To Heal the World
In the Age of AIDS and COVID-19, What Art Has to Offer in Coping with Illness, Death, and Grief
by Lester Strong
Illness, death, grief: In 1969, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross brought coping with these issues to world-wide attention in her book On Death and Dying. Positing five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—she explored the path by which people come to terms with the life-threatening medical conditions that can feel overwhelming to anyone who confronts them. That is, it should be noted, if people do manage to come to terms with them.
Kübler-Ross and others later criticized the schema she proposed from several directions, adding new stages and expanding the model to include other kinds of personal loss than just illness and dying. However, in the Age of AIDS, and currently also in the Age of COVID-19, illness, death, and grief these days are front and center. This article explores the place of art in coping with them.
To heal the world: Of course it takes medicines to heal the body. Just think of how the introduction of antiretroviral medicines and cocktails in the mid-1990s changed the face of the AIDS pandemic. But the medical response was preceded by the AIDS activist response from the early 1980s on. That activist response involved mass protests and marches, to be sure. But it also involved building a sense of community around the disease, creating a cultural atmosphere that gradually allowed the populace at large to feel sympathetic to those living with AIDS, and mobilizing the thousands, the tens of thousands, even the hundreds of thousands and millions of people needed for effective protests and marches.
As for those living with AIDS, along with their partners, friends, and relatives, different needs than just effective medicines had to be met: for the affected, feeling protected and part of a caring community; once medicines were available, learning how to cope with the number of medicines involved and the side effects they produced, along with the various restrictions and demands the medicines imposed on those who had to take them; and for a subset of those individuals, early on in the pandemic, when death was the only prospect open to them, learning how to use their illness as a prod to completing any projects they were involved with while they had the time. For families, friends, and caregivers of those who were ill, also providing a sense of being part of a caring community was important, along with the emotional space and acceptance they needed for grieving.
Last, but not least, the target population most at risk of acquiring HIV had its own needs to be met: timely information about the disease and how to avoid catching it, and, especially early on in the pandemic, feeling protected from all the homophobic vitriol and threats by right-wing religious and political bigots who weaponized AIDS to promote their hatred and fear of homosexuality.
How did art respond to these needs? The rest of this article shows examples of such art, along with comments, mostly by the artists themselves, on how they have seen their art as a healing agent.
We begin with Allan Rosenfield, whose piece titled Tikkun Olam provided the idea for this article. “Tikkun Olam” is a Hebrew phrase that translates into English as “healing the world.” Note that Rosenfield’s Tikkun Olam is rather somber in its colors, a radical departure, as he notes in his comments, from the usual bright colors he uses in his art. Also note that, rather than commenting directly on the healing power of art, his words supply an eloquent introduction to why, after experiencing trauma, we need the healing power of art.
“A few years ago, I created a work on canvas by a process of slashing the canvas to ribbons, then ‘repairing’ it with paint and tying the pieces together. I called it Tikkun Olam. The title is a Hebrew phrase describing a Jewish concept that translates into English as ‘healing the world.’ Acts of cutting and ripping in Jewish tradition refer to the rending of garments that occurs after someone’s death as an expression of grief. Reuniting the sections in my piece by painting and tying them together symbolizes the healing that occurs with time. All such healing is imperfect. Those who experience trauma can be made whole again, but the scars still exist as a record of the event. Life continues, but never quite like before.
“When I painted Tikkun Olam, I was thinking of the world in general, and especially of those whose lives were devastated by AIDS—whether they were infected by HIV but managed to survive because of the antiretroviral cocktails or were close to those who died of the disease. The waking nightmare we’ve been through during the last four years, and the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic this year, have brought home the need for healing to us personally and communally once again in an urgent, visceral way. We can only hope that our post-Trump, post-pandemic ‘new normal’ will at least be a functional one, albeit one showing the scars of lives totally ripped apart before being pieced back together.
“I chose the blue, black, and white palette for its severe elegance and gravitas. It’s a departure from my usual bright colors [see Primary Plus for an example of those colors]. I find the dark blue-greys appropriate for moods and themes like grief.” • Artist’s website
“My work grapples with my experiences as a Jewish LGBTQ feminist woman, and aims at empowering, healing, and connective effects on activists, those who have been ‘othered,’ and those who have experienced trauma around their gender or sexuality. In my art, I place the female front and center for a social idealism that aims to transform violence, destruction, and fragility into strength for anyone who finds themselves bullied, harassed, or abused. That certainly includes those living with AIDS, who face physical illness and discrimination of all kinds on a daily basis. My sculpture series, Knights, responds to a changing world by communicating images of strength, protection, healing. . . .
My body swapping armor is like trying on new clothes, if you will, refining additional layers of [one’s] being, and creating a new figurative manifestation of [oneself], fearless and bold. . . . AIDS, from my vantage point as an artist, is addressed by scrambling expectations of masculinity/femininity, power/vulnerability, warrior/peacemaker. My sculpture, in its idealism, can give one with AIDS, or at any stage of fragility, an opportunity to internalize a new model for agency and restoration.” • Artist’s website
Barton Lidicé Beneš
Barton Lidicé Beneš (1942–2012) was born in New Jersey and died in New York City. He was an artist of some note, whose work was exhibited internationally to acclaim and occasionally dismay because much of it was controversial in a way that some museums and curators found alarming. He worked with materials he called “artifacts of everyday life” that he often used to create whimsical sculptures, starting with momentos of childhood early in his career and later with chopped-up, everyday cash (which he purchased pre-shredded from the Federal Reserve). In the 1980s when he tested HIV-positive and friends started dying of AIDS-related causes, he began working with “everyday materials” of the epidemic: pills, capsules, intravenous tubes, blood that contained HIV, and cremated human remains. It was the infected blood and cremated remains that stirred the controversy which surrounded his work. When his piece titled Lethal Weapons—a collection of thirty vessels, which included a water pistol, an atomizer, and a set of hollow darts, all filled with his own or other people’s HIV-containing blood—was scheduled to be shown in in Lund, Sweden, authorities demanded the installation first be heated to 160 degrees Fahrenheit for sterilization before they would allow it to be displayed.
