Urgency Is Not Enough

Peter Campbell

  • Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of Aids compiled by Ted Gott
    Thames and Hudson, 246 pp, £12.95, March 1995, ISBN 0 642 13030 2
  • The End of Innocence: Britain in the Time of Aids by Simon Garfield
    Faber, 406 pp, £17.50, November 1994, ISBN 0 571 15353 4

Put sickness, art and death together and only a handful of images come to mind. Pathetic ones – Munch’s sick child in bed, Picasso’s wasting blue and pink girls and boys. Others done with stoic or scientific objectivity – like Hodler’s pictures of his dying mistress. There are decadent fantasies which show death the seducer, and sober, sad records of dead children. All these are images from the days when infectious illness was a deadly visitation. Then experience in rich countries changed. It almost seemed as if people, young people anyway, got sick only in order to be cured. As if medical skill needed volunteers on whom to exhibit its tricks. After the Second World War tuberculosis no longer killed a substantial proportion of its already decreasing number of victims. To see the young die from infectious disease became as old-fashioned as hoop skirts.

Aids changed that. Plenty of deathbeds. Lingering deaths of the fairly young and beautiful – in that it was like TB. And, as if a forgotten tax, a tax waiting to be levied on pleasure, had been revived, it proved, like syphilis, to be spread by sex. By the time it was clear that a new, dangerous infectious illness had arrived, the very idea of fatal illness had come to seem unfair, someone’s fault, not a thing to accept passively. Medical progress was commonly understood to deal in cures. The advance in understanding was steadier than the advance towards remedies but it was easy to be optimistic. So when Aids turned out to be a sly, intractable disease it provoked outrage. A cure, or at least a vaccine, ought to be found.

‘Ought’ in the sense of ‘we ought to do something about dirty air’ – that is to say, a prescription for public policy, made on the understanding that something could be done. Men in white coats should be given the funds to get back to their laboratories and defeat Aids. And ‘ought’ in the sense that we had a particular duty to a persecuted group. As well as the practical, good-housekeeping kind of ‘ought’ there was an ‘ought’ felt by those of liberal inclinations as a duty owed to a minority.

The result was that the disease came to be looked on not just as a sad, fearful thing, but as a wrong to be righted. And while some of the art which takes Aids as its subject, particularly the photography, is in a pathetic-stoic-decadent tradition, a substantial amount, which draws on a new emotion – anger – is not. The future is bleak; and rage, despair or frustration – at what fate has done and government agencies have done or not done, and medicine is still unable to do – plus irrational anger at the disease itself, colour what is produced. Edmund White said in 1987 (the essay is reprinted in Don’t Leave Me This Way): ‘If art is to confront Aids more honestly than the media have done, it must begin in tact, avoid humour, and end in anger ... End in anger, I say, because it is only sane to rage against the dying of the light, because strategically anger is a political response, because psychologically anger replaces despondency, and because existentially anger lightens the solitude of frightened individuals.’

Among onlookers guilt about being lucky replaces anger and it becomes a barrier to making art about Aids, or even writing about it. If you are not offering something practical, what right have you to it as subject-matter? What can you possibly say? Simon Garfield had qualms when writing The End of Innocence, a factual account which should, on the face of it, be useful: spreading the word, disentangling the truth, demythologising, softening prejudice. It is objective about difficult issues – how, for example, should the health pound be divided between Aids and other diseases? – and broad enough in its account of the way institutions have responded to the epidemic to achieve at least some of his larger aim: to ‘write a history of Britain over the last ten years with Aids at its core’. But even this, because it is a view from the outside, is offered up with an apology. When he interviewed ‘gay people and haemophiliacs and others who have been most affected by Aids in this country, I usually felt I was selling them short.’

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