‘Queer as Art’ and the art of queerness

The narrative of the recent BBC documentary Queer as Art could probably best be described as one where queerness moves from the fringes into the mainstream.

The documentary begins in the theatre, with discussions of a “private language,” of gayness in the theatre, the ways in which members of the audience might have picked up on something that wasn’t obvious to everyone watching. It’s everywhere in Shakespeare, most obviously in Twelfth Night, full of cross-dressing, mistaken identity, and what might even be called accidental lesbianism. Lady Olivia falls in love with Cesario (Viola as a man).

The idea of this “private language,” is known to anybody who’s been unsure of themselves, unsure of being “out,” or what being out even means. Of course, the difference between the individual need for it, and the need discussed in Queer as Art, is one that relates to the institutions of the time. This private language was a necessity, when openness was a crime. Queer as Art coincides with the 50th anniversary of decriminalisation, so its spectre looms large over the art that’s discussed, and the artists that discuss it. Simon Napier-Bell, the manager of the Yardbirds, goes so far as to mention “looking at your hard-on in the morning, [and] knowing it’ll send you to jail.”

Of course, every coin has its opposite side, and the reverse of this hidden language was a desire not to hide anything. In the documentary, David Hockney says that he “didn’t want to hide anything,” going so far as to say that he considered his paintings to be “homosexual propaganda.” The success and acclaim of Hockney’s work lead to it being showcased in liberal galleries at the time. This seems familiar now, even in a more open and apparently accepting age, where gayness/queerness is turned into a commodity, even by institutions and companies that care very little for the actual struggle for LGBT rights. When hearing about these liberal galleries hanging Hockney’s paintings, it was impossible not to think about the tacky rainbow Smirnoff bottles being sold all through the summer.

The different sides of the coin, of openness and closetedness, seem to be drawn from how mainstream the art form was. Pop music, one of the more mainstream of the arts that’s talked about in the documentary, is the one that’s the most outwardly masculine, swaggering like the Rolling Stones, or “cock rock” like T-Rex. Gayness seems performed in pop music; cross dressing in David Bowie videos and, most famously, Freddie Mercury in the video for ‘I Want to Break Free.’

This closested, coded nature is at its peak with TV, which was “being broadcast to the whole family.” Art that was explicitly gay or queer, had to be aimed exclusively at a gay or queer audience. Something like Coronation Street needed to hide its gayness elsewhere. The documentary argues that the women in it were inspired by the drag queens that Tony Warren saw performing on the Manchester gay scene. Of course, this art and artifice used to signpost queerness, drag and camp, were products of their time. A necessity, when TV shows couldn’t be out, to say nothing of the people writing or performing in them. Russell T. Davies, creator of the aggressively out TV show Queer as Folk, talks about the seemingly unconscious understanding of campness for a queer audience, from The Wizard of Oz, to the women of Coronation Street. Davies argues that camp “isn’t a superficial thing,” but “a profound connection between men and women.”

When it comes to queerness on TV, it’s impossible not to mention Queer as Folk, and of course, this documentary spends some time on it. Russell T. Davies talks in detail about why they needed to include rimming in the show’s first episode. Davies’ work came over a decade after Alan Hollinghurst’s first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library, in which he talks explicitly about gay men having sex.

The camp and performance of mid-20th-century work changes to openness nearer to the end of the century; the drag inspiration of Coronation Street and the flamboyance of David Bowie gives way to explicitness and openness, both on the page, and on screen. This transition seems to mirror the confidence of gay men, and the potential for more societal acceptance. A confidence and potential acceptance ended by the onset of the AIDS crisis. There was a dark irony to AIDS that the film mentions, that in spite of the way gay sexuality was demonised in relation to AIDS, it was all over the front pages of newspapers. And the AIDS crisis did continue to inspire work explicitly about gayness. Derek Jarman’s Blue chronicles his declining health, and his blindness, His voice mentions hearing “the voice of dead friends” on the waves.

Queer as Art follows an ironically straight line through history. It gives the impression of both how things change, and how they don’t. It chronicles the journey from implicit to explicit, from confidence to the shadow of AIDS and back out of it again. It ends with discussions of the current state of queer art, on how interesting it is, if at all. Queer as Art seems to situate the present as being post-gay, as queerness just being one factor, rather than a whole person; it argues that queerness isn’t as anti-establishment as it was a few decades ago. Now, in art and in life, it’s argued that queerness simply is what it is.