Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 13, 2018
Amelia Jones and Erin Silver Otherwise: Imagining Queer Feminist Art Histories Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016. 424 pp.; 61 b/w ills. Paperback £18.99 (9780719096426)

Why is queer feminism not an established subdiscipline in art history or a more influential politic in curating, art criticism, or visual theory? Otherwise: Imagining Queer Feminist Art Histories, edited by Amelia Jones and Erin Silver, begins to answer these questions and to identify the problems this absence occasions or exacerbates. Twenty chapters by artists, scholars, and curators of different generations are framed by an introduction by Jones, an epilogue by Silver, and a first chapter coauthored by both that offers a genealogy of feminist and queer theory and activism in the Euro-American context from the mid-twentieth century to today. With authors drawn mostly from the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada but a few who offer revealing “glimpses into other cultural situations” (8), the essays and dialogues range over twentieth-century and contemporary art and curatorial practice as well as theory, enacting a vibrant debate over queer feminism—its possibilities, challenges, and place in the visual arts and the academy.

Jones’s introduction identifies goals for the volume: to map exclusions, understand why a “queer feminist art history has been slow to cohere,” and offer models of new queer feminist approaches to art history, practice, and curating that suggest how to “move forward with a nuanced and open-ended, but politically and historically sharp, queer feminist art historical method” (5). She begins a discussion, taken up throughout the book, of why feminism and queer theory seem, at times, incompatible bedfellows, “‘otherwise’ to each other as well as art history” (1). The “institutional position of feminist art history,” with its focus on expanding the canon to include women artists and theorizing sexist images and forms of looking, may have “sidelined a consideration of the nuances and radical undecidability of LGBTQI methods and theories” (3). At the same time, queer theory and visual culture have “tended to ignore or bypass significant theoretical achievements and historical developments in feminist visual theory, feminist art, and feminist art history” (3), ostensibly to avoid essentializing. However, this division raises troubling questions: “Is queer theory itself myopic, or even ‘masculinist’ in some of its forms, failing to acknowledge the significance of feminist politics and theory, and its emphasis on actual inequalities and oppressions experienced by people identified as women in the world?” (3). On the flipside, can feminist histories and theories of art “accommodate the basic premises of queer theory—its at least stated refusal to accept identity as a static or singular aspect of subjectivity, its insistence on ‘perverse’ desires as potential political forces, and its tendency to dwell on trauma as the source of queer identification” (4)? Jones thinks these perceived incompatibilities may be reconciled by honoring the “complexities and political moxie of feminist visual theory and art history” (12) while being open to queer theory’s “new ways of experiencing, thinking, and understanding the sexual subject in relation to visuality and visual culture” (1).

Jones and Silver’s opening chapter charts the evolution from white, middle-class feminism to intersectional feminism and gay rights to queer theory, as well as important moments in exhibition and censorship history. Several key points emerge from its stress on the “interrelated and sometimes co-extensive development of feminist and queer methods, theories, and practices in relation to the visual arts” (16). First and foremost, feminist and queer theory “have crucial insights to offer each other.” Each challenges the other’s blind spots—tendencies toward certainty, on the one hand, and abstraction, “where sexual identification is so fluid we are not sure how it functions in the world or what it has to do with the necessary coalitions that must be formed to produce social change,” on the other (23), though both sometimes rely on gender binaries. The authors stress feminism’s enrichment by radical lesbian and antiracist politics, noting that third wave is “by definition a queer, transnational and anti-racist, class-critical feminism” (32). They identify queer feminist theory that has much to offer art history (the book is dedicated to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and José Esteban Muñoz) and point to a range of shared concerns, including temporality, performativity, historical preservation, and nonbinary figures such as the cyborg and diasporic nomad. They also note—and the volume attests to—the “volatile and productive incursion” made into “both queer and feminist discourse as well as into broader cultural understandings of sexual subjectivity” by trans discourse and politics, which sometimes reinforce essentialism even as gender and sexuality are increasingly mapped onto a continuum. In this context, what does it mean to speak of “a coalition of women, as feminist discourse has long presumed to do” (39)? If there is no one or clear answer to this question, the authors nevertheless contend, especially in light of current “devastating entrenchments,” that we need the “tools, rigor, outrage, and cleverness of feminist visual theory” (40).

Of the chapters that follow, some, such as Jennifer Doyle’s moving account of her intellectual development through dialogue with Muñoz and Sedgwick, address particular theoreticians. Most, however, emphasize a rich history of queer feminist art practices and politics. Julia Bryan-Wilson’s essay on Harmony Hammond’s Floorpieces offers a brilliant, focused reading of the challenge craftily posed to the American art world by the artist’s insistence that these works be displayed horizontally. Offering a broader survey, Pawel Leszkowicz’s account of Polish “collaborative ‘queer-feminist’ art” (185) centered on the male nude over the last forty years, which he regards as “essential to the liberalizing of Poland” (197), is a salient reminder of the benefits of political alliances. Nizan Shaked’s essay considering the work of the collective Ridykeulous also foregrounds the larger stakes of practicing queer feminism—a “working democracy”—and argues that attributing “the failure of progressive politics [to] identity politics” is both to “blame the weak constituency for the loss of an uneven match” and to ignore its potential (206).

