This blog is usually dedicated to stories about women and academe; however, in this case, I am focusing on one event of a series of events sponsored by the Kennesaw State University’s Gender and Women’s Studies Program and the Women’s Resource and Interpersonal Violence Prevention Center. These events (mostly in February) concern love and sex. Today no discussion of love and sex can be complete without an examination of the effect that HIV/AIDS has had on the decisions of men and women to have sex, and, in this case especially, it is men who need to pay the most attention.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), no group in the United States has been more severely affected by HIV than gay and bisexual men. At the end of 2011, it was estimated that over 500,000 (57%) of the persons living with an HIV diagnosis were gay and bisexual men, or gay and bisexual men who also inject drugs.
Those of us living in the South should be aware that in 2009 the number of adults and adolescents living with an AIDS diagnosis was highest in the South (view map below). Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida led the South in cases of HIV/AIDS with a rate of 428.1 – 3,365.2 persons per 100,000. In 2009, the South accounted for 48% of the 17,774 persons with a diagnosis of AIDS who died in the 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Maithri Vangala in her article “Metro Atlanta at the Center of a Burgeoning HIV Crisis” points out that according to a 2015 CDC HIV surveillance report, metro Atlanta has the fifth-highest rate of new HIV diagnoses. Vangala goes on to say that poverty, lack of access to health care, and a large black gay community led Fulton and DeKalb counties in 2013 to show the highest number of people living with HIV diagnoses in Georgia – 14,695 and 6,116, respectively.
Thus, the KSU’s Zuckerman Museum of Art (ZMA)’s current exhibit, Art AIDS America, co-curated by Jonathan D. Katz, Director of the Visual Studies Doctoral Program at the State University of New York at Buffalo and Rock Hushka, Chief Curator at Tacoma Art Museum, is a timely showing for those of us in the Metro Atlanta area. The exhibit will be at ZMA until May before moving on to the Bronx Museum in New York.
Art and AIDS
According to Katy Malone, the Education and Outreach Coordinator at ZMA, the exhibit surveys over 100 artworks from the 1980s to the present, displaying a full spectrum of artistic responses to AIDS. These renderings challenged the artistic style and theory of art before 1980 as well as during the 1980’s.
Modernism flourished during the early twentieth century, espousing ideas such as “art for art’s sake,” freeing artists and writers from didactic and moral moorings. Post Modernism became popular in the 1980’s with its declaration that the artist is dead and that art is open to interpretation from the audience members. As HIV/AIDS invaded artist communities, artists needed their art to speak of their lives and the havoc, struggle, and trauma AIDS was creating.
According to Margaret Rhodes in her article “A Sobering Look At How AIDS Changed Art in America, biographical art became an important medium for artists to tell “the world of their crisis.” Artists used their work to speak for and make visible issues concerning AIDS in America; otherwise, artists facing death would disappear and no one would be the wiser.
In educational materials that Malone created for KSU faculty, staff, and students in order to help ZMA prepare for tours
on March 2nd and 3rd 2016, Malone links several portraits to the theme “Portraits and the Body.” She states that artists used portraits to humanize people with HIV/AIDS. These included their own images or those around them as powerful explorations of identity, mortality, and the fragility of life. On the right is Mark Morrisroe’s untitled, black and white, self portrait in which he stands in pajamas, top open, next to an IV pole from which his medicine dangles. Morrisroe was a punkrock artist who focused on the autobiographical in his work. He attempted to create art that spoke the truth as he knew it, and this photograph helped him to document his own illness and eventual death from AIDS in 1989.
Other artists were forced to rely on subterfuge in order to camouflage the ways in which their art was linked to the AIDS crisis. According to Trenton Straube in his post “Art That Makes You Go Hmmm,” the 1980’s witnessed the “birth of the culture wars and intense censorship” which drove artists to go “undercover” and to camouflage the representation of AIDS in their work. The need for subterfuge was especially important after the Helms Amendment in 1987 made it illegal to disseminate information about gay sexuality and AIDS.
Malone chose the theme “Subverted Meaning” in her educational materials for art which the audience must decipher the link between it and AIDS. On the left is Andres Serrano’s Milk/Blood. Composed of one white and one red rectangle there is no obvious link between the artwork and AIDS. However, according to Malone, “Serrano inverts the sublimity of color field abstract paintings from modernism by referencing the aesthetic in photos of bodily fluids.” She goes on to note that the white and red rectangles in this work denote milk and blood, both liquids through which HIV can be transferred.
Other themes that Malone discusses in her educational materials for students, staff, and faculty examine “Desire and Intimacy,” “Religion and Spirituality,” “the Personal is the Political,” “Legacy,” and “Memory and Loss.” Malone suggests that viewers consider examining one or two of these themes in relationship to the exhibit as they create their own interpretation of the art.
Looking Back on AIDS in America
My experience with learning about Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was at first a slow dawning awareness and then a rapid acceleration of understanding. According to the AIDS.gov’s timeline for HIV/AIDS, June 5, 1981, is when AIDS surfaced in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) as part of a discussion of five young, gay men in Los Angeles, who reportedly had a rare lung disease as well as other “unusual infections.”
Fortunately the Associated Press and The Los Angeles Times covered the story the following day, and soon doctors from across the United States flooded the CDC with similar cases. By 1982 it was clear that tens of thousands of people were more than likely affected by the disease and that some infants who have received blood transfusions were part of those affected.
