Via College Art Association

For the OTH Art Issue, we want to be thoughtful sharing ideas, inspiration, and new ways of thinking from peoples underrepresented in art history scholarship and conversations in public or civic spaces around art in public life. Specifically with our readership being primarily in academic libraries and faculty departments, providing access to new resources and thought leadership is a core purpose of this Art Issue. 

The College Art Association is on the forefront of many of these topics and conversations as an international leadership organization consistently engaging with artists, scholars, and policy makers. The introduction and syllabus (linked) below is from “A Syllabus on Transgender and Nonbinary Methods for Art and Art History” (Art Open Journal, CAA, 2021), and provides a strong framework for future discussions, lessons, or personal research Transgender and Nonbinary Methods for Art and Art History. 

From Art Journal 80, no. 4 (Winter 2021)

The following syllabus is intended to introduce central topics and methods from transgender studies to art history. It proposes some ways that art and art history’s key themes might be reimagined.

Art history has been slow to engage the robust and decades-old interdisciplinary field of transgender studies. In comparison to fields such as literature or film studies, there has been a dearth of engagement. At the time we submitted this syllabus (March 2021), the term “transgender” had appeared in Art Journal in only thirty-six articles or reviews (with three instances of “nonbinary” and five of “transsexual,” in comparison to 135 of “queer”). The Art Bulletin had three occurrences of “transgender”—with a decade between each occurrence. (“Transsexual” and “nonbinary” have each appeared once in that publication.) The reluctance of art history to engage with trans and nonbinary histories and topics is not for a lack of artists. Contemporary artists have been making work that gives form to the politics and emotions of transgender, nonbinary, and intersex experience in exciting ways. They are on the forefront of trans visibility, and their work has more often been discussed in other fields such as performance studies, film studies, and Black studies.

This syllabus seeks to address this disciplinary caesura by offering a set of short, thematic bibliographies as a means to prompt new alliances between transgender studies and art history. The syllabus does not rehearse the foundations or historiography of transgender studies; consequently, we have forgone many important and now-classic texts that a more comprehensive introduction to the field and its ongoing development would entail. Instead, we organized the syllabus according to general themes that we thought would be useful to teachers and researchers of art and art history. It offers one possible entry into transgender studies, with a concentration on recent texts. Our idea was to take terms that circulate in conversations about art (“form,” “materiality,” and so on) and demonstrate how transgender and nonbinary positions compel us to look at those terms differently. Rather than focus on individual artists, we tried to find texts that spoke with each other about these broad themes. While there are occasional texts in the syllabus that address a single artist’s practice, we have weighted the selection in favor of the methods and concepts around which each thematic section is organized. We developed the order of the texts in each bibliography organically through our discussions and editing, and they are listed in our suggested reading sequence. (We also encourage readers to freely reorganize our lists as well as the sections themselves.)

The selections in the syllabus represent many positions within the interdisciplinary field of transgender studies. We follow the current understanding of that field as encompassing not just the study of transgender subjects but also descriptive and analytic modes of accounting for and nourishing the complexities and multiplicities of nonascribed genders—in conjunction with a critique of the systemic suppression and erasure of them. Transgender studies demands (and is constituted through) a deep engagement with the critical analysis of race, sexuality, ability, and class. It also requires a trenchant account of political and economic ideologies and institutions that parse life and death—namely, the prison industrial complex, racial capitalism, anti-immigration covenants, medical research, building and planning codes, educational standards, and legislative prohibitions on the use of one’s own body.

To suit the readership of Art Journal, the historical focus of the topics lies heavily in contemporary art and recent debates. Even within that chronological frame, we found it necessary to choose only a few foci from among the many pathways, media, and practices of contemporary art. Film and new media, for instance, are represented by only a small selection of texts, since their connections with fields other than art history have resulted in more robust engagements with transgender studies and require their own distinct bibliographies. As well, with a handful of key exceptions (notably, in the Museums and Curating section), most of the texts center on cultural production in the United States (and are written in English). This was a difficult choice to make, since we recognize that this is only one dimension of a global framework for transgender and nonbinary topics. However, the Black, anti- and decolonial, and Indigenous analytics and methods outlined by the scholars and artists whom we have marshalled here address the triangulation of racialization, coloniality, and (un)gendering. These methods are part of diasporic and transnational enterprises, historicity, and discourse. The art and scholarship included in the syllabus show how the conjuncture of Black, Indigenous, and trans analytics problematize settler colonialism, sovereignty, and nationalism and border enforcement.

