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Gran Fury: AIDS and the Art of Civic Rhetoric

Updated: Jun 19

What is the relationship between art and activism? Is there such a thing as "good propaganda"? What roles do visual art, theater, and literature play in galvanizing social change? And more specifically, what role did art and the highly theatrical public protests play in changing the CDC, the FDA, and the discourse around AIDS during the height of the epidemic in America from the mid-80s to the early ´90s?

To address some of these questions, author and editor Jack Lowery has given us a thoroughly-researched book, It Was Vulgar & It Was Beautiful. While there are already many excellent resources about this same period, Lowery focuses on the work of Gran Fury, the arts collective that emerged within the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) in New York. Drawing from numerous in-depth interviews with the surviving members of the group, as well as research from primary sources such as the ACT UP Oral History archive, It Was Vulgar & It Was Beautiful provides a window into how Gran fury collaborated, argued, and galvanized a new way of thinking about people living with AIDS, and in turn helped to shift research funding from governmental institutions, provide better treatment for those afflicted, and more. Using Gran Fury´s work in the context of the fight against AIDS, Lowery goes deep into discussing the important role art plays within activist movements, as well as its limitations. Along with the superb Let the Record Show by Sarah Schulman, It Was Vulgar & It Was Beautiful is not only essential reading for anyone interested in learning more about this period, but is an excellent blueprint for how to utilize creative media (especially visual art and performance) in activism today.

Full disclosure: I briefly worked with ACT UP between 1991 in their needle exchange program and also with YELL. The experience was transformative, and played a crucial role in my own coming out as a bisexual man.

Since 2020, I have noticed a number of well-meaning media outlets have produced articles and podcasts linking the AIDS epidemic with covid-19, one that I believe is a rather false equivalency. True, in the early weeks and months of the coronavirus, there was a lot of confusion about its transmission, which created a lot of anxiety and fear. But let us not forget that in less than one year, the world had a free vaccine available, one that essentially neutralized the problem for all who chose to take it.

By contrast, it took more than a decade before the US government adequately funded the Centers for Disease Control to research, treat, or even attempt to cure HIV. Since the immune-defiency virus was thought to be initially affecting homosexuals and drug addicts, research was not a priority. President Reagan ignored even mentioning the word AIDS during most of his two terms in office, and senators blithely proposed legislation that was blatantly discriminatory and homophobic (such as preventing HIV+ inmates from being released from prison; and marking people with AIDS on the ass as a "warning" to others about their status). Religious leaders said those infected with the disease were suffering "God´s punishment". The public rhetoric surrounding AIDS--by Presidents and public commentators, by senators and cardinals--was brazenly discriminatory, and had an impact on how resources for tackling this health crisis was addressed for years.

Sadly, few contemporary journalists or podcasters articulate this hateful backdrop to the AIDS epidemic when drawing parallels with our recent covid-19 pandemic. Thankfully, Lowery avoids such a breezy approach to history, and instead chooses to plunge readers into the messy facts of what actually happened.

Reading Vulgar & Beautiful, one can certainly come to the conclusion that ACT UP co-founder Larry Kramer was a pretty big asshole; but one can also appreciate his anger and his rage, for those same uncompromising qualities galvanized so many into action. Similarly with Dr. Anthony Fauci, a very skilled scientist and researcher who nonetheless needed considerable prodding from ACT UP--both in small face to face meetings as well as highly theatrical protests outside his office in Atlanta--to get him to work harder towards demanding research for funding.

Importantly, Lowery reminds us that some of Gran Fury´s most iconic work--notably, the "Silence = Death" poster--arose first out of a need to use art as a coping tool in the face of unbearable grief. Only later did this become the first of many examples of the "civic rhetoric" synthesizing the principles and goals of ACT UP. Vulgar & Beautiful thoroughly provides readers with an insight into how this poster and other projects by Gran Fury came into being, as well as which ones were most effective, and why others were not.

Especially at the beginning of its formation, thee membership of ACT UP was predominantly made up of gay white men, a fact which created some opportunities for effecting change (ie some of their members knew how to contact health organizations, mainstream media, and/or the art world), as well as inevitably creating blindspots (such as thinking about how HIV effects women and/or people of color). Lowery makes sure that the work of Marlene McCarty, Maxine Wolf, Robert Vazquez-Pacheco, Katrina Haslip, and others gets the recognition that they deserve, particularly in changing the CDC definition of who can get HIV (and thus qualify for social security and health insurance) so that it includes women.

In short, It Was Vulgar & It Was Beautiful is an exceptional book, one that can inspire contemporary activists today in how to effectively use art to create "another kind of propaganda". I urge everyone to not just read Jack Lowery´s book, but study it. Without a detailed knowledge of our past, we are in danger of repeating it.

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