Form and Function

Art from Another Point of View

by Michael Abernethy

11 April 2011

Before and After (partial) (2003) by
Deb Clem used with the artist's permission 

Fame vs. Infamy

Still, Clem doesn’t view her art as “lesbian” art. “I’m an artist and I’m a lesbian,” she notes, but that doesn’t mean that she wants to be identified solely by her sexual identity.  Her sexual orientation is just one aspect of her being, and all parts of her personality contribute to the construction of her art.  Most LGBT artists are the same, she argues, in that they draw from the sum of their life experiences to generate their art. What’s important is for the artist to be honest in his or her work; if that leads him or her to focus on sexual identity or erotic images, then that’s fine. More likely, though, it will allow the artist to include a richer tapestry of themes.

Surprisingly, there is little academic research on the subject of LGBT art, although there are countless books on individual LGBT artists, LGBT art in history, and LGBT themes in art. Most academic research focuses on the inclusion of LGBT art and artists in art education programs. According to Nick Stanley in International Journal of Art & Design Education, the use LGBT artists in the study of art has four advantages:

1. Increased visibility for LGBT art and artists, resulting in wider acceptance;

2. Heightened awareness of outsider and marginalized group perspectives in art;

3. Greater understanding of the use of irony in art; and

4. Revisiting art analysis with enhanced use of feminist and LGBT theory as the basis of study.—(“‘Anything You Can Do’: Proposals for Lesbian and Gay Art Education”, February 2007)

Usually, museums and galleries don’t post huge Pride flags over the art by LGBT artists, nor should they.

“Bullshit” is how Clem labels the list. She recognizes the validity of many of Stanley’s arguments and acquiesces that such advantages may take place. However, she argues, true art education occurs when the art student examines him or herself and allows that to serve as the foundation for his or her art.  It does no good to study LGBT art just because it was done by an LGBT artist; instead, students should be studying quality art, regardless of the artist’s sexual orientation.

History would seem to support Clem’s position. The great LGBT artists are recognized for the brilliance of their work, not for their sexual orientation. Famous artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci are known homosexuals, but it is their contributions to form and function that have made their work memorable.  One could argue the same for other LGBT artists, including Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo, John Jaspers, Donatello, Rosa Bonheur, Susan Sontag and Annie Leibovitz, Benvenuto Cellini, and Keith Haring. Similarly, works of art that clearly present gay or lesbian themes are recognized for the excellence of their work, not because they are gay or lesbian in theme.

Among the earliest and most-noted such works are those honoring Harmodius and Aristogeiton, lovers who became heroes in Athenian lore after the pair attempted to overthrow the tyrant rulers Hippias and Hipparchus. Tension between Hipparchus and the couple after Harmodius spurned the ruler’s advances; eventually, the lovers were assassinated. Numerous statues were built in honor of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, most lost over the years, with the most notable existing statue on view at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.

LGBT art has an extensive history. Those interested in lesbian themed art can view samples of such art beginning in 1500 at Isle of Lesbos, while features a wide range of historical gay art, from such cultures as Turkish, Greek, Indian, Native-American, and Japanese. Unfortunately, similar anthologies of bisexual and transgender art don’t currently exist online. However, artwork by contemporary lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans artists is available for viewing and purchasing online. A simple search with your favorite search engine will lead you to art with LGBT themes or to art by LGBT artists. (However, some of the sites require a log-in and almost all have out of date links to artists’ web pages.)

In researching LGBT artists, I read one lesbian’s lament that she was having trouble finding lesbian themed art. Apparently, she has never heard of the internet, but that aside, she may have a point. While there are numerous organizations throughout the world that promote LGBT artists and mentor young artists, the truly great artwork by LGBT artists is being shown alongside the really great art of straight artists. Usually, museums and galleries don’t post huge Pride flags over the art by LGBT artists, nor should they. 

Recently, my partner and I got some new artwork for the house. Of the five new works we acquired, three are by a gay artist. We bought the paintings because we liked them, naturally, but by exposing ourselves to new artists during our search for art, we were able to find things we liked, while still supporting a member of our community. LGBT artists have been making invaluable contributions to the art world for centuries, and still are.  Our world is visually richer, thanks to such artists.

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