should more properly be used as adjectives rather than nouns, referring to acts and emotions but not to people. Moreover, the conception of homosexuality and heterosexuality as essential and exclusive categories has historically operated as a form of social control, defining the person who responds erotically to individuals of his or her own sex as the “Other,” or, more particularly, as queer or unnatural.

But though it may be tempting to conclude that there are no such entities as homosexuals or heterosexuals or bisexuals, this view, which so attractively stresses the commonality of human beings and minimizes the significance of sexual object-choices, poses its own dangers. Human sexuality is simply not as plastic as some theorists assert, and to deny the existence of homosexuals, bisexuals, and heterosexuals – or the pertinence of such categories – is to deny the genuineness of the personal identities and forms of erotic life that exist today. It is, indeed, to engage in a process of denial and erasure, rendering invisible a group that has had to struggle for recognition and visibility.

For most people, sexual orientation is not merely a matter of choice or preference but a classification that reflects a deep-seated internal, as well as social, reality. However arbitrary, subjective, inexact, and culture-bound the labels may be, they are impossible to escape and they affect individuals – especially those in the minority categories – in profound and manifold ways.

The most painful and destructive injustice visited upon people of alternative sexuality has been their separation from the normal and the natural, their stigmatization as queer. Yet the internalization of this stigma has also been their greatest strength and, indeed, the core of their identity in societies that regularly assign individuals to ostensibly exclusive categories of sexual desire. The consciousness of difference both spurred and made possible the recent creation of a homosexual minority – a gay and lesbian community – in the Western democracies, a process that involved transforming the conception of homosexuality from a “social problem” and personal failing to an individual and collective identity.

Quite apart from the fact that it facilitates identity politics, however, an acceptance of otherness, whether defined as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or the umbrella term queer, is also often personally empowering. Fostering qualities of introspection and encouraging social analysis, it enables people who feel excluded from some core assumptions and rituals of their society to evaluate themselves and their society from an ambiguous and often revealing perspective.

Homoerotic desire and behavior have been documented in every conceivable kind of society. What varies are the meanings that they are accorded from era to era and place to place. In some societies, homosexuality is tolerated and even institutionalized, whereas in others it is vilified and persecuted. In every society, there are undoubtedly individuals who are predominantly attracted to members of their own sex or who do not conform easily to gender expectations, but the extent to which that sexual attraction or gender non-conformity functions as a defining characteristic of these individuals’ personal and social identities varies considerably from culture to culture.

. . . Our sensitivity to the cultural specificity of sexual attitudes [need not] cause us to rob individual artists of individual perspectives or to condescend toward the past. All artists exist in relation to their time and must necessarily create from within their world views, or, as philosopher Michel Foucault would say, the epistemes of their ages. But the fact that artists are embedded in their cultures does not mean that they lack agency and individuality.

Artists tend to be more independent than their contemporaries, not less; and though they may express the tendencies and suppositions of their societies, they also frequently challenge them, even if those challenges are themselves facilitated and contained by societal beliefs. Hence, it is a mistake to assume that artists of earlier ages, before the general emergence of a modern homosexual identity, could not share important aspects of difference and a sense of alienation from society. One of the rewards of studying the queer artistic heritage is, in fact, the discovery of a queer subjectivity in the past and of the affinities as well as differences between earlier and later homosexualities.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Growing Strong
In the Garden of Spirituality – Toby Johnson
Love, Equality and the Rumba
Keeping All the Queens Under One Roof
The Archangel Michael as Gay Icon
St. Michael: Perspectives and Portraits
The Allure of St. Sebastian
"From Byzantine Daddy to Baroque Twink" - Charles Darwent on the Journey of St. Sebastian
Song of Songs: The Bible's Gay Love Poem
The Inherent Sensuality of Roman Catholicism
Officially Homophobic, Intensely Homoerotic
Homosexuality and the Priesthood
Homophobia? It's So Gay
What Is It That Ails You?

For previous posts in The Wild Reed’s special “Gay Pride 2010” series, see:
Standing Strong
Growing Strong
Jesus and Homosexuality
It Is Not Good To Be Alone
The Bisexual: “Living Consciously and Consistently in the Place Where the Twain Meet”
Spirituality and the Gay Experience

For 2009’s “Gay Pride” series, see:
A Mother’s Request to President Obama: Full Equality for My Gay Son
Marriage Equality in Massachusetts: Five Years On
It Shouldn’t Matter. Except It Does
Gay Pride as a Christian Event
Not Just Another Political Special Interest Group
Can You Hear Me, Yet, My Friend?
A Catholic Presence at Gay Pride
Worldwide Gay Pride

Opening image: Taken from Men in Motion: The Art and Passion of the Male Dancer by François Rousseau.


john iliff said...

Speaking of which ... you also might enjoy Doug Blanchard's blog here:

He teaches Art History in NYC. I've learned much from his writings on the subject. His 'Passion of the Christ' series 1 & 2 are very moving and a refreshingly modern take on traditional themes.

best regards ....

Michael J. Bayly said...

Thanks, John, for the link.

I'm familiar with Blanchard's work. In fact, it features in a 12-part series I did last year.



Mick said...

I'd say Complexions Ballet in NYC is the best, most vital, example of what's described in this post about a queer artistic heritage. Desmond Richardson is a pioneer.