Aids and the Arts

Ronald Paul Hill, Villanova University
ABSTRACT - Kimmelman (1989, p. 1) writes: It would hardly be an exaggeration to describe American culture in the late 1980's as art in the era of AIDS. Art has confronted AIDS the way people confront AIDS - with fear, anger, sorrow, defiance, and confusion. In a country that idolizes youth and health, AIDS has struck at the very heart of the American self-image. This paper explores this outlook by focusing on the images of AIDS and its victims as they are depicted in the visual and performing arts. Implications of this portrayal on opinions and attitudes within society also are presented.
[ to cite ]:
Ronald Paul Hill (1990) ,"Aids and the Arts", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, eds. Marvin E. Goldberg, Gerald Gorn, and Richard W. Pollay, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 294-297.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 294-297

AIDS AND THE ARTS

Ronald Paul Hill, Villanova University

ABSTRACT -

Kimmelman (1989, p. 1) writes:

It would hardly be an exaggeration to describe American culture in the late 1980's as art in the era of AIDS. Art has confronted AIDS the way people confront AIDS - with fear, anger, sorrow, defiance, and confusion. In a country that idolizes youth and health, AIDS has struck at the very heart of the American self-image.

This paper explores this outlook by focusing on the images of AIDS and its victims as they are depicted in the visual and performing arts. Implications of this portrayal on opinions and attitudes within society also are presented.

INTRODUCTION

The AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) virus has captured the attention of the world and ultimately may infect more people than any other deadly disease in recent history. Since 1981, when the first case was discovered, 87,188 people in the United States have been diagnosed as carriers of the AIDS virus and 49,976 of these persons have died (Chase 1989). Once linked to homosexuals and intravenous drug users (Bayer 1988), AIDS is now viewed as a growing threat to heterosexuals worldwide (Altman 1989). The total cost due to the premature deaths of thousands of young adults in their prime years of productivity is projected to reach $66.4 billion by 1991 (Foltz 1987). According to Dr. Andrew Moss, an epidemiologist at San Francisco General Hospital, "AIDS will be a routine sexually transmitted disease, and we have to adapt to thinking in those terms" (Altman 1989, p. A 1).

A disease with such potential to destroy life might have prompted the public to demand immediate action by the U.S. government. However, the average American found it difficult to respond to an illness perceived to be "spread throughout the country mainly by anal intercourse between promiscuous homosexuals" (Lepkowski 1987, p. 59). Hospital workers nicknamed the disease "WOGS," for "wrath-of-God syndrome," and Commentary Editor Norman Podhoretz condemned efforts to develop a vaccine, complaining that "they are giving social sanction to what can only be described as brutish degradation" (Horn 1989, p. 62). Because of these ambivalent feelings, elected officials were slow to react to this crisis (Shilts 1988). According to Rock {1987), the Reagan administration underestimated the scope of the epidemic, played down the risk to heterosexuals, and deliberately minimized bad news in an attempt to avoid panicking an already anxious population.

One consequence of this early government neglect was the onslaught of invalid as well as valid information available to the public from a wide variety of formal and informal sources (Hill 1988). For example, while the work of former Surgeon General Koop has raised awareness that the AIDS virus can be transmitted through sexual contact (Associated Press 1988), a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that people also believe that AIDS can be contracted through kissing, being sneezed on, donating blood, using the same drinking glass, and sitting on a toilet seat (Okie 1987). Many of these misperceptions are the result of widespread media coverage of a 1983 Journal of the American Medical Association editorial which suggested that AIDS could be spread through "routine household contact" (Shilts 1988). The result of this mixed information, contrary to the early expectations of the federal government, has been widespread societal confusion and anxiety (Goodman 1988).

ARTISTS' RESPONSES TO THE AIDS EPIDEMIC

No group is more aware of the deadly power of the disease than the arts community, where AIDS has taken an especially painful toll. Many artists are working to change the way the disease is portrayed by rewriting the language that positions AIDS as an act of divine retribution or as a disease of degeneracy and despair. Jan Zita Grover, curator of a show called "AIDS: The Artists' Response" at Ohio State University,. asserted that "Artists have a sense of urgency, a sense that what they're producing can make a difference" (Horn 1989, p.62). Thus, the goal of much of this art work is not to produce "masterpieces" but "to save lives, by whatever means at an artist's disposal" (Kimmelman 1989, p. 6).

