The Arts’ Influence on the AIDS Epidemic: Artists Lost to the Disease

Image of San Francisco’s Castro district, taken from Hoodline

In this section I will look at the many artistic lives lost to the AIDS disease by examining cities in the U.S. with large amounts of AIDS cases in the 1980s and 90s, such as San Francisco and New York City. Los Angeles is also noted for having the first diagnoses of HIV/AIDS in the United States in 1981 (MMWR Weekly, 1981). I will demonstrate a connection between these areas of high artistic output and the high amounts of HIV/AIDS diagnoses in these cities.

Rickenbacker Forum
Image of Tom Fogerty, taken from Rick Resource

San Francisco had been widely known for its vibrant artistic scene at least since the 1960s with its counter-cultural hippie movement. This movement spawned musical acts such as Big Brother & the Holding Company, The Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane. Tom Fogerty, an original member of San Francisco-based rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival, was diagnosed with AIDS in the 1980s as the result of an unscreened blood transfusion during a back surgery. Fogerty died of tuberculosis brought on by AIDS in 1990 (The History of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Tom Fogerty). Another San Francisco native, Jon Sims founded the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Marching Band and Twirling Corps in 1978 (AIDS at 25/The Remembering Continues). This band sparked a gay pride music movement around the country. Sims died in 1984 at the age of 36 from AIDS-related complications. David Cannon Dashiell was a painter from San Francisco, known for his work “Queer Mysteries;” he died in 1993 at the age of 40 (AIDS at 25/The Remembering Continues). San Francisco was hit very hard by the AIDS epidemic. As of 2016, AIDS had taken the lives of 20,000 people in San Francisco, most of which were gay men (Allday).

New York City’s Greenwich Village, Image from Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

New York City has also been known for its diverse artistic community. From the Tin Pan Alley songwriters in the early twentieth century to the punk rockers in the 1970s, from the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock to the graffiti tags on public buildings; art is a large piece of the culture of New York City. Like San Francisco, the arts community was hit heavily by the AIDS disease in the 1980s and 90s. Nicholas Dante, Michael Bennett, Edward Kleban, and James Kirkwood were all known for their work on the famous play A Chorus Line. All four of these men, who did most of their work in New York City, were dead from AIDS-related complications by 1991 (Los Angeles Times). Keith Haring, a well known artist in New York City, died of AIDS in 1990 (The Kieth Haring Foundation). “By March 1992, 37,952 cases of AIDS had been reported to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for the New York City metropolitan statistical area.. (Stryker, Ch. 9)” This number made up 17.6 percent of all adult cases and 24.7 percent of all child cases of AIDS in the United States. Throughout the course of the AIDS epidemic the national proportion of AIDS cases represented by New York City eventually began to decline, but the city still remained an area greatly affected by the epidemic.

Crack Down
Keith Haring’s painting Crack Down (1986), from The Keith Haring Foundation

Both San Francisco and New York City are areas of rich and diverse artistic creation, but they have obviously been greatly affected by the AIDS epidemic. These two cities were among the cities with the largest number of AIDS cases in the United States in the 1980s and 90s. In response to the devastation of the disease, a new artistic movement was created to 1.)memorialize those that had died of AIDS and 2.) raise awareness in the public of the disease. In this next section I will analyze this movement and its importance to the progress made in the development of treatments for the disease.