The Positively Art Calendar

Truth & art in the new age of AIDS

Since the early days of the plague, art has been used in personal and public ways to illuminate and sometimes obfuscate the truth about HIV and the impact of the virus on the artist and society.

Truth, like its epistemological doppelgängers of beauty, goodness, and oneness, are to some philosophers pathways to the infinite. And as such one could argue that by bringing us closer to truth, art brings us closer to God.

The relationship between truth and beauty is complex. Truth and beauty are both forms of harmony. Truth is the harmony between knowledge and reality. Beauty is a harmony between elements that is pleasing to the subject. If that truth pleases us, then we may consider the truth beautiful. If the truth jars our sensibilities, then we may not consider such truth beautiful. Truth for some can be very ugly.

For those of us who are not driven by a search for the truth, that which is displeasing is never beautiful. Images of violence, religious and patriotic blasphemy, and of what some consider perverse sexuality may disturb us. We sometimes attack the artists creating such images and those curators who choose the artists' images for exhibition. For some, such disquieting images offend us because our ideas about art cannot encompass that which displeases us or threatens our beliefs.

Much of the art in the early days of the plague was public art -- exhibitions of AIDS art, posters, T-shirt graphics and slogans, and the graffiti that screamed out the rage, pain, and abandonment felt by those in whom the virus took such temporary refuge. Many AIDS artists followed Edmund White's dictum to confront the plague "more honestly than the media may have done" and to "begin in tact, avoid humor, and end in anger." According to White, in his essay "Aesthetics and Loss," in Art Forum, January 1997, anger has a therapeutic benefit to the artist. It replaces despondency and "existentially, ...lightens the solitude of frightened individuals." Public AIDS art was often the art of rage which White considered as the only sane response to the devastation caused by the plague. Rage and its sexual subtext makes many of us uncomfortable -- more uncomfortable unfortunately than the actuality of the plague. It was therefore understandable that corporate sponsors for major AIDS art exhibits and other AIDS art projects were hard to come by. Corporate boards of directors are not particularly fond of having their names linked to sexual, blasphemous, and revolutionary images. Rage doesn't sell beauty products, automobiles, or pharmaceuticals. Rage and AIDS were synonymous in the perception of major corporations who would never gamble on tarnishing their corporate image with any images produced by the AIDS community and their advocates within the arts community.

While the old AIDS truths of alienation, a devalued life, and excruciating suffering and death still govern 94 percent of the global population with HIV disease and without access to AIDS drugs, the advent of available protease inhibitors and the success of the protean antiviral cocktails in industrialized nations resulted in profound changes in the perception of the plague. Almost overnight the powerful expressions of rage and sexuality began to disappear from much of the new AIDS art. The in-your-face images of sex and rage were being replaced by more reflective expressions of challenged survival. Protease inhibitors became the new saltpeter that subdued the raging passions of many artists who were seeking to understand new truths about the plague and about themselves.

In the post-protease-inhibitor age of AIDS, the advertising agencies of pharmaceutical companies took the lead in creating the new public AIDS art. The images of rage and sexuality were replaced by images of remarkably vital and healthy mountain-climbing, scuba-diving and white-water-rafting models who were the cynosure of antiviral advertisements in Time, Newsweek, People, and gay men's magazines and bar rags. These consumer-directed antiviral ads are almost mirror images of cigarette ads with antiviral drug models looking healthier than most people without HIV disease, just as the cigarette models never look like they had or were concerned about lung cancer or emphysema. From an advertising perspective, these carefully crafted AIDS images followed a fundamental principle of consumer advertising -- make the consumer want to identify with the model. Take this antiviral and you will be healthy, muscular, and have perfect skin and teeth, and participate in yuppie sports. While this strategy may have been an effective advertising concept, these new images of AIDS stretched the truth about the plague as thin as strudel dough.

While these new AIDS images did reflect a truth about the potential of certain antiviral combinations to transform the lives of some people with HIV disease, these images in Time, Newsweek, and People reinforced two pernicious myths about AIDS to the general public -- that HIV/AIDS was a disease primarily of men, and that the plague, if not over, was at best under control. These myths became a dominant driving force in the growing public complacency about the plague which was reflected in the spiraling drop in private and foundation funding for critical AIDS services and educational efforts to the disenfranchised members of society, especially poor women, for whom the plague is still out of control.

