Love Me Not: On Queer Platonics
Love Me Not: On Queer Platonics
Georgia O’Keeffe knew critics and casual viewers alike were looking at her work and assuming she was painting genitalia. O’Keeffe insisted she was only painting flowers. I’m writing about Queer Platonics, a way of trusting the assumptions we make when they present themselves as queer self-recognition, which is the way many queer millennials have engaged with art. I argue that this engagement is a non-traditional but vital foundation for modern criticism even if it doesn’t align with the artist’s intent.
Now, an Instagram post of me in a pink button-up at the New York Botanical Gardens the summer O’Keeffe’s paintings from Hawaii were on display.
Petals have become a heteronormative cliché, “he loves me or he loves me not” as she tears them one by one. Drop. Queer scraps. At the center is an answer, never reached. None of this will amount to anything more than what we see in fragments.
A selfie between two iterations of Black Iris at the Seattle Art Museum’s exhibit of O’Keeffe’s earlier abstract work. Shapes, lines, color, and smoke.
Queer Platonics is a method for queer critics to approach art and media that might not explicitly show the nuances of modern queer experience. Our bursts of unexpected recognition is vital to queer reception and interpretation of all work, regardless of the artist’s intent.
This paper is formatted as separate flower petals held together in my hand. I take the handful of petals I feel passion for and scatter them. There are two sections that interchange as introduction and conclusion (leaves) and seven sections that operate interchangeably (petals). The petals may be read in any order. I leave them here to be interpreted and trust them to point at truth.
I used to worry my critical readings focused on my specific projection of queerness onto artwork, and that my criticism was therefore invalid. But as a queer Millennial with no formal academic training, I become one voice of many in what Alexander Doty refers to as the queer reception of mass media. This allows uniquely queer interpretations of art that may or may not have intended a queer response.
“I had various queer scraps of flowers in my hand when I came in of course—very pretty,” Georgia O’Keeffe wrote the first time she visited Hawaii (O’Keeffe 93).
When I interact with pieces of art, I have the urge to project queer meaning onto them that some academically trained critics would argue is ungrounded and unsupported. I argue that critical queer perspectives engage with literature and art in a completely different way than traditional forms of criticism.
In Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture, Alexander Doty points out that “queer readings are not ‘alternative’ readings…misreadings… or ‘reading too much into things’…They result from the recognition and articulation of the complex range of queerness that has been in popular texts and their audiences all along (Doty 16).”
These queer analysis and engagements with the work can all point to truth while approaching the art from traditionally unheard of angles. This pointing at truth as a member of the queer public critiquing art, writing, and media is what I refer to as Queer Platonics and what I present as these queer scraps of flowers.
Hole Pics (petal)
I go to the museum on the first day of the exhibit, stand between Georgia O’Keeffe’s Black Iris, No. II and VI, fold my arms over my chest and furrow my brow, breath in and say, “hmmm,” because the paintings are beautiful and people are supposed to stand in front of paintings and say, “hmmmm.” I go to the museum because I want to look at things and be seen looking at them. What’s more beautiful, a painting of an iris as smoke or the performance of onlooker as eerily self-aware, wanting but unable to cry. Nobody sees a flower—really—it is so small (Exhibition 2).It’s not beauty. I don’t want to be beautiful. I just want to be gazed upon as I offer soft and bloody versions of myself.
I used to have a lot of cybersex. To me, it wasn’t about the body, my body, his body. It was about attention. He could look like anything as long as he was looking at me. I looked like a twink with my undefined arms and long torso, and men I didn’t know wanted things from me. My body had nothing to do with me but I did not hate it. I didn’t understand what smooth skin, light bones, faint hairs, and wide eyes could do to a man, what some men wanted to do with me. I wanted power. I only let them look from a distance, over the internet, and never for long enough to show them anything truly filthy.
No, I went to the museum because I wanted to jerk myself to tears. Two paintings side by side sucked my vision, both abstract perception of the same flower’s soft, moody opening dissolving into smoke or skin, deciding to be neither or both pink and black, the expanse and the hole, gorgeous and destroyed, angrily pointless and apathetically lancing. Write about my flower as if I think and see of the flower—and I don’t (Exhibition 3). Being my own ideas of artist, of human, of sexual object, of citizen, of queerness, of satisfaction, of beautiful, of strong, of mentally unstable, of traumatized, of everywhere I’ve been and everything I’ve seen, of who I am becoming and who I never want to be again, of green stems in a vase, of the coming dusk between petals, of sex organs and their functions, of smoke screens and performance, of black irises distracts me from simple truth. I don’t want to be alone.
I dig my canines into the corners of my mouth until small ditches form where my lips meet. I grind my molars into soft inner cheeks and run my tongue along the lengthening scar tissue. A leaf of chapped lip is excruciatingly plucked, held under my palate, swallowed whole. I’ve used my teeth to mutilate myself since I was young, but not as a nervous tic. Taking pieces of body and dissolving into myself brings a heightened sensual pleasure that I crave. I can’t control myself. Hang all your own associations with flowers on my flower (Exhibition 2). I want to show you my hole pics that aren’t hole pics. Bend me over in front of the mirror, shoot through my legs. Put the iPhone camera on a timer and spread. This picture of my face is actually a hole pic. This shitty poem I posted on Instagram, too. See, I’m smiling for you. I’ll show you whatever you want: I’ll be any type of hole.
