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The Art of Propaganda

Framing the legacy of ACT UP’s Gran Fury

It Was Vulgar and It Was Beautiful: How AIDS Activists Used Art to Fight a Pandemic by Jack Lowery. Bold Type Books, 432 pages.

Before it even began, Peter Staley called the event a disaster. He was standing before a sold-out crowd at the Strand last October with Sarah Schulman to celebrate the launch of his memoir, Never Silent: ACT UP and My Life in Activism. But, Staley announced, Schulman hated the book. During the Q&A she’d been asked to moderate, Schulman joked that he would no doubt be speaking with his therapist about why he ever thought it was a good idea to invite her, their mutual dislike having been rumored[*] for over thirty years. She then pulled out several printed pages of typed quotes from the memoir and proceeded one by one through a long list of factual objections to Staley’s recollections. Occasionally, she opened her own book, Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993, and flipped through its seven hundred-some pages to offer a corrective. Staley rallied but appeared miserable the entire time.

It’s been a big year for the early alumni of ACT UP, the activist collective “united in anger” to end the AIDS crisis. The New York Times called Schulman’s tome, published last May, a definitive “masterpiece,” though its reliance on oral history leaves room for much subjectivity, and Schulman’s curation has been debated, most notably in a contested book review published by Jewish Currents. The same month, a yellow banner reading “THE AIDS CRISIS IS STILL BEGINNING” welcomed guests to a retrospective of the artist and ACT UP activist Gregg Bordowitz at MoMA PS1. In the fall, Hillary Clinton blurbed Staley’s book, which details his time in ACT UP’s Treatment and Data group, calling it “a front-row seat to history,” but his perspective has not been uniformly accepted among the fractious, now splintered, group of organizers. Into this landscape of documents made by those who experienced the height of the AIDS crisis firsthand arrives It Was Vulgar and It Was Beautiful: How AIDS Activists Used Art to Fight a Pandemic. Its author, Jack Lowery, approaches his subject, ACT UP’s Gran Fury, as a young historian, raising questions about what this distanced perspective brings to the ongoing history-making of the AIDS crisis and the activism that fought it.

Lowery makes a choice to record, alongside his subjects’ artistry and strategy, an abundance of sensory and social details.

Though Lowery is too young to have witnessed the history he documents, many of his subjects are still accessible. In addition to extensive archival work, Lowery interviewed more than fifty people, mostly members of ACT UP, including the surviving members of Gran Fury, which created the visual iconography of ACT UP’s actions and campaigns from 1988 until it formally disbanded in 1995. Because of Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard’s ACT UP Oral History Project—their publicly accessible, collected interviews with almost two hundred ACT UPers—new, richly detailed books like Lowery’s may still be possible for generations. But there will come a day when historians no longer have access to living witnesses. Lowery, seemingly aware of this narrow window for enriching the archive, makes a choice to record, alongside his subjects’ artistry and strategy, an abundance of sensory and social details: we learn of the scratchiness of the clothes worn by the models in the photography shoots, made worse by the heat of the day; what bar was frequented for margaritas; as well as the nuanced dynamics between the collective’s members, from the “self-described Machiavellian propagandist” to the “resident WASP.” But this human quality is not only an investment in the historical record, it is for the pleasure of Lowery’s readers. “This book tells a story,” Lowery writes in his introduction, one he hopes will be “more useful (and hopefully more fun)” than projects in more academic registers.

As such, Lowery cinematically captures the artists as one of ACT UP’s cooler cliques; in part, this aura derives from the mythos earned by the quality of their work, the pieces emerging from behind closed doors becoming some of the most well-known images of the collective, recognizable still from our thirty years’ distance. Having myself spent a year researching ACT UP’s needle exchange committee, who described themselves as the collective’s misfits, I felt a near adolescent voyeurism in reading about Gran Fury, the only committee in ACT UP, controversially, to gatekeep their membership. In addition to offering detailed biographies of its members, including Avram Finkelstein, who helped start the group, and Michael Nesline, a cab driver turned AIDS ward nurse, Lowery takes great care to reanimate the New York of the late eighties and earlier nineties—how, in that more analog world, Gran Fury’s wheat-pasted work on the Lower East Side functioned as a hyperlocal and often provocative newsfeed, a poster culture inherited from the anti-war movement.

