Trout Interpretation Assistant Jackson Rhodes sat down with Dickinson’s newly-appointed Director of LGBTQ Services, Dr. Todd Nordgren. They discussed LGBTQ representation and how photographer Lissa Rivera is interacting with artistic traditions to tell new stories.
Jackson: Art classes often provide comfortable environments for students to engage in discussions of social issues, political topics, and personal identity. In those classes, art objects create opportunities to start a dialogue about challenging topics. So how can teachers approach art-based discussions without projecting their personal opinions that may differ from that of their students?
Dr. Nordgren: There’s been a lot of media scrutiny about what is happening in college classrooms. This has created a misguided sense that classrooms are spaces where students don’t feel comfortable because they imagine that there’s one way of thinking and no room for disagreement. I think already that’s a problematic way of thinking about the college classroom, and I think there is a way that humanities and arts classes can operate outside of that sense of censorship. We have to consider what possibilities exist for framing a class around historical identities; objects were created in historically specific moments and places. So we have to say we’re going to embrace an art object with clear eyes: who created it, the way in which artists might have thought about their identity, the way in which a piece of art was perceived [by contemporaries], the kind of roles that people occupied in a particular time and place. All of those things are terms under which we’re critiquing or thinking about or analyzing art that don’t tie directly to a contemporary political movement or identity. That’s the way I think classrooms work best: when there’s an object and we have to approach it without caveats about the way we are going to engage with it. For example, we can think about the sexuality of the artist, or their gender expression, because that’s what was shaping the art [in its own moment].
Jackson: Lissa Rivera’s approach to photography can be seen as fitting the definition of an artist-muse relationship. Rivera, while female identifying, simultaneously embodies a typically male-dominated artistic type that casts its gaze on the nude body in a dehumanizing manner. But, Rivera casts her gaze on a male body that presents classicizing female beauty without dehumanizing her subject. Do you believe that the presence of artists like Lissa Rivera who have these simultaneities discourage modern artists from engaging in the same behaviors as artists have previously?
Dr. Nordgren: Both the way she approaches her art and the kinds of models that she uses, the kinds of poses that she puts them in, and the way in which they’re staged, all of those draw on important legacies. There’s this really interesting crux that only operates when we understand those legacies and normative modes of operation in the art world. The playful possibility of breaking those [normative] modes comes from her deep recognition of them and the way in which she’s able to simultaneously portray them while breaking them. That’s what artists who have been thinking about queer subjects or subjects who have complicated gender expressions have done for a really long time. It opens up all these possibilities to not continue what feels like an unending legacy of one mode of representation. It allows us to think that there can be a different type of photographer, subject, or staging. We recognize it because she’s so good at being playful about the norms that we’re used to seeing.
Jackson: Rivera’s photographs are an homage to allusions of past works of art, and yet they seem strikingly modern. So what do you find to be important or detrimental in representing queer figures in traditional compositions and do you think it’s important for queer artists to use those traditional allusions in modern art?
Dr. Nordgren: I think there are two things that are happening in Rivera’s art and in the case of anyone who’s adapting classical traditions for new subjects or themes. These practices introduce new modes of operation—they show that there can be new ways of doing things. In her work in particular, I see the way she’s drawing on a history in order to tell us something about that earlier period in which we imagine there to be strict and rigid gender roles. We think of the way in which her art draws on early twentieth-century or nineteenth-century configurations in costumes or staging; using those costumes tells us that that period was also shaped by people having different gender expressions, too. There’s a correspondence between the current moment she’s doing her work in, knowing she is breaking normative representational structures, and the past, because she’s also breaking them [those structures] by reminding us it also never really was that way in the past. It never really was true that the gender identities we think are so naturalized and solidified were even more so in the past. When I was looking at Rivera’s portfolio online (http://www.lissarivera.com/), in the various series of pictures of her partner, who is a man dressed in women’s clothes, there’s one where he’s dressed as Marlene Dietrich. Here’s a figure from early Hollywood who is famous for breaking all kinds of expectations around gender and we can recognize the signifier of the photograph’s gender play because we know already that she was breaking gender norms in her own time. It tells us something about how we view femininity and masculinity today, but also resonates deeply with how people were thinking about masculinity and femininity in the 1930s. I think that’s what a lot of people who are thinking about gender and sexuality in art are often working between: the contemporary perception of the historical past and that past as it actually existed.
