Books

The Queerest Of The Queer: Tangling With ‘Queer Art’ In Ariel Goldberg’s ‘The Estrangement Principle’

Ariel Goldberg’s The Estrangement Principlea roving, multi-year investigation into the labels “queer art” and, to a lesser extent, “queer literature”–could not come at a better time. I don’t know about you, dearest Filthy Dreams readers, but have you noticed that it’s become a little queerer recently?

At least to me, it seems like the term “queer” not to mention the vague label “queer art” have been coopted as some strange form of clickbait. Every few art-related articles on sites such as i-D Magazine, Hyperallergic or Creator’s Project have the word “queer” in the title–either as an adjective or a verb. And this isn’t even taking into account the numerous gallery press releases, public programs and other promotional materials that use “queer art” or “queer” as some sort of attention-grabbing, branding opportunity. *queer queer queer click click click*

This would be less troublesome if the word queer hadn’t been reclaimed from violent hate speech by activists like Queer Nation in order to do the exact opposite–avoid stringent definitions, easily coopted labels and resist the marketability of “gay” as a consumer base. Instead of Absolut Vodka ads, though, queer has become a means to reference the author, publication or institution’s “wokeness,” a type of forced performance of progressive politics for hits and acclaim. In We Were Feminists Once, Andi Zeisler coins the term “marketplace feminism,” a commoditized and sanitized version of feminism that has more to do with panties emblazoned with “Feminism” or “The Future Is Female” than those ho-hum issues of equality. Increasingly, we might talk about a “marketplace” form of queer too.

However, despite this potential cooptation of queer by forces of capitalism and mass media, it is as troubling when work that should be referenced as “queer” isn’t, typically in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience rather than get ghetto-ized as “queer art.”(Ahem…the Estate of Felix Gonzalez-Torres for example). It’s akin to silencing in order to be more marketable to collectors.

It’s this confounding and, at times, demoralizing tension that writer, artist and curator Ariel Goldberg mines throughout their book-length essay, published by Nightboat Books, which spot-on articulates the uncomfortable position I often find myself lately in discussing work in dialogue with sexual or gender identity and fluidity while witnessing the usurping of queer for promotional purposes. And Goldberg seems to come from a similar place of dual confusion and curiosity.

The Estrangement Principle begins as really any piece of cultural criticism should–on the toilet. “I had a defining moment on the toilet while looking at a library copy of Lesbian Words: State of the Art, an anthology of essays from 1995” (4). While this has little bearing on the argument of the book–or really this article, I just want to stop and appreciate how perfect an opening line that is. Bravo!

Anyway, while sitting on the loo, Goldberg realizes how antiquated and forgotten the word “lesbian” feels. They reflect, “I stared longer and felt the word ‘lesbian’ in the title transform into an heirloom kept on the mantle of an electronic fireplace, the flames below glowing with the word ‘queer’” (4). Feeling “pricked” about the proliferation of “queer art,” Goldberg began to collect instances of its usage, as well as its silences (4). They take readers on a whirlwind journey through a variety of art exhibitions, discussions, poetry readings and panels in an omnivorous consumption of queer-related programming. Many of the events and texts they cover will be familiar to most faithful Filthy Dreams readers, ranging from Visual AIDS, Carlos Motta’s We Who Feel Differently, Dirty Looks, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, Art and Queer Culture and more.

Goldberg approaches these events with a healthy dose of suspicion and critical thinking. Thank god. They also recognize the potential for ruffling a few feathers by questioning the usage of “queer art.” “I resist a wholesale attitude of professionalism, which translates to being publicly uncritical of anything for risk of negative effects to jobs or friends. This suffocating reality seems to both predict and prevent voicing the cringe-inducing moments association with the word ‘queer,” they write (72). And they’re right–the art world doesn’t generally take kindly to criticism, especially not since white-walled institutions just recently decided they wanted to acknowledge issues of sexual and gender identity.

In culling and digesting all these various sources, Goldberg parses out the complicated label of “queer art” and in doing so, reveals the deeply problematic aspects of labeling art and literature in general. I mean, what, in fact, is queer art? It’s a pervasive and constantly nagging question both in and outside the text. Goldberg reflects, “‘Queer,’ in relation to art, constantly reinvents itself. Loosely aligned with a range of identity positions counter to mass culture, ‘queer’ resembles an umbrella one buys that falls apart shortly after a rainstorm. Anything can be interpreted and argued for as ‘queer’” (6). And yet, at the same time, queer can be a powerful label (and so can refusing labels). “Labeling art and writing ‘queer’ affirms the power of those who are constantly silenced. The decision not to label art and writing ‘queer’ could arguably be arrived at through the exact same motivations” they consider(9).