Sometimes, the images were sexy or playful. An extreme example is a close-up photograph of an erection with the large caption: “Sexism Rears its Unprotected Head.” (Whose body appeared in the image, Lowery reports, was a mystery of the ACT UP rumor mill.) Other times, the provocation was historical, such as in ACT UP’s most recognizable image, the pink triangle above “SILENCE=DEATH,” the creation of which spurred the official foundation of Gran Fury. The pink triangle, of course, refers to those mandatorily worn by queer people in Nazi Germany, the equivalent of the yellow stars Jews were forced to wear.

One of the group’s most memorable projects was Kissing Doesn’t Kill (1989), a triptych of kissing couples photographed in the style of a Benetton ad and plastered on the sides of New York City, San Francisco, and Chicago buses. The mock ad warned that, contrary to widespread misinformation that AIDS could be spread through casual contact or saliva, “kissing doesn’t kill: greed and indifference do.” “Kissing was an integral part of ACT UP’s culture,” Lowery writes, explaining the custom of greeting other members with pecks on the lips, at meetings and in the streets. He quotes ACT UP member Heidi Dorow, who refers to the kissing between members as a kind of “blood pact,” to show, in her words, “I’m not afraid of you, I’m with you.”

Comically, Lowery details Gran Fury’s quest to find “the best kissers and the hottest couples” to model in the campaign. No one in the group ultimately assembled was straight, so Gran Fury’s members settled for the most convincing options. The queer kisses are lusty: a woman tugs at the lip of another, holding it between her teeth; one of the men’s jaws is fully open. Meanwhile, the “straight” couple pecks from a distance, their necks stiffly strained to bridge the space between their bodies. These examples are characteristic of the joys of reading Lowery: an abundance of details and a prioritization of gossip. Sifting through his amassed material, Lowery catches and displays the awkward, jocular assignment of making out with one’s friends on camera.

Kissing Doesn’t Kill embodied Gran Fury’s principal goals: to exploit the forms and mediums of advertising to disrupt the status quo and transmit ACT UP’s message to a mass audience. This mimicry, or co-option, of the brand’s aesthetic was so convincing that Benetton received calls mistaking the campaign as theirs, though, at the time, Benetton would never have featured visibly queer models kissing. Robert Vázquez-Pacheco, a Gran Fury member cast as a straight kisser for the campaign, later heard from his cousin in the Bronx, who asked, “Were you in a Benetton advertisement? Kissing a girl?”

Lowery seems to believe the work of Gran Fury is something other, something more important, than art.

The group’s pirating of advertising aesthetics, strategies, and platforms, and its use of efficient and memorable imagery and sloganeering, can be traced to the fact that many Gran Fury members worked in or had backgrounds in advertising. Seemingly for that reason, Lowery is disinclined to characterize the group’s output as art. Lowery considers the work branding, and, because of its political ambition, propaganda. He draws a distinction, forcing an unnecessary binary between propaganda and art, noting in his introduction that, compared to the latter, “propaganda has a more predetermined outcome that it tries to elicit.” And Gran Fury was urgently attempting to change minds, educate viewers, and inspire concrete action with their work.

If any members of Gran Fury considered their work art, it was, apparently, just a trick. “I suspect,” Lowery writes, “that they publicly characterized their work as art, in part, because Gran Fury eventually began to court the financial support of museums and arts institutions,” noting, “it’s hard to imagine the Whitney Museum funding a group of self-avowed propagandists.” Here he implies that Gran Fury was more of a marketing wing that occasionally utilized avenues of the art world, like museum funding—that their heart was in political branding as opposed to art. It is unclear to me why a stark division between propaganda and art is drawn at all, and why it benefits the first history of Gran Fury to undermine the artistic value of their work from the outset.

