Number 21 in our countdown of '70 Ways Art Improves Our Health' takes a very brief look at the links between art and our perceptions of sexuality...

Throughout history art has allowed us to express our deepest emotions and thoughts. Whether through words, images or performance, art offers a unique way to connect, break down barriers and change perceptions.

June is Pride Month, when LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer) people across the world come together to celebrate. But it is much more than just a colourful party. Why was June chosen? Because it is when the Stonewall Riots, which birthed the modern gay rights movement in the US, took place in 1969. Pride celebrations are still rooted in the gruelling stories of people who have fought for decades to overcome prejudice. For LGBTQ people, Pride is not only a chance to celebrate the freedom to be themselves but also a way of protesting discrimination and violence they still experience today.

Caravaggio, Boy with a Basket of Fruit, c.1593

Examples of LGTBQ art can be seen as far back as Ancient Greece. But since then, it hasn’t been an easy journey for queer artists, who have faced censorship and persecution in response to honest expressions of feeling. Sadly, much LGBTQ art has been erased from history. But still, when you think about great visual artists, chances are that (whatever your tastes) some queer artists come to mind. Caravaggio, Leonardo Da Vinci, Frida Kahlo, Gilbert and George, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Anni Leibovitz…the list goes on and on.

Last year Tate Britain presented the first ever exhibition dedicated to queer British art, featuring artists such as John Singer Sargent, Dora Carrington and Henry Scott Tuke. The cunningly titled show, Queer British Art 1861–1967, marked the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England. By framing the exhibition within these dates, the show explored how artists expressed themselves in a time when beliefs about gender and sexuality were being challenged and transformed.

We don't have anything to say except with our pictures.

Gilbert and George

After the Wolfenden Report (1957) concluded that “homosexuality cannot legitimately be regarded as a disease”, followed by the partial decriminalisation in 1967 (plus the Stonewall Riots in 1969), artists became more confident to make art about their sexuality. For the first time, queer artists like David Hockney and Andy Warhol became major features in the mainstream art world.

Henry Scott Tuke, The Bathers, 1922

But in 1980s, queer art faced a different kind of problem. The AIDS pandemic brought with it a tidal wave of fear and anger directed at the LGBTQ community. This surge of emotion paved the way for a new generation of queer artist activists under the philosophy that while art may never provide a cure in the same way as medicine, it might be able to deliver an important message. As well as emphasising the physical and emotional impact of the disease, the art of the AIDS crisis became overtly socio-political.

One of the most famous artists of this time was Keith Haring, known for his unmistakeable style of drawing (often found on ad boards in the New York subway). Keith was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988 and established the Keith Haring Foundation to raise money and provide art to AIDS organisations. Before he died in 1990, he dedicated all of his remaining time and art to raising awareness.

I am interested in making art to be experienced and explored by as many individuals as possible...

Keith Haring

Thanks to the many queer artists throughout history, LGBTQ art is now an integral part of the contemporary art world. The Paintings in Hospitals collection holds some great examples of art made by amazing LGBTQ artists, including Andy Warhol, Maggi Hambling, and Howard Hodgkin.

Queer voices expressed through art, film, fashion, literature, music, dance and more, have made an enormous contribution to modern culture. Whether obviously or subtly, just by being who they were, LGBTQ artists challenged our preconceptions and understandings of sexuality and gender.

To find out more LGBTQ art’s role in our culture and society today, check out Tate’s Queer and Now event here.

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