If the queer body is a flower, it is not a rose but a dandelion weed. Or if our bodies are roses then they do not thrive in the garden, but in the meadow: this is queer utopia, an untouched contextless field in which the roots grow strong and blossom in their impossible placements. But it does not matter. Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose and our bodies are our bodies and queer is queer no matter the soil or pruning or truth-seeking.
And this pruning and truth-seeking are fundamental to modern experiences of queerness. Questioning the reality of our desires and existence, learning new language around queerness, shifting identities as we move from one phase of self into the next, and changing our physical bodies are a vital element of the lives queer people lead—like peeling apart layers of a bloom. At the center is a theoretical true self, a true identity that completely embodies a queer identity. Striving towards this unshakeable self-recognition has become a fundamental factor in the development of queer Millennials.
In Crusing Utopia, José Esteban Muñoz references Jean-Luc Nancy’s interpretation of Hegel: “recognition does not conclude with individualism but instead the ‘truth of a self-knowing that must be the knowing of manifestation, of the desire of the other, and of the decision [which] cannot be a truth that simply returns to itself.’… Truth is not about transcendence or totality. It is not about possession or incorporation. It is more nearly about the proximity of different senses of the world (Muñoz 198).” As queer people we seek to see the world in different ways and acknowledge all of these perspectives. Our journeys towards identifying the self is one way of striving towards the inherent truth of multiplicity.
Of course, the ideas of a queer utopia and true self-recognition are idealistic and impossible to achieve. We cannot live in the meadow that does not exist, but we also cannot ignore queerness in the most unlikely of places—the real world. As Doty asserts, “Queer positions, queer reading, and queer pleasures are a part of a reception space that stands simultaneously beside and within that created by heterosexual and straight positionings.” Queer interpretations of works are valid and true, not completely separate from traditional heteronormative criticism. The multiplicity of queer perspectives on art and media exist everywhere, seeds flung by the wind, unconnected and unrelated to each other and even the intent of the artist, a new look into the meadow emerges that undermines the core of the piece. When the spores fall away, a queer truth remains.
In the Rockefeller Rose Garden I read a placard about floriography, a coded language women used to send secret messages to each other. A red rose meant something, a white rose. Any type of flower meant what it meant in the language I did not know. Once I realized the importance of invoking each type of flower I paid closer attention to the placards and the flower’s names.
In “Sacred Emily” Gertrude Stein plays with language and sound, leaving no easily determined message. Read aloud, the poem lasts for over ten minutes. The reader is suspended in the sounds of the English language along with a spattering of embedded names that don’t seem to indicate anyone specifically.
A hand is Willie.
Henry Henry Henry.
A Hand is Henry.
Henry Henry Henry.
A hand is Willie.
Henry Henry Henry.
All the time (Stein 180).”
We name ourselves. We sift through so many words in our language and stumble on Queer. Asexual. Nonbinary. Agender. Lesbian. Butch. Gay. So many others. We twist our lips and tongues and form the new names we give ourselves when the language passed on to us by our traditional support systems has failed us. We go through governmental processes to legally change what we are called. We look in the mirror and say our new names.
Willie, Henry, Lizzy, Ethel, Jack, Rose, Anne and of course Emily all emerge from the long poem. Jennifer Ashton posits in her “‘Rose is a Rose’: Gertrude Stein and the Critique of Indeterminancy" that “Stein…is absolutely devoted to the name and the determinacy that it entails. (Ashton 582)” According to this logic, in the indeterminacy of language a proper name always means exactly who it is referring to, and the name itself conjures the essence of every person with that name. The act of naming on Stein’s part and the act of the reader’s observation and speaking aloud of the words is one of the powers of the poem.
An almost magical connection occurs when the poem speaks, “Rose.” Who is she? Exactly what she is. A rose, a rose, a rose. Singularly herself, even when the language that names her could mean so many other things, like a flower or lines of organization or movement upward. Rose becomes Rose when she recognizes herself, the reader recognizes her, and she is declared.
When we recognize queerness, self, and magic inside the presumption of heteronormative media and art while using our queer voices and bodies to declare the queer connection we feel to the piece our critical engagement emerges in Stein’s Rose. We exist because we declare ourselves, so when we submerge ourselves in the indeterminacy of sonic-based language to identify almost illegibly in Stein’s poem we are modeling our queer experiences of engaging with art and media. The names become doors to the meadow when we read them as queer and trust in our interpretation as truth. Queer Platonics lets us sit inside of these specific yet anonymous people like Henry, Willie, and Emily.
