IT WAS VULGAR & IT WAS BEAUTIFUL
How AIDS Activists Used Art to Fight a Pandemic
By Jack Lowery
Illustrated. 422 pages. Bold type books. $35.
The revolution would not be televised, but smeared with wheat dough.
Don’t underestimate the importance of this starchy makeshift sticker in the history of AIDS awareness – back when a “poster” wasn’t someone who wrote anonymous comments online but relationships public on paper, in the town square.
As described in Jack Lowery’s new book, “It was vulgar and it was beautiful”, wheat dough was something like a sacred substance for militants, allowing the circulation of their justly angry art. They hired a ‘snipping’ firm with possible Mafia ties to put up posters around Manhattan that featured pink triangles taken from the Nazi symbol for gay people: inverted due to an organizer’s failing memory but looking bold intentional. The posters’ slogan, “Silence = Death”, has become as well known in cultural capitals as a Coca-Cola or McDonald’s slogan.
Wheat dough also supported the lesser-known “He’s Killing Me” poster, which showed then-President Ronald Reagan smiling in apparent indifference to the rapid spread of AIDS. And the poster “Sexism raises its head unprotected”, which featured a naked, erect penis, a command to use condoms and a warning that the disease kills women too. (This imagery was a bit too much for many passers-by, who often demolished it.) A large billboard rhetorically asked, “When a government turns its back on its people, is it a civil war?” Turns out you shouldn’t use wheat dough to put up a heavier poster board in the cold. The paste froze, and that particular piece of signage “collapsed into a sad heap at the base of the wall,” Lowery writes.
Her book focuses on the arts collective Gran Fury, an offshoot of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), which itself was founded out of frustration with existing organizations that weren’t radical enough against a deadly disease in rapid evolution which is decimating a whole generation of homosexuals. The logistics behind the protests – the phone trees, the accounting and the pizzas – don’t seem like the most scintillating material, but Lowery painstakingly reconstructs the conversations and negotiations that force the reader to feel the angst and urgency of the ‘era. Much of the collective’s work now hangs in major museums.
Gran Fury was named after a Plymouth car model then used by the New York Police Department. The phrase “somehow insinuated a kind of fabulous outrage,” Lowery writes, and sounded gothic, like a Tennessee Williams play. “Our fury has been big,” told author Donald Moffett, a graphic designer and one of the nine surviving core members of Gran Fury. Lowery interviewed them all and drew inspiration from an unfinished memoir by tenth, Mark Simpson, who died in 1996.
Like artist Barbara Kruger, who taught a member of the band and whose typeface they swiped for their “Read My Lips” series, Gran Fury reclaimed the well-oiled and sometimes absurd patois of advertising and American branding. It was social media before the Internet. Far from collapsing into a sad heap at the foot of a wall, the group solidified, mobilized and fought furiously.
All white except for one member, Robert Vazquez-Pacheco, the creators of Gran Fury took on the elite on their home turf: reusing Barneys foam sales signs for a hard-hitting protest; shutting down the stock market using fake Bear Stearns badges and currency (“people die while you play business”); and filling New York Times vending boxes with pointed parodies called The New York Crimes. “Bloody” paint prints began to appear on sidewalks and windows, trailing elected officials who protesters said were indeed guilty of murder.
Lowery is young – this project began as his master’s thesis at Columbia – but writes as an old soul, scholarly and outraged at the way AIDS has been minimized and marginalized for so many years. Sometimes he allows himself an exclamation mark of joy or a slight sarcasm. (“Most harmless indeed!” he wrote of a banner that read “All AIDS sufferers are innocent,” a refutation of the idea that the disease stemmed from immoral behavior. “Gran Fury even won an award!” he wrote of the “Kissing Doesn’t Kill” award, which featured an array of diverse couples smooching; many at the time mistook it for a Benetton advertisement. )
But above all “It Was Vulgar”, the title taken from another of Moffett’s statements, is a deeply sober story about a vulnerable population, often rejected and stranded by their biological families, their health care system, their civic leaders and even sometimes by each other. , filled with grief and dread.
“The closet turns into a coffin,” wrote Avram Finkelstein, a hairstylist, “self-proclaimed Machiavellian propagandist,” and member of Gran Fury, in a 1986 journal entry. Small details give the activists’ trajectory a novel momentum: the useless garlic cure attempted by a precocious AIDS patient; the Gouldian finches that Simpson housed in his Brooklyn apartment; his shrinking from the sunlight like a vampire; the oxblood that pooled and froze on the street in the Meatpacking District before gentrification. Eventually, the tactics escalated. As one member put it, “wheat dough means you’re out of place”.
Lowery is careful to document pockets of camaraderie and even joy in a difficult time. As he writes, “It wasn’t just people who nervously felt their glands every 10 minutes. There is a confrontation with the pope, but also a party at Peggy Guggenheim’s palace in Venice. We see Tim Bailey, a menswear designer and member of The Marys, another of ACT UP’s affinity groups, dancing in the car to Taylor Dayne’s rendition of “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love” a few days before the thwarted staging of his political funeral in Washington DC
“It was vulgar” isn’t perfect – this reviewer wanted to pull out a blue pencil every time Lowery misused the word “ultimately”, sometimes multiple times on a page, and his endnotes are rare. But it is an important contribution to the annals of AIDS and, approaching but expanding from a narrow cast of characters, a solid model for chroniclers of complex sociopolitical movements.