Although it now may look like AIDS is the thing of the past, something that was put under control years ago, for the artists working in the eighties and the nineties AIDS crisis was a generation-defining experience. From the beginning of the 1980’s, the HIV epidemic became an increasingly present phenomenon, entering the work of many American artists in a myriad of ways and transforming the world of contemporary art significantly. In the context of American society and culture rooted in the idolization of youth and health, HIV epidemic became a braking point which lead to the stigmatization of LGBT community and the quick response in the form of political art and activism, coming from the artists who started to experience the AIDS epidemic from the first hand. Anger, confusion, fear and defiance, all triggered by the artists’ existential situations and the emergence of a culture which was forming as a response to the crisis, have immensely changed the dominant self-reflexive art practices, bringing art closer to politics and life.
The Birth of AIDS Art and Activism
At the beginning of the eighties, there were two significant art movements, attracting two different types of spectators. One was the elitist abstract expressionism and the other was pop art, playful and celebratory homage to consumerist culture. None of them had its roots in the artist’s personal experiences. The things changed significantly once the AIDS crisis started affecting artists personally, whether they have witnessed the loss of their friends and acquaintances or they were unfortunate to experience the devastating effects of the virus in their own lives. Even before the health institutions recognized the AIDS crisis, the artists started drawing attention to the problem. The epidemic was dangerous on its own, but even more discouraging were the increasing hostile attitudes towards the persons with HIV and ignorant discrimination of the LGBT community. Whether they approached the problem as activists or from the more intimate point of view, artists like Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, Niki de Saint Phalle and Jenny Holzer among many others have changed the path of contemporary art immensely. Art that started to tackle this controversial theme emerged from the bigger cultural spectrum of the 1980’s and the questions about AIDS opened significant debates on the politics of identity in relation to one’s sexual behavior.
Silence = Death: AIDS in Keith Haring’s Work
The relation between sexuality and HIV from a personal and social perspective is best seen in the late works of Keith Haring. After his diagnosis in 1988, Keith Haring’s work became much more oriented towards the male sexuality and homosexual relationships. Haring’s focus on the issues of homophobia held a strong connection to the fear of AIDS, which was significant given the fact that at the time, the societal dichotomies grew stronger, and the divisions between healthy and sick became synonymous for the straight and gay polarization, reinforcing prejudices and hatred. The late work of Keith Haring saw the rise of the AIDS symbolism, most notably in his personifications of the HIV as the horned sperm emblem. In the late eighties Keith Haring also embraced the symbolism used by the ACT UP activist group, the pink triangle historically used to mark homosexuals during the holocaust period and the SILENCE = DEATH slogan as an illustration of the invisibility the AIDS victims have been experiencing at the time.
Art AIDS America – 30 Years after the Epidemic
The rise of art about AIDS in the eighties was not a unified phenomenon, as it may seem. The artists who were addressing the issue did it in various mediums and they were motivated by an array of diverse experiences. Loss and grief are certainly the most dominant ones, but it also illustrated a collective urge to raise awareness to the problem and give the voice to the side which was marked as the Other by the society. Thirty years after its peak, the AIDS-inspired American art saw its revival as part of the Art AIDS America exhibition initiated by Tacoma Art Museum. The traveling exhibition brings a comprehensive survey of artworks made in response to the AIDS crisis, showing how the emergence of AIDS have changed the path of contemporary art, shifting from conceptualism and theoretical approaches to the autobiography, experience, and politics. Most importantly, the exhibition aims to cross the gap between the generations, reviving the memories of the horrifying years when the AIDS was spreading like a plague and raising awareness that even though it might be under control currently the problem stays unsolved in our time.
HIV Awareness as a Global Art Phenomenon
Perhaps most comprehensive, Art AIDS America isn’t the only AIDS-themed exhibition which has been organized lately. This fact only supports the idea that AIDS art and activism are still important today, as they were in the eighties. AIDS experiences have changed the world of art significantly, bringing attention to social issues, which follow the pandemic like the homophobic driven laws still present today. Just recently, we saw how US artist Jordan Eagles has joined the protest over the gay blood donation ban, and there are numerous contemporary examples of the artists working against the social prejudices triggered by AIDS crisis all over the world. The art of the eighties is, therefore, an important reminder that art has the power to open the dialogues about the society, and the sense of urgency followed by activist approach can make art a relevant tool in raising awareness about the pressing issues in any point in history.
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Jenny Holzer – Projections, Siena 2009. Photo via projects.jennyholzer.com
Jenny Holzer – Untitled (Expiring for Love Is Beautiful but Stupid), 1983–85. Photo via kemperartmuseum.wustl.edu