I’m currently sat in the library staring blankly at my essay, just as I have been doing for the past hour. Writing a retrospective criticism on Tate Britain’s 2017 ‘Queer British Art’ exhibition is apparently much harder than I expected it to be…
I’ll admit that motivation is something I struggle with when it comes to writing essays, but let’s be real, what student doesn’t find essay writing tiresome? Nevertheless, queer art is something I’ve always felt passionately about. It seems I’m still struggling with reaching the word count, so I thought, what better way to engage myself with this subject than by revisiting my reasons for picking it as an essay topic in the first place? Why does queer art mean so much to me and why was this particular show so important?
From Oscar Wilde to David Hockney, the exhibition ‘Queer British Art’ presented a vast history of creatives that were all tied together by a shared love ‘that dare not speak its name’ and celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the partial de-criminalisation of sex between men. The exhibition portrayed the isolation and defiance experienced by a multitude of artists working in the past one hundred years, with around 70 intertwining artworks and objects on display. I believe that queer art has always been at the foot of the forthcoming and the edge of the avant-garde. ‘Queer British Art’ certainly proved this. In my opinion, artists like Claude Cahun are the first and last of their kind and their work is still as groundbreaking today as it was almost a century ago. The queer imagery displayed in their work is beyond iconic and Duncan Grant and Henry Scott still resonate with audiences now as much as they did then. Let’s not forget Keith Vaughan – my love!
These artworks have also painfully reminded me of the struggles that artists have faced and continue to face to this day across the globe. Even our contemporaries, from Hockney to Bacon, faced these barriers, and in the Western world we are fortunate to now be able to bask in their successes. This is especially true when we consider that many countries still consider homosexuality a crime by law. Homophobia is still prevalent within the UK and transphobia is still very real. It kills (like, literally murders) hundreds of people every year. Walking through the show, I wondered whether Cahun would still be making the same point today as she did during the early twentieth century.
The art wasn’t the only thing that was inspiring. As I read the audiences’ comment cards on the walls as I went along, it was plain to see that the show had had a huge impact on the general public. Some chose to comment on the beauty and abundance of the artworks, others simply said “thank you”. My favourite card? “This show made me more gay. Thanks show.”
I think that Tate did a wonderful job of tackling a difficult subject which (sadly) had not been explored by any other such notable institution. Of course, queerness is considerably vaster and more diverse than ‘Queer British Art’ illustrates, but the show’s defiant and celebratory nature was undeniably incredible and hugely inspiring.
It made me think, it made me remember, and most importantly, it made me rejoice.
For those of you who missed the exhibition, or want to get a taste of the action, I encourage you to watch the intimate short film by one of my favourite contemporary artists; photographer and filmmaker Matt Lambert. This film was commissioned in direct response to ‘Queer British Art’ and reflects upon the experiences of gay men today. Their experiences are exquisitely brought to life with Lambert’s use of colour, music and narrative. Watch ‘God is Watching’ here.
Words by Alice Reed
Cover image: Edward Burra, ‘Soldiers at Rye’. 1941