What is "Queer Art"?
I’ve come to realize that while I take the time to deliberately “brand” myself as a queer artist (and who among us, having taken one conservatory course on current musical professionalism, can resist branding oneself), I cannot with any certainty name what exactly queer art is—only that I am queer and I am an artist.
I am reluctant to equate queer artist with queer art. In part, that equation removes agency from other artists of queer identities to control how their work is viewed. Many artists are rightfully trepidatious of or resistant to their work being consumed primarily through the lens of their identities—woman composer, Black painter, trans playwright, etc. In the hands of those who commission, program, and fund artistic endeavors, identity markers are often assigned to art and artists as a means of meeting an unofficial (or official) quota and/or limiting the responsibility of a producing body to one “diversity offering”—like a major symphony orchestra programing one concert of women composers within a season of concerts featuring only men composers. At its most cruel, this can be used—sometimes even intentionally—to imply that work by artists within the same field who are not straight, white men should be evaluated by different standards in order to be found valuable.
If part of my reluctance is in defence of artists of queer identities, then the other part is in defence of the art. I hold that there is something that can make art in-itself queer. Reducing queer art to simply any art made by a queer person removes the power from the art itself to be queer. It also presumes that art is merely an extension of the authorial artist. My search to define queer art has invariably led me back to the philosophical quandary of defining art itself. That’s a loaded statement, to say the least. For now, I’m comfortable to walk it back a bit and focus on what constitutes a work of art—not what defines a work as art, we’ll just take that for granted.
My current process for defining a work of art is in two (broad) steps. The first step, which relies heavily on the work of Cray and Matheson’s “A Return to Musical Idealism” and Parrott’s “The Look of Another Mind,” takes a work of art as employing a manifestation to allow an audience to come to an understanding of an idea held by the creator. For example, a musical score is a manifestation which allows the performer to come to an understanding of an idea held by a composer, in turn the performance is a manifestation which allows the viewer to come to an understanding of an idea held by the performer. So, which then is the work of art, the score or the performance?
Here’s where we get to my second step, which relies heavily on the jumbled bits of Foucault’s biopower and Latour’s Actor Network Theory that I can remember from my doctoral musicology seminar. The work of art is the entire network of people, objects, and actions which create and distribute the manifestations. For something as monumental as opera, this network is unfathomably large, constiting not just of the composer and librettist, but each artist involved in any capacity in any production that has ever happened, as well as every non-human object—scores, scripts, costumes, props, theaters, advertisements, reviews, HD broadcasts, etc.—which has ever made up any production along with the artists. The idea of “a production” being a thing-in-itself is its own node in this ever expanding network.
So where does the “queer” happen in art? There might be a checklist—a “you must have one document from column A, OR at least two documents from column B” situation—but I’m not sure I buy that, mostly because it’s boring and superficial and I want queer art to mean something much more special. In opera specifically, as that’s the art form with which I’m the most familiar, there are so many places in the network to be queer, but at what point do we look at the entire work and say, “ah yes, this is a queer opera.” When I play Leporello as in love with his master, does that make Don Giovanni a queer opera? Yes and no, I suppose. The thing about vast networks is that you can only see them from one perspective, with yourself at the center. There is no attainable bird's-eye view. So, from a particular vantage point (Faneuil Hall in Boston one summer weekend a few years ago), yes Don Giovanni is a queer opera.
There we have, then, the purpose of branding myself and my art as queer. Queer art is work which elects to be viewed as queer from any vantage point. This requires a certain amount of complicity from the human and non-human actors involved in the work-network to uphold the queer nature along any and every vector. As a writer, I can request this complicity in things like casting notes, character descriptions, and the words of the script themselves, but ultimately other artists will bear the responsibility of using their manifestations to allow their audiences to come to an understanding of an idea of queerness.
Great. We’ve defined (sort of) a work of art and queer art, but haven’t even touched what “queer” might mean. The beauty of queerness is that, in its multitude of shades of identity, it resists a neat and tidy definition. It can, at times, be easy for someone to identify themself as queer. I, for example, experience attraction to people of my “own” and other genders. But, trying to extend my own queer experience to create a broader definition runs the risk of excluding many of my beautiful queer siblings. So too does defining queerness by the standards of sexual reproduction, as it has sometimes been defined. Furthermore, the idea that my queer expirience should be used to define queerness writ large is dangerous because that experience has been shaped by my white privilege and male privilege in world where queer people of color, particularly trans women of color, disproportionally face violence and discrimination, even from within the queer community.
If I might suggest any place to begin to define “queerness,” it would be this: to be queer is to willingly and passionately engage in a search for identity and expression beyond the boundaries prescribed by the cultural artifact that is gender and/or sexual normativity. This is imperfect and incomplete, and it takes a lot for granted, but what I like about it is that it emphasizes the agency of a queer person. Not that a person chooses to whom they are sexually or romantically attracted, but that innate attraction is not necessarily the most important aspect of queerness for every queer person.
So what makes my art queer? Although I try to include explictly queer characters in most everything that I write, I don’t think that’s what really makes the work itself queer—after all, the script is just one of many manifestations within the work-network. Having honest-to-goodness queer characters is certainly important: we want to see the word around us reflected on stage. But, even as an authorial artist, there are so many other concerns at the practical level to which to tend. What stories about queer folks are we choosing to tell? Are these queer characters accesible to queer performers? The latter concern is especially present in opera, a form for which voice-type (often hyper-specified to the fach system) has historically been the primary factor in casting roles. Can an opera singer who is a trans woman baritone perform your trans character if you’ve explicitly written her as a mezzo-soprano?
Practical concerns have practical answers. Include queer characters. Use them to tell an interesting variety of stories. Be thoughtful and creative about what you’re requiring of performers so that you can cast queer people—several of my works, for example, use a system of infinite transposability, meaning that the role could be sung by absolutely any voice type. This is just one creative possibility. For many operatic roles, making use of octave displacement and an ossia passage here or there are plenty sufficient for making roles accessible to any voice-type, without dealing with transposing.
Beneath these practical considerations lie the same concerns I expressed earlier—I want “queer art” to mean more than “any art made by a queer person” and “any art with a queer character.” Here I will combine the two working definitions I previously crafted:
A work of art is queer when it uses its entire work-network to create and distribute manifestations which encourage its audiences to come to an understanding of the search for identity and expression beyond the boundaries prescribed by the cultural artifact that is gender and/or sexual normativity.
As a writer, that means I’m using the manifestation of a script or libretto to ask my collaborating artists (composers, performers, directors, designers, etc.) and even my producing partners (producers, venues, advertisers, etc.) to come to a particular understanding of a particular queerness so that they may, in turn, use their manifestations (rehearsals, performances, set pieces, costumes, Facebook posts, etc.) to encourage that understanding in their audiences.
Queer art then, must be a process.