Hold Me (petal)
When I looked at O’Keeffe’s Black Iris VI, I felt a stirring in my stomach. I didn’t like it as much as Black Iris, No. II at the time but since then it has grown on me. As O’Keeffe moved through her Black Iris series she also moved from her earlier abstraction period, the focus of the Seattle Art Museum show, into a more realistic painting style that used the lessons of color and shape of her earlier work to portray a more structured reality.
I used to sext a guy I’d only met once, and I loved that we would never see each other again. We chatted at a conference when I was eighteen in a friendly but not sexual way. After a year of sporadic Facebook messages, he dived in: he wished he’d grabbed me, pinned me down to his hotel bed and fucked me right when he first saw me. I had never been attracted to him but the attention excited me. I messaged him back, told him I’d wanted it too, that I’d wished he had fucked me. Lying was exciting.
I sent photographs of my naked body, a cross necklace resting on my sternum, my cock’s reflection in the mirror. He sent me pictures but I didn’t look at them. I only wanted him to want me, to tell me that he wanted me. I sat at my desk so the glow of the laptop and his messages highlighted my chest and ribs. I didn’t even think of touching him as I jacked off, slowly at first, with the video recording. White sheets, a birdcall, the sun at midday and closed blinds. I didn’t care about this person at all. I came almost immediately.
Now, I hardly cry. In our age of so-called self care everyone says it’s healthy and necessary, that we are supposed to cry. That pressure blooms in my chest and flowers into my throat. First, the unimportant things become tender and green: unbearable boredom in an empty minute, the loss of a stranger’s attention, deep and personal confusion about my place in the world. Then, major thorns emerge because that world is ending. We know the issues in our bodies and how to move them, perform acceptable activism instead of lying still. My neck tenses while my stomach drops. “Paint it big…surprised into taking time to look…(Exhibition 2) At the center of the canvas is a gaping wound I can’t look away from. All I wanted when saw it was for someone to hold me.
Queerplatonic is a term used by the asexual community to describe a relationship that is not romantic or sexual, but is more significant than the traditional “friendship.” As an asexual person, I have developed multiple queerplatonic relationships that have defined my engagement with art and writing.
In this paper I declare Queer Platonics and scatter several petals that formed my critical development. I define Queer Platonics as an ethos for queer, non-traditional critical engagement with media and art that validates our intuition and self-recognition as important elements of our reception of the work. I also provide an example of this ethos by engaging critically with Georgia O’Keeffe’s Black Iris, No. II and Black Iris IV, which brought me towards idealistic truths: fear of being alone and desire to be held.
I did not arrive at Queer Platonics from studying Plato, despite what I have called it. Plato believed in an idealism discovered through self-investigation that revealed truths inside oneself, and he taught in a garden that can’t be geographically located. I chose not to write a petal for Plato a petal because I was guided here by following my queer community. I take the name from and in honor of my family, most of whom are not academically trained and all of whom interact with, interpret, embody, and create outside of traditional spheres. We have been each other’s teachers and reviewers. We look at the media we digest and point at what we recognize in ourselves, which leads to endless layers of interpretation and important critical analysis.
As Alexander Doty outlines in Making Things Perfectly Queer, many queer interpretations of mainstream media is based on intense same-sex platonic relationships. He also outlines the possible erotics of these relationships but I insist that the intensity of these relationships exist between friendship and romantic/sexual attraction in a way similar to the queerplatonic relationships I’ve experienced. Doty writes, “queer reception … stand[s] outside the relatively clear-cut and essentializing categories of sexual identity under which most people function (Doty 15).”
Within Queer Platonics, we don’t have to be alone, even when our critical engagements different from typical perspectives. Even our differing queer interactions with art can exist together. We can trust that even if we are projecting our queerness onto the work, our interpretations hold essential truths inside of them that can be shared meaningfully and on the same plane as heteronormative, traditional methods of criticism.
Ashton, Jennifer. “‘Rose is a Rose’: Gertrude Stein and the Critique of Indeterminancy.” Modernism/modernity, Volume 9, Number 4, November 2002, pp. 581-604. doi.org/10.1353/mod.2002.0063.
Doty, Alexander. Making Things Perfectly Queer : Interpreting Mass Culture. Minneapolis, University Of Minnesota Press, 1997.
Exhibition of Oils and Pastels. An American Place, Jan. 1939, www.okeeffemuseum.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/taketimetolooksource.pdf
O’Keeffe, Georgia. Black Iris, No. II. 1927, Seattle Art Museum, Seattle.
O’Keeffe, Georgia. Black Iris VI. 1936, Seattle Art Museum, Seattle.
O’Keeffe, Georgia. "Off in the Far Away: Georgia O’Keeffe’s Letters Home from Hawai’i.” Edited and annotated by Jennifer Saville. The Hawaiian Journal of History, vol. 46 (2012), pp 83-137. evols.library.manoa.hawaii.edu/bitstream/10524/33795/HJH46_83-138.pdf.pdf
Stein, Gertrude. Geography and Plays. Urbana, Illinois, Project Gutenberg, 2010. dev.gutenberg.org/ebooks/33403