AIDS was only a blip on my radar in 1983. It was 1984 when I was a second-year teacher at North Newton High School in Morocco, Indiana that I remember AIDS beginning to replace Herpes as the most discussed sexual disease. Administration at the school ensured information about AIDS was disseminated, but crucial information concerning the cause of AIDs and the role of needle sharing was just coming to light.
Our conversations at this time, like the conversations going on across America concerning AIDS, spread fact, fiction, and fear like wildfire, and often renewed biases against gay men in their wake. I remember when Ryan White, a teenager growing up in Kokomo, Indiana was diagnosed with AIDS in 1985. It didn’t matter to people that he had contacted the disease through blood products used to treat his hemophilia. All that mattered was that he was thought to be contagious so he was refused entry to his school, and people across Indiana worried about their own children and how they might contact AIDS from another student. Blood, spit, snot, pool water—all were suspect.
In small town Indiana we were not even living near the front line of the disease. On the front line young gay men especially were living in fear and watching as those with AIDS wasted away and died. According to the Whitney Museum of American Art’s video “I, You, We, Art & AIDS,” (see video below), AIDS activist groups like ACT Up began forming in order to pressure the government to invest in research and to speed up the availability of drugs. The Canadian art group, General Idea, created the AIDS Logo based on the artist Robert Indiana’s 1960 Love Icon. They replicated this Logo over and over again in order to show the power of the HIV virus to reproduce itself.
In 1996 after 360,000 people in the United States had died from AIDS, antiretroviral therapy was introduced, and for the first time the number of new AIDS cases diagnosed in the Unites States declined. According to the AIDS. gov timeline, Dr. David Ho began to advocate for the “hit early, hit hard” aggressive treatment regimes, and America began the process of retarding the growth of the epidemic.
Today drug therapy and a better understanding of how one contracts HIV/AIDS, means that the 1.2 million people in the United States with HIV infection live longer and better lives than they would have in the past. However, the crisis is not over. According to the CDC, in 2013 an estimated 47,352 people were diagnosed with HIV infection in the United States. In that same year, an estimated 26,688 people were diagnosed with AIDS. Overall, an estimated 1,194,039 people in the United States have been diagnosed with AIDS. An estimated 13,712 people with an AIDS diagnosis died in 2012, and approximately 658,507 people in the United States with an AIDS diagnosis have died overall. In 2015 Southeastern Indiana faced a new outbreak of AIDS as 184 people were diagnosed. The outbreak was linked to injection drug use and in part prompted the Indiana government to lift restrictions on needle exchange programs (CDC). However, Jyoti Thottam in her article “Ban on State Funding Hampers Indiana Efforts to Start Needle Exchanges,” points out that Indiana’s needle exchange effort has been limited by the state’s decision to ban state funding for the exchanges.
Malone points out that the Art AIDS America exhibit concerns continuing the dialogue about HIV/AIDS as we work to contain the spread of the infection around the world.
To conclude, I would like to think about how we memorialize those who have died from AIDS. Those attending the exhibit will find that panels from the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt can be viewed. According to the website The AIDS Memorial Quilt, the idea for the quilt was conceived by Cleve Jones, a San Francisco gay rights activist, when he realized in November of 1985 that over 1,000 San Franciscans had lost their lives to AIDS. On October 11, 1987, the quilt was displayed for the first time on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The quilt is the largest community art project in the world. In June of 2012, it was composed of more than 48,000 panels on 8,000 blocks (12 square feet in size). The quilt was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.
The quilt reminds me of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. Like the memorial, the size of the quilt is staggering, and, like the memorial, most of the quilt is composed of name after name of men who died before their time. However, the names of women and young children dot the quilt as well. The AIDS Memorial Quilt website allows those of us interested to search the quilt using a form view (for those of us who do not know someone memorialized through the quilt, this allows us to see the names of those who died and their specific quilt segments. Like the flowers and mementos that lie at the based of the Vietnam War Memorial, the quilt panels provide us with a sense of the tangible human life behind those names. Color and items associated with the names help memorialize the humans who have died. Many of the quilt panels contain birth and death dates, ensuring that we know just how short some of the lives were. Microsoft’s Memorial Quilt allows us to view the quilt both in its magnitude as well as by individual panel by zooming in and out.
One thing that impacted me in a powerful way when viewing the Vietnam War Memorial is that the names on that memorial site were so similar to names of people with whom I had grown up. I thought I might end this post with a paragraph of names that can be found on the quilt and maybe we can imagine the faces and identities behind the names.
Chris Dupree, Gary Barnhill, Richard Anderson, Simon Guzman, Lawrence, John T. Siler, Gary Johnson, Chris Olds, Neal Yager, Harry, James Martin Case, “R. Kirk Seaton, M.D.”, Randy Partlow, Paul Walker, Steven Quesada, Bill Cathcart, Felix Velarde-Munoz, Bobbie Campbell, John Riddler, Paul Castro, Ed Mock, Bruce Harris, Randy Pike, David Hicks, Joe Schmall, Bill Kraus, Gary Walsh, David Calgaro, Robert Michael Flaherty, Jon Sims, Allan Estes, Bill Schultz, Morgan Ellis, Dennis Oglesby, Roy Esquibel, Dick Gamble, Tod Coleman, David R. Thompson, Jose Ramirez, Rick Claflin, Scooby Bowman, Nick Paris, Marvin Feldman, John Hall, “George Dutra, R.N.”, Jonathon Halpern, Scott Oatman, Larry Long, Gemini Jim, Frank Cook (), James McClure, Henry Backard, Steven Garber, Doug de Young, Bill Peters, Roger Lyon, Poni Mon Dada, Jan Patat Luxwolda, Russell Viera, Keith Rahner…