Five seminal art works born out of AIDS movement

Five seminal art works born out of AIDS movement

On July 3, 1981, the New York Times ran an article with the ominous headline, “Rare cancer seen in 41 homosexuals.” The story, penned by Lawrence K. Altman, detailed the initial panic of a community that had only recently begun to reap the benefits of a decades long struggle for acceptance and visibility. 

The cancer was Kaposi’s Sarcoma — a rare skin cancer that when migrated internally became a death sentence and manifested in violet lesions cosmetically, stamping people who had been exposed to the virus with unwanted disclosure and forecasting future irrational stigma. Initial diagnoses were in New York City and San Francisco, but new infections swept the continent in a bewildering, swift and lethal wave.

The queer community, no stranger to adversity, closed ranks and not only cared for one another during a time of crisis, but successfully rallied the Food and Drug Administration and Washington to accelerate research on what eventually became known as HIV.

Another defining achievement of the AIDS movement was the expression of the struggle, not only in civil disobedience and academia, but across various media, including, theatre, photography, film and literature.

In observance of World AIDS Day, Yohomo has assembled a list of five seminal art works born out of the movement.

General Idea

Renowned art collective General Idea utilized the public’s silence on the AIDS pandemic to their advantage. President Reagan wouldn’t utter the acronym until 1985, four years after the first recorded deaths. In 1987, General Idea subverted Robert Indiana’s globally recognizable LOVE logo by substituting the text for “AIDS”. While the artwork infuriated activists who accused General Idea of trivializing the movement, the images insinuated themselves into the dominant culture, tearing down the vastly detrimental wall of silence.   

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes

When playwright Tony Kushner debuted his epic play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes for the first time in its entirety in 1993, death rates from AIDS were peaking. HIV had proven to be stealthy and resilient and was exhausting the movement’s efforts. Kushner’s two-part play in the face of AIDS darkest hour deserves its accolades. The surrealistic, Pulitzer Prize winning play detailed characters living in New York City in the 1980s, including Roy Cohn, the hypocritical, closeted attorney who died of AIDS in 1986. HBO optioned the play into a stellar mini-series in 2003 which starred Meryl Streep, Patrick Wilson and Al Pacino as Cohn. A 2017 production of the play is set to hit the National Theatre in London with Andrew Garfield, Russell Tovey and Nathan Lane in starring roles.

 The Normal Heart

Writer and activist Larry Kramer channelled his naked rage at the American government’s wilful disregard of the AIDS crisis in his ground-breaking 1985 off-Broadway play The Normal Heart. The autobiographical production also didn’t shy away from focusing Kramer’s anger inward towards the gay community and the AIDS movement’s complacent relationship with the medical establishment. American Horror Story show-runner Ryan Murphy’s 2014 film adaptation breathed new life into the production and served as an education for the PrEP generation.   


What distinguishes activist and writer Tim Murphy’s Christodora from scores of other novels about the AIDS crisis is its poignant portrayal of the plague’s aftermath. The 2016 novel seamlessly weaves together the narratives of several characters over multiple decades using Manhattan’s historical Christodora House as a backdrop. It’s an ambitious framework, but one Murphy has flawlessly executed with no single character vying for the role of the protagonist. Christodora, which has just been optioned as a mini-series, is a triumph of the literary subgenre.

 How to Survive a Plague

Veteran AIDS activist and writer David France chronicled ACT UP, the global AIDS advocacy group that were instrumental in creating awareness, challenging legislation and ultimately expediting the creation of life-saving medications, in his powerful 2012 documentary. France has just published the highly-anticipated companion book of the same name that tells the story of the activists on the front lines in the early days of the epidemic and those who invented and lived by the movement’s central mantra — Silence=Death. How to Survive a Plague examines the lives and circumstances of the heroes who refused to be snuffed out by AIDS and the systems that permitted it to thrive.

Lead photo is  General Idea's AIDS Wallpaper.

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