Pegrum: A Big Disease with a Little Name
3. Activism and Anger
"Enough is enough is enough is enough" sings Jimmy Somerville, recalling an old Barbra Streisand/Donna Summer hit well-known on the dance scene and in the gay community; but the context is quite new:
and we'll fight (fight!), 'til they meet our demands,
Money is what we need, not complacency.14
AIDS is a problem which requires urgent action, as is illustrated by Nayland Blake's 1991 "Every 12 Minutes", a clock with the intervals between AIDS deaths marked on it, or ACT UP San Francisco's sticker "150,000 Dead from AIDS". "Silence = Death" would certainly have to be the most famous slogan to have come out of the campaign against AIDS, and has been underlined and illustrated by artists as renowned as Keith Haring. If we don't shout and fight, as Jimmy Somerville suggests on behalf of the gay community, then we will be forgotten. And thus it is that art is mobilised, taking to the streets in a guerrilla war against those largely right-wing political and social leaders who view AIDS as a self-inflicted (gay) plague,15 and against the powerful governments of the world, which have often been slow to react to AIDS. Here, the Reagan and Bush administrations in the U.S. have been particularly singled out: Donald Moffett's "He Kills Me" poster of 1987 alternates a portrait of Ronald Reagan with a target; ACT UP New York's "Bush Aids Flag" sticker replaces the stars on the American flag with skulls and crossbones; while a character in Gregg Araki's 1993 film Totally Fucked Up has the following to say:
Here is an art which has become completely politicised, which sees no other means for combatting the languor if not the downright hostility of politicians than meeting them on their own ground, an art which takes to the streets in the form of placards, posters and stickers, which invades music, film and literature with its message. It is an art which resorts to all the techniques of advertising, of shock and surprise; and while it may not be overly interesting from a strictly artistic point of view, it is certainly interesting in that it has wrought a profound change in contemporary perceptions of what is allowable in art. Political art has become acceptable in art circles, and is collected and shown in galleries internationally; as Dennis Altman comments, "AIDS has broken down many of the traditional divides between art and politics".17
But the politics are intermingled with and often subsumed by another factor; namely anger. With so many dead and dying, and so little productive action on the part of governments, it is small wonder that the "Media Lies" attacked by ACT UP Melbourne in 1992, the same "lies about HIV" decried by German singer Nina Hagen in 1993,18 have produced reactions such as F.A.G.S., an acronym for Fucking Angry Gays whose stickers of the early nineties included messages such as "HIV - Hope Is Vital" or "Treatment Now - Says It All". If anger is to create politics, then it can be channelled in a very positive direction, as here. But is there a point at which anger goes too far? when politics becomes sheer verbal abuse? or does the gravity of the problem allow no limits? Consider for example the following passage from James Robert Baker's 1995 novel Tim and Pete, reporting the central character's thoughts as he watches TV:
The work rapidly becomes an apology for political terrorism and effectively advocates the assassination of the entire American New Right. While the reasons for such a vengeance motif are perhaps evident, can it really be countenanced? Are we still justified in referring to this as art? And even if we are, is there a point at which such invective (and such suggestions) become simply counterproductive?
Leaving aside such extreme cases, it is clear that the value of activist and angry artworks lies in their refusal to ignore the problem of AIDS; their aim is to confront the issues involved, and contribute to positive changes in respect of AIDS research, treatment and education, and in respect of society's approach to people with AIDS. These artworks, indeed, are a measure of human defiance in the face of tragedy and apathy. While it is certainly unfair to argue of AIDS art, as does John M. Clum, that "[t]here is no more need for depictions of loss and grief", there is clearly also a need for activist and practical art which aims to curtail the devastating effects of this disease. It is a time for confrontations on many fronts; in a haunting 1994 song entitled "Love Among the Sailors", Laurie Anderson writes of a black plague which has obvious parallels to AIDS, and threads a note of defiance into the general sense of hopelessness:
And if this is the work of an angry god
I want to look into his angry face.
There is no pure land now. No safe place.20
14. J. Somerville. "Read My Lips" in T. Gott (ed.), Don't Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1994, p.112.
15. Of course, not only is AIDS regarded by some as a plague deserved by the gay community, but dovetails with the idea that homosexuality is in itself a disease.
16. G. Araki (director). Totally Fucked Up. 1993.
17. D. Altman. "Psycho-Cultural Responses to AIDS" in T. Gott (ed.), Don't Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1994, p.150.
18. N. Hagen. "So Bad" from Revolution Ballroom. Mercury (Phonogram), 1993.
19. J.R. Baker. Tim and Pete. London: Fourth Estate, 1996, pp.9-10.
20. L. Anderson. "Love Among the Sailors" from Bright Red. Warner Bros, 1994.