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Artists and Entertainers

1998

Artists and entertainers include a wide variety of individuals involved in the creative and performing arts: painters, photographers, graphic artists, actors, filmmakers, musicians, and dancers. The association of notable artists and entertainers with AIDS has played a major role in focusing the public's attention on AIDS and in shaping social and cultural attitudes. Because of the diversity of the creative arts, knowledge of AIDS and concern over the disease have been transmitted across a variety of social, economic, and generational boundaries.

During the early 1980s, the general public largely perceived AIDS as confined to gay men or injecting drug users, causing many people to be either indifferent or outright hostile to people with the disease. In July 1985, the film actor Rock Hudson, who died of AIDS in October of that year, was the first celebrity to publicly announce that he had the disease. The disclosure of Hudson's condition played a catalytic role in transforming public attitudes. Hudson's popularity and celebrity status helped to dramatize the threat of the growing epidemic within the general population, and it also stimulated greater public sympathy toward people with AIDS. Moreover, Hudson's willingness to openly publicize his condition eased the public's early sense of shame over and discomfort with the disease. Previously, many individuals had forgone testing and medical treatment rather than risk their social reputations, jobs, and housing.

Media coverage of Hudson's medical condition also increased public concern over funding for AIDS research and effective medical treatment for AIDS patients. For example, Hudson sought medical treatment in Paris at the Pasteur Institute, where physicians had been treating AIDS patients with HPA-23, an experimental antiviral drug that was being administered as a possible means of slowing replication of the AIDS virus in infected persons. Although by September 1985 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the testing of HPA-23 on humans, the drug had previously been unavailable in the United States for AIDS patients largely owing to a lack of federal funding for the testing of experimental anti-AIDS medications. This delay in testing, which was given more publicity because of Hudson's illness, stimulated protest against the government by both medical researchers and the general public to increase federal funds for AIDS research. The absence of adequate funding became, during the 1980s and early 1990s, a significant rallying point for many gay activist groups, such as ACT UP, who accused both the public and U.S. political leaders of being apathetic toward the AIDS crisis. Beginning in the mid-1980s, federal support for AIDS research, as well as funding for social and educational programs aimed at combating the disease, was increased.

Following Hudson's death, a growing number of figures within the film industry and theatrical community were afflicted with AIDS, and during the last half of the 1980s and early years of the 1990s, such celebrities as Brad Davis and Anthony Perkins died of AIDS-related causes. In addition to these prominent entertainers, the association of several high-profile television actors with AIDS, including Robert Reed, Amanda Blake, and Dack Rambo, led to a broader public awareness of the disease. In 1994, the MTV cable television network included an HIV-positive cast member, Pedro Zamora, in its popular documentary series The Real World. Because the topic of AIDS had not been treated extensively on commercial television, the appearance of Zamora (who was frequently shown giving educational talks on AIDS prevention) in the series helped reduce some of the stigma that was still associated with the disease within the mainstream media.

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Despite the large number of celebrities and industry professionals with AIDS, the entertainment field in the 1980s was slow to respond to the AIDS crisis, primarily owing to commercial fears of public controversy and condemnation. The actor Brad Davis, who had appeared in the film The Midnight Express and the AIDS play The Normal Heart, died of AIDS in 1991, and after his death a manuscript was released in which he had chronicled his physical and emotional experiences with the disease. Davis had chosen not to disclose that he had AIDS, fearful that knowledge that he had the disease would jeopardize his career. Davis's dilemma, as well as Hudson's earlier struggle with AIDS, helped to alter attitudes toward the disease within the entertainment field, and by the early 1990s, several major television and commercial film projects devoted to the theme of AIDS were produced.

The popularity of and media attention given to the entertainment field eventually prompted entertainers to use the performing arts as a vehicle for galvanizing public support for AIDS causes and to increase awareness of medical and health information related to the disease. Among the various entertainers who have supported AIDS causes, the film actress Elizabeth Taylor is one of the most notable figures associated with the charitable support of AIDS research and medical assistance programs. Because of the sexual stigma associated with AIDS during the early years of the epidemic, the disease was an extremely controversial cause for male entertainers to support. Partly in response to this issue, Taylor became actively involved with a variety of fund-raising programs beginning in the mid-1980s.

As founding national chairperson of the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR), Taylor organized an extensive number of benefit concerts and receptions to raise money for medical research related to AIDS treatment and prevention. In the early 1990s, she established the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF), which has concentrated on an international education and prevention fund for developing countries. In addition to her more exclusive involvement with AmFAR and ETAF, Taylor also lent support to programs and entertainment activities to benefit other AIDS organizations such as AIDS Project Los Angeles and Hollywood Supports. Besides committing to raise funds for AIDS research, Taylor utilized the media coverage of AmFAR and ETAF events as a platform to campaign for advancements in health education and public policy regarding AIDS -- in particular, an increase in public service programs and announcements to disseminate proper health information to prevent the spread of the disease. Taylor also attempted to raise consciousness of the media's presentation of AIDS issues and themes and frequently spoke out against the media and entertainment industry for inaccurate or sensationalistic coverage of AIDS.

