Washington Post Examines Two Decades of Artistic Response to the AIDS Epidemic
"[O]ver the past 20 years, the arts have reflected the fear, sorrow, befuddlement, exhaustion and sheer rage that are the natural concomitants of a global catastrophe," the Washington Post reports in a Sunday "Arts" feature on the AIDS epidemic and its effect on the creative arts. June 5 will mark the 20th anniversary of the date the CDC published the first news of the disease that would become known as AIDS. In the two decades since, the creative community, "savaged" by the disease, has responded to the epidemic with a spectrum of musical compositions, plays, films, books and dance pieces. It is "impossible" to select the first work of art inspired by AIDS, according to the Post, but artists have been "on the front lines" of the AIDS battle "from the get-go," according to Robert Atkins, the editor of and an art critic for Artery, an online magazine devoted to AIDS-related art published by the New York not-for-profit group Alliance for the Arts. According to Atkins, artists created "all the central, recognizable symbols of the epidemic" such as the AIDS Memorial Quilt, the red ribbon and the "Silence=Death" logo. "Artists have always helped us to understand the profound disturbances of any historical moment ... This is one of art's traditional roles -- to give meaning to the horrifics," he said. Art created in response to such events as the medieval Black Death or the English "generation of 1914" that perished in large numbers in World War I, serve as "historical parallel[s]" to the AIDS epidemic.
A New Generation Responds
Princeton University professor Edmund White recently published "Loss Within Loss: Artists in the Age of AIDS," a collection of essays about writers, painters, sculptors, architects and composers, among others, with AIDS. White cites the classical compositions by Chris DeBlasio, the writings of Paul Monette and the visual art of Ross Bleckner as "particularly strong" AIDS-related pieces. In the theatrical world, Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" -- a two-part "epical" work -- is the "most honored" drama about the epidemic. The first installment, "Millenium Approaches," won the Pulitzer prize for drama in 1991 and the follow-up, "Perestroika," was hailed by Frank Rich of the New York Times as "not only a stunning resolution of the rending human drama of part one, but also a true millennial work of art, uplifting, hugely comic and pantheistically religious in a very American style." The Post points out that 1993 Academy Award-winning film "Philadelphia," despite receiving criticism for being "saccharine" and "politically correct," launched a "suffering gay character into the mainstream, and that put a human face on the disease that, for many had not been there before."
Preserving the Memory
"[A]s the epidemic [has] continued to metamorphose, so has the art that confronts it," the Post reports. Atkins says AIDS art has become "much more elegiac" over the last decade, largely because activist-oriented art ended in the early 1990s. "[M]any of the central AIDS artists and their circles had died, while others were burned out," he said. AIDS drug treatment has also "removed the sense of urgency" for Western artists, Atkins said. Author Patrick Moore agrees that today's AIDS-related art is "much less polemical" than it was a decade ago, but says it may be because artists no longer want to make AIDS the "single most important fact of their lives." The work being produced today is "much more nuanced and reflective of a larger range of experience," he said. Perhaps it is too early to tell what AIDS art will survive our era, the Post reports. But Moore, with Alliance for the Arts President Randall Bourscheidt, is working to preserve much of the art AIDS has inspired. Moore and Bourschedit founded the Estate Project, which works with several other arts organizations to collect AIDS-related works and offers an online catalogue of more than 3,500 images. "It really doesn't matter if the art is good or bad. It is a historic record of this extraordinary time," Moore said (Page, Washington Post, 3/18).