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.’

You cannot easily put art about Aids in the art-only box: it is part of a dialogue, between those who have the disease and those who don’t, in which the personal, the imaginative and the technical are intertwined. Garfield must take on Derek Jarman as artist as well as activist. The images of the Princess of Wales sitting with people with Aids, and an account of Neville Hodgkinson, the Sunday Times medical correspondent who has argued that HIV does not cause Aids, cannot be separated from the works of art which are gathered in Don’t Leave Me This Way – published in association with an exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia in 1994. There is no other body of visual art produced in recent decades which is so intimately linked both with domestic politics and with personal loss – and also with advertising, journalism and the visual accoutrements of protest. When you ask if it works, you must ask first whether you mean works as art, as propaganda, as catharsis, as therapy, as an explanation or as an analysis of feelings and ideas.

The visual arts (no surprise) have trouble dealing with non-visual ideas. But there are pieces which, by combining image and written statement, manage it. In 1990, the American artist Hilary Leone exhibited a piece called Position Papers. The magazine Artweek described it as ‘a wall-sized expanse of black sandpaper in which the words “Aids” and “Sida” (the Spanish acronym for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) are formed from a braille inscription of a paper authored by Leone’. That inscription, Leone says in her own description of the piece, is ‘an essay that chronicles and critiques the FDA’s role in approving new drug treatments of Aids ... We offer no transcript of the essay, rendering it inaccessible to most, in an effort to address the difficult struggle people with Aids face in getting the facts about their illness and the pain that so often accompanies that search.’ Another piece, this one by Leone and her associate Jennifer Macdonald called Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down, endeavours ‘to combine the public and private needs of recording loss. In the space of a child’s sandbox, Ashes, Ashes offers the viewer a fragile and indecipherable moment: a braille text in sand that contains the names of many who have died of Aids and its complications ... the conventional memorial necessarily obscures the ineffable and illegible responses that grief inspires.’

Denial of transparency and emphasis on the difficulty of communication is a common move in art games. In this case the politics of Aids renews these well-worn counters. While the symbolism – names written in sand, on the wind, in water; the reading which destroys what is being read – are well-worn poetic images, the literal illegibility and real fragility of Leone and Macdonald’s pieces seem to have had a remarkable effect.

Works of art like these offer experiences which bypass pure frustration at intellectual and emotional dead-ends. The ‘useless’ work involved – the unreadable paper, the laboriously crafted names which will trickle away – can be read as a kind of scourging, an act by which the makers put themselves in a position that is wasteful and frustrating, a shadow of the one people with Aids find themselves in. But even these moves can be seen as aesthetic trifling: a straining of the medium to deal with arguments which, in a play or a novel, can be worked out and demonstrated in the more natural medium of language.

The best of Don’t Leave Me This Way – for example, the portrait photographs and captions in which William Yang records in pictures as plain as holiday snaps the sickness and death of a friend – is analogous to the personal accounts Garfield recorded for The End of Innocence. Such records (nearly always accompanied by words which explain who is HIV positive, who has Aids) fit existing traditions, and have renewed them. These, like many images and objects produced by PWAs (‘people with Aids’ – language is not helpful when you want a word for those who have a disease), their partners, friends, and relatives – not just photographs but quilts, posters and so on – are a kind of folk art, made in the communities for which they have most meaning. They are affecting, they speak for themselves and, by making no obvious appeal to it, seem able, paradoxically, to reach the widest audience.

All this says nothing about the primary division between artists who have Aids and those who do not. Edmund White goes through the questions an artist who has Aids asks:

Should I make my work simpler, clearer and more accessible? Should I record my fears obliquely or directly in my work, or should I defy them? Is it more heroic to drop whatever I was doing and look disease in the eye, or should I continue going in the same direction as before, though with new concentration? Is it a hateful concession to the disease even to acknowledge its existence? Should I pretend Olympian indifference to it? Or should I admit to myself: ‘look kid you’re scared shitless and that’s your material’? It Yeats thought sex and death were the only two topics worthy of adult consideration, then Aids wins hands down on subject matter.

Because many artists have decided to use the tools to hand – which can be calculatedly opaque – direct, often crude meanings are forced out of modes developed in the context of the hermetic world of gallery art and art theory. After the Revolution, workers in the Russian Imperial porcelain factory turned their skills to decorating coffee cups with tractors and hammers and sickles. Aids has encouraged makers in genres which privilege wilful self-absorption to do something similar. Sometimes this works, but a lot of the art in Don’t Leave Me This Way fails.

Describe these pieces, look to the descriptions for meanings, and pretty often you get messages of painful banality: Gay Beauty Myth (collage of details of hunky young male – from Calvin Klein underwear advertisement – juxtaposed with details of emaciated young male); Peter Lyssiotis’s Billy Says that a Person’s Broken Heart Can Sometimes Smell of Roses (photograph of torso, red cutout heart taped on chest, face obscured by bunch of seed-catalogue-like roses, blackened bone attached to left arm). One expected something more complicated or oblique from Cindy Sherman than Untitled #179 (partial back view of person sitting on cushion surrounded by bananas, carrots and condoms); Andres Serrano’s Ejaculate in Trajectory and Bloodstream (photographs of those things) are moves in a game where each new transgression shocks less. Derek Jarman’s Blood (repeats of Sun front page reading ‘AIDS BLOOD IN M&S PIES PLOT’ overpainted in red with lines of the word ‘blood’ scratched white out of the red) is perfunctory. Aids, which gives these pieces a claim on our attention, tests them destructively by making it natural to ask direct questions: what do you mean? What right have you to make this thing? What good does it do? Who is it for?