Much of the AIDS activism of entertainment figures within the private sector has focused critical attention on the lack of adequate federal funding for AIDS research and the need for more extensive governmental education programs to communicate health and AIDS-prevention information. Because of controversy and ethical debate, much of it instigated by conservative political leaders and religious groups, the U.S. government has largely resisted funding educational health programs that would make reference to injecting drug use or employ explicit sexual materials as a means of promoting AIDS-prevention information. As a result, AIDS organizations, entertainers, and the liberal media have sponsored public service messages in order to increase educational awareness about the disease, as well as to disseminate information on sexual practices and drug use aimed at preventing the spread of AIDS. For example, in July 1987, the pop singer Madonna gave a concert in New York to raise funds for AmFAR. In conjunction with the musical performance, images of President Ronald Reagan and the printed slogan "Safe Sex" were projected onto screens. In using these images and visual messages, Madonna attacked both what was felt to be the moralizing indifference of Reagan's administration to the AIDS crisis and the lack of open information on AIDS prevention, particularly for young persons in the traditional forum of school education programs. An illustrated comic book about AIDS that urged protected sexual practices for both homosexual and heterosexual partners was also distributed at the concert.

A number of singers and musical performers have been associated with AIDS, both in terms of being afflicted with the illness as well as through their activist promotion and support of AIDS causes. Liberace, the famous pianist and showman, who died in February 1987, was one of the earliest major gay entertainers to be linked to the disease. During his career, Liberace was afraid of alienating his audience by revealing his sexual orientation; however, when his illness with AIDS was reported by the media, his fans were more concerned with his personal welfare and medical condition than with how he had contracted the disease. As in the case of Rock Hudson, Liberace's widespread popularity can be cited as an important factor in altering the public's negative views of people with AIDS, particularly among older and more conservative segments of the population. Sympathy for Liberace's condition and grief over his death helped to eliminate some of the prejudicial apathy and condemnation that had previously been directed at gay individuals with AIDS. Liberace's association with AIDS fostered a growing awareness of the disease among an audience of predominantly classical or traditional popular music, but the field of rock music has also been impacted by AIDS.

In contrast to other figures within the entertainment and music industry, male performers in the rock field, perhaps because of the strong heterosexual orientation of the genre, were not as actively involved in discussing AIDS issues or lending support to AIDS organizations. Instead, female pop and rock performers, such as Madonna and Dionne Warwick, were more committed to pledging financial and organizational support to AIDS causes. A notable exception is the English pop singer and songwriter Elton John, who in the late 1980s became actively involved with AIDS causes; he began to hold benefit concerts and to donate substantial sums from the royalties of his recordings to AIDS organizations in both Europe and the United States.

The death in November 1991 of Freddie Mercury, who had been the lead singer for the rock band Queen, awakened concern among rock musicians and fans for the AIDS crisis, however. In April 1992, a rock concert was held in London at Wembley Stadium to memorialize Mercury. The performance raised substantial funds for various AIDS research and health organizations. The popular Queen song "We Are the Champions" was performed as an AIDS anthem to promote the positive message to international youth that the devastating consequences of this disease can be surmounted.

Unlike performers in more traditional or high-culture fields, an important benefit of the association of AIDS issues with rock and pop music personalities is that their appeal to both young people and minority cultures encourages awareness of the disease and conveys correct medical information to populations that have not been effectively reached owing to the lack of widespread educational programs. This aspect of the AIDS cause within the rock music arena reflects the changing demographics of the epidemic in the 1990s, as HIV infections have started occurring at a higher rate in young people and minority groups. Although the fund-raising activities of performers in the entertainment field have been extremely successful in mobilizing public support for AIDS causes, it has also been noted that the media coverage that links AIDS with the arts has actually reinforced with the public the false notion that the disease is confined to certain cultural sectors and lifestyles.

While the association of theatrical and musical entertainers with AIDS has served to propel awareness of the disease more fully into public consciousness, the impact of AIDS on the personal lives and careers of visual artists like Keith Haring and David Wojnarowicz has also been highlighted in the popular media and in professional art publications. Like many entertainers, these artists used their work as a means of reflecting their creative response to the AIDS crisis (which also included their own personal involvement with the disease). They also viewed their art as an activist statement to promote within society a consideration of various political, health, and cultural problems related to the AIDS epidemic. The art critic Douglas Crimp denounced the type of AIDS fund-raising commonly associated with the entertainment field as a passive cultural response to the epidemic, which he contrasted with the use of art itself as a radical activist statement for altering public consciousness toward AIDS and for advocating social and medical reforms related to the disease.