Consequently, work in the performing and visual arts that refers directly to the AIDS virus has grown exponentially since the syndrome was first diagnosed in 1981. Artists' examinations of AIDS range from Larry Kramer's passionate and provocative play "The Normal Heart" to the less outspoken television movie "Ryan White Story," and from the Names Project quilt, gut-wrenching in its often highly personal portrayal of thousands of dead AIDS victims, to the graphic photographs of Nicholas Nixon shown last year at the Museum of Modem Art in New York. While many of these artistic endeavors are quite painfully eye-opening, others have perpetuated harmful inaccuracies in public opinions. For example, plays like Harry Kondoleon's "Zero Positive" continue to portray AIDS as a problem confined to gay men, reinforcing the belief that AIDS is a "gay plague". Also, television movies like the "Ryan White Story" prefer to focus on "innocent victims" of AIDS (e.g., hemophiliac children) rather than on minorities who are at much greater risk.

This paper now turns to an examination of the portrayal of AIDS in a wide range of visual and performing arts including television, photography, plays, dance, and a subset of lesser used art forms (i.e., cartoons, posters, and the Names Project quilt). The focus is on the stated purposes of the artists and, where possible, public reactions. Finally, implications for the use of these arts on societal opinions and attitudes are discussed.

Television

The television media, with few exceptions, has tended to reinforce the developing societal distinction between "innocent" and "guilty" victims. The innocent victims scenario is a well-intentioned effort by the media to make AIDS everyone's disease by producing stories of infected children and hemophiliacs. For example, ABC broadcast 'The Ryan White Story," a television movie about a white hemophiliac boy who becomes ostracized by neighbors and schoolmates after developing AIDS. Another TV-movie titled 'The Littlest Victims" involves infants who contract the disease through the contaminated blood supply, and focuses on heart-wrenching scenes of these children with their grief-stricken parents.

The "guilty" victims scenario is portrayed much differently. In a recent episode of the NBC program "Midnight Caller," a bisexual man with AIDS is depicted as utterly depraved as he knowingly infects women with the virus in an attempt to feed his insatiable sexual appetite. Also, a similar situation was the focus of a 1985 public television program where a documentary crew followed a black, gay man with AIDS as he wandered around the country engaging in sex with unsuspecting partners. One exception to this approach is the NBC television movie "An Early Frost". Dubbed by some critics as a "conscientious tearjerker," this film presents a gay man with AIDS who attempts to regain the love of a disapproving father. Interestingly, while the film had high ratings and received several Emmy award nominations, the networks never attempted a project with a similar theme again.

Photography

No other visual art has attempted or achieved the graphic portrayal of AIDS and its victims as photography has, and Nicholas Nixon, well-known for his searing, sobering, and unforgettable photographs, may have produced the most powerful of these images. His subjects include gay men, a woman, and a male hemophiliac. The photographs, taken over time, show the visible signs of the destructive progress of the disease as well as the inner torment of its victims. The result is quite dramatic - the viewer sees not only the physical deterioration of the subjects but also an apparent reduction in their concern about composing themselves for the camera. In the case of one subject, the first image is of a mother and son embracing in their attempt to console each other. By the end of the sequence (and just prior to the death of the subject), the young man appears to be ignoring the camera, gazing into infinity, and lost to his surroundings.

Robert Mapplethorpe, a well-known photographer who died of AIDS recently, also produced striking images of AIDS victims. He first gained public notoriety in the late 1970s when he chose to publicly depict the sado-masochistic subculture of male homosexuals. While many critics and members of the public found his photographs disturbing, his compulsive and unabashed portrayal of homoeroticism won him considerable fame by the late 1980s. It was the topic of AIDS, however, that led him to produce some of his most unforgettable work. After being diagnosed as having AIDS, Mapplethorpe's willingness to make his illness public helped focus attention on the disease throughout the art world. His 1988 self portraits, showing his once handsome face grim and emaciated next to a skull's head walking stick, provide a stark reminder of the personal tragedy caused by the disease.

Artist Linda Troeller provides a unique perspective on AIDS through her use of photocollage. By juxtaposing journal excerpts, family snapshots, and surreal images, she draws parallels between today's AIDS victims and the ostracism her mother faced as a tuberculosis patient in the 1930s. Using photographs taken by her mother during her isolation in a TB sanitarium in combination with pictures taken by Barbara Cleaver of her son who died recently from AIDS, Troeller shows the defiance, rage, and shame experienced by victims and their families.