Negative comments from the AIDS community in response to these consumer antiviral advertisements caused some pharmaceutical manufacturers to reexamine their public art AIDS images. In this more thoughtful milieu Abbott Laboratories reached out to the arts community to explore how they could work together to better reflect the truth about the plague. After months of discussion Abbott asked Visual AIDS to produce Positively Art, a fourteen-month calendar with each month reflecting a facet of the truth about the plague by artists who themselves were caught in the plague's wake. Abbott did more than just underwrite the project. A jury organized by Visual AIDS selected 23 works from the 175 works initially submitted by 50 artists throughout the US for consideration in the calendar. The final selections were sent to the Norvir manufacturer for review and coordination. Abbott surprised everyone by choosing fourteen instead of the initially planned twelve selections for the calendar.

The Positively Art calendar also features a photograph of each of the artists along with a statement by each artist about his or her work. When we encounter art to which we respond, one of our first questions is generally about the artist who created the work. We want to know all we can about the artist because we recognize art as an extension of the artist. The more that we know about the artist the better equipped we are to appreciate the truth towards which the art is directed.

José Luis Cortes's acrylic painting on wood, I'm Still Upright, 1994, which graces the cover of this issue of the Journal, is explained by the artist in his statement on the calendar:

"When I found I was HIV+ in 1990, I felt I needed to take action. I needed to develop my talent in order to live fully, to be fully self-expressed. The diagnosis gave me the aspiration and the will to make it work. My drive to paint is my drive to live. I do self-portraits because they are 100 percent me. I am totally self-sufficient, totally in my struggle. I deform myself, idealize myself. I'm still standing, still undefeated."

I'm Still Upright, 1994 not only defines the truth of Cortes's response to the plague but tells us how the virus has transformed the artist.

The life-transforming effect of the virus and the life-transforming effect of combination antiviral therapy on the artist is reflected in Samuel L. Lewis's acrylic painting on silk titled Self-Portrait (An African-American in Paris). In the calendar Lewis explains:

"The AIDS virus caused me to pursue my lifetime dream of living as an artist. Because of a low T-cell count I thought I would never go to Europe again. With the magic of drugs my T-cell count went up and I made a trip to Paris. This piece celebrates a trip to Paris that I never thought I would make."

The artist is a handsome man who could easily be one of the models in consumer antiviral ads. For this artist, the implicit promise in the subtext of the antiviral ads was realized. But this artist also broke rank with many other African-Americans who do not trust the antivirals touted by an establishment which in the eyes of many US black men and women is an extension of the government responsible for Tuskegee and which still seems unable to address the consequences of policies that devalue the lives of people of color. Lewis's gossamer Self-Portrait is also a work that reflects the fortunes of geography, not only the excitement and pleasure of spending time in Paris, but the good fortune of living in a state that contributes significantly to its AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) which allows some of those without insurance access to potentially life-extending AIDS drugs. If Lewis had lived in Mississippi, North Carolina, or Alabama instead of California, he might never have lived to visit Paris.

Becky Trotter's acrylic painting on board is not the AIDS image found in antiviral drug ads. The viewer is confronted with an image of an olive velvet, oversized chair that looks like it was a Father's Day special at ABC Carpets in New York with the caveat I'm Not Comfortable, which also serves as the painting's title. The painting's title jars our perception of the chair. The chair is inviting. The chair looks comfortable. But the artist skillfully reminds us that perceptions can be misleading. Our perception of the chair is wrong. Our perception of the models in the consumer antiviral ads is wrong. Our perception of the artist as a person living with AIDS is wrong.

Becky Trotter is not comfortable. When this article was written, Trotter had been in St. Vincent's Hospital in New York for more than two weeks. None of the drugs in the antiviral advertisements were effective for her. Trotter was one of the 92,242 women with AIDS in the United States who do not enjoy the survival advantage of many men with AIDS who toasted the New Year with their antiviral cocktails.

Bob Corti's photomontage, HIV Positive, is a segment of the artist's series of portraits that pays tribute to the lives of artists living with HIV/AIDS. Such tributes are an important part of the validation of lives threatened to be cut short before their gifts can be fully realized. In the calendar Corti explains that the photographs are "...a cooperative effort between myself and each artist to convey images which will capture their lives, struggles, and unshakable insistence to continue their creative process. This series is dedicated to these artists and to many others who have gone before us."

The light reflected in Rebecca Guberman's Blood Work serves as a meditation on survival. The artist explains:

"The balance of life is altered by our choice; if we choose to give up, then we reap the obvious conclusion where the balance has become void. If we choose life, and pursue each moment with the understanding that our choice to live is the essence of our survival, then we embark on a personal odyssey of discovery and empowerment. By seeking out and embracing our inner light and strength, we recreate ourselves, leading creatively nurturing lives; we consciously manifest this light into our lives and in turn, diffuse it throughout our world, to the benefit of all."