Jackson: And part of that is playing with different mediums as well—so a photographer looking at the silver screen and saying, that’s something I can portray in my photography.
Dr. Nordgren: Right, and so it operates because we have these complicated cultural memories. We have Marlene Dietrich who has a place in the past that confounds our sense of history. We think of the 1930’s and twentieth century more broadly as being the catalyst for a long period of rigid gender identities and division between men and women’s roles, and in fact there she was confounding exactly that sense of division. Rivera’s art is resonating with that past structure and reminding us that these things are true, asking us to notice this [Dietrich’s] legacy and how it still has purchase today, but in a different format for Rivera.
Jackson: They’re also both examples of queer representation in media, separated by decades, but you can speak to both as representation of queerness in media. How could that potentially translate to social change?
Dr. Nordgren: I primarily conduct research in literature and literary history, and the idea of narrative art shaping social change is at the center of how I think about my work at Dickinson with the Office of LGBTQ Services. Art allows us to rethink the legacies we have inherited, to say “let’s look back” in order to think about the complicated world that we’ve come into, what history has led us to this point, and the way we have benefitted from the legacies of people who have forged a path to allow us to think about gender identity and sexuality in all of these complex ways. And part of art is reimagining what is possible. I think that was true of Marlene Dietrich when she was making films and it’s even more true to recast possibilities for gender today—to rethink what the limits of possibility are, to portray through representation what exists and what the limits of that are, which are often beyond how we think of them. Here’s art telling us, that’s not how everyone thinks of it—it doesn’t have to be that way, we can reimagine what is possible and we already probably have. I think that is why art is so powerful to so many people in many different media. It allows the expansion of one’s own limitations of what they imagine identity to be, but also an expansion of the cultural limitations of how we imagine gender or sexuality.
Jackson: In representation, is there a hypothetical watershed moment where we really stretched the boundaries to levels we haven’t before?
Dr. Nordgren: I think there are moments in culture where works of art will break through and reach a popular audience in such a way that there’s a reconfiguration of how a culture thinks about what is possible. For some reason, I immediately thought of Fifty Shades of Gray. It’s not the best example, but there’s something to how women engaged with sexuality that came from Fifty Shades of Gray being so popular. Now, there’s any number of new examples of trans representation in TV and media; I think that’s an expansive horizon that’s shifting how we think of gender and how trans people are represented. But I think on the whole, often change is much smaller, and it may not feel like an artist is suddenly shattering a whole set of norms. But to the right people who are encountering Rivera’s work and seeing something that they may not have seen before, that’s a person whose is going to say to themselves: ”Now, I can think about femininity or masculinity differently. I can take the next step to engage in those questions more broadly.” These are slow and small changes that occur over time that shape people’s minds differently as they encounter works of art. Rivera’s work is a good example in particular because she photographs intimate domestic scenes.
Jackson: Your response reminds me of the movie Call Me By Your Name, which felt like it was done appropriately—representation not just done for the sake of representation. I was wondering, for you personally what types of representation do you find appropriate and representative of the LGBTQ community?
Dr. Nordgren: I think there’s always a balance when thinking about representation. There’s a concern about having any representation at all, about simply seeing characters who are not just the people we expect to see in art. That’s powerful, but on the other hand there’s also something powerful that’s been happening recently around representing queer and trans and gender nonconforming people in stories that aren’t only about their difference—stories that are about [queer and trans] people just existing. There’s so much media that is a coming out narrative, and I think recently we’ve seen different versions of that, like Call Me by Your Name (2017). It feels like it’s a story about two people; the story isn’t trying to have a culmination of the plot where someone might turn out be gay. Instead, the ending shows us two people who learn things about their sexuality and, which is part of a narrative of them coming together and having a summer of deep connection, without ever declaring their identities. I like it because it’s not a story in which LGBTQ folks just prove that such a thing exists. I compare this to the Marvel Cinematic Universe where there’s a much more rigid understanding of diversity and inclusion: check box a for having a queer character, a woman in a central role, etc. That is the lowest bar. We should get complex representation of what it means to be any number of identities in complicated contexts. And I think Rivera’s art accomplishes that.