Lesbian Art – a Creative Media and a Political Tool

Text: Birthe Havmoeller, June 30, 2009

In the 1960’ies more or less all lesbian artists were in the closet. There were no lesbian artists – neither in USA nor in Europe – who got the same attention by the medias as American gay artist Andy Warhol or the british artist couple Gilbert & George. The lesbian artists were invisible and there was no visible representation of a lesbian lifestyle either. There existed almost no lesbian erotica made by lesbians before the beginning of 1970’ies, when the first progressive lesbian activists started publishing their own porn mags. The visual representation of lesbian sex was a taboo until the gay and lesbian movement started a general debate about homosexuality.

With start the women’s liberation movement a new source of motivation/ inspiration was born and there was a big creative boom among the female artists/activists: Now it was OK for women to make the images that the society (and their parents) didn’t like…! Women started exploring the creative potential of their body and sexuality and visual art became a media of self-empowerment. At the end of the 1970’ies the first lesbian art shows opened.

The Lesbian Body as a Sexual Object

In the 1970-80’ies the porn industry flowered. The primary target group of the porn industry was hetero sexual males. The erotic depictions of lesbians were not made by women. The “lesbian” images were designed by men for a male audience. I assume that the authors of these images had the idea that when a man turns hot on a photo of one nude woman he will turn twice as hot on an image with two nude women(!)

The lesbian feminists soon pointed to the fact that the commercial “lesbian” porn images were staged. The models were not lesbian as they neither looked nor acted like lesbians. The visual lie, that the models on those photos were “lesbians” sent must have made lots of lesbians feel a big emotional vacuum. They had accepted their own homosexuality, but lived in a world where they were invisible as sexual beings. Lesbian artists soon began to make their own images. They made nudes of “live sex” with real lesbian couples and distributed them to a lesbian audience. The late photographer and activist Tee. A. Corinne (USA) was one of the famous pioneers of lesbian nude photography.

The representation and visibility of the lesbian body as a sexual object for women were the major themes among lesbian artists in the 1970-80’ies. The 1970’ies was also a period, where women artist experimented a lot with their own body and started making performances.

Academics from the women’s studies and a new generation of curators started to focus on women as role models, and it resulted in a number of art exhibitions in the 1980’ies and 1990’ies with vintage prints by lesbian and bisexual photographers among these photographers are Alice Austen (USA, 1866-1952), Mary Willumsen (DK, 1884-1961), Berenice Abbott (USA, 1889-1991),  Claude Cahun (FR, 1894-1954) and Germaine Krull (DE, 1897-1985).

The Arts Turned Queer

In the 1990’ies queer art became mainstream. The queer theory discusses gender, body and identity. It disassociates it self from the heterosexual society’s norms and definitions of gender and the gender roles. Inspired by Judith Butler’s Queer theory artists started making ‘queer art’. GLBT photographers Del La Grace Volcano (UK) and Catherine Opie (USA) became known for their queer images of drag kings. The androgyne and ambiguous body was explored by Rebecca Swan (New Zealand) and Linn Underhill (USA) made the photo series “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?”, a parody of the porn pin-up and dykes on bikes, to name but a few examples.

The New Trends of Out And Proud Lesbian Art in the 21st Century

The new gay rights (i.e. partnership, the right having a child by insemination, etc.) has made lesbian artist look at the female body and the daily life of lesbian couples in a new way – focussing on the private lives of lesbians. Kelli Connell (USA) makes staged images of a virtual lesbian couple. Artist Christa Holka (GB) snaps photos of her friends and acquaintances at parties and pride events and uploads the images to Flickr.com. Tammy Rae Carland (USA) makes still lives of lesbian double beds. Photographer Verena Jaekel (DE) exhibition “Neue Familienportraits” shows portraits of gay families and photographer Annie Leibovitz (USA) has started exhibiting her private photos from her long relationship with late American academic Susan Sontag.

Visual Art as a Means of Gay Empowerment

In Sweden a survey from 1999 shows that 24% of all lesbians and as many as 36% of all gay men have experienced hate crimes. In Finland 60% of all homosexuals have experienced hate crimes. It the same in Great Britain. Life has improved a lot for gay people over the last 30 years, but the political struggle is not over yet. The fact that there still exist a serious intollerance has made lesbian activist, photographer and TV host Elisabeth Ohlson-Wallin (SE) start a debate about these crimes alongside her exhibition “In hate we trust” (2007). ‘In Hate we trust’ is a show, which consisted of big colour photos with tableaux, by which she illustrates a number the stories of hate crimes, which were almost invisible in mainstream medias. American queer performance artist Mary Coble has also done a number of performances, in which she has questioned hate crimes and other social issues injustices.

In order to explore uncovered ground the lesbian artists often find themselves as visual spokespersons of points of views, which are in opposition to mainstream. They question the complacency, phobias, prejudices and taboos of the mainstream culture. Visual art is a media, which touches our emotions and it is a very efficient tool to make people realize what their point of view is in a social debate and thus it is a powerful tool in the hands of artist/ social provocateurs. Political art still plays a major role in relation to opening our eyes for new thoughts, visions and alternative livestyles. Many lesbian artists work to increase awareness about the core values of the gay communities and thus raise the awareness of the society in general. Their struggle to visualize our lives, emotions, sexuality and visions are yet to be fully appreciated by the gay communities, but I am happy that more and more queer art shows are organized alongside other gay events, so it is easier to get a first hand experience of their works of art.