Todd Haynes's Poison and Queer Cinema

Todd Haynes's Poison and Queer Cinema
Norman Bryson

I would like to begin by outlining a distinction between gay and lesbian studies and queer studies, as related yet distinct strands of thinking within art history and visual/cultural studies. I would not want to be divisive here; both modes of inquiry get important work done. Yet, their basic strategies could hardly be more different. The aim of this first section of the discussion is to create at least a provisional sense of the aesthetic and political aims of queer cinema. Later, I will be discussing Todd Haynes as pioneering throughout his career a particularly interesting kind of queer film-making, though our focus here will be on a single film, Poison, from 1990.

In his introduction to the landmark volume Gay and Lesbian Studies in Art History (1994), Whitney Davis explains that the intention of the anthology is to present "important but little known or new evidence, accompanied by original documentation and interpretation, as well as reconsiderations of relatively familiar events, objects, images or texts;" to rectify the historical record, which has been "so constructed, arranged and published that materials of direct interest to lesbian and gay studies have often literally dropped out of immediate view or have completely disappeared;" and to cover as wide a historical range as possible, "from the ancient through the medieval, early modern and modern worlds."1 I must say that I have no quarrel with any of the stated aims of the collection–and wish there were a dozen more anthologies like it. But it is clear that the position from which the volume is conceived is "minoritarian"–that the emphasis is on doing justice to art that by virtue of its content or authorship can considered lesbian or gay, and that because of that has been ignored or repressed in academic discussion. The minoritarian strategy in art history means restoring to visibility the culture of a social group that, having been cut out of art history virtually since the inception of the discipline, now rightly seeks inclusion and a place at the table. In the same way that a certain strategy within feminist art history sought to bring the work of women artists into the canon, and to interrogate the ideology of the discipline that had excluded them in the first place, gay and lesbian studies are concerned with overcoming prejudices so deep that even in the case of such central figures as Leonardo or Michelangelo or Winckelmann the question of sexuality has until now been systematically silenced within scholarship.

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