How the AIDS Epidemic Changed American Art

“Today’s art looks like it does because of the AIDS crisis.”

Rock Hushka, the Chief Curator at Tacoma Art Museum (TAM), recently shared that bold statement with me when discussing his new exhibit, Art AIDS America.

The notion that the AIDS epidemic fundamentally changed American art is at the heart of the exhibition, which features work that spans three decades and ranges from overtly political art to pieces that are much more subtle and coded.

Art AIDS America opens on Saturday, October 3rd at TAM. In addition to being the first exhibition to explore the impact of the AIDS crisis on art, it also honors those that have died and serves as a reminder of the disease’s continued prevalence and impact on artists.

Pride Foundation was founded in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, and a significant portion of our resources go toward funding HIV/AIDS prevention and support services; making this exhibit especially near and dear to our hearts.

I recently interviewed Rock to get an inside look at Art AIDS America and what viewers can expect to see.

Rachael DeCruz: What was the impetus for pulling together this exhibit? Was there anything about this particular moment in time that made you want to undertake this project?

Rock Hushka: That’s a big question with an even bigger answer. I wrote my graduate thesis on AIDS activist images 25 years ago, so my interest in this topic is longstanding.

Part of it is this idea that art has social relevance and is not just a treasure that you keep. Continuing in this vein, I’ve been trying to understand why contemporary art looks like it does, while being aware that there are 1.2 million Americans that are HIV positive, and another person becomes infected with HIV every 10.5 minutes.

The exhibit has been 10 years in the making, and there are a lot of reasons why that’s the case. The main factor is because it’s a hard exhibition. Museums don’t always want to engage in the subjects of disease and death, culture wars, and gay identity. It’s not an easy story for a museum to tell. Yet it’s one that touches everyone’s lives, so we think it’s important.

I’ve been fortunate to work at TAM—an institution that is willing to take artistic risks because they recognize that this art has relevance for our community.

Working on this exhibit has also been an interesting art historical challenge. This art doesn’t have an easy place in art history. One of my insights is this idea that empathy should be a tool for an art historian. That is a very difficult thing. I’ve gotten push back from a lot of people as we’ve embarked on this journey. However one thing has been unwavering: the artists are all extraordinarily supportive.

What is your goal with the exhibit?

In the ‘80s and ‘90s the radical gesture by artists was to remind people about HIV. Artists employed multiple strategies to tell us that HIV was in our midst. If we don’t look at current contemporary art in the same way, we lose that radical nature. It’s my intent that we read contemporary art as reflecting our relationship with HIV. It’s not always the overt meaning, but it’s always present. It’s never NOT about AIDS.

Take for example the video Lollypop by Kalup Linzy, which is featured in the exhibition. While the video doesn’t explicitly mention HIV, it features both an African American man and a Latino man living in NYC. Both are negotiating a sexual exchange and at some point, these two men are going to navigate HIV. If we forget that, then we obliterate their experiences.

While it [HIV] wasn’t the impetus for Linzy’s work, it informed him. This idea that HIV is prevalent in people’s daily lives and is present in their work is critical. It’s one facet of their work—not the meaning, not the purpose, but one facet.

How do you think art impacted the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the way the disease is represented in mainstream culture?

This happened in two critical ways. First, artists were able to reframe the debate and conversation about the AIDS crisis. Their art punctured all the ideological and political narratives, and mobilized people to take direct political action to end the AIDS crisis.

Secondly, art humanized the crisis for people. We saw images that reflected the humanity, suffering, and pathos of real people. That was equally critical to changing people’s opinions about AIDS and the crisis.

The exhibit spans over three decades, can you talk about the changes we see in art forms over that time?

From my perspective, the biggest change has been that the AIDS crisis allowed artists to make a very expressive kind of art. Instead of art for art’s sake (which is an easy way to talk about post-modernism—it’s the heady kind of art that requires a great deal of information and background of theoretical contexts in order to understand), what we’ve seen since the AIDS epidemic is the return to an art that’s deeply personal, expressive, complex, and textured. It demonstrates a shared humanity.

The AIDS crisis caused artists to pull together various different kinds of art-making. These artists also turned to Madison Avenue advertising precedents, to feminist art, to identity art of the 1960s and 1970s. All of these diverse strands have been brought together and now underlie contemporary art practice. Today’s art looks like it does because of the AIDS crisis.

We’ve seen incredible gains in the fight against HIV/AIDS, but it’s still a pressing issue for our community. Can you share your thoughts on what this work looks like moving forward?

We need to learn to talk about HIV, while also being sensitive about how our relationship with the virus has changed. It’s important that we’re cautious not to walk ourselves into the kind of debate that doesn’t allow people to talk about how they deal with the virus.

We need to be able to have an intergenerational conversation about AIDS and how it’s impacted all of us. I’ve learned to be very careful about how I talk with younger artists about the virus because I need them to talk about their relationship with HIV, identity, and sexual intimacy, and make sure that I honor their struggle instead of trying to impose my experience on them.

We also have to be very frank about the way HIV impacts different communities in different ways. Unfortunately, all the issues that exacerbated the AIDS crisis in the 80s continue to this day. Foremost among them are stigma. Until we’re able to talk about HIV frankly, HIV will continue to be stigmatized. I would love for our exhibit to chip away at that stigma.

What do you hope that viewers will walk away with?

I want to bring a conversation about HIV to the forefront. As a society, we haven’t fully mourned the AIDS crisis. One of the things we’re preparing our staff for is that people are going to be very emotional during this exhibition. We want people to feel that this is a safe space for them to relive and re-experience the trauma from the AIDS crisis.

I want people to share their stories about HIV and AIDS, and see themselves reflected in this art. The crisis produced some of the most powerful works of art in the late 20th century. Viewers will be able to see how history informed that and enjoy the beauty and ideals that art can produce. And viewers will also see what was forged in the crucible of the crisis. I want people to see the beauty without forgetting the crisis and fear that produced and brought this art into the world.

Art AIDS America honors people’s work—whether they’re on the front lines of protests, are caregivers, or are talking about HIV in their churches, schools, and at work. We are reflecting people’s lived experiences.

You can learn more about Art AIDS America and the Tacoma Art Museum, here. Follow the conversation on social media at #ArtAIDSAmerica.

Zachary Pullin is the Communications Manager at Pride Foundation. Email Zachary.


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