Art as Activism


by David Waggoner

Art is unstoppable. Take away our paints and canvases, and we will use charcoal on a wall. Take away our stage, and we will dance in the streets. In an era when the National Endowment for the Arts, PBS, and other cultural icons are being considered for closure by the current administration, the power of the arts will win out, with or without Big Bird or Downton Abbey.

How do I know? I’ve seen the power of the arts to create positive change win out before. Artists, writers, and actors have always been at the forefront of AIDS activism. Perhaps it’s because so many in the arts community died in the eighties and nineties—before the advent of the first truly successful antiretrovirals hit pharmacy shelves in 1995. It’s hard to imagine that AIDS was ever but a death sentence before the XI International AIDS Conference in 1996. Since that historic gathering of scientists, AIDS advocates, and yes—artists and writers—A&U, one of the cultural organizations in attendance, was one of the first publications to document and archive the creative responses to the AIDS crisis.

Larry Buhl’s exclusive interview with actor, producer, and former Miss America, is a case in point about how activism is at the center of so many amazing efforts coming out of the arts community: Witness Broadway Cares and Visual AIDS, to name but a few of the national efforts to activate a national consciousness that has given credence to the arts as a venue for political change. It is a matter of putting AIDS on the cultural map that makes Kate Shindle our best hope for diplomacy as another form of activism. In her role as the newest ambassador for The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, Kate is the perfect equation for never letting AIDS continue as a silent epidemic. Kate sums it up so well: “At this cultural moment, it’s important to be ambassadors of compassion and care…we need to stand up for people who are trying to make the best of what they have, whether they’re trans, straight, gay, people of color or HIV-positive.” Well said.

Another example of an artistic brand of AIDS activism is this month’s interview with painter and agitprop artist Carrie Moyer, who also happens to be one of the select few included in this year’s Whitney Biennial. Carrie tells A&U’s Lester Strong that “AIDS was the main activist cause in those days. I went to a number of ACT UP events, and you could feel the energy. I was friends with Avram Finkelstein of Gran Fury [an artist collective that arose out of ACT UP in 1988; famous for many of the catch phrases and images associated with AIDS activism]. Being around people like that, with the kind of discourse they generated, was incredibly energizing, and not just about AIDS. The space they provided and their tactics provided locations and new way to talk and agitate.”

Scott James Vanidestine, interviewed by Senior Editor Sean Black, represents a new generation of artists responding to AIDS. Like those who created panels for the AIDS Memorial Quilt and many queer artists working today, Vanidestine works with fabric. Stitch by stitch, he seeks to comfort those living with HIV/AIDS and also to create new ways to form identity. And Mondo Guerra, as A&U’s Alina Oswald finds out in her article on Dining Out for Life, continues to makes AIDS consciousness ready-to-wear by incorporating positivity into his designs.

Federal support of the arts is important, but, ultimately, defunding programs will not stop our collective creative impulses. Witness the home-crafted Pussyhats that were knitted for the recent Women’s March on Washington. A bit of yarn, some needles, and a pattern—that’s all it takes and empowerment was in the pink.

David Waggoner is Editor in Chief and Publisher of A&U, the first national HIV/AIDS magazine in the U.S.