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AIDS Activism in the Arts  
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The activist movement of the 1970s that galvanized large numbers of gay men and lesbians to protest repression, police entrapment, and other forms of discrimination was transformed by the AIDS epidemic that struck the gay community so devastatingly in the 1980s.

In the early and mid-1980s, the unifying issue among gay activists was government negligence about AIDS. In the early years of the epidemic, AIDS was rarely discussed in the national media or by political officials. As a result, many gay activists were compelled to voice their anger and sorrow through art, producing traditional works that were embraced by the museum and institutional art worlds, as well as a number of anonymous, public graphics, emblems, and memorials.

These political, yet accessible, public artworks reached millions and helped transform AIDS from a syndrome that many were reluctant to speak about, to a subject that could be raised sympathetically in popular news magazines and on television programs.

Gran Fury

One of the earliest, and most influential, pioneers of AIDS activism through art was Gran Fury, an artists' collective formed in 1988 as the propaganda office for the gay activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). Gran Fury, named after the brand of automobile used by the New York City Police Department at the time, sought to create a public, non-museum role for art that attempted to inform a broad public and provoke direct action to end the AIDS crisis.

Gran Fury's primary objectives were to render complex issues understandable and to give visual form to the shocking AIDS statistics originating at the time from the National Centers for Disease Control and New York's Department of Health. Gran Fury's artworks merged the simplicity of commercial advertising with the complexity of political argument to arouse a response from the general public. They targeted the streets, rather than the galleries, and determined that images were more compelling when accompanied by words of explanation and elaboration.

An early Gran Fury graphic offered the alarming news that "One In 61 Babies Born In New York Is HIV Positive" and another drolly advised men to "Use Condoms or Beat It." Their first institution-sponsored graphic implored the art world to fight AIDS because "With 47,524 Dead, Art Is Not Enough."

Gran Fury courted controversy throughout the late-1980s and early-1990s, with such projects as their street-spanning banner announcing that "All People With AIDS Are Innocent," which caused an uproar when it was exhibited at New York's Henry Street Settlement in 1989. This sentiment served as a direct counterbalance to the predominant attitude at the time, propelled by representations within the mainstream media, that people with AIDS were either "innocent victims"--that is, hemophiliacs and children--or "guilty sufferers--that is, gay men and IV drug users.

The collective's image of three interracial homosexual and heterosexual couples kissing above the caption "Kissing Doesn't Kill: Greed and Indifference Do" caused another furor the following year when it appeared on the sides of buses in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The original format of the work included a block of type (which was deleted in some cities for its controversial content) that read "Corporate greed, government inaction, and public indifference make AIDS a political crisis."

Perhaps Gran Fury's most inflammatory work was its contribution to the Venice Biennale in 1990, which nearly got the group arrested. The Venice Biennale is one of the most prestigious of international art exhibitions. Gran Fury seized on this opportunity to export its provocative brand of art activism to Europe. The collective's infamous "Pope Piece" skewered the Pope for his anti-safe-sex beliefs. The artwork paired two billboard-sized panels: one coupled the image of the Pope with a text about the church's anti-safe-sex rhetoric; the other a two-foot-high erect penis with texts about women and condom use.

Italian authorities, including Biennale personnel, considered prosecuting the group for blasphemy; only the last-minute intervention of sympathetic magistrates precluded an international incident.

In addition to the work of Gran Fury, several other significant public projects arose as a response to the AIDS crisis, including the SILENCE=DEATH Project, the Red Ribbon Project, and the AIDS Memorial Quilt.


In 1986, six anonymous gay men formed the SILENCE=DEATH Project and created the graphic emblem that has become synonymous with AIDS activism. This highly-visible work incorporated the emblem "SILENCE=DEATH" in white type beneath an inverted pink triangle--the symbol Nazis forced homosexuals to wear in concentration camps, and which gay activists of the 1970s had already appropriated as a symbol of gay liberation.

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A poster by the SILENCE=DEATH project (1986)
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