Should We Queer the Art Canon?

Challenge what we think of as canon, and learn more about underappreciated queer art

By GLBT Historical Society

Written by Rowan Ellis

The Western canon is the very foundation of the art establishment; a timeline of greatness stretching back centuries. It informs what is taught, emulated, interpreted - and ultimately what is valued.

It is a cumulative and interacting series of movements - they inform each other - and are therefore affected by the attitudes of previous works and eras. For most of history, LGBTQ+ people have been condemned, criminalised, even killed - our very existence has been kept from the logs of history and education. The canon was built around these discriminatory ideals - directly opposed to queer expression or celebration.

Could retrospectively inserting queerness into the canon give LGBTQ+ artists their place in the spotlight? Galleries and museums the world over have uncovered queer histories within their collections for some years now - allowing visitors to appreciate previously untold queer talent and vision.

Achilles among the Daughters of Lycomedes (about 1625–1630) by Pietro PaoliniThe J. Paul Getty Museum

A painting of Achilles from the 1600s can be newly analysed as an examination of drag and gender by a staff member at the Getty.

A renowned landscape artist can have new work discovered decades later, revealing a treasure trove of erotic queer drawings.

On the surface this might seem like integrating queerness into the canon - but arguably it is simply adding a modern extension onto an already planned manor house. It might technically be part of the same building, but it wasn’t accounted for by the original architects. To paste over centuries of bias and gatekeeping simply conceals the reality of homogeneity present in the canon itself.

If the canon was merely a list of artists or movements plucked from thin air, then this might be a solution. But what is considered “great art” is constantly in conversation with culture and counterculture, informed by the past works in the canon. To truly uncover and celebrate queer art - do we need something different?

Some argue that LGBTQ+ people should create their own canon - less an intersecting timeline, and more an ever expanding gallery. If relation to other works is part of what makes something canon in the first place, a queer version might engage with references, allusions or metaphor borne of our communities. Saint Sebastian, for example, alongside more obvious religious imagery, hints at homoeroticism with sensual depictions of his writhing body, penetrated in pained ecstasy.

Derek Jarman 'Enthroned' on Driftwood Chair, Dungeness, Kent (1990/1994) by Howard SooleyGarden Museum

From Derek Jarman’s controversial 1976 film Sebastiane, to Keith Haring’s frantic 1984 painting - the idea of Sebastian surviving through suffering creates a unique queer figurehead.

Segment of one of the original eight-color rainbow flags by Matthew LeifheitGLBT Historical Society

Explicitly queer modern works of art are also obvious inclusions - historically significant works like Gilbert Baker’s original 8-striped Pride flag, and more personal autobiographical works like Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.).

Or, a third alternative: discard the concept altogether, and embrace the queer power of rejecting convention and rigidity. For many, tying queerness to the canon is about more than just expanding what counts as “great art” - it can help queer people feel celebrated and worthy in a way they should have been all along.

The impact of seeing your identity and community held up as a thing of beauty, not scorn or censorship, cannot be underestimated. But can this be achieved without the trappings of a canon that is tied to the elite, straight, white, male history of the West?

Marchers (1988) by Peter WalshMuseum of Youth Culture

Queer Britian, the UK’s first national LGBTQ+ museum, positions iconic images of gay figureheads next to anonymously taken photos at recent Pride events.

Buttons and pins (ca. 1960–present)GLBT Historical Society

Could handmade queer pins be celebrated as much as traditional ideas of watercolors or bronze sculptures?

What about zines or videos, which by their nature don’t have a single “master” copy that can be verified as the valuable original, like this short film from Dean Atta? It’s worth asking ourselves if the real power is in rejecting the worshipping of the canon all together. 

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