Coming full circle: The importance of Queer British Art for young people

Billie Esplen considers the relevance of Tate's Queer Britain exhibition

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Photo: YouTube

In the first room, on a little pedestal, is a cup with phalluses for handles. The handles are stemmed with balls. It reads: “on the mournful occasion of his transition into matrimony.” And, we are told, it was made by a man for another man. This little curiosity is representative of the bulk of Tate’s Queer Britain exhibition. A bit oblique, a bit cheeky, ever-so-slightly disappointing (the thin handles appear pretty flaccid) and well over half male. If the cup were porcelain, it would have also represented the exhibition’s resounding whitewash.

This cup is probably the humorous high-point of the first few rooms, whose paintings consist predominantly of scantily clad ancient Greeks. Whether you receive all of these extrapolated intimations as descriptive of the hidden and illicit nature of homosexuality during the period – which followed the removal of the death penalty from the ‘crime’ of sodomy in 1861 – or simply slightly stretched – depends on how much you buy into the description plates. The general answer is probably somewhere in between the two. But either way the vanilla phrases ‘may have been’ and ‘romantically involved’ are well-trodden paths in these early rooms.

In the later rooms are works by the likes of well-known Duncan Grant and David Hockney. The presence of ‘queerness’ becomes less like guesswork and instead the primary identifier of the artists themselves. Two sources of excitement are Oscar Wilde’s prison door, and the visiting card, which read “posing sodomite” and was used as evidence against him. The contrast these artefacts bring into focus between Wilde’s now celebrated homosexuality and the reality of contemporary oppression is sobering. However, they are not queer British art. They do nothing to celebrate or express Wilde’s sexuality. It is, at times, as if the exhibition cannot choose between art and artefact.

The real stand-outs of this exhibition are therefore not its pieces of art, but its stories. And not the stories we already know, the ones, predominantly, about white males, but the ones which many have never heard before. For example, the poet and artist Michael Field, the joint identity of two lovers – an aunt and niece – born Edith Cooper and Katherine Bradley. They went by a shared male pronoun and referred to each other as Michael and Field respectively, telling Havelock Ellis in regard to their literary collaborations: “[w]e cross and interlace like a company of dancing summer flies.”

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We learn that there existed someone called Radclyffe Hall, born Marguerite and referred to as John by friends, who wrote The Well of Loneliness, in 1928. It was banned for the frankness of its depiction of female same-sex desire, despite the efforts of prolific literary figures such as fellow queer Virginia Woolf. And it was following the trial, Hall’s androgynous clothes and short hair became strongly associated with lesbianism. The fact that we forget, today, the happening that’s propounded social stereotypes like these – and which are still very much in force today – demonstrates just how much we like to group and categorise. That was not Radclyffe’s Hall’s style, or their own way of expressing themselves because it is now just a very lesbian thing to do.

Hannah Gluckstein, the more prolific artist of what is perhaps the exhibition’s most famous painting, her self-portrait, also adopted a name-change, choosing the similarly ethereal, gender-neutral Gluck, and insisting that it was reproduced without any quotation marks and free from prefixes and suffixes: i.e., the restraints of enforced convention.

Naturally, what stories like these do is remind us that diverse forms of queer orientation isn’t some new-fangled gimmick. In fact, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick tells us, the phrase heterosexual only came about after the popularisation of the word “homosexual” in the nineteenth century. Far from gayness starting as a wilful opposition of the heteronormative, it was in fact heterosexual fear of any divergence from religiously and socially acceptable norms that created its distinction in the first place. They also powerfully highlight just how much sexuality has to do with individual as well as collective identity. It is as if Radclyffe Hall did not have to say “I am a lesbian”, or “I am gender neutral”, but simply “I am Radclyffe Hall.” The fact that all three of these artists exercised name changes rather than adopted labels in order to express themselves is perhaps what’s most telling of all.

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The use of LGBTQ+ categories is, of course, a crucial and powerful part of the battle for political acceptance and equality. According to a recent government survey, just 46% of young people in the UK identify as exclusively heterosexual. This means, incredibly, that they are in the minority. 66% of those between 16 and 24 could visit this exhibition already feeling liberated enough to defy the forces of normativity that repressed the artists on display. What we see, therefore, as this defiance of heteronormativity develops, is the addition and creation of more and more labels. People are even creating their own labels: forging communities around a description of their feelings and identity that they themselves control.

The current sexuality acronym varies as much as the international community wants it to, and can often include as many or even more than seventy letters. One widely-used example is LGBTQQIAAP: the second Q is for questioning, the I for intersex, the two A’s asexual and ally, and the P pansexual. 2 for two-spirited is often included, as is a D for demi-sexual. And, wonderfully, it goes on. It can be argued that this is because we need an in-exhaustive LGBTQ+ spectrum less than we need an understanding that every single individual’s sexuality is different. We all have our own preferences, types and tendencies – within and aside from gender – which are influenced by all the tiny things that do affect us as ever-developing human beings, both genetic and otherwise. And that doesn’t mean that queer people weren’t born as queer. It means that absolutely everybody is born an individual. Just as Tolstoy said there are as many loves as there are hearts, so are there as many infinitely nuanced sexualities as there are individuals.

Whilst prevailingly male and shockingly white, what the Tate’s exhibition has done successfully is celebrate queer artists as individuals, showing us how they were strong enough to know themselves in spite of social conditioning. Which is what all people – and especially queer people – are trying to do.

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