A conversation between Jones, Cheri Gaulke, A. L. Steiner, and Terry Wolverton models productive intergenerational exchange, and Wolverton’s comment that lesbians sometimes “get made invisible within the term queer” (170) raises a concern shared by various essays regarding queer theory’s erasures. (Juan Vicente Aliaga’s galvanizing account of transfeminist artistic practices in Spain, for example, cautions against queer theory’s potential to minimize “the social hierarchy that subordinates women to men’s power," 237.) Another dialogue, between Silver, Jones, and Jonathan Katz, speaks to the absence of lesbian art history and draws a parallel between lesbian art’s concern with embodiment and art history’s concerns with materiality and history; each is in tension with some queer theory, especially that which “presumes a transcendence of the historical” (82).

The importance of excavating queer/feminist history, and thus of recognizing and redressing lacunae in the archives, is taken up by numerous essays. Several discuss artworks that engage with the past speculatively and inventively, embracing “the experimental potential of historical narration,” as Tirza True Latimer puts it in her contribution (106). In his dialogue with Pauline Boudry/Renate Lorenz, Jon Davies argues that the artists’ archival reanimations, with their “nuanced consideration of the representational framing of figures from the past who call out urgently to us in the present” (175), offer a model of queer feminist art historical methodology. Catherine Lord’s beautiful essay spins webs of connection through book dedications gathered in the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, which, like her essay, tender “the gifts of labor and love” (129). A postcolonial approach to the queer feminist archive is brought by Alpesh Kantilal Patel and Mathias Danbolt. Patel argues that “queer feminist archive activism” can create new collectivities “not based entirely on social construction of identity, on genealogy . . . or on nationalism” (257), while Danbolt, writing on Jeannette Ehlers’s Whip it Good, insists that we recognize colonial aesthetics as unfinished history.

Some of the essays suggest specific points of departure or aims for a queer feminist art history. Dore Bowen posits pleasure as a common ground for queer theory and feminism, while Jennie Klein and Kris Grey/Justin Credible, discussing “Trans*feminism,” contend that the point of “queer feminist art history is . . . to demonstrate that the categories of gender are always already mutable and always already in transition” (329). Dominic Johnson argues that the key to queer feminist art history is understanding “visual representation to be capable of supporting and furthering transformative remodeling of bodies, and of identity and its politics” (341). Some tensions between the book’s voices arise over language. Jackson Davidow, for example, proposes a theory of “queer feminist neutrality” (304) in his analysis of JJ Levine’s Queer Portraits, while Emily Roysdon, conversing with Xabier Arakistain, argues for occupying multiple positions rather than any “neutral” one (232). And the dialogue between Lisa Newman, Vaginal Davis, and Del LaGrace Volcano questions the efficacy of academic discourse in promoting queer feminist art, stressing the role of the artist as translator of “convoluted language and concepts into accessible, entertaining, visceral forms of communication” (336).

The role and competence of institutions is a recurring concern. Jennifer Gonzalez and Tina Takemoto discuss the ability of art history, criticism, and institutions to address the work of intersectionally identified artists. The last chapter, a conversation among Deidre Logue, Allyson Mitchell, and Helena Reckitt, addresses the relation of art history to curatorial and artistic practice, noting recent progress in scholarship, especially where art history regards art “as part of a life” (357); the discussants also attest to the importance of reciprocity, collaboration, and not waiting for permission. The dialogue ends on a resolute note after a consideration of the career limitations that most “women artists, artists of color, queer and trans* people, people with disabilities, and Aboriginal artists” face, with fewer opportunities for major venues and publications—it’s “not right and it’s not enough!” (369).

In her introduction, Jones mentions that she and Silver began with the assumption that a queer feminist art history is desirable, but that after reading the contributions they no longer insist on it. Still, in her epilogue Silver urges an activist approach to feminist (and) queer art histories: put together queer feminist exhibitions and develop modes of writing “that can accommodate the types of histories that collect and agitate around feminist and queer art practices and cultural identifications” (382). While individual chapters do suggest “tensions and conundra arising from such a conjunction” (5), as Jones puts it, or that the project may entail “crossing without ever reaching the other side” (324), as Kris Grey defines “Trans*,” the volume as a whole makes a compelling case for more queer feminist art histories.

Alison Syme
Associate Professor, Department of Visual Studies and Graduate Department of Art, University of Toronto