History · Other Stuff · Queer

Thoughts on “Art AIDS America”

I know I just said I don’t usually post about art exhibits, but this one’s really everything I’m interested in and it’s timely. Art AIDS America explores American art in the wake of AIDS, encompassing a wide variety of artists and media. I visited at the end of April while the show was at the Zuckerman Museum of Art in Kennesaw, Georgia. This is a no-pictures-allowed exhibit, partly to protect the privacy of visitors, so I don’t have pictures of my own (and don’t remember any details) but have pulled a few promotional images.


From a museum perspective, the exhibit labels are just fantastic, and that’s no small consideration: art doesn’t speak for itself. Art represents something, whether it be a photorealistic portrait or an abstract emotion.  Most art museums and art exhibits have small labels with the name of the piece, the artist, and maybe the medium or the year, and that’s it. But art is both historical and personal, and without that context, I have nothing! There’s no way to know if my aesthetic impression has anything to do with what the artist actually wanted to say about their life or the culture around them. These pieces in particular were saying things, and I appreciate the care and effort that went into explaining the art in labels without being condescending or overly detailed.

Deborah Kass, Still Here, 2007. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 45 x 63 inches.

If you know what the artist was saying or referring to, you can react in a meaningful way, not a way you’ve made up yourself. Because the labels ground you, Art AIDS America creates a connection to the material whether you have a personal one or not. “The AIDS crisis” as such was before my time — and after my time, as a historian — but it was a world-changing event in gay history with drastic repercussions, both personal and political, and this art shows those dimensions. The heaviest part was the display of Reagan-era politicians’ quotes and references to AIDS as a judgment or something anyone deserves. It’s not just history, though — the art wouldn’t exist without the context, but it’s also art, creative and curious in its own right. I remember one piece that’s made of a stack of papers and each visitor takes one, representing the spread of AIDS while questioning the idea of “owning” a piece of art in the first place.

"Silence = Death" window display
ACT UP NY/Gran Fury, Let the Record Show…, 1987/recreated 2015, mixed media installation.

The central controversy of the show is that in its original form, the two curators (Jonathan D. Katz and Rock Hushka) only included four black artists and a few other artists of color out of 107 total, despite claiming to “explore the whole spectrum of artistic responses to AIDS” and the current disproportionate affect of HIV/AIDS on black communities. I’m sure there’s a lot to say about how and why the exhibit turned out that way, but I’m not the one who knows. All I can say is that the Zuckerman handled it well, and took an opportunity to modify the show and include a more diverse pool of artists, and I appreciate it.

In the last week of its run at the Zuckerman, some local politicians started making noise about it being disgusting. Again, I can’t speak to all the motivations in the background, but I find it strange that the objections came in the last week of something like a four-month run, and I hope the museum isn’t discouraged. They did a fantastic job. I know they felt the need for security in the building (provided by the local police, an awesome outreach opportunity) but according to staff at the time I was there, they had no problems or complaints. From everything I’ve heard, that’s entirely typical. Audiences aren’t as sensitive as we museum people — and politicians — often think they will be.

I apologize to my southern peeps that Art AIDS America’s run has finished here, but I believe the show is headed to the Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York next, and then to Chicago!


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