Beneš could be in-your-face about AIDS when he wanted to be. But he showed another side in work he titled Petit Fours: collections of discarded HIV pills he arranged to look like the small French-style confectionaries or savory appetizers intended to entice the taste buds, not repel them as medicines often do.
Although Beneš had AIDS, he did not die of the disease, but instead of acute kidney failure. The contents of his Greenwich Village apartment, including its furniture, many of his artworks, and items he collected from around the world, are being moved wholesale to the North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks, where the apartment will be recreated to look just as it did when he was alive. • Artist’s page at Pavel Zoubok
Luna Luis Ortiz
“Forms of art and expression have been the source of survival for many people through time. I lived it as a photographer. I was infected with HIV at the age of fourteen, and finding out made me pick up a camera. The camera became my voice because in 1986 not many were listening to people living with AIDS, let alone a newly infected fourteen-year-old Puerto Rican homosexual. There wasn’t much living at that time because many were dying. The camera gave me a sense of wanting to survive and live. Being a part of the New York City Ballroom Voguing community influenced my art. The Ballroom community was one of the hardest hit with AIDS, but it was our audacity to express ourselves that helped us through tough times. We are resilient in our dance, in our spaces, in our fanfare and glamour. Our houses nurture our spirits to be fighters. Our House Mothers and Fathers taught us to survive by giving us hope. In art and in Ballroom we took care of others while opening ourselves to reveal our strengths.” • Artist’s Instagram
“Art has been a healing companion throughout my life, beginning with my parents nurturing my creativity when I was a little boy. There is wisdom within us, and beyond our immediate consciousness, which can be tapped into and brought to light through creating. I experience this as communicating with the spirit that runs through us and connects to expanded realms we may not otherwise be aware of. Nature holds the wisdom that art-making reveals, if we listen to her. There is a saying: Get out of your own way. Take a ‘Forest Bath’ (a Japanese outlook toward the healing in trees). Pick up clay, a paint brush, a camera, and see what comes through.” • Artist’s website
“Part of the reason that I’m not having trouble facing the reality of death is that it’s not a limitation, in a way. It could have happened any time, and it is going to happen sometime. . . . Everything I do now is a chance to put a—a crown on the whole thing. It adds another kind of intensity to the work that I do now; it’s one of the good things to come from being sick. . . . That’s the point I’m at now, not knowing where it stops but knowing how important it is to do it now.” (Keith Haring’s words taken from a 1989 interview with David Scheff published in Rolling Stone and reproduced in the book Keith Haring, published by Rizzoli in 2008; Haring died from AIDS-related causes in 1990.) • Keith Haring Foundation website
“The Grievers is part of my my gay passion Stations series, based on The Stations of the Cross, but only loosely related to them. I’m not telling the story of the Christian passion. The setting is the gay sex piers in New York City during the 1970s and very early 1980s. The Grievers refers to the station of the cross known as The Mourners, and arose out of my feelings of grief at the loss of my partner Mackenzie to AIDS in the early 1990s, along with most of my gay male friends. I lived for many years in New York, but eventually moved back to the small hometown in southern New Mexico where I grew up to take care of my aging parents. My partner was diagnosed with AIDS in 1990, and moved in with me here permanently. It wasn’t easy. As Mackenzie grew sicker, we had almost no one in town who would help us except a gay doctor who had trained in the AIDS wing of a large New York hospital and the local public health nurse. When the members of the church we attended found out Mackenzie had AIDS, we were no longer welcome there, although an Episcopal priest from a nearby town showed up at our door one day offering to help. He himself had a wife dying of cancer and a son who was gay living in San Francisco, so he understood what we were up against.
“After Mackenzie died, I was amazed at the grief I felt. I really didn’t know how intense an emotion it is, or how it makes you so conscious of the moment. The loss of Mackenzie, the loss of so many friends. The body is remembrance, you know. I want my art to remember it all.” • Artist’s website
José Luis Cortés
“The connectivity in and of my work aims to foster a symbiotic relationship; balanced between being and surviving through a cathartic experience. I put forth my own therapeutic expressions and hope the value of my work benefits others as well.
“Currently, I have experienced a setback of my daily practice because of a debilitating pain with carpal tunnel syndrome. Not being able to create during this time has made me realize the importance of the healing value of creating, and as an extension, my mental health.” • Artist’s website
The AIDS Memorial Quilt, created by San Francisco gay political activist Cleve Jones in the mid-1980s, is one of the great symbols of the AIDS crisis. It’s hard to overestimate the importance this great piece of American folk art had on the pandemic. One had to be on the mall in D.C. during the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in October 1987, where it was first publicly displayed, to feel the visceral hold it had over those attending the march as in almost complete silence people walked among the panels in tears, overcome by this visible tribute to those dead of the disease.
The AIDS Quilt arguably provided a focus for a sense of grief and sadness not just to those who had lost lovers, friends, and family members, but to a nation that needed to come to terms with the physical and emotional devastation the disease was causing. It was all the more important as AIDS spread into groups and communities that initially had felt safely distanced from it. The Quilt may have been started by a gay man, but it was as familiar and comfortable a symbol as a quilting bee. Anyone could relate to it, and therein lay a good part of its power.
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor of A&U.