One exception to the photographic portrayal of AIDS as a predominantly male and gay disease is the work of Ann Meredith. Her subjects are women with AIDS, and her pictures present these women with their children in settings from their homes to the hospital. By showing heterosexual mothers of different races and social classes infected with the disease, Meredith suggests that no individual can afford to be complacent about AIDS.

Plays

Many plays have been directly touched by the AIDS pandemic. In their wariness toward sex, "Burn This" and "Frankie and Johnnie in the Clair de Lune" could be viewed as "AIDS" plays. Also, "Eastern Standard," "The Heidi Chronicles," and "Gus and Al" are three plays recently on New York stages that make references to the disease. However, two plays - "As Is" by William Hoffman and "The Normal Heart" by Larry Kramer - directly confront the issues surrounding AIDS.

'The Normal Heart" is both a love story and a searing indictment of the indifference of New York's political and health officials to the suffering of gay men afflicted with the disease. The play covers the first three years of the AIDS crisis, and attempts to show that AIDS kills homosexuals and heterosexuals, men, women, and children. Though the acronym "AIDS" is never spoken, this angry play points "an accusatory finger'' at all groups in society for turning away, in fear or hate, from this common threat. In this sense, 'The Normal Heart" is a "call to arms" to pressure local and national authorities to provide the necessary resources to educate society about the disease and to continue the search for a cure.

"As Is" has a more narrow focus and looks at the relationship between two gay men who were formerly lovers. After one contracts AIDS and is shunned by friends and family, his former partner invites him back into their home and comforts and takes care of him until his death. While the production contains several long, painful scenes, the use of comic blackouts rather than intermissions acts to reduce the sense of pessimism and despair inherent in other plays such as 'The Normal Heart".

If "As Is" strikes a middle ground with relation to 'The Normal Heart," plays such as "The AIDS Show," which is a series of mostly comic sketches staged by the Theater Rhinoceros in San Francisco, represent the other end of the spectrum. Several of the performers have AIDS, and by their presence they seem to insist that coming down with the disease does not mean giving up living or enjoyment. The humor in the production is both cathartic and inspirational.

Dance

The performing art of dance has focused attention on classic images of death in its personification of AIDS. In "21 Supported Positions," a dance performed by Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane (who died recently from AIDS), the AIDS victim is depicted much like Christ during the crucifixion. With compassion and love, Jones lifted, caught, and carried his fragile partner through the dance. At one point, Jones held Zane in his arms as the infected man collapsed from exhaustion, evoking the image of Christ cradled in the Virgin Mary's arms. Another choreographer, Martha Clark who suffered the loss of a principle collaborator as a result of AIDS, recently produced a major production concerned with obsessive desire and death titled "Miracolo d'Amore (the Miracle of Love). In this work, which she conceived while mourning the loss of her close friend, a women makes love to a chalky skeleton.

In a less personal but no less haunting portrayal of AIDS, choreographer Phyllis Lamhut created the dance "Man". She originally approached the topic of death in a 1980 dance called "Passing," and since then has continued to focus on the decay of modern civilization using informative cultural references. She treats the subject of AIDS with uncharacteristic and numbing reverence through the dance of solo performers. A Greek chorus of three women in dark robes opens the dance and moves through it in a way that suggests communal mourning. During each solo, the women sit quietly or lie face down at the edge of the stage framing a context of loss and death.

Lesser Used Art Forms

Besides the major performing and visual arts mentioned, the AIDS crisis has impacted other art forms, especially cartoons, posters, and a craft project titled the "Names Project" quilt. Political and social cartoonists often have attempted to provide commentary in their work regarding current events, and the AIDS pandemic is no exception. For example, Gary Trudeau, in his comic strip "Doonesbury," has chronicled the misunderstanding and reticence regarding the disease. In one episode, a politician cannot bring herself to say the name of the disease in a public meeting: "I'd like to focus on all of these [issues] tonight in a no-holds-barred dialogue on...on...on the great unpleasantness." In another episode, Trudeau shows the same politician answering questions about the disease. A member of the audience asks what is being done to change the perception that AIDS is a "gay" disease. She responds that "... it's clearly not a gay disease. It's a perfectly ghastly one!"