Thankfully, Goldberg refuses to ignore this paradoxical position. It’s almost impossible to have a monolithic argument for or against the term “queer art” since, as Goldberg notes perfectly, “The phrases ‘queer art’ or ‘queer literature’ or ‘queer cinema’ can be dangerously limiting as a space in language to be inside of–or outside of” (23).

Like most labels, queer art tends to restrict visibility and understanding to still white cis male artists. You’d think that wouldn’t be the case, but it is. Queer is “far from immune from racist actions” (164). Goldberg quotes Hiram Perez who writes in his essay “You Can Have My Brown Body And Eat It, Too!,” which is a part of Social Text’s special feature “What’s Queer About Queer Studies Now?”: “In its institutionalization as an academic disciplines, queer theory took the question of its political viability off the table. But if queer is to remain an effective troubling of the normative and its attendant regimes, it must painstakingly excavate its own entrenchments in normativity…The identities “gay” or “queer” or “lesbian” do not preempt queer theorists from reinstituting masculine biases and patriarchal privileges” (165).

A prime example cited by Goldberg of this still racially tone-deaf aspect of queer theory comes from one of queer theory’s biggest founding icons: Judith Butler. Recalling a performance and discussion at the Dance Discourse Project in San Francisco in 2013, Goldberg remembers an awkward moment in the post-performance discussion between Butler, and Hentyle Yapp and Xandra Ibarra, who had just performed. Yapp and Ibarra asked Butler about Trayvon Martin, the precarity of racialized subjects and Butler’s own then recent work on precarity. Rather than responding to their questions, Butler painfully deflected: “It’s good. It’s so funny. I’m really happy to take your questions. I’m going to have this discussion with you. I’m just struck at them moment by how we shift modalities. You know he goes from this fluttering fairy to being this grad student. [laughter] And I’m feeling the loss a little bit.” (166-67).

Cringe.

And this restrictive nature of the attribution of “queer art” to creative objects isn’t just limited to race. Goldberg brings up a 2011 MoMA film program organized by artist AA Bronson entitled “Queer Cinema from the Collection: Today and Yesterday.” Of course, all the filmmakers were men. When confronted by Barbara Hammer about this, AA Bronson replied, “I am a man, so I only curated men. I propose that they should ask a woman to curate women” (23).

If you think this is only a personal hang-up with Bronson, nope. I couldn’t tell you the amount of times I’ve attended “queer art” exhibitions that contained all or mostly cis men. For example, at this year’s Spring/Break Art Show in March, Christopher Stout and Rick Herron curated a booth titled “Black Mirror/Pink Reflections: Portraits of Queer Identity in Contemporary Art.” Yep, all dudes. Rage.

Coupled with the exclusionary potential of “queer art,” there are also, as Goldberg shows, complications with works not labeled queer. Many of these works, on some level, pass. Using Maggie Nelson’s The Art Of Cruelty as an example, Goldberg writes, “What allowed The Art of Cruelty to avoid tag lines of ‘queer art’ or ‘feminist criticism’ in its marketing?…What does it mean to pour out gratitude for queers in the back pages of your book but not be labeled as queer by Norton? Nelson acts as an usher for ‘queer content’ into the mainstream because she is white, cis and could pass as straight” (12).

There are also artists and writers who hesitate to speak queer’s name for possibly professional reasons. As Goldberg quips about former Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, “How does a dyke get to be poet Laureate? The obvious answer: she keeps her mouth shut about it” (48).

So with all these complicated and seemingly contradictory aspects of queer, what then? Is this the end of the line for queer? Does it still have an iota of its former radicality? What is to be done? For Goldberg, it seems nearly impossible to reject the label completely. They explain, “Queer spaces can be fraught with many of the same problems around race and gender and class and ability as supposedly straight spaces. Yet my life and work depend on official and unofficial spaces named as queer” (23). Exactly.

A key to moving forward in accepting the fraught and frenetic answer of queer seems to come in a quote from Cheryl Clarke’s “After Mecca”: Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement who “describes her approach to dialoguing with history and art through a shifting geometric approach to address the problem of naming” (103). Clarke writes: “I wish to imagine black American culture to be a system of circles constantly being redrawn and reshaped along race, gender, sex, class and community lines–sometimes concentric and constricting, sometimes overlapping and inclusive, and sometimes spiraling out of bounds” (103).

There’s something to be learned from this embrace of “spiraling out of bounds,” a constant redrawing and reshaping of understanding of cultural output rather than a strict, repressive label or “movement.” There are ways of contextualizing work by artists, writers and other creative who delve into sexual and gender identity and fluidity while resisting labels or at least, understanding them in a more expansive (less clickbait-y) way. As Goldberg concludes, “I wanted to stop ‘queer art’ from becoming a known or given set of agendas. What I ended up with is an argument for a wider range of possibilities of associations with what comes to mind when the utterance ‘queer art’ inevitably surfaces” (225).

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