Night Watch: AIDS Activism & the Arts


by David Waggoner

Over in Amsterdam, when I wasn’t helping to person the A&U booth at the International AIDS Conference, I had the chance to visit some art museums. The Van Gogh Museum. Stedelijk Museum. The great Rijksmuseum featuring Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, which depicts a group of militia men, charged with defending the city or putting down riots while citizens slept.

Visiting a city where art is emphasized reminded me that great cultures like the Dutch persist because art is at the center of their existence. Empires come and go but it’s the art that lasts! Art has the ability to rise above the current babble and speak to future generations.

The sticking point of art in the age of AIDS has always been to address the situation at hand—the scarcity of treatment options during the early epidemic, or governmental negligence, or the emotional horror of living in a world that would make us invisible if it could—rather than gesture toward the timeless bubble of aesthetics, where truth matters more than need. Indeed the cultural basis of this very magazine has sometimes been called into question. Who needs a painting when homelessness abounds? Who needs a sculpture when patients can’t access treatment?

Those questions miss the point, of course. Art can do both—tend to politics and the distribution of resources as well as embolden our daydreams and enrich our spiritual lives. For what good is “life” if it is empty of contemplation about its meaning. Individuals living with HIV/AIDS are not simply bodies.

Activists recently protested at the Whitney Museum in lower Manhattan, charging that the institution’s retrospective of the AIDS-themed work of David Wojnarowicz [A&U, July 2018], who died in 1992, made it seem like HIV is in the past. And, although A&U certainly will pay tribute to an artist who has died, we are very cognizant to the fact that there are many artists working today who are keeping HIV at the forefront of our consciousness.

This is certainly true of artist Ben Cuevas, openly positive and steadfastly offering sharp critiques with soft fabrics. Interviewed and photographed by Senior Editor Sean Black, Cuevas defined the importance of activist art: “Art as activism is more important than ever. Given our current political climate, it is clear there is so much work to do still. Artists play an important role in making change, raising awareness, and engaging communities. One positive of living in such trying times: people are paying attention to political art more than ever.” We will continue to create a space where artists can speak and readers can pay attention.

Alongside the vibrant writing of our columnists in this issue, we offer a gallery of three powerful artists, all collaborating for a cause: Kurt Weston, Barbara Romain, and Alexandria Allan; a grand and inspired poem by David Lewis-Peart; a thoughtful essay by Nigel Bray about living without knowing one is positive; and interviews with three wonderful performing artists. Contributing writer T.J. Banks interviews musician Cody Bondra, who uses his concerts to raise funds and awareness for people living with HIV/AIDS. Editor at Large Hank Trout chats with cabaret artist Russell Deason, who is living with HIV and weaves the realities of AIDS into his act with stunning results. Lastly, Poetry Editor Noah Stetzer interviews physician and poet Rafael Campo, who for more than two decades has been penning verse about his experiences with HIV in his field.

Around 1990, I started A&U as an archive of cultural responses to the pandemic. Writers and artists were dead or dying and a space was needed to make sure that the past did not stay in the past. No, the past had to stay in the present. This was my way of protecting our community. This was my way of creating order out of chaos. This was my Night Watch.

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