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"I have one aim—the grotesque. If I am not grotesque, I am nothing." - Aubrey Beardsley or a white trans girl on reddit?
The last art thing we saw before lockdown was Aubrey Beardsley (great drag king name btw) at Tate Britain. We went to kill some time after work while we were waiting for the location of an anti-terf demo to drop (and then it was rlly far away and we didn’t go! Sorry )’:), and we could get in for free with our staff cards (Seriously tho, these shows are all so fkin expensive!). Here's a few quick thoughts on Aubrey that popped in my head after I anxiously scrolled back on my phone to pre-covid times and found these cheeky snaps from the show.
The show's first wall text is a whole lot of words skirting around the idea of Aubrey being 'queer' or not in a very laughably 'Tate' way. I'm imagining the (probably cis, partially het) curatorial team sweating trying to get the balance between historically accurate and expansive, and to this I say: why bother? The funny thing here is that Beardsley was 💯going to brunch with Oscar Wilde and bunch of other f*gs but there's no empirical evidence he engaged in buggery so that's that I guess. The only evidence of Oscar Wilde's sexuality is his years of forced prison labour (that is except for his entire body of work, the messy queen). I Couldn't Help But Wonder™️ how many f*gs and other queers slip thru the cracks because they aren't legible to historians, because historians don't care to understand f*ggotry.
‘What present-day society refers to as LGBTQIA+ identities were only just beginning to be formulated and articulated during his lifetime. Beardsley was attracted to women, but he was a pioneer in representing what we might now call queer desires and identities. Though fascinated by all aspects of sexuality, it seems likely that his explorations of these interests were primarily through literature and art.’ - the Tate’s wall text
It's entirely likely that Aubrey wasn't a f*g: many think 'he' might be a flavour of queer that's even less legible. How can you explain something having a trans 'vibe'? Idk, but have a look at some of the 'ambiguous figures' Beardsley drew and you might get an idea. It's wild to read the Tate describe them as 'strange long haired figures' and 'ambiguous' when we were both immediately struck by their Trans Girl Energy. The Tate would have us believe that Aubrey invented an entirely imagined concept of gender ambiguity, perhaps drawing from other artists (who also totally made it up themselves!) rather than, idk, being friends with people we might today describe as trans and engaging in transvestism. Critics have backed this up with the ableist position that Aubrey’s chronic illness, which often left him housebound, meant that his sexual drawings could only be fantasy. This boldly ignores a well documented history of queer artists necessarily claiming their works as solely imaginative in order to avoid censorship or punishment (e.g. The Picture of Dorian Gray) and the fact that sick ppl still fuck :)
Institutions like Tate push us to see artists as separate from us and separate from the material conditions of society. This way, they can have it both ways: if the institution needed to it could hold up Aubrey Beardsley as a crip, queer artist who experienced poverty and died young. It could then flip and portray Beardsley as a legitimate white male artist of aristocratic stock. Even in this show, which attempted to sit his work in context (showing portraits of his many f*g friends) and taking clunky efforts to explain the work's Orientalism (is this racist? Er...maybe? Help!) (Aubrey Beardsley: confirmed weeaboo) there's a real misunderstanding of the vibe. Beardsley had a very close friend who did decorative paintings on silk fans, no homo. Beardley's artistic career was ruined by association when Oscar Wilde was convicted of sodomy, leading to a career in pornography. Beardsley was immersed in a subculture of perverts and criminals.
The show made us imagine a future (assuming these institutions and archives exist - hopefully not in the same way at least!) where our own bitchy queer gossip is held in illuminated display cabinets with a white card saying 'there's just no way we could ever know!'
The Tate does explore queerness more overtly in videos accompanying the promo for the show, such as a cute interview between a drag king and a curator where they discuss dandyism and try on clothes. They discuss what a female dandy would be like, pointing to Beardsley’s sister who often wore men’s clothes, and how Beardsley’s work ties in to the contemporary presence of gender bending and fluidity in pop culture. The word ‘trans’ feels like a glaring omission, or maybe we are just projecting(!) The absence doesn’t seem to be about staying in one’s lane, as the two white academic queers with posh accents do discuss sapeurs, a Congolese subculture of elegant dress typified by men in sharp suits. This is a markedly odd choice and shows a lack of understanding in the different formations of gender in Victorian England and the contemporary Congo. This choice is instructive in understanding an institutionally favoured abstract, aesthetic notion of gender bending backed up by the ‘gender-bread man’ level understanding that gender expression is TOTALLY DIFFERENT from gender (is it?). It’s symptomatic of the need - typified in the Kiss My Genders show (which to be fair at least wasn't giving gender-bread-man) - to view gender bending as a creative pursuit rather than a perversion as if the former transcends the latter. Despite sticking to a script of not applying contemporary labels to past events, the show and its accompanying materials nevertheless apply a contemporary sensibility of gentrified gender bending - drag academics, gender fluid celebrities - removed from the perverse, subcultural and criminal context of Beardsley’s queerness: in order to imagine that there is no relevant equivalent today. The show and video put on a performance of expertly and delicately deducing hints of queerness from the work when Beardsley is very much the bitch in question.
