Stanford art historian explores the shocking yet affirmative power of gay imagery

Historians in the News
tags: LGBT

News coverage of recent milestones in gay rights routinely includes images of happy same-sex couples kissing in celebration.

But according to Stanford art historian Richard Meyer, visuals of same-sex kisses and other gay images do much more than illustrate happy moments.

In making formerly private content public, such scenes "help to create queer culture by generating alternative images of – and possibilities for – love and intimacy," says Meyer.

Whether in art or in mass media, such images convey universal emotion, while also drawing power from their ability to shock.

As such, Meyer argues that pictures of same-sex kissing and other homoerotic imagery demonstrate in a uniquely clear manner the interdependence of all art within its social context.

Meyer, a scholar of 20th-century American art history and the Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor in Art History at Stanford, co-authored Art and Queer Culture, the most comprehensive survey of queer art in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Co-authored with retired University of California, Irvine, artist and critic Catherine Lord, the book traces a dialogue between visual images and queer culture, including but not limited to high art, and homosexual culture from 1885 to the present. The authors survey 300 visual artists from all over the world, in what they see as an enduring resource for art teachers, students and enthusiasts.

By "queer," Meyer says he means "sexual and cultural practices that defy the norm, and that build community around an idea of difference rather than assimilation."

During the course of the project, Meyer, whose research had previously centered on 20th-century America, learned that varying degrees of homophobia and persecution around the world meant that artists expressed their queerness in varying degrees of radicalism. For example, Polish photographer Karolina Bregula (b. 1979) is represented by her 2003 image of two women holding hands – a radical statement in her place and time. "We'd maybe find something visually not galvanizing at first," Meyer says. "But then the context opened our eyes." ...

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