Queer: Desire, Power, and Identity

Queer: Desire, Power, and Identity

How have views on homosexuality and homoeroticism coloured the image of art and artists over the ages?

How have views on homosexuality and homoeroticism coloured the image of art and artists through the ages? The Nationalmuseum exhibition Queer: Desire, Power and Identity from 2008 aimed to apply non-normative perspectives on art history. The issues raised in the exhibition are still relevant, as is the process of widening perspectives. This is why we have chosen to make parts of Queer available as a digital exhibition.

The exhibition looks at how the sexual norms have changed, masculine and feminine past and present, and how these norms have been transgressed. It examines how art and images have been used to undermine the heterosexual norm and offers a key to why certain motifs have become gay icons. Queer shows us how conceptions of sexuality, sex, gender, masculinity, femininity, erotic and sexual desire have influenced the creation, viewing and interpretation of artworks and the writing of art history. It also shows how art from the past can be used to reflect contemporary perspectives and highlight topical issues.

The historical portraits show that there have been many different ways of expressing masculinity and femininity. Conventions and norms regarding how people should conduct themselves and how they should look have shifted through the centuries. Within queer theory gender is perceived as an unstable and variable category, which constantly needs to be performed. We learn how to perform our assigned gender identity, it isn’t something we are born with. Queer theory also opens up for the possibility of questioning and sabotaging the categories of “men” and “women”. It disrupts the notion that there are only two sexes/genders, and that heterosexuality is the only sexuality. Through staging gender and desire in unexpected ways, the notions are challenged and may eventually become redundant.

Homosexuality was established as a concept during the latter part of the 19th century. Of course, sexual acts between people of the same gender had been happening before this, but labelled differently. Persons who called themselves homosexuals found one another and formed social networks. Sexual and erotic desire is often described as a source of creativity for artists. Heterosexual attraction is nearly always what is referred to. Artists who have found a source for their creativity through same-sex sexuality and desire have often been written out of history. Or, their most significant works in reference to this have been ignored and made invisible. Which are the notions of sexuality and creativity that are the bases for inclusion and exclusion in art history?

Some artworks and subjects have become particularly popular with persons through history interested in the homoerotic. They have achieved iconic status in a shared cultural heritage, often unbeknownst to the heterosexual majority. During times when homosexual acts have been illegal or taboo, these subjects could function as a sort of subcultural identity badge, signaling a person’s erotic and sexual proclivities to others in the know.