What Is Queer Art?

I hope our willingness to present our queerness, in our bodies, ideas and works of art, makes our mentors proud of the careers they've fought for. They've made this protest against the privileges of so-called normalcy possible.
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Three weeks ago my partner and I (ages 32 and 29, respectively) were the youngest guests at a victorious New-York-state-based wedding of two women in their late 40s and mid-50s. As the party sat at a single, long table over dinner and we swapped stories with consistently remarkable women close in age to or older than the newlyweds, I found a conspicuous difference in the language my partner and I chose to describe our community, our art, our politics and ourselves and the words our new acquaintances used. Theirs was a gay and lesbian world; ours was queer. No one objected, at least out loud, as we tossed "queer" here and there, but to me, its omission from their lexicon and its emergence in ours captured the transformation of an American generation.

Similarly, when my collaborator on Queer/Art/Mentorship, filmmaker Ira Sachs (age 45 -- he gave me permission), and I were negotiating a name for our new program that pairs queer working artists in New York City, we debated the descriptors "queer" versus "gay" and "lesbian" at length. Would people feel uncomfortable using the former? he asked. It's only recently been reclaimed from its status as an epithet. My peers wouldn't approach the latter, I responded; it excludes too many people and too much art. We launched our program, the first of its kind, and 15 rock-star mentors and 15 bright-star fellows, whose ages range from 70-plus to 25, willingly included themselves under the banner of our mouthful of a name.

Queer/Art/Mentorship undoubtedly poses a question, though, and I think it's a good one to keep asking: What is queer art? My response is largely unschooled by the volumes of critical theory written about this subject; I can only describe what I see in New York City in 2011. For those who claim it, "queer" is an inclusive identity with a critical perspective of the worlds in which we live, where a mainstream notion of normalcy of one kind or another spits many people out. In my neighbors and in their first-rate work, I see a wild celebration and provocation of each of our singular sexualities, genders, races, classes, abilities and regional origins, and a dissolution of the categorical segregation that previously ghettoized gays, lesbians and their art.

In our program, choreographer Yve Laris Cohen is working with his mentor, performance artist Justin Vivian Bond, as he develops a duet that investigates transgender bodies and queer intergenerational relationships. Multi-medium visual artist Jacolby Satterwhite is working with painter Angela Dufresne as he develops a series of surrealist animated documentaries about creatively collaborating with his mother through her struggle with schizophrenia. Curator Pati Hertling is working with writer Hilton Als as she develops a non-hierarchical, inclusive, performative salon. This is queer art. And this is a thrilling time. The doors to our community, our galleries and theaters, the pages of our books, are wide open to anyone willing to come out to be a part of it.

The frontier of the queer embrace, then, can reach across many generations. One of the primary goals of Queer/Art/Mentorship is to gather and support community made of people of radically different ages. We get better stories that way. I hope that our willingness to present our queerness, in our bodies and ideas and works of art, makes our mentors proud of the careers they've fought for and the families they formed. They've made this protest against the privileges of so-called normalcy -- and made this freedom to live queer, creative lives -- possible. Whether or not they had role models with sustainable alternative careers, by saying yes to us, they are creating the next generation of mentors. For who among us does not need a mentor, artist or not?

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