At present, there are also burgeoning fields arguing for the distinctness of nonbinary and intersex experience—which are only sometimes or partially registered in the history of trans studies. In the present syllabus, we have also aimed to include readings that formulate a nonbinary mode of analysis and history, seeing it as allied with the broader aim of trans studies to make space for a critical assessment of nonascribed genders. There are fewer texts drawn from intersex studies in the syllabus. Intersex studies has a more defined and longrunning literature (that has helped to shape transgender studies). Some of the key questions about the regulation of bodies and their capacities look different from the perspectives of intersex studies and trans studies, even though they share much in terms of their broad critique and methods. Our inclusions of texts from intersex studies focus on issues of photography and representation. As intersex studies has decisively shown (especially with regard to the history of medicine, psychiatry, and criminology in the United States), the scientific narratives about gender and sex were constituted through the violent study of intersex bodies and the problem of representation they posed to scientific and psychiatric establishments.1 Photography was a central tool of that violence—a fact that all histories of photography must address. The historical and methodological issues that intersex studies offer to art history are many; we see the need for another project such as this one that would examine the central place of intersex in histories of representation.

We are very aware of how partial this (or any) syllabus is, but the advantage of the syllabus form is that its content must constantly be adapted, changed, substituted, and updated. We encourage the selective use and remaking of the topics, and we expect that readers will have many additions to our themes and the texts we chose to represent them. We included multiple texts for each thematic section, with the understanding that instructors might use only a selection of those texts or use the groupings as the basis for multiple sessions on a given theme. We have included our own writings in the syllabus as a means of locating some of our investments in these topics. With regard to the illustrations: they relate to artists featured in some of the texts, and they were chosen to suggest additional dimensions beyond the examples discussed. In the interest of increasing the audience for this syllabus, it will also appear online with open access on Art Journal Open. Whenever possible, links to texts are provided in the syllabus. We thank the Art Journal editors for their help with this process.

In the time that we have been developing this list, the literature on transgender, nonbinary, and intersex cultural production has grown rapidly, with exciting new contributions being published every month.2 We have tried to give significant representation to the most recent literature. One could easily teach a class on the scholarship that has been published in the last two years alone. We see this syllabus as an opening to a dynamic and evolving field that is made possible through the nexus of trans and nonbinary art, pedagogy, and methodology.

  1. See Hil Malatino, Queer Embodiment: Monstrosity, Medical Violence, and Intersex Experience (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019); Georgiann Davis, Contesting Intersex: The Dubious Diagnosis (New York: NYU Press, 2015); Elizabeth Reis, Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009); Katrina Karkazis, Fixing Sex: Intersex, Medical Authority, and Lived Experience (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008); Sharon Preves, Intersex and Identity: The Contested Self (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003); Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (New York: Basic Books, 2000); Suzanne Kessler, Lessons from the Intersexed (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998); and Alice Domurat Dreger, Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998). 
  2. A selection of recent special issues of academic journals is an indication: Amelia Jones, ed., “Trans-ing Performance,” Performance Research 21, no. 5 (2016); Rox Samer, ed., “Transgender Media,” Spectator 37, no. 2 (2017); Shanté Paradigm Smalls and Elliott H. Powell, eds., “Black Queer and Trans* Aesthetics,” The Black Scholar 49, no. 1 (Spring 2019); Dorothy Kim and M. W. Bychowski, eds., “Visions of Medieval Trans Feminism,” Medieval Feminist Forum: Journal for the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship 55, no. 1 (2019); GPat Patterson and K. J. Rawson, eds., “Transgender Rhetorics,” Peitho 22, no. 4 (Summer 2020); and McKenzie Wark, ed., “trans | femme | aesthetics,” e-flux 117 (April 2021). 

Leave a Reply