“The private is the public for those for
whom the personal is the political.”
Michael Warner, Public and Private, 2005 1
Artists have a long history of living and speaking from outside of society’s established norms. Sexual difference, homoerotic imagery and questions of representation have appeared throughout art history; though it is contemporary artists who were among those at the vanguard of queer social movements and who helped place sexual identity at the center of cultural, social and political debates. Debates that informed and were informed by the practices of these artists and that brought about new ways of thinking on how society is structured.
Queer, up until the nineteenth century, was employed as a way of pointing to things or individuals that were considered odd, eccentric, or outside social norms. The word carried a particular kind of judgement and was often offered up as an epithet ascribed to others rather than oneself. However, it wasn’t until 1894 that it was specifically deployed as a homophobic slur by John Sholto Douglas, ninth Marquess of Queensbury, in a letter to his son. 2
Queer has taken on the characteristics of a noun, an adjective and a verb. A person can be queer, but so can a community or an object. It can signify belonging, adherence to a set of cultural or social ideologies, or a position of political activism. It can even be deployed as actionable, through the queering of subjects or material. Queering brought the private into the public, consciously making use of space, institutions and sites in the public sphere to address the countless positions of apartness from which queer is posited. Thus creating a community formed precisely “by [its] conflict with the norms and contexts of [its] cultural environment” 3 and “[working] to elaborate new worlds of culture and social relations in which gender and sexuality can be lived… [by] making possible new forms of gendered or sexual citizenship – meaning active participation in collective world making through publics of sex and gender.” 4
Thus, instead of speaking about the public, we can now speak of a plurality of publics; and as these new voices adopted queer to theorize about different modes of existence within culture and society, they in turn created an ideological movement rooted in queer theory. By appropriating queer and its strategies these publics address the inequity of institutional power, provide an opportunity to destabilize binary genders and heteronormative roles, and call out or target the camouflaged policing of the norm. Contemporary artists have engaged with this expanded notion of queer since the 1960s, participating in a world-making project that aims to support new and different forms of affective, erotic, personal and public living.