Wednesday, 6 March 2013

An uncontroversial look at art and AIDS

In a week that has seen tentative steps towards a cure for a devastating disease, unforgivable hypocrisy in the church and the cardinals getting together to elect a new pope, rather appositely my class this week was about art and AIDS. Sometimes the connections just beg to be written about, so this is a brief one with a just a few observations on the differences between how governments, artists and commercial organisations responded to AIDS in the early 1990s. 

The Wellcome library has a digitised collection of AIDS posters from public health campaigns all over the world. Browsing the images is an excursion into the collective minds of states and institutions. Much has been written on the various styles of poster but what struck me was how badly they had dated. With some exceptions these posters seem to reflect the bland style of a civil servant using MS Publisher for the first time with a mandate to 1. Not offend anyone 2. Stick to stereotypes 2. Maintain integrity of the family and 3. Be politically sensitive. As a result they are stuck in a time and place with no modern relevancy, except as curios to be discussed by social/art/science historians.

Portrait of Ross
At the other end of the scale were the artists responding to illness. They were living with it through friends, partners, and their own bodies, and demonstrating that ‘the essence of art is nothing less than the conservation of human experience itself'.* The two artists we looked at in class were Félix González-Torres and David Wojnarowicz. Both were working in the 1980s-90s and reacting to the devastation in very different, yet powerful ways. Their work, amongst others, was reexamined in a recent exhibition at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. A discussion by Jonathan Katz, co-curator of Hide/Seek reflects on their work. 

Wojnarowicz’s ‘Untitled : Face in Dirt' (1990) fights the disintegrating body, screaming silently for release. The semi buried face resonates over the decades, neither aging, nor illness specific making it extraordinarily relevant to illness with stigma today. Other works of his still have the ability to disturb, with his video piece Fire in the Belly being pulled from the‘Hide/Seek’ exhibition due to Republican law makers threatening to withdraw their funding. As long as there is this disharmony between art and politics, artists will continue to shake the establishment and this is a very good thing.

Félix González-Torres, as stated by Katz above, conveys his message in a quiet, more subtle way. The portrait of his partner Ross Laycock is a pile of sweets; their initial weight reflecting that of his partner before he contracted HIV, and it slowly diminishes over time as the brightly coloured chocolates are eaten. Eventually there is nothing left. Empty wrappers find their way around the museum like the virus around the body. A deeply emotional and evocative way of exploring the loss of health and body - and a loved one.

As well as public bodies and private artists, a commercial organisation was looking at a way of creating a message using this illness. Never shy of controversy, they produced the Benetton Pieta. If the public health authorities were aiming for a wide audience and artists were creating powerful art which was essentially only seen by a few, Benetton were looking to pitch their adverts to as many people as possible. Using the real artistic 'felt' emotion and the public health audience figures, their adverts combined the best of both and stunned the world. Where real death was missing from the posters, here was the reality; unashamed, emotional. On bill boards, in magazines, on your street. Benetton had worked very closely with David Kirby's family and they were happy for this image to be shown and the company were willing to take that risk and unleash on the public what it meant to die of this illness. 

Though discussion in class centred around the moral issues of selling clothes using a dying man and his family, I remain convinced that this advert did more for AIDS awareness than the pathetic attempts of the state and church. Ultimately whether you buy a Benetton shirt or not doesn't matter. But if you discussed that image at school, talked about it with your friends in the pub and made you think, then it succeeded. Precisely because it offended certain groups is the reason for its success. There is a further argument for suggesting that the fashion industry was extremely sensible of the risks of AIDS to their own community and so it was actually appropriate of a young fashion company to make such a statement about it. Would an oil company or bank have produced such an incredibly thought provoking advert? I think not.

So what am I ultimately saying here? That the state cannot produce emotion like artists can or take as much risk as a commercial organisation? It can't. Are certain companies more suited to a particular kind of message? Probably. Public health messages are so difficult to get across in a way that is taken seriously - campaigns struggle to be meaningful, honest or effective. For example, the smoking campaign has now resorted to representing reality with diseased lungs and hearts on packets. Will this be any more successful? Probably not.

Sex is always going to be more awkward than any other kind of behaviour that the public health wants to control as there are many other conflicting interests and interfering organisations. And some of them should butt out, take a look at the Lives of the Artists: they may learn something. 

* Paul Crowther, Art and embodiment (Oxford, 1993) p7 

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