The Arts’ Influence on the AIDS Epidemic: Creation From Destruction

As shown in the last section, the AIDS disease took the lives of many people in New York City and San Francisco. Among the lives lost were many artists, such as musicians, actors, painters, playwrights, and other creative minds. The artistic communities in these cities were devastated by the disease. However, amidst all the destruction and loss of life, artists did not remain silent. Instead, a powerful response in the form of a new artistic movement was created. Artists began to create art that was meant to memorialize people with AIDS and/or bring awareness to the public about the power of the disease. In this section I will examine this new artistic movement, exploring the different types of artistic output and the motivation behind these projects.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s art project “Untitled,” taken from Sartle

A large portion of the art from the AIDS art movement was meant to memorialize those that had died or been affected by AIDS. For example, Lou Reed’s song “Halloween Parade” was about the people who would no longer be able to attend the annual Halloween Parade in Greenwich Village, New York City because they died of AIDS (Reed). The play Rent was a fictional story about friends living in East Village, New York City who were affected by the disease. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s ‘Untitled’ piece of art features a mound of candy weighing 175 pounds, the approximate weight of Gonzalez-Torres’s lover who died of AIDS in 1991, piled in a corner of The Art Institute of Chicago. Viewers are encouraged to take a piece of the candy; once all the candy has disappeared, it is replaced (ArtBabble). The NAMES Project’s AIDS Quilt was created to memorialize the people that had died of AIDS, with each section (panel) dedicated to a person who has died of AIDS. The panels are created by friends and family of the deceased. Today there is more than 48,000 panels that have been created. Noted artists such as Gil Scott-Heron, Michael Bennett, and Freddie Mercury have panels in the AIDS Quilt.

Ignorance = Fear
Keith Haring’s painting Ignorance = Fear, Taken from The Keith Haring Foundation

Artistic projects in the AIDS art movement have also taken a political or socially active role, meaning they work to spread awareness of the disease. The social activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) used the image of the pink triangle in combination with the phrase “Silence = Death” to represent the both the liberation of gay people and the need for action on the AIDS crisis. Initially, the inverted pink triangle was used by the Nazis in World War II to label homosexuals, similar to how the Jews had to wear the Star of David. In the 1970s the triangle was turned upright to represent the gay pride movement. In 1987 gay activists created a poster with the upright pink triangle and the phrase “Silence = Death.” Shortly after the activists joined the ACT UP movement and shared their poster. From then on, the poster has been closely associated with the ACT UP movement and therefore one of the most recognizable images of AIDS social activism (Silence = Death). Keith Haring, an artist who eventually died of AIDS in 1990 (The Keith Haring Foundation), references ACT UP on his 1989 “Ignorance = Fear” painting (Kasambala and Kane, “Important Lessons Keith Haring Taught Us About Life and Art”). This painting is also closely associated with the AIDS social movement.

The impact of AIDS on artistic communities was devastating, but artists still found ways to create. An artistic movement was created to combat the AIDS disease and bring awareness to public. This helped greatly in bringing about social and political change in the AIDS epidemic. In the next section I will show the effect that the artistic movement had on the political and social status of AIDS in the United States.