“Rebels Rebel: AIDS, Art and Activism in New York, 1979-1989” by Tommaso Speretta— Art and AIDS


Speretta, Tommaso. “Rebels Rebel: AIDS, Art and Activism in New York, 1979-1989”, AsaMER, 2014.

Art and AIDS

Amos Lassen

Tommaso Speretta takes a good look at the history of AIDS activism undertaken by various artistic collectives in New York between 1979 and 1989. These include “Gran Fury (who scandalized the 1990 Venice Biennale with their billboards juxtaposing the pope and his anti-contraception stance with a two-foot high penis), the Silence = Death Project (who appropriated and inverted the Nazis’ pink triangle), Gang and DIVA TV. The collectives addressed concrete social problems by using unconventional media, and by doing this they helped shift the public and political perception of the AIDS crisis.” This book is very important to the history of the LGBT movement and we have here a great deal of material and many different perspectives on one of the most tragic period in American history.

Here is a look at where art overlaps activism and sociopolitical and art-historical views and the reflections that we gained then and now once again are important to understanding gay American life.

The collectives created radical art that called for and, in effect, demanded social change in New York City during the period from 1979 to 1989.demanding social change in New York 1979-1989. These collectives used language and techniques gleaned from the advertising agencies of Madison Avenue.

Some of their campaigns became very famous – just think about Act Up’s “SILENCE = DEATH” posters. A lot of the artwork was thought to be lost but this book has most of them. There were, for example, a deck of Aids-themed playing cards that addressed twenty-four areas of government inaction around the pandemic, with one showing a collection of alarm clocks alongside the text “U.S. Spends more in 5 hours on Defense than 5 years on Healthcare.” There was a subway poster by Richard Deagle that has a portrait of then New York City mayor Ed Koch with the words “10,000 New York City Aids Deaths, How’m I Doin?”. There was also a magazine ad by GRAN FURY from 1989 that shows a scientist working in a laboratory with this despicable quote from a pharmaceutical executive, “One million [people with Aids] isn’t a market that’s exciting. Sure it’s growing but it’s no asthma.” This book is a celebration of the power of such work, with its bold and straightforward graphic design and its important role of informing the public and changing popular opinion, as well as shaming government into doing its job.

The history of the anti-AIDS activist movements in 1980s America is one that many know little or nothing of especially outside of this country. The younger generations of gay men still do not know the stories and they need to. We are not told here how to see art as activism but rather we can give critical reflections on the role that artists and the art world system have had in the past during periods of political and cultural instability and to investigate their historical echoes and cultural legacy. We now know how much influence they had. The collectives used here (ACT UP, Gran Fury and Group Material) do not trace a comprehensive history of activist art, rather they are examples that can lead us “to identify, examine and reappraise the artistic inventions and interventions of activist art collectives that helped reformulate society’s priorities and demands”.

The focus here is on activist art as a potent manifestation of public art, through which artists and art practice can shape and change society. Group Material and Gran Fury’s struggled with questioning art’s capacity for rebellion, subversion and social dynamism, and to reach out to a wider audience that exists beyond the circles of just connoisseurs of art. connoisseurs. Activism has been used to organize communities and we see here that it can come from the world of art.

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