The same circular form of the microscopic image in Rebecca Guberman's work is replicated with kaleidoscopic intensity by Joe DeHoyos in his paper collage titled Virus. The infinity of the circular form is transubstantiated into a series of pop art symbols of HIV and the myriad of organisms that threaten a compromised immune system. According to DeHoyos, "By 'cartoonizing' AIDS, I am making light of the violence and destruction that is part of living with a deadly disease." A second collage by DeHoyos titled Positive also appears in the calendar.

As several of the works featured in Positively Art illustrate, art often has a therapeutic benefit for the artist. That benefit may be spiritual in relationship to the truth towards which all art is directed and/or psychological for the sense of well being that the acceptance of truth often offers us. That benefit may also be physical due to the mysteries of the mind-body relationship which are related in David Lee's acrylic painting on board, titled Ethiopian Healing.

The use of symbols in healing has been a central tenet in many religions and cultures. The inherent power of symbols such as the Christian cross to cure illness is a belief held by millions throughout the world. The marking of a cross in oil of the sick on a person close to death is revered as a sacrament by the Catholic Church and there have been reports of spontaneous healings after such anointing. This practice reflects a more elaborate system of healing that some believe originated in ancient Ethiopia in which the painting of specific symbols on the body was used to effect cures of specific diseases. David Lee's painting pays homage to the use of such symbols by physicians, priests, and other healers in less-industrialized countries where, in the absence of AIDS drugs, the painting of symbols on the body may be the only option available to those with HIV disease.

In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag wrote, "Everyone who is born holds duel citizenships in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only one passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves a citizen of the other place." For those of us who live in the kingdom of the sick, the Abbott calendar provides a degree of validation of the truth about ourselves and the truth about our disease. For those of us who have never visited the kingdom of the sick, the Abbott calendar serves as a temporary visa. It allows us the safety of touring the theme park of AIDS, but always returning to the safety of the kingdom of the well.

Positively Art tells us far more about the plague than all of the images and copy in consumer antiviral drug advertisements. The direct involvement of Abbott officials in coordinating the final form of the calendar helped each member of the Abbott team become more knowledgeable about the effects of the plague on the hopes, aspirations, and talent of individuals who are gifted with the ability to communicate truth through their art. Thirteen lives of artists with HIV/AIDS were validated through their art, which may have contributed significantly toward their survival and quality of life. But above all, Abbott's commitment to this project reflects its commitment to the truth about AIDS.

Abbott Laboratories is currently considering the continued sponsorship of the Positively Art calendar on an annual basis. I hope that Abbott will understand the importance of this project and the increasing value that such a continuing commitment will have to the residents of the kingdom of the sick as well as of the kingdom of the well. I also hope that more pharmaceutical and biotech companies will partner with Visual AIDS and with others in the arts community to tap into the power of art to transform our false perception of and failed response to the truth of the plague.

Gordon Nary is editor of the Journal.

A limited supply of calendars remains. To obtain a copy of Positively Art, write to Abbott Laboratories, 200 Abbott Park Road, Dept. 35V/AP30, Abbott Park, IL 60064.

About Visual AIDS

Founded in 1988, Visual AIDS effects change in the fight against HIV/AIDS through programs of exhibitions, events, and publications. By mobilizing the visual arts communities, Visual AIDS raises money to provide financial assistance and direct support to artists living with HIV/AIDS through the programs of the Archive Project.

The Archive Project acts as facilitator and proactive agency to:

  • provide artists' materials grants to low-income artists with HIV/AIDS;
  • document the work of artists with HIV/AIDS;
  • provide professional career training, advice and exhibition support to these artists;
  • facilitate free access to lawyers to draw up a will to safeguard the artist's estate;
  • advocate for increased opportunities for artists with HIV/AIDS;
  • provide basic referral services to enable artists to gain assistance from the relevant social services agencies.

The Archive includes over 6000 slides by over 200 artists with HIV/ AIDS and acts as an invaluable resource for curators, researchers, and students.

Committed to heightening public awareness of the AIDS pandemic, Visual AIDS coordinates the international programs of Day Without Art, Night Without Light, and the Ribbon Project, as well as ongoing programs of exhibitions and events which increase opportunities for artists living with HIV/AIDS.

Visual AIDS
526 W. 26th Street, No. 510
New York, NY 10001

©1998, Medical Publications Corporation