One artist whose work and public persona became closely associated with AIDS issues and causes in the late 1980s was Keith Haring, who died of AIDS in 1990. During the early 1980s, Haring was part of the Graffiti Art movement within the East Village art scene in New York, which sought to eradicate the boundaries between high culture and more popular, mass art forms. Developing a bold and animated graphic style for his graffiti art, Haring drew whimsical comic emblems, which he originally chalked on subway platform walls in order to bring his art to a broader, diverse public. Haring's democratic aims and the lively, accessible quality of his work were perfectly suited to his goal in the late 1980s of using his art as a form of mass public consciousness-raising toward the AIDS epidemic. To provide maximum exposure for his AIDS images and themes, Haring's work was employed in public art projects, public announcement posters, and even more commerical venues, such as MTV cable television broadcasts. One of his most notable projects was the lithograph Fight Aids Worldwide, which was used in 1990 by the United Nations for a poster and postage stamp in the organization's international AIDS-awareness program.

Haring's AIDS-related art activites particularly targeted young people: he frequently sponsored public art projects in schools and community centers in New York and Chicago that directly involved students and neighborhood children. This strategy was designed to expose young people to AIDS issues as a means of fulfilling an educational function not being met within many urban school systems, particularly in poorly-funded schools in impoverished minority communities. Haring was epecially concerned that his art promote the maxim of safe sexual practices to young people, a message which he promoted through humorous novelty items, such as illustrated T-shirts and comic books that featured the character "Debbie Dick." Haring's bold and spirited art and his own personality, which was equally open and ebullient, served to counteract the fatalistic, albeit predominant, view that AIDS was an insurmountable force which had decimated the contemporary art scene. Moreover, in broader, public terms, Haring's ambitious and energetic art activities conferred a sense of hopeful empowerment to individuals involved with the AIDS cause and challenged the perception of people with AIDS as incapacitated by disease.

Like Haring, David Wojnarowicz was a member of the alternative art scene that was associated with the East Village in the early 1980s. As a participant in this trend, he was concerned with creating a more public form of art through various forms of street graffiti, as well as through performance and mixed-media installation pieces in urban environments. Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992, also utilized his art and writings as means of stimulating public concern over the AIDS epidemic. In contrast to Haring, however, Wojnarowicz was a more contentious figure, whose art represented to the public the more radicalized and subversive form of gay activist protest involving AIDS issues. During his short career, Wojnarowicz produced such notable pieces as the mixed-media collage work Water (1987) and a series of mordant autobiographical writings, including Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (1991) and Memories That Smell Like Gasoline (1992), in which he recounted his experiences as a child prostitute in New York as well as his later physical and psychological struggles with AIDS.

Wojnarowicz's art functioned as a polemical vehicle for combating conservative attitudes toward the AIDS epidemic and, in particular, prejudice or indifference toward gay people with AIDS. His visual art, writings, and public statements challenged what he saw as apathy and a dilatory response on the part of government, church officials, and the media toward the AIDS crisis, especially during the early years of the epidemic. Much like the later work of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who also died of AIDS, Wojnarowicz produced a kind of AIDS counter-rhetoric, which with its candid sexual imagery and graphic vocabulary refused to sentimentalize or idealize the social and human reality of the disease. In contrast to the tendency within the commercial media to portray people with AIDS as white, middle-class men and children, Wojnarowicz's writings on his experiences as a destitute street hustler helped focus realistic attention on AIDS as an affliction that was increasingly becoming associated with lower socioeconomic groups, sex workers, and minorities.


Related Entries:

Arts Community; Dance and Performance Art; Film; Music; Radio; Sports and Sports Figures; Television Programming; Theater; Visual Arts


Key Words:

artists, celebrities, entertainers, performers, [individuals by name]


Further Reading

Ansen, D., D. Foote, et. al., "A Lost Generation," Newsweek (January 18, 1993), pp. 16-20

Bull, C., "Bonfire of the Charities," Advocate (May 2, 1995), p. 27

Doerner, W. R., "A Gala with a Grim Side," Time (September 30, 1985), pp. 30-32

Sheff, D., "Just Say Know," Rolling Stone (August 10, 1989), pp. 59-66

Taylor, Elizabeth, "You Can Never Say Enough: The First Lady of American Film Fights AIDS and Apathy," Omni (January 1995), p. 6

Woodward, R. B., "All the Rage, Posthumously," New York Times (May 7, 1995)


The Encyclopedia of AIDS: A Social, Political, Cultural, and Scientific Record of the HIV Epidemic, Raymond A. Smith, Editor. Copyright © 1998, Raymond A. Smith. Carried by permission of Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers.

Encyclopedia of AIDS $25 US/832 pp/Illustrated

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