These were also the questions you wanted to ask when the clothing firm Benetton, by using a photograph on a poster of the dying Aids activist David Kirby, borrowed concern and pity for commercial ends. But the situation is complicated. In other contexts advertising techniques were taken up vigorously by Aids activists. Indeed, a poster was produced showing the same image with the message, ‘There’s only one pullover this photograph should be used to sell,’ set above a picture of a condom. The sleight of hand which makes one distrust advertising doesn’t go away just because your cause is good.

Health education advertising brought its own grotesqueries. Garfield’s account of the progress of Aids education in Britain shows how difficult it was to persuade politicians to allow press advertisements which plainly described the way the virus might be transmitted during intercourse, and particularly during anal intercourse. Norman Fowler conceded that the first campaign had had ‘next to no impact’. Grammar, as well as decency, caused arguments. Lord Hailsham wrote to Margaret Thatcher: ‘I am convinced there must be some limit to vulgarity! Could they not use the literate “sexual intercourse”? If that is thought to be too narrow, then why not “sexual relations” or “physical practices”, but not “sex” or, worse, “having sex”.’

The crudest kinds of written message – advertisements without irony or artfulness – have been used to teach safe ways of fucking (one uses the word partly because one comes away from Garfield’s book with a loathing for euphemism). Various government-sponsored campaigns were considered inappropriate because they were thought to be distasteful. In this case political squeamishness may have had a point: what was found objectionable might have increased prejudice against PWAs without making any difference to sexual behaviour. Garfield points to an analogous irony: homophobic Aids stories in the tabloid press may have had a positive effect on the at-risk community, making them more careful about what they did.

The narrowness of intention which distinguishes advertising allows a single point, a single joke to be made. Don’t Leave Me prints lots of slogan-bearing posters and stickers. ‘Kissing doesn’t kill, greed and indifference do’; ‘Silence = death’; ‘HIV – HOPE IS VITAL’; ‘TREATMENT NOW SAYS IT ALL’. These protests were in the tradition of anti-Vietnam War posters – many were made by Act-Up (‘Aids Coalition to Unleash Power’) members – and called for action. Act-Up’s success in making people think about Aids is unquantifiable. But the silence of public bodies who did too little about education was a target a poster campaign could hit. It was a political situation calling for political action. ‘Treatment now says it all’ was a more difficult slogan. The culture of medical optimism made any failure to supply a drug seem mean-minded scientific conservatism. In fact, the success Act-Up and other groups had in changing and speeding up the way drug trials were carried out has, so far, proved no life saver, because no life-saving drug has been discovered.

Although Don’t Leave Me This Way is more than a catalogue, what it illustrates is, almost entirely, gallery art. Species of images, like species of animals, die out when their habitats are destroyed. There is very little art about now which is both seriously regarded and not primarily gallery art. Devotional icons need shrines, dynastic portraits need big houses. Both need a deferential cast of mind. When, in the Sixties, Philip Johnson built an underground art bunker close by his famous glass house in New Canaan, he dramatised the division which had grown up between the collecting of art and the embellishment of rooms. Art, driven out by photographs and postcards, no longer stands in for a missing face or a distant landscape, and would not sulk at not being noticed. The modern collector might go to works of art as he would to a book or a record. There are, of course, still plenty of walls with pleasant pictures on them. The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists became, not surprisingly, suppliers of images to the rich (in the original) and the world at large (in reproduction). Abstraction in various forms took on the function of tapestries – the deep intentions of the painters of no more concern to the casual observer than the mythologies of the weavers. But new examples of easy-looking are, with very few exceptions, rejected or suspected by compilers of the modern canon.

On the showing it gets in Don’t Leave Me This Way, public art, gallery art, often stumbled when faced with the crises of Aids. It is not surprising to find that much of it aims to bring the brashness of flyposting and graffiti into the gallery, where it loses some of its sting. Urgency is not enough. Only the photographs in Don’t Leave Me This Way show, directly, what it is like to have Aids. It is almost impossible to imagine paintings being made today which would do that, or even seem to be trying to do that. Not that painters have ever been all that good at showing ordinary mortality – nor, even in the past, was great painting much concerned with it. A few of Rembrandt’s drawings come to mind. Not much else. Statements of suffering in plenty – crucifixions, pietàs, martyrdoms – and a fair number of troubled faces marked by age, anxiety and disease. But not single, ordinary deaths. These became a subject for novelists – not, as Auden, making Breughel representative rather than unusual, suggests, for all old masters. The art of Aids, like the art of war, includes some bitter reportage, some mind-changing installations, some fine battle flags, some hard-hitting recruiting posters, smart slogans and touching memorials. If there were to be a bonfire of the vanities tomorrow what of all this would you throw on last? Long after the pictures and posters were blazing and the sculptures melting and the installations fizzing and exploding, I would be trying to hide a pile of photograph albums and a few diaries. The most primitive work of art we have – the snapshot, the closest thing to a memory caught on the fly – has supplied the images we turn to, when people are dead, to remember them and how they used to be.

Rather than his paintings you want Derek Jarman grinning as he is canonised by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. In the meeting between Aids and the visual arts there has been a casualty: the hope that the art of our time could meet our need for images adequate to the bad things that happen in our time. But that would always have been a lot to hope for.