PRINT May 1993


David Deitcher

SCANNING THE BOOK DISPLAY in the reading room at the Whitney Biennial, I was dismayed to come upon the pale-green and pink slip case of Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, which I happened to be enjoying at home. Its presence on the Whitney’s hit list felt unmistakably grotesque, if possibly revealing.

Conceived as an educational supplement to the Biennial, this “space of reading” includes a corner reserved for a user-friendly compilation of press clippings about the artists in the show, a centralized block of tables furnished with chairs and copies of the exhibition catalogue, and a display shelf that circumnavigates half the room displaying samples of books predominantly of critical theory and cultural studies published during the past two years. But why in the world The Queen’s Throat?

In cobbling together his meditation on opera and homosexuality, Koestenbaum trusted and indeed followed his “perverse” tastes and desires. And the alternately sad and hilarious—frequently profound—insights into opera queens and the “lost art” that is their obsession enables a brave self-examination in defiance of brutal times. But Koestenbaum’s audacious method has also yielded something more—something that, only implicit in his work, nonetheless secures its special place on my bookshelf.

For pleasure and desire, not to mention queer pleasure and desire, are still regarded with deep suspicion by many on both the left and the right. It is Koestenbaum’s liberating achievement to have found a way to validate these aspects of individual experience by lovingly and meticulously attending to his own fascinations.

So I ask: How does a book that entrusts itself to pleasure and desire supplement an exhibition that finds so little to trust in the visual and tactile delights of art? How does a book that consecrates a dead art form through empathic identification with it supplement an exhibition that (with the notably queer exception of Lari Pittman) affirms the demise of the equally anomalous art of painting? Finally, how does a book that proclaims its author’s preference for the “songish part” of opera—that admits a taste for opera’s words only “because music has garlanded them”—supplement an exhibition that fosters and prioritizes a notably didactic, moralizing, and unreflective use of language?

I suppose that the answer to all these questions is that this book does not supplement this Biennial; it accessorizes it. But if you listen carefully you just might hear the muffled voices of all those queens and divas between its covers as they reach a plaintive crescendo to protest the occasion that has claimed them.

David Deitcher is a New York-based art historian and critic who teaches at Cooper Union.