That queer art is displayed in such a high-profile venue can only be a cause for celebration, but also a prompt to consider its definition. How will the curators tackle the tricky subject of queerness? How does one represent it? From the off, some constraints have served to narrow the sprawling question: the exhibition consists only of paintings made before homosexuality was legalised, and so any queerness inherent in the works from that time was necessarily operating under-the-radar, as it were.
To begin at the beginning: ‘queerness’ is a notoriously slippery subject to define, and well-trodden by academics far more expert than I with no real consensus. Amongst the LGBTQ community, it is often an umbrella term for sexualities and genders not covered by the binary classifications of male/female, straight/gay, and so forth. Within academic circles, queerness denotes a worldview divergent from society’s assumptions about the ‘natural order,’ particularly when they’re rooted in patriarchy and heterosexism. If ‘queer’ can mean a departure from the status quo, then, its definition rests on the structures of the society it’s reacting against. No one would have thought to call the phallic symbols covering Pompeii, or the tradition of pedagogy in ancient Greece, queer or deviant in their own time and place. It is only looking back through the lens of a society with its own hang-ups and conventions, especially following the moral rigidity of the Victorian period in England or Puritanism in America, that these expressions and acts seem transgressive.