The Arts’ Influence on the AIDS Epidemic: Introduction

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Image from The Everyday Musings of an out-of-stater Stater

The artistic community of the United States is one of the best representations of the melting pot (or salad bowl) that is American society. The melting pot image has often been used to describe the United States as a nation of immigrants from different cultures coming together to create a new, complex homogeneous culture. The other image used to describe American society is the salad bowl, which says America is more like a heterogeneous mixture; there is not one one uniform culture, but many different cultures in close proximity to one another. I would say that the artistic community of the United States is more of a mixture of these two ideas. The various cultures that have immigrated to America are certainly visible, but over time, after living closely together, cultures have begun to mix.

The artistic community that I will be focusing on for this project is American artists affected by AIDS in the later half of the twentieth century. “AIDS is the most severe phase of HIV infection (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention),” and is known to have been active in the United States at least since the 1970s. The first cases of AIDS in the U.S. mostly affected the male homosexual community and intravenous drug-users. This quickly led to a negative stereotype against homosexuals and reinforced anti-gay political and social statements. As the AIDS disease developed into a national and global health crisis, doctors began searching for a cure, but this required federal spending. Many people did not view the disease as a crisis, but as a problem of one particular demographic, gay men and drug-users. Therefore it was very difficult for the government to put money towards the AIDS epidemic. When a treatment plan was made available, it was usually very expensive, which meant that only the wealthy would have access to it. However, according to the American Psychological Association, HIV “affects those of lower socioeconomic status and impoverished neighborhoods at a disproportionately high rate.” As a response to the negative view in the media, artists became politically active to raise awareness of the AIDS crisis. A new artistic movement was created with the purpose of memorializing those that had died of AIDS and/or bringing awareness of the disease to the public. This movement led to the formation of political activists groups, such as ACT UP, which pushed for recognition of the crisis and help from the government for those who were suffering. Eventually the U.S. government did establish programs to provide relief for those with HIV/AIDS. The artistic community played a very important role in this dramatic shift in view.

While AIDS took the lives of many artists, including Freddie Mercury, Rock Hudson, and Gil Scott Heron, the disease also inspired the creation of many artistic projects, such as the musical/movie Rent and Lou Reed’s song Halloween Parade. These artistic projects could have a variety of purposes, such as memorializing and remembering the deceased, as in Lou Reed’s Halloween Parade, or they could have more politically active messages, as in Keith Haring’s 1989 painting Ignorance = Fear, which references the political activist group ACT UP. The artistic movement centered around the AIDS epidemic greatly helped to push the health crisis higher on the political agenda. The Silence=Death poster, created by the ACT UP New York chapter, was viewed by many Americans in the 1990s and was displayed during protests, which brought the issue to peoples’s attention and helped shift the media’s view of the disease.

In this project I will first address the artists that have died of AIDS by looking at areas with a large amount of AIDS cases, such as New York and San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Next I will look at how these communities artistically responded to these AIDS related deaths and the media’s portrayal of AIDS. I will then describe how this artistic response to AIDS led to a change in portrayal of the disease and progress towards treatment. Finally, I will conclude by showing the arts’s importance in society and how it influences public opinion and politics.