“Queer” Art and AIDS, Part One

WHAT IS “HOMOSEXUAL ART?”

Part One

Once again, the question arises. Like the questions of what is “Black Art?” What is “Chicano Art” What is Women’s Art?’ the query demands a neat definition that is impossible to give. Is “Homosexual Art” art that is made by homosexuals? Or is “Homosexual Art” art that is about homosexuality, regardless of the sexual preferences of the makers? The absurdity of the dialogue is depended when one extends such questions to other professions, from literature, to finance, to manufacture. Does an automobile become “gay” because the designer was homosexual? Does your home mortgage become “lesbian” because of the same-sex inclination of the loan officer? On the other hand, there are artists who have deliberately chosen to present themselves as “homosexual artists” who presented works of art with homosexual content. As was noted earlier, such displays of Otherness have been political acts and will continue to be as long as the culture is bifurcated between the One and the Other.

“Homosexual art” is different from art done by homosexuals. Like “queer” the designation is “auto-descriptive,” that is, an identification taken by the artist, not given to the artist by society. Therefore there are many homosexuals who made art and who are making art and who prefer not to give themselves a label that either reveals their sexual preference or limits the interpretation of their art. There are a number of reasons for a decision to remain artistically “in the closet.” For example, during the Fifties and the Sixties, being gay was illegal and its was simply unsafe to “come out.” Artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg chose to not discuss their homosexuality for their entire careers. Many works of art done by both Johns and Rauschenberg referred obliquely to the homosexual culture of their time.

The art critical climate of the fifties and sixties in New York City did not allow for discussions of homosexual content in art works and artists who dared to be open about their sexuality met with an unfavorable response. For example, Andy Warholbegan his career making frankly homosexual art but received critical disapproval. Making a smart decision to change his content, Warhol’s subsequent public art featured consumerism and mass media advertising and his career took off. Another point needs to be made here. By the seventies, lesbians, in contrast, found a hospitable home in the feminist movement and lesbian artists were simply folded into the larger feminist discourse. The male homosexuals had no outlet for homosexual subject matter until the eighties.

Although it was well known in the art world who was “straight” and who was “gay,” no disapproval was attached to gay artists or to the Gay Liberation movement in the Sixties, but the art public was not ready for “gay” art. It took the AIDS crisis to bright about some public acceptance of homosexuals, who were the first and most visible victims. The source of AIDS is a matter of some dispute but an individual proclaimed “Patient Zero” was identified. This man was a steward on a French airline and his career as a world traveler allowed him to spread AIDS to a number of other men.

Because of this identification of “patient zero,” accurate or not, during the early 1980s, AIDS in America was called the “gay disease.” Due to the pressures from conservative constituencies, President Ronald Reagan, a veteran of Hollywood, another refuge for gay men, remained silent on the subject of AIDS. The Reagan administration ignored the dangerous epidemic until it was proved that AIDS was spreading to the “general population.” The implication of the inaction was that gays could and should die for their “deviant” “lifestyle,” but when women and children proved to be equally susceptible to the disease then the medical community in America rallied for a cure.

The story of the American neglect of an epidemic is told in the film And the Band Played On. The film’s judgment is a bit harsh but it contains a grain of truth. The Reagan administration did ignore AIDS until the good friend of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Rock Hudson, died of AIDS. By that time, it was too late for thousands of gay men who died during the early to mid Eighties. The art world lost a generation of gay artists in the visual and performing arts. The decimation of a community rallied the art world behind the victims and, after years of being underground, gay and lesbian art emerged on the scene.

For the general public, AIDS awareness came about thorough graphic activism, most notably from the group, ACT UP, AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, formed in 1987. Although the group would later have chapters in every state in America, its most visible activities were focused in New York. For example, ACT UP led a protest that shut down Wall Street to speak out against the way in which the financial and pharmaceutical powers were profiting from a national tragedy. ACT UP and Gran Fury (named after a popular Plymouth model) presented powerful graphic designs to educate gay men on how to prevent AIDS and to inform the public about the basic humanity of homosexual people.

The target of this agit-prop art were diverse, the Catholic Church, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, the FDA, Wall Street, and other institutions that labeled AIDS inaccurately as a “gay cancer” and displayed an immoral range of behavior from indifference to condemnation to stigmatization to profiteering (AZT cost $8,000 a year). One of the most powerful graphic images was the pink triangle with the strong words: “Silence = Death” underneath. The pink triangle was worn by homosexual prisoners in Nazi concentration camps, interned due to their sexual preferences. Gran Fury used this powerful and simple image as an installation above the entrance to the New Museum as a protest against the statement by conservative journalist William Buckley who proposed a draconian and punitive action towards homosexuals, who, he said, “should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to protect the victimization of other homosexuals.”

The artist Keith Haring, who died of AIDS, took up this simple graphic and elaborated it in his own signature style of “street” art: “Ignorance=Fear/Silence=Death/Fight AIDS.” Donald Moffett designed a very famous poster featuring a target on the right and a photograph of Reagan on the right with the phrase “He Kills Me.” Gran Fury mimicked the international and interracial Benneton fashion advertising campaign with a memorable series of “kissing” images of same sex and interracial kissing. The message was loud and clear: “Kissing Doesn’t Kill. Greed and Indifference Do.” Gran Fury also appropriated the famous (and broken) promise of President Bush, “Read My Lips” to educate the public on the true causes of AIDS and the price of inaction.

Undoubtedly what saved many lives was the fact that many of the victims and their friends had powerful positions in the worlds of fine arts, graphic design, and popular culture. They had voices, talent, and the backing of an important constituency: the art world. Their activism, whether on Wall Street or on the sides of busses or in movie theaters forced a resolution to a crisis that ultimately killed a generation of artists. Although Gran Fury and ACT UP (sometimes under different names) are still active, the center for AIDS in America is far from their New York roots—the American South. The South is the epicenter for AIDS in 2012 and the main victims are poor, often Black, without health care, without health insurance, without public education. In a conservative region where sex education is against the law and there are no funds for women’s health, the epidemic has moved on and is reaching crisis proportions. The graphic art campaign of ACT UP and Gran Fury would not be allowed to appear in this environment.

Thanks for the mobilization of the arts communities and the power of the arts, the tide against AIDS (in certain parts of the nation) began to turn. The public was educated on “queer people” and their humanity through popular movies such as, Philadelphia, starring a “straight” actor, Tom Hanks, and In and Out, starring straight actors, Kevin Klein and Tom Selleck, and popular television shows such as Will and Grace and Modern Family brought about public acceptance of homosexuals. Today “homophobia” has been named a psychological disease, and multiple and continuing examples indicate that those who are the most opposed to gay rights are also those who are most likely to be homosexuals still “in the closet,” because these individuals belong to conservative cultures.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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