Other AIDS activists use alternative art forms since they question the display of work in traditional cultural institutions where artists preach mostly to the converted. For example, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (Act Up) designs and distributes posters (as well as flyers, stickers, and buttons) using the pink triangle used to identify homosexuals in World War II concentration camps with the words "Silence = Death". Also, two advocacy groups, Gran Fury and General Idea, use the format of Robert Indiana's quintessentially 60s "LOVE" painting to display the words "RIOT" and "AIDS," suggesting the spiritual distance between the 1960s and the 1980s. Another atypical visual expression involving the AIDS crisis is the Names Project quilt. Started shortly after AIDS began to devastate the gay communities in New York and San Francisco, this work of art has been described as a "giant field of cloth tombstones" since each segment of the quilt-contains the name of a victim of this deadly disease. Contributors were allowed to personalize the individual squares, and many contain treasured artifacts of the deceased.

Implications

Contagious diseases and plagues tend to transform a society. Illness and mortality become communal experiences, and fear may capture the attention of healthy individuals. Further, if the group primarily stricken with the disease is disenfranchised, negative stereotypes may be reinforced, and society may attempt to ignore the afflicted rather than share their experience. In most respects, this scenario is epitomized by the AIDS pandemic. The traditional "walls" around disease and death in our society have been buttressed in recent years by an almost neurotic obsession with health and beauty. Also, the fact that AIDS has been linked primarily to gay men and intravenous drug users tends to foster an "us" versus "them" dichotomy and increase the perceptual distance between AIDS victims and healthy individuals.

Many performing and visual artists feel it is their duty to unsettle the American public through realistic and sometimes graphic portraits of AIDS and its victims in an attempt to rectify this situation. However, these efforts often have revealed the limitations of art as a vehicle of change. Artists age constrained by their own experiences, beliefs, and needs for self-expression as well as by factors beyond their control. For example, plays like "As Is" and photographs such as those taken by Robert Mapplethorpe, while grounded in personal experience and insight, tend to reinforce perceptions of AIDS as a "gay plague" and the arts community as predominantly gay. Also, many of the most startling works, including the photographs of Nicholas Nixon, portray AIDS victims as "freaks" who are sickly and often helpless in their present condition. In combination with television programs like "Midnight Caller," which furthers the stereotype of AIDS as the disease of hedonistic excess, this representation tends to underscore the difference between "us," the uninfected onlookers, an "them," the unhealthy afflicted. Finally, television, which is the vehicle with the largest and most diverse audience, prefers to reserve empathy and compassion for "innocent" victims such as hemophiliac children in order to avoid alienating advertisers, conservative members of the public, and certain advocacy groups.

In the final analysis, little can be done to coordinate the efforts of visual and performing artists. Each work is developed individually, with an emphasis on the personal experience and motivations of the creator rather than its contribution to information dissemination or attitude formation within society. Nevertheless, the images presented by the arts of AIDS and its victims have an important effect on the way we view and respond to this deadly disease.

REFERENCES

Altman, Lawrence K. (1989), "Who's Stricken and How: AIDS Pattern is Shifting," The New York Times, A1, A28.

Associated Press (1988), "AIDS Poll: Awareness Up," Washington Post, January 24, 18.

Bayer, Ronald (1988), Private Acts, Social Consequences, New York, NY: The Free Press.

Chase, Marilyn (1989), "Science Edges Closer To Designing Drugs To Defeat AIDS Virus," The Wall Street Journal, (March 3), A1, AS.

Foltz, Kim (1987), "The Business of AIDS," Adweek's Marketing Week Special Report, (April 6), 4-11.

Goodman, Ellen (1988), "Mixed Information on AIDS," Washington Post, A23.

Hill, Ronald Paul (1988), "An Exploration of the Relationship Between AIDS-Related Anxiety and the Evaluation of Condom Advertisements," Journal of Advertising, 17 (4), 35-42.

Horn, Miriam (1989), "The Artists' Diagnosis: The Arts World, Hard Hit by the AIDS Epidemic, is Fighting Back," U.S. News & World Report, (March 27), 62-63, 70.

Kimmelman, Michael (1989), "Bitter Harvest: AIDS and the Arts," New York Times, (March 19), section 2, p. 1,6.

Lepkowski, Wil (1987), 'The Government's R&D Policy," C & EN. (November 23), 59.

Okie, Susan (1987), "Majority See AIDS as Public Threat," Washington Post, (March 12), A4.

Rock, Andrea (1987), "What You Don't Know About AIDS But Should," Money, (November), 90-96.

Shilts, Randy (1988), And The Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, New York, NY: Penguin Books.

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