How Do You Measure the Success of “Political” Art?

Do you remember the pink triangle on the black background, with SILENCE=DEATH written underneath? How did it make you feel? Did you know what it meant?

In “When Political Art Mattered” [NY Times Magazine – use 12frogsblog and readit to log in] Jesse Green remembers these posters, and his reaction to them.

From those first stark and arresting posters (“[they] kept hacking away at me for days, the way a good play or book might. For days and for years”) to Tom Hanks in Philadelphia (“What seems infuriating in retrospect is not so much that it made a potentially serious story somewhat ludicrous but that at a time when something bigger than compassion could have been expressed, the movie reverted to cliches and distortions. It seems to say that the story of AIDS in its early years was the story of straight people coming to gay people’s rescue”) Green takes an interesting walk through art’s handling of AIDS. He concludes that:

The AIDS agenda, at least as propounded in art, had been hijacked; no longer a blueprint for fundamental alterations in society, it became a brief for inclusion. But it wasn’t outsiders who did it. I think it was the art itself — its success in responding to the plague — that was directly responsible: when you consciously manipulate imagery to change the mainstream, in effect, you join it. This is not entirely a bad thing, even if ”Will & Grace” is often too silly for words, especially compared with Paul Rudnick’s terrific 1992 play ”Jeffrey,” which it palely resembles. [emphasis mine]

I agree that joining the mainstream isn’t always an entirely bad thing: Sixteen years after I had my school locker vandalized with anti-queer epithets, fourteen years after I came out, thirteen years after the “I Hate Straights” broadsheet was circulated, five years after L and I became a couple, three years after our wedding ceremony at which both her parents walked her down the aisle, we plan to walk into City Hall and get a marriage license.

In less than twenty years, we’ve gone from seemingly inescapable isolation to Ellen’s coming out on national television to over half my home state realizing that allowing two people who love each other and happen to be the same sex to get married is only right.

Does some level of success make the next stage harder? What is the next stage?

At the beginning of AIDS, artists humanized the disease and engaged people’s instincts for self-preservation by appropriating comfortable, popular forms of expression. But good intentions can yield bad results. Within about a decade, that appropriation neutralized the artists’ ability to make further change; the message itself (and even some of the messengers) became comfortable and popular. Tom Hanks wins the Academy Award: case closed on AIDS. Which is not to say no good came of this. Under cover of the darkness of disease, the gay movement transformed itself into a raging mainstream success, albeit one concerned with incremental adjustments instead of fundamental change. Many of us, gay or not, are better off as a result. But what if there’s another plague?

I think pushing for marriage rights and getting them will lead to “fundamental change.” Not a fundamental change in marriage — it will be an institution arising from the committed love of two people to one another, same as it is now — but a fundamental change in how lesbians and gay men fit in society. A change from the unrecognized value of our relationships, from our invisibility, from “polite” disappearances and omissions, to a seat at the same table as everyone else.

I also think we don’t need to wait for a second plague to face the “bad results.” We need to start facing them now. Maybe those nobody-knows-them-personally “most people” are comfortable (or at least civil about) gay men and lesbians; maybe they now realize AIDS isn’t a punishment from God.

But while we’ve gone from no treatments available to antiretroviral therapy which for the lucky and the insured in America keeps the ravages of the disease at bay, the unlucky — the uninsured, the poor, the people who can’t tolerate the drugs — are still living with ravages of this plague. Do you think people in Botswana, twenty to forty percent of whom are unemployed, have access to these life-prolonging AIDS drugs? The life expectancy there is 35 years.

Can you imagine a poster wheat pasted to a wall would make you take notice of this? That would make you think about it, that would hack away at you for days?

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