David Getsy, a School of the Art Institute of Chicago professor whose specialties range from trans/queer theory to modern art, talked with Windy City Times about those very concepts.
Windy City Times: You teach transgender and queer theory. I've thought about that latter phrase for a while, [ and ] it struck me that the definition of 'queerness' has changed, so the definition of 'queer theory' has probably changed as well.
David Getsy: I don't know if the definition has changed so much as it actually has become increasingly stabilized. It depends on the time period we talk about.
If we're talking about the use of the term 'queer' into the 1950s, we're talking about something entirely different. The popular usage came about in the 1980s as part of the non-assimilationist tactics that were the politics of visibility of organizations such as the [ AIDS group ] ACT UP, Queer Nation and so forth. In the early '90s, the term was gradually co-opted and became a convenient catch-all term for gay, lesbian, bisexual ( and, later, transgender ) people. So the notion of 'queer' has been stabilized. It was an insult that was appropriated and used as a way to articulate a kind of power; instead of 'Oh, you're queer,' it's now something one says about oneself: 'I'm queer.'
What's interesting about 'queer' is that it is an adjective that describes an object or person and that it implies something that's normal, which that queer object is not. You have a 'queer' something; all of those implications are what so interesting about the power of the term. So the insulting meaning used earlier was dead-on in saying there was something not normal in calling someone a person a 'queer;' now, it's a challenge—'If I'm not normal, I challenge you to tell me what 'normal' is.' Queerness is always in practice, and the concept of it is, by definition, mobile and unstable.
There's a whole history of how [ specialists in ] cultural studies, literary theory and sociology [ among others ] started investigating different ways of thinking through identity and sexuality. So queer theory emerged a little bit later as an academic specialty that brought together all these [ disciplines ] about how we understand the world.
WCT: Now we have lawsuits flying around people saying, 'That's so gay.'
DG: Words are powerful, and sometimes we try to legislate words from being used—but that misses the point.
There are always going to be negative terms thrown around. What are people implying with that term? It can be said in a chiding, loving way, but it's also used to establish what's proper and what's improper. There's a power struggle going on: The person saying that can be trying to reduce the other person to a stereotype. It's a great way to control someone.
One of the key texts [ of queer theory ] is by Michel Foucault, who said that power is everywhere and, to some degree, is exerted by everyone all the time. What's so complex is that all interactions like the uses of these words involve the wielding of power.
WCT: Let's talk about sexuality and art. Does sexuality involve sexual orientation, the act of sex or something else?
DG: Sexuality is a whole range of things, from a sexual identity ( defining ourselves by who we fall in love with ) to what we do in bed. It's about how we think of ourselves, including eroticism and desire. Sexuality is one of the main categories through which we think about who we are and who other people are.
Sexuality is such a large component of people's lives that it's sometimes hard to visualize and depict; you can look back at these Roman silver cups and Greek vases with sexual acts depicted on them. But there are the different ways that people use art to think about their place in the world—and sometimes that is much harder to recover. The interesting thing about sexuality is that it sometimes takes a lot of work to figure out how it manifests itself in literature and art. It's just like a good relationship—the sex may be what you remember, but the relationship is deeper than that.
WCT: You minored in African art when getting your Ph.D. How is sexuality depicted in art from [ that continent ] ?
DG: Africa is a huge continent with hundreds of different cultural groups, and sexuality is depicted [ widely ] . There's actually quite a similar problem to what we have with Western art, but I'm actually hedging on your question because it's also very different to think about what art means in a non-Western culture; it's not art the way we think about it. We're talking about objects with great religious or spiritual significance. Regardless, you have places where sexuality is depicted overtly—images of pregnant women and priapic men. There are also plenty of depictions of couplings—usually male-female couplings, but there are exceptions to every rule. Then there is question of how sexual activity functions as part of that culture. The questions about how sexual lives become visible—or partially visible—in and through art are the same, but the answers tend to be very different than in Western art.