Compare this to a 1982 BBC documentary which is open about his queerness in an enjoyable pre-AIDs crisis way. The doc shows evidence that Beardsley was not only interested in transvestism but was a transvestite. The presenter notes how images of women, particularly women dressing and adorning themselves, dominate Aubrey's body of work indicating an interest in the trappings of femininity. From ‘his’ own letters: 'I am going to Jimmy's... dressed up as a tart. I am going to have a regular spree'. The 80s doc is embedded in its context, with several Freudian academics (some potentially queer themselves) pondering over Beardsley’s various perversions (incest, oedipal complex, homosexuality, transvestism) and an understanding of transvestites as fetishists of femininity.
This representation may not be ideal, and may offend some sensibilities (can we even say transvestite anymore? The Tate team pondered) but feels much closer to an understanding of Beardsley’s time. Queer = pervert = criminal. It’s also much closer to a contemporary understanding of trans femininity than many would like to admit. Trans women, trans femmes and people of various identities who experience trans misogyny are still portrayed as deviant over-sexed defective perverts, something which disrupts self congratulatory ideas of trans visibility and gender-quake. Why not acknowledge that the closest to a contemporary equivalent of Beardsley’ life of taboo desires, queer friendships, money troubles and work in pornography would not be Harry Styles or the sapeurs (side note: it’s quite simplistic to just drop this reference without talking about how dandyism’s influence on Congolese style is a result of colonialism) but a trans girl posting erotica on twitter? The Tate, unable to contend with the complexity of an existence whose matching identity marker is no longer ‘correct’, instead erases it altogether. The presence of the curator hangs heavily over the show, with a smug tone that imagines by acknowledging a level of subjectivity one can become objective rather than just as skewed by contemporary understanding as at any other time.
I wouldn't want the Tate to declare Aubrey a queer or trans icon or anything (ew) it’s actually really nice to stumble upon this vibe in what I had - in my ignorance - expected to be a slightly saucy version of the standard money making exhibition for an older, Tate patron crowd. (Of course, many of the artists that draw in big crowds, the artists that can be dismissed as overexposed dusty old white men, are also huge queens.) This kind of queer representation (ew) relies on word of mouth. Beardsley was very influential to many queers and you can see his style in the illustrations of The Faggots and Their Friends, among other things. It’s a shame that this work wasn’t included in the final room depicting Beardsley’s effects on culture, but it also felt nice to make that connection ourselves. I miss that subtextual, word of mouth, if-you-know-you-know kind of representation which is generally seen as 'bad' or a cop-out in the context of contemporary representation politics. The contemporary politics of representation offers explicit identity markers, but can demand a passive response - making us less likely to go digging for things we see ourselves in, perhaps less willing to trawl through works more likely to be labelled ‘perverse’ than ‘queer’ (remember when that was basically the same thing?). This means that many contemporary trans and queer writers, who make art with a queerness or transness that isn't explicitly legible or pallatable to a wide audience, are passed over or even attacked in favour of works (sometimes, but not always, by cis het people) which include simplistic queer and trans representation, but retain a normative sensibility.
How much work by closeted or private trans women has been claimed as ‘male’? This isn’t just an historic problem, it’s Grimes accusing not-publicly-out SOPHIE of being a female appropriator, it’s the Wachowski sisters’ films being misinterpreted by an alt right male audience (some of them are probably eggs, tbf). It’s music execs not knowing quite what to do with Mykki Blanco, further complicated by white supremacist framings of gender. There’s work that can be read as having a trans vibe by people who know what that feels like, but if the artist doesn’t officially ‘come out’ this side of their work will never be widely recognised, and even after a coming out who knows what might be nonconsensually re-historicised? A gender essentialist view of history prevents us from assessing things with a trans lens, it requires us to stick to rigid categories for fear of misdiagnosing someone, of challenging the fixed position of ‘man’. If, as some of the Tate’s promos claim, gender is something to be played with and challenged in the abstract, why not link this to the material experience of being trans? We come up against a received wisdom that you shouldn’t apply transness to people from history, not only because it would be historically inaccurate (which is fair) but also out of respect (?!). Archivists endlessly discuss the correct use of language, the correct identifiers, the person’s true self. The debate feels quite facile when trans people are treated so badly, right here right now. The most respect a trans person could expect to receive from an institution would be in an archive, once they’re dead. With this in mind, it feels important not to waste time worrying about whether someone long gone is really queer or trans, and instead worry about supporting and appreciating trans artists making work outside of the mainstream at this very moment. In mainstream representation, the focus is always on what a wide (read: cis) audience can learn about gender from someone who gender bends, how a healthy burst of gender bending can support and reinforce a (cis) understanding of gender. Noone actually cares about trannies.
This is all just to say that markers of queerness change so much across different times and places that it can take a queer eye (lol) to appreciate it, that there is no march of progress from nonexistence to visibility, that if we want to see ourselves we have to look, and that we can claim Aubrey as one of the girls if we want to.
Criminal Queers, 2017, Chris E. Vargas & Eric A. Stanley password:loverevolution
Lists of stuff by trans people, some good some not good! See for yourselves x