Bachelor of Arts
Social and scholarly discourse on the AIDS epidemic consistently foregrounds the harrowing terror of bodily demise and ultimate mortality, eclipsing the disease’s less tangible agonies and rendering them peripheral in public imagination. A perfunctory reading of its depiction in the visual arts might evoke a similarly reductive conception; in images of person(s) with AIDS (PWA), their intimations of psychological distress often appear as symptoms of morbidity, as horrified responses to the emaciated, blemished body of the terminally seropositive. Corporeality and mortality continue to define the visual legacy of the twenty-year AIDS crisis, transcending its profound psychological dimensions in favor of those more concrete. Buried within this language of death, however, lies a latent iconography of disclosure that illuminates new complexities of the disease and its contagion, in particular the divisive issues of sexual and medical privacy. Transmitted predominantly in the U.S. through anal sex between men, AIDS implicated homosexuality in the most dangerous and contentious of ways, legibly signaling what was for many a reckless involvement in deviant carnal encounters. Gay identity therefore occupied a uniquely vulnerable position in the landscape of the AIDS crisis, as the disclosure of homosexuality would certainly connote sexual deviance and promiscuity, if not full-blown seropositivity. The preexisting stigma of homosexuality, already widely seen as a mark of utter perversion, now bore the equally repugnant stigma of venereal contamination, making it all the more risky to express an alignment with either “affliction.” The cultural conflation of these stigmatic identities—gay and seropositive—features prominently in the visual art of the 1980s and 1990s, which regularly depicts homosexuality and AIDS as existing within a mutual and often visibly terminal subject. The works examined in the present paper are no different in this regard, yet they deviate from the conventional fixation on death to foreground a different paradigm. Oscillating between thematic poles of hiddenness and transparency, they collectively illuminate a binate iconography of secrecy and overtness on par with the significance of illness and mortality; they challenge the prevailing public memory of the crisis by foregrounding disclosure, not death, as their paramount tenor, evocatively suggesting that its psychosocial burden might have, for many, transcended that of ultimate demise.
Aretsky, Grace, "A Fate Worse than Death: Dynamics of Disclosure in the Art of the AIDS Crisis" (2015). Art History Honors Projects. 13.