Lowery prioritizes the sociopolitical conditions that gave rise to Gran Fury and its most famous works. He sometimes leaves the core group behind for tangents on clinical and federal developments, as well as major protests. These departures broaden the history lesson, and a reader unfamiliar with the AIDS crisis will finish the book with a decent understanding of ACT UP’s work.

But missing is the artistic context, the art about AIDS and homophobia by artists living with the virus that emerged concurrently and in conversation with Gran Fury’s work. I think of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s untitled photograph of an empty bed, with both pillows still indented like the tops of snow angels. The photo, like the work of Gran Fury, appeared on billboards in Manhattan, six of them in 1991, the year Torres lost his partner to AIDS. More textually explicit is another untitled work, this one by David Wojnarowicz: a cropped photo of the artist as a child, with a toothy grin and suspenders, surrounded by text spelling out the terrible things that will occur in his future: “All this will begin to happen in one or two years when he discovers he desires to place his naked body on the naked body of another boy.” Wojnarowicz does appear in It Was Vulgar and It Was Beautiful, briefly, his death spurring ACT UP’s first political funeral, but, as elsewhere, the political and biographical is given priority. 

At least one member of Gran Fury had explicitly studied political art. Lowery notes this: during his MFA at the Art Institute of Chicago, Tom Kalin was inspired by the work of Sue Coe, an English artist whose largely black and white illustrations, often incorporating text, urged veganism and other actions for animal rights. Lowery cites the German artist John Heartfield as another subject of Kalin’s studies, but he doesn’t take the time to describe his work.

Heartfield’s photo collages were stridently anti-fascist, such as his 1932 work portraying Hitler under an X-ray, ribs visible, gold coins falling down his throat into his otherwise empty torso, with the caption: “Hitler the Ubermensch: Swallows Gold and Spouts Junk.” In his ACT UP Oral History interview, Kalin names, in addition to Heartfield, other major influences on Gran Fury: figures in the Bolshevik revolution, Jenny Holzer’s aphoristic textual art, and Hans Haacke, whose images and installations invoke explicit colonial and capitalist critique, employing imagery from banks, jewelers, and oil companies for political commentary.

Kalin also studied under Barbara Kruger—“whose work,” Lowery writes, “Gran Fury had unabashedly ripped off”—at the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program. Like Kruger, Gran Fury often used found images, cropped and mutated by accompanying text. A characteristic work by Kruger, created for the 1989 Women’s March on Washington, frames a woman’s face in black and white, the shades partially inverted; it appears to be cut from a magazine. The text reads “Your body is a battleground,” a reference to the debate over abortion rights. Two years later, Gran Fury’s “Women Don’t Get AIDS, They Just Die from It” campaign appeared on bus stops across New York City, the text appearing over a color-adjusted found image of beauty pageant contestants. In typical Gran Fury form, the work not only invites a spitting anger but identifies a guilty party: CDC criteria that didn’t allow women to be diagnosed with AIDS, the target of an ACT UP pressure campaign that finally succeeded in 1993. Gran Fury fulfilled its role within the larger activist collective by distilling and transmitting this agenda as widely as possible.

My emphasis on artistic context, both historical and among Gran Fury’s contemporaries, is not to dismiss the influence of a corporate skillset in favor of an artistic lineage; a reduction to this kind of preconceived artistic purity isn’t useful or accurate. In a 1991 interview, the same year ACT UP orchestrated its famous Day of Desperation protest, Kruger emphasized that 85 percent of her artistic practice was informed by her job as a graphic designer. Art historians, she noted, “might just look at my work and say ‘Constructivism’ or ‘John Heartfield.’” But Kruger went to art school for just a year and a half and wasn’t informed by Constructivism, an artistic movement aligned with the Bolshevik revolution whose use of black, white, and red closely matches Kruger’s. She says she hadn’t even heard of Heartfield until 1980. The placing of her work in this lineage is therefore a false or misguided reading of her influences and intentions. Art world elites were missing, Kruger said, that she was “somebody who had a job, who had a training in cropping photographs and who pasted words over them.” The presumption of associating her oeuvre with a visually aligned artistic movement, as opposed to a more commercial job, is perhaps accidental, but smells of pretension regardless.

The rivalries and fissures between the early ACT UPers are not ours to qualify, only to record.

I don’t mean to make the same mistake. In Lowery’s case, I appreciate his delineation of the traditional branding strategies Gran Fury used to sell activism, and his interpretation of the political reappropriation of these branding techniques as propaganda. His description of the activists utilizing wide-ranging skill sets captures something special about ACT UP: that these brilliant young people were often working from outside of conventional power structures, becoming their own experts on medicine, policy, or, in this case, political branding. They were rigorous and often self-taught. Gran Fury’s co-option of advertising strategies was successful in circulating information and generating recognition—and money—for ACT UP, and its recounting renders It Was Vulgar and It Was Beautiful instructive for new generations of organizers. But Lowery makes a mistake by using Gran Fury’s activist goals or branding aesthetics to dismiss their work as art. In doing so, he removes the group from a powerful lineage, whose tradition they honored with their work, and whose legacy, which will inspire future political artists, ought to honor them.

In their own words, Gran Fury was “a band of individuals united in anger and committed to exploiting the power of art to end the AIDS crisis.” Perhaps this unprecious approach accounts for Lowery’s insistent dismissal of the categorization of the work as art. He reiterates his position once more, in a rare moment of explicit authorial interjection, when he recounts the disorientation of seeing work by Gran Fury in a recent Whitney Museum exhibit on protest art. Out of context and framed on a white gallery wall, he says the works “just looked so boring hanging there,” that it was “a disservice to their legacy in every way imaginable” to treat the work as “objects to be ogled for their aesthetic beauty” without indicating “how it was used or why it was useful.”

Lowery doesn’t make the case that all art is disrespected by its presence in museums or galleries but rather seems to believe the work of Gran Fury is something other, something more important, than art—which only exists to be ogled. I’m sympathetic to the value of context and the fraughtness of seeing work by AIDS activists primly admired by museum-going elites, but I’m also confused by Lowery’s implications about art: that it is a narrow field of solely visual objects, that political value or instrumentalization exists outside its bounds.

Part of the oddness of this scene at the Whitney is that Lowery’s voice is largely absent in the book, save for his flawed framing in the introduction, glimpses of subjective artistic interpretation, or an occasional admittance of a self when recounting an interview. Lowery neither qualifies his interest nor explicates emotional responses to any of the material, and he is more likely to relay the opinions of an interviewee than share his own, whether on strategic decisions made by Gran Fury or on interpersonal skirmishes. When his voice does appear, it’s with a reverential orientation to the material at hand and a near possessive investment in its legacy. Ironically, it is this reverence, and an appreciation for the work’s political value, that leads Lowery to discredit Gran Fury’s artistry.

I wonder if a proximity and certain devotion to living elders marks the output of Lowery’s generation of AIDS historians. In him, I recognize an attempt at humility and deference in his research, as if one’s role is to simply transmit the information, transcribing the living archive for the next generation. The rivalries and fissures between the early ACT UPers, made so public at Peter Staley’s book launch, are not ours to qualify, only to record. The dedication of It Was Vulgar and It Was Beautiful to the only member of Gran Fury who died during the height of the crisis, Mark Simpson, is emblematic. This is a book for its subjects, a gift toward their legacy. That does not in itself read to me as an inherent flaw in Lowery’s project, though the reverence ultimately smudges the lens of his analysis. It’s an intimate, almost familial expertise with which he writes, radiating affection, a fondness imbued on the reader by the book’s close.

[*] Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this piece asserted that Sarah Schulman’s and Peter Staley’s “mutual dislike [had] been common knowledge for over thirty years.” Schulman denies any long-standing hard feelings for Staley.