“It is through art, and through art only, that we can realize our perfection; through art and art only that we can shield ourselves from the sordid parts of actual existence.” - Oscar Wilde
Over a month ago it was National Coming Out Day. It is a day that calls for people to embrace who they are as human beings, without fear and without doubt.
It challenges not just the closeted to open up those doors, not just the out to reaffirm their outness, but everyone to live an art of the self.
This phrase ranks among the oldest artist and philosophical commandments. It is a key thing to remember going forward if we are to fully understand what it means to be queer and an artist.
What is it to be queer? The word itself provides a hint to an answer. Its oldest meaning is “strange” or “different” or “weird”. Even though I know this history, it still jars my mind to come across the uses of ‘queer’ in this manner, preserving its older sense, in books, plays, and poems written decades and centuries ago. But, then again, that’s what we queers are. Whether we self-identify that way or receive that label from the straight world, we are different, strange, weird.
That history might feel strange, what with the recent integration of gay, lesbian, and trans folks into larger, mainstream, hetero society in the United States. Case in point, up until a 2003 Supreme Court decision, the American legal system regarded state laws prohibiting and punishing sodomy – in practice all forms of male-male sexual contact – as constitutional.
Witness only 12 years later, same-sex couples now possess the constitutional right to marry as straight couples. Still, despite the arc of progress finally bending towards equity, a part of us will remain separate from the vast majority of people. Our deepest doubts, profoundest sorrows, darkest self-loathing… these will be the marks we bear.
It is no accident that many queer men and women find themselves drawn to the arts. Artistic expression – whether by word or by music or by image – provides an opportunity to set ourselves to set ourselves apart from the non-queer masses.
It is a blessing: As Frank Ocean wrote in the summer of 2012, “I wrote [my two albums] to keep myself busy and sane. I wanted to create worlds that were rosier than mine. I tried to channel overwhelming emotion” from the memory of a first love that, like for many of us, did not and could not return his love. An artistic vision comes into reality. It is a better world. One without doubts. One where he can love you back…
It is an irony: To transition from creative to artist, you must at some point share your thoughts and visions with others. For the queer artists, the dynamic of the closet presents a conundrum. You so hate to be exposed that you wear mask over mask to prevent anyone from finding your true face. And yet, there you are, dancing on stage, exposing yourself to the world!
You’re not out, and, now, after that show, everyone has the evidence to make up their minds about you. Why add difference upon difference?
It is a way, I think, to combat the trauma of the closet. Even in the perfect, sexually liberated utopia the closet would still exist. It encompasses all thought and all attempts to act on desire. It is a cage. To quote Ocean again, “It was my first love. It changed my life. Back then my mind would wander to the women I had been with, the ones I cared for and thought I was in love with. I reminisced about the sentimental songs… the ones I played when I experienced a girlfriend for the first time. I realized they were written in a language I did not speak yet."
The closet produces the internal pressure that confines your desires, limits your dreams, and silences your song.
Art is the response. It becomes your outlet. It provides an escape.
The outrageous display removes you and saves you from yourself. Stage, brush, music, poem liberated for many us, while still beholden to the comfortable routine of the closet, the possibility of a different path. It showed us a future where we could love ourselves as whole, unsundered beings.
As Mother Ru says, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love anyone else?!” To which I would add: If you can’t open your inner eye to your art, how will you ever free your self from yourself?