Finding Guidance in Activist Art History

This fall term, in my capacity as an adjunct instructor, I have been teaching an upper-level course of my own design called “Sex, Gender, and Politics: Art in the Age of AIDS, 1980-Present,” that centers on several overlapping units tied to themes of race, gender, sexuality, censorship, and civil liberties as they pertain primarily, though not exclusively, to arts and activism engaged with the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Although I knew this class would be timely when I developed it months ago, I never imagined how meaningful it would become throughout this election season.

In the last two weeks since Trump was elected, especially, it has emerged as something of a lantern in the dark tunnel of the post-election landscape. Over and over, I’ve turned to the class material for inspiration, drawing from the reservoir of artists, activists, and political events that I’ve been studying and teaching to help me find the words (beyond some profanities) to speak to my emotions and evolving ideas.

In this post, I want to talk especially about I how looked for guidance from this class for teaching both of my classes the first days after the election, when emotions were at their most raw.

Campus Post-Election

I teach the Art and AIDS class, along with a Survey of Western art post-1750, on a Tuesday and Thursday schedule. This means the first time I taught after Trump’s victory was two days after the election. Emotions were tender and anxieties were high that week, as we all know, especially among women and other marginalized communities feeling threatened by the prospect of a Trump presidency. This is an especially big deal at the campus where I work, which is the most diverse in my state, with about 40 percent identifying as non-white and/or international. The average age student is mid 20s, though I have students range in age from 18 to 70+.

The campus also has an active LGBT community, and in my Art and AIDS class, many identify openly as queer. Others in that class had enrolled as women concerned about issues of inequality and sexual violence. Some of the students also spend their outside time as political activists. I knew from our sustained engagement with other issues before that week that many in that class would come in angry and upset over the results of the election. My survey class, meanwhile, has about 90 students in it, which I have to assume come from a range of political perspectives, even if the composition of the school tends towards a more liberal politics. In that class I had been emphasizing the integral role that art plays political and cultural history through works that have engaged in many of the most major historical events of the last 300 years. I also often talk about the ways that the “past is present,” and how we can see the long term impact of cultural and aesthetic concepts introduced into society many decades earlier, so they were primed, generally speaking, to recognize the connections between past periods and today.

It’s worth noting here, as I talk about these issues, that I was hurt too that week – incredibly gutted, in fact – by having a dream of a woman president dashed in way that seemed so cruel because of the ongoing allegations of sexual assault tied to the president elect. So when I came into teaching that week, I was navigating the  tasks of giving my students space to process in a safe way without shutting down dialogue, while also keeping my own emotions in check.

Art, Empathy, and Healing

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in LA), 1991, Chicago Art Institute.

In my Survey class, which I had first that day, I found a pathway forward through a work I’d taught in the Art and AIDS class the previous week by Cuban-American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres that I have longed admired for its message of connection and empathy. Normally, I teach this work during the very last week of my Survey, but because it seemed so timely, I decided to spend some time exploring it together as a class to help us see how art can be used as a tool for connection. The work consists of a pile of candy that the artist measured to weigh approximately an average man’s weight.

Well, perhaps not any man – when Gonzalez-Torres made this work, he made a reference in the title to his deceased lover Ross, who had died of AIDS related complications that year. Gonzalez-Torres is an artist who often used everyday materials to create poetic works about the ideas of connection, empathy and giving, love and death. His works are often contingent on the viewers’ relationship to that material, and are often invitations for connection through interaction. In this work, viewers are invited to take a piece of candy for themselves to save or consume, in the process changing the composition of this work. Slowly, the pile recedes to nothing, and then is filled again by the museum so the process can start all over again.

This work offers metaphors for giving and taking, and for loss – visualized by a depleting pile of candy. But it also breaks down the boundaries between art work and viewer in a gesture of generosity. When I showed this work, I explained that Gonzalez-Torres’s lover died, and the artist himself would also die of AIDs related complications five years later, but also encouraged them to think more broadly about the gesture of connection embodied in the exchange. We then discussed all the different associations the worked evoked – from loss, to dying bodies, to the bonds of love, to ritual of communion within Catholic traditions.

My goal was to honor the difficulty of that moment before we moved onto the material for that day, but also to allow them to see that I cared. So after our discussion, I passed around candy for the class, because it seemed the least I could do and recognized how hard this was for many of them. I chose to use this work about empathy as a bridge forward.

Art and Righteous Rage

Zoe Leonard, “I Want a President,” 1992.

Gonzalez-Torres is an artist that we have been discussing in our Art and AIDS class as covert operative. By this, I mean he  works indirectly to convey his subversive message, which is rooted in a powerful vision of a more open and loving society. On the other side of the spectrum of AIDS activist art are artists using a direct language of confrontation, calling out the enemy and indicting them for their crimes. In my Art and AIDS class that day, I started with an especially timely work that draws on these strategies to indict a political system during another election with another Clinton, in 1992. This is a work that a student in the class had brought to my attention by way of his research paper, and who in his own proposal had highlighted its ongoing resonance.

The work, called I Want a President, by Zoe Leonard, features a list of demands for her ideal president, and also a call of outrage that this has never happened. The work concludes with the words:

“…I want to know why we started learning somewhere down the line that a president is always a clown….always a boss and never a worker, always a liar, always a thief and never caught.”

Leonard was deeply invested in activism related to feminism, AIDS advocacy, and queer politics at the time, as a member of ACT UP and as a founding member of the feminist collective fierce pussy. At the time, the lesbian poet Eileen Myles was also running in a number of states as an “openly female” write-in candidate. This work was originally published in a now defunct magazine as a response to her specific frustrations, but is now installed as a large scale work in NYC on the high line where it comes to take on broader meaning.

I showed this work to the class and discussed it, and then I gave them space if they so chose to work on their own list of demands. I allowed them to write these anonymously if they wanted – or to not even write anything at all. This activity marked the beginning of an open ended discussion about the election that ended up referring back to previous classes in productive ways, as we turned our attention to ACT UP, the direct action group that had formed to respond the government’s silence on the AIDS epidemic. This work also helped the group to recognize their right to imagine a different reality. And it helped me to segue to our next unit, which focused on a collection of black women artists concerned with unearthing and deconstructing American racism.

As we talked, the students also took action, deciding to put create a zine from the various list of demands. A student volunteered to make a cover, and I volunteered to provide a copy for everyone in the class. Thus through this work, we were able to develop a tangible object to mark this difficult experience in a meaningful way and recognize our own agency.

The Past and the Present

Since that day, I’ve continued to find guidance through the tools this class has given me. I’ve used the activism around the AIDS epidemic to ground my own responses to a broader historical context. We cannot forget when we talk about presidential administrations that thousands of Americans died in the 1980s – not only because of government inaction, but also because the US government often actively worked to deny them their humanity through brutally disparaging propaganda campaigns rooted in racism, sexism, and homophobia.

The thing I have been struggling with, though, is that when I first conceived of the Arts and AIDS class, I imagined it serving as reminder to my students of how far we had come since those very dark days early on the epidemic when artists-activists used their queer bodies (disregarded and loathed by so many) as the central weapons for their actions. Now? Well, my students are learning a harder lesson, as am I. But I am also encouraged.  This class has reminded me how powerful people can be when they work together to organize. It has showed me examples of incredible resilience in the face of great odds. So I am still struggling, but nonetheless, my spirit is strong.


The featured image is a poster that was the centerpiece at ACT UP direct action protests, and has become an emblem for the AIDS activist movement in the US. 

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