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University of Southern California

1. Solomon, Virginia. Sexuality and signification: episodes of General Idea's subcultural politics.

Degree: PhD, Art History, 2015, University of Southern California

Over the course of its twenty-five year career, Canadian artist group General Idea (1969-1994) systematically theorized an alternative form of politics present within the subcultures in which it participated. This subcultural politics had both different forms and different aims than traditional politics. Rather than such activities as demonstrations or boycotts, General Idea’s subcultural politics manifested in the more everyday stuff of getting dressed, going to concerts, and participating in nightlife, seeking to produce alternative forms of culture in the present rather than advocate for changes in forms of government or public policy in the future. ❧ The group emphasized subcultural practices that were political precisely because of the ways they demonstrated culture as a motivated phenomenon that constantly seeks to naturalize itself and its values, hierarchies, and assumptions to support some forms of life while subjugating others. It pointed to actions that used the forms and processes of dominant culture as a signifying practice, but articulated them to different ends. As such, for example, a beauty pageant undermined not just femininity, but identity and subjectivity as fixed and given in general. As its career progressed, its work became less connected to specific subcultures, but it nevertheless continued to manifest this form of engagement, thereby demonstrating a general theory of subcultural politics that is applicable across the field of culture. ❧ Because General Idea’s subcultures, be they the Canadada mail art network or the underground downtown scene in Toronto, were predominantly queer subcultures, it presented its subcultural politics as a form of sexuality itself. The group articulated its subcultural politics through the language and images of gay life, for example, or of fetish sex. These were political not simply because they crossed cultural norms, but because they highlighted norms in general as constructed phenomena. ❧ The group did more than simply point out the forms of politics circulating within subcultures, however. Through its engagement with other historical and contemporary art practices, General Idea also highlighted certain parallels between the forms of critical cultural engagement within subcultures and that present within a particular lineage of artistic practice, including self-evident examples like Dada and Pop but also less obvious examples like International Modernism or the work of Joseph Beuys. The group presented a form of queer art history by creating a queer avant-garde based not on the sexual identity of the artist, but on the practices’ demonstration of the very subcultural politics it strove to highlight in its own work. By manifesting subcultural politics within its projects, and constantly pointing to subcultural politics in other practices, General Idea emphasized the political potential of both artistic and social spaces excluded from both liberal democracy and also narratives of oppositional activity since the Second World War. These spaces are often the only… Advisors/Committee Members: Meyer, Richard Evan (Committee Chair), Halberstam, Jack (Committee Member), Hudson, Suzanne P. (Committee Member), Flint, Kate (Committee Member).

Subjects/Keywords: General Idea; art; performance; queer; politics; subculture; AA Bronson; Felix Partz; Jorge Zontal; Miss General Idea Pageant; Hollywood Decca Dance; Glamour; Test Tube; Shut the Fuck Up; AIDS; The Boutique for the 1984 Miss General Idea Pageant; FILE megazine; Infe©; ted

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APA (6th Edition):

Solomon, V. (2015). Sexuality and signification: episodes of General Idea's subcultural politics. (Doctoral Dissertation). University of Southern California. Retrieved from

Chicago Manual of Style (16th Edition):

Solomon, Virginia. “Sexuality and signification: episodes of General Idea's subcultural politics.” 2015. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Southern California. Accessed January 21, 2020.

MLA Handbook (7th Edition):

Solomon, Virginia. “Sexuality and signification: episodes of General Idea's subcultural politics.” 2015. Web. 21 Jan 2020.


Solomon V. Sexuality and signification: episodes of General Idea's subcultural politics. [Internet] [Doctoral dissertation]. University of Southern California; 2015. [cited 2020 Jan 21]. Available from:

Council of Science Editors:

Solomon V. Sexuality and signification: episodes of General Idea's subcultural politics. [Doctoral Dissertation]. University of Southern California; 2015. Available from: