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Identity and Resistance: Problematizing Queer Theory in Art History — Lorenza Mezzapelle

Queerness, like many other art historical theories, can be understood, practiced, and applied in many different ways. But what are the ramifications of misconstruing the notion of queerness, both where representation and art historical studies are concerned? “The concept of ‘queer modernism’ is meant to strategically problematize the art historical cateogries of modernism,”[1] writes art historian, critic, and curator Tom Folland in “Robert Rauschenberg’s Queer Modernism: The Early Combines and Decoration.” Jack Halbertsam, on the other hand, suggests in his 2011 book, The Queer Art of Failure, that queerness and failure are linked to one another. The writings and teachings of both Folland and Halberstam are largely acknowledged in the art industry, particularly where queer theory is concerned. That being said, their understanding of queerness does not necessarily align with more conventional contemporary understandings of queerness, meant to offer representation for members of the LGBTQ+ community. In looking at the work of Folland and Halberstam, we can observe how their respective understandings of queerness could lead to consequential outcomes on the study of art and art history pertaining to queer theory.

Folland, whose studies focus primarily on modernism, explores the work of the twentieth century modernist artist, Robert Rauschenberg, and the impact of his queer identity on his art. In reference to Rauschenberg’s 1951 work, White Painting (Three Panel) (fig.1), Folland states, “The sheer profusion of patterned materials in the Combines glues into place alongside, underneath, or above the found objects and imagery from this ‘world outside [his window] continues this strategy of resistance through new and startling means.”[2] Here, Folland suggests that the queerness of the work distracts from its modernist qualities, and leads to the “resistance of interpretation” of modernist artworks.[3]Folland also maintains that  “the soiled decorativeness of [Rauschenberg’s] work, so noticeable in the 1950s, as part of what carried the charge of amorality and foolishness, soon became barely perceptible, nudged alongside by the photographic imagery that, to be sure, came to dominate the work of the 1960s but also that came to be the primary mode through which the 1950s Combines were read by critics, now anxious perhaps not to read too much into the work.”[4] Follands perceives queerness as being  mutually exclusive to all other art historical methodologies. He suggests that this makes it inevitable that the viewer acknowledge Rauschenber’s queer identity as a quality of his work, as opposed to acknowledging the minimalist qualities that contributed to his modernist artworks, as the inherent queerness takes away from––or devalues––the other underlying meanings of the artwork.

Halberstam, on the other hand, observes queerness from a very different perspective than Folland. He posits that “failing is something queers do and have always done exceptionally well; for queers failure can be a style […] or a way of life […] and it can stand in contrast to the grim scenarios of success that depend upon ‘trying and trying again.’”[5] Here, Halberstam suggests the long-standing history linking queers to failure. It is important to note the etymology of the word, meaning “weird.”[6]This in and of itself is pessimistic, however can be viewed as being a good thing, according to Halberstam. People ––and artists––who identify as queer need not follow the rules that have been laid out for them, since they are already considered disappointments by many. This allows them much more freedom, as they are not expected to follow conventional pathways.[7] Halbsertsam also states that “being taken seriously means missing out on the chance to be frivolous, promiscuous, and irrelevant. The desire to be taken seriously is precisely what compels people to follow the tried and true paths of knowledge production around which I would like to map a few detours.”[8]

Halberstam’s theory can prove to be problematic as it reinforces the notions linking queerness and otherness. “Queer theorists argue that homophobia is not just a byproduct of individual ignorance and prejudice, but an essential aspect of social organization and the distribution of power,”[9] states D’Alleva in Methods and Theories of Art History. It can therefore be observed that in condoning these collective queer histories and heteronormative constructs, these theories contribute to a social organization that marginalizes members of the LGBTQ+ community.

In sum, we can observe that Folland and Halberstam’s understandings of queerness problematize studies of art and art history, by reinforcing power dynamics that marginalize and “other” practicing artists and members of the LGBTQ+ community, and by implying that queerness removes value from other qualities of one’s work. Moreover, their theories can lead practicing art historians to ask themselves if an artist’s queer identity can ever be ignored when interpreting their art. This ultimately leaves viewers and theorists alike with the age-old question; can queer artists ever just be artists?


Figure. 1

Robert Rauschenberg, White Painting (Three Panel), 1951, oil on canvas, 72 inches x 108 inches (182.9 x 274.3 cm) San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

[1] Folland, Tom. “Robert Rauschenberg’s Queer Modernism: The Early Combines and Decoration.” The Art Bulletin 92, no. 4 (12, 2010): 348.

[2] Ibid, 353.

[3] Folland, Tom. “Robert Rauschenberg’s Queer Modernism: The Early Combines and Decoration.” 353.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2011): 3.

[6] D’Alleva, Anne. Methods & Theories of Art History, (London, United Kingdom: Laurence King Publishing, 2012): 70.

[7] Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure, 6.

[8] Ibid.

[9]  D’Alleva, Anne. Methods & Theories of Art History, 70.


D’Alleva, Anne. Methods & Theories of Art History, (London, United Kingdom:Laurence King Publishing, 2012).

Folland, Tom. “Robert Rauschenberg’s Queer Modernism: The Early Combines and Decoration.” The Art Bulletin 92, no. 4 (12, 2010): 348-365.

Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2011).

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