Queer Art

December 3, 2008

Excerpt from a conversation with Terri Griffith

Contemporary Queer art, Modernism, Documenta, William S. Burroughs

– Young Joon


Young Joon:
A lot of what seems the general criticism of expressly representational homosexual or feminist art is that it fails on both the political and artistic level because of how certain audiences are excluded, and alternately privileged…

Terri Griffith:
The goal of many queer artists is not to make work that is palatable to a straight viewership.  Alternately, I can’t imagine many heterosexual artists or writers sit around wondering how a gay audience would receive their work, thinking, “What if my work doesn’t go over well with gay people?” They don’t have that conversation.  I feel when a subculture is trying to talk, that’s essentially what we’re talking about, giving voice to ideas- when we give voice to those ideas, does it become some kind of drum banging simple polemic, like, ‘oh I get it, and then its over’, or does it have something bigger or broader to say, and it can have something bigger and broader to say, it certainly can. I feel like often the notion of universality is used as a way to silence queers.  I heard Toni Morrison on the radio say, that an editor told her that her work wasn’t universal enough, and she tried to figure out what that meant, and finally realized what the editor meant was that white was universal, male was universal, heterosexual was universal, and that her characters didn’t abide by those rules.  But alternately, good art is universal and speaks to different people.

Y:  Hmmm

T:  It’s true, but universal doesn’t mean every person on the planet has to like it.  A good example of that would be William S. Burroughs’s Queer.  A lot of gay people hate that book.

Y:  That’s so true.  The readership is so diverse.  There are so many different types of people that read William S. Burroughs for so many different reasons.

T:  Yup, he is universal, in a way.  Actually he is very specific, but he crosses sexual orientation boundaries.  I certainly don’t think his main readership is gay men and lesbians.  But a lot of what he has to say doesn’t have a lot to do with his sexuality, but rather, his identity, and place in the world, and maybe that’s why people can identify with him in the world.

Y:  So his is a deeper investigation into being queer, not just about being gay, or bi.

T:  Well, yes, it has the multiplicity of meanings of queerness, “Im a con man, I m a fucker, Im an expatriot.”

Y:  Do you know his own desire to be adopted by the queer literature canon or Queer community?

T:  He didn’t like it.

Y:  So why label him as such?  Why adopt him into the queer canon, into the community?  What is the function or necessity, if there is one, of making that distinction that he is a queer artist, or part of the queer artistic canon.  Like he should be viewed in academic circles, with regards to his being Queer?  What is the importance of that?

T:  Well, we are in an interesting period of time where I feel like as in most areas of American culture, there is a huge rift.  We live in a world where there is a lot of thought to be paid to queerness and identity and what those things mean, and there is a certain familiarity with theory and understanding of labels and what they can do, but alternately, I was in Boystown last summer, standing at the bus stop and a truck full of guys passed by yelling, “faggot!” out the window at men just walking on the street.  interestingly a lot of gay and queer people think of themselves as post-gay.  Which is interesting because a lot of notions of gay and lesbian identity were carved out post-stonewall, and in the 70s and 80s, and a lot of those identities don’t seem to fit today.  But when someone is beating you up, they don’t have any problem labeling you.  There is still an extreme level of violence against gays and lesbians.  I can reject the label of lesbian, but when I want to get health insurance, I can’t deny that label because I can’t get health insurance.  What we used to call the gay community is rejecting these labels, but mainstream culture isn’t. I am not anxious to reject those labels, though I am uncomfortable in them, because I don’t want to be misconstrued when someone tells me they hate gays and that we shouldn’t get married.  In that moment, I don’t want to say, “I feel uncomfortable with the term lesbian.”  I want to be like, “yeah I m a dyke, fuck you.”  When we are talking within communities, what I have to say is very different, and the arts community is more comfortable with gays and lesbians and queer work has been always able to pass, and when we talk of abstraction, I think its awesome, because of the inherent denial.  But back to William S Burroughs, the reason why its important to claim him is because 20 years ago, they weren’t teaching his book, Queer, in queer lit class, because it isn’t a positive affirming novel about being gay, no one feels good about themselves. no one is redeemed, and I feel like that conversation was one people couldn’t have clearly at that time, but there are so many more options to choose from.  Its important to have people like that.

Y:  Why?  To diversify what it means to be queer?

T:  No, to simply have role models.

Y:  What function does queer theory serve in a contemporary avant-garde arts discourse?  Where does queerness fit in the equation?

T:  Well, I don’t think very many people outside of the realm of queer theory have a good grasp of what queer means, outside of gay and lesbian representation of the body, but also I find that the avant-garde isn’t really that avant-garde.  I feel people are comfortable with the notion of edginess that they are already used to.

Y:   So much queer theory and queer art history deals with Modernism, one of the leitmotifs of Documenta.  The curators purport that this exhibition is a reevaluation of modernism.  “What is modernism, is it obsolete, is modernism our antiquity?”  There were a lot of works from the obscure mid-20th century artists that were put into the show for re-inclusion into the Modern art canon.

T:  Canons seem fixed, but they are super liquid, they are fluid, someone like Larry Rivers was super important before but not any more.  I think modernism is inherently queer, because in some ways, modernism was defined by what it wasn’t.  And I think its interesting that we have such a difficult time defining what it means, and we use this terms to mean a million other things, depending on who you read and what your sources are, and if your talking about design, literature, art, and the dates of modernism fluctuate frequently.

Y:  In thinking about modernism, being defined by what it is not, I think of aberrance, and deviance from a normative path, and traditional values.  It’s funny because the over-arching reaction seems to be questioning of the quality of the works displayed.  There have been a lot of negative reviews, saying it’s a bomb, an abomination.  I felt it was more complex than that.  It seems a theme of the show, migration of forms, sought to present the huge discrepancy between time and place, and our conception of what a work from a specific place or time should be, informed largely by the established rhetoric in current intellectual art discourses regurgitated in all the art magazines and institutions.

T:  I feel like I’m losing my power to judge between good and bad.  I think more in terms of interesting or not interesting, “am I bored by this? Does it make me think more?” And I find myself surrounded by a lot of really interesting things.  And suddenly a lot of things that had been pushed on me as good, how can it be good if it’s not interesting?  And how can it be bad if it’s interesting? Interesting/not interesting is more effective for me to define the value of art.

Terri’s part of Bad at Sports, Chicago art podcast.  Learn more about her:


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