Tuesday, December 1, 2015

There's no crying in AIDS activism.

In 1989, a group of New York art world professionals called Visual AIDS began A Day Without Art. The idea was that, every year on December 1st, museums, galleries, theaters, and other cultural institutions would close for the day, because such a large number of the people dying were important artists in their prime, to demonstrate that loss.

That first year at least, it seemed like every museum was closed, every theater was dark, and it was a powerful dramatization of what the world might be like if we did not stop AIDS from killing off a generation of artists. That original, simple idea didn't last long. Instead of closing, those institutions in the following years began programming work about AIDS, addressing AIDS, raising money for AIDS. December 1st was already designated World AIDS Day, which, my memory tells me, was focused more on everyone but homosexual artists. It was, and less so but still is now, easier to raise money for children and straight people than for queers who, maybe, deserve what they get, and World AIDS Day has become a much bigger deal than A Day Without Art.

I suspect, cynically, that another big motivator of the change in focus is that a day without art is a day without the revenue generated by art. Closing a museum for a day is very expensive activism. But it also became unpopular to talk about loss. It was emotionally draining. It made people sad, when what was needed was anger and strength. A powerful demonstration of the death toll didn't so much motivate people as make them feel helpless in the face of monumental loss. Grieving was frowned upon.

I think it was 1993 that Y'all was asked to perform in a benefit for ACT UP and, as we were singing "Oh Lord Please Come Help Me Today" -- a sort of hymn that was not without defiance but leaned more toward grieving -- the organizers turned off the lights and sound on the stage. We left the stage, humiliated and shocked that that sentiment would be so unwelcome. I guess the idea was that if you started crying you'd never stop, and there was so much work to be done.