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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Saturday, June 18th, 2022

Book Review: It Was Vulgar & It Was Beautiful relates how art helped combat AIDS

Our gov­ern­ment and health­care sys­tem failed tens of thou­sands of peo­ple liv­ing with AIDS in the 1980s by fail­ing to pro­vide med­ical care, sex­u­al health edu­ca­tion, and resources to improve their qual­i­ty of life.

Acquired immun­od­e­fi­cien­cy syn­drome (AIDS) is a chron­ic, poten­tial­ly life-threat­en­ing con­di­tion caused by the human immun­od­e­fi­cien­cy virus (HIV). By dam­ag­ing your immune sys­tem, HIV inter­feres with your body’s abil­i­ty to fight infec­tion and disease.

The Mayo Clinic 

It Was Vul­gar & It Was Beau­ti­ful by Jack Low­ery pro­vides a raw and touch­ing account of an art col­lec­tive push­ing back against silence and inac­tion dur­ing the AIDS epi­dem­ic. Low­ery tells the sto­ry of sev­er­al men and women who refused to keep qui­et about AIDS, forc­ing the nation to rec­og­nize the extent of the epidemic.

Low­ery chron­i­cles the art instal­la­tions by the col­lec­tive Gran Fury, includ­ing Kiss­ing Doesn’t Kill and All Peo­ple With Aids are Inno­cent, while also describ­ing the trag­ic con­se­quences AIDS was hav­ing on the mem­bers themselves.

Avram Finkel­stein, whose sto­ry is fol­lowed through the entire book, first encoun­tered AIDS when his part­ner, Don Paul Yow­ell, began expe­ri­enc­ing pro­longed fevers over the course of sev­er­al months in 1982.

The musi­cian would lat­er be diag­nosed with AIDS, then called GRID, at a time when no med­ica­tions or treat­ments were avail­able. The rest of Yowell’s life would be char­ac­ter­ized by hos­pi­tal vis­its in which staff would refuse to enter his room or pro­vide any life-giv­ing care. Finkel­stein, who act­ed as his live-in care­tak­er, became an advo­cate in these wait­ing rooms, demand­ing that his part­ner be treat­ed. Yowell’s death left Finkel­stein incon­solable, shut out from his part­ner’s fam­i­ly, and resigned to the belief that he was liv­ing with AIDS himself.

When Jorge Socar­rás, who musi­cal­ly col­lab­o­rat­ed with Yow­ell, reached out to Finkel­stein to col­lec­tive­ly grieve the peo­ple they had lost, the two rec­og­nized how free­ing these open con­ver­sa­tions could be. Finkel­stein rec­og­nized that his part­ner had only told two peo­ple out­side his fam­i­ly about his diag­no­sis, which was a com­mon prac­tice for those liv­ing with AIDS at the time. These din­ners would grow in atten­dance and serve as the begin­ning of an advo­ca­cy move­ment, using art, to address the polit­i­cal nature of the AIDS epidemic.

Gran Fury would lat­er form from mem­bers of ACT UP (Aids Coali­tion to Unleash Pow­er), which was the first polit­i­cal activist group ded­i­cat­ed to the AIDS epi­dem­ic. Low­ery is care­ful to doc­u­ment the col­lec­tive’s highs and lows, describ­ing their most and least suc­cess­ful installations.

It Was Vulgar and It Was Beautiful Book Cover

It Was Vul­gar & It Was Beau­ti­ful: How AIDS Activists Used Art to Fight a Pan­dem­ic, by Jack Low­ery (April 2022, Bold Type Books)

These would include the nation­al­ized Kiss­ing Doesn’t Kill poster, which fea­tured three cou­ples of dif­fer­ent sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tions kiss­ing with the tagline: “Kiss­ing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indif­fer­ence Do.”

This poster end­ed up get­ting pub­lished around sev­er­al major cities and car­ried as part of mon­u­men­tal protests, espe­cial­ly in Chica­go, where author­i­ties had enact­ed cen­sor­ship laws tar­get­ing the LGBTQ+ com­mu­ni­ty and Gran Fury’s installations.

Lowrey not only tells Gran Fury’s sto­ry as a col­lec­tive but also their indi­vid­ual sto­ries, like that of Don Rud­dy, who ded­i­cat­ed much of his time to the instal­la­tion Let the Record Show… before being forced to step back and take care of his part­ner who was liv­ing with AIDS.

Lowrey describes how each mem­ber was forced to bal­ance activism, work, and solo art projects with car­ing for friends, fam­i­ly, and part­ners suf­fer­ing from AIDS.

Despite describ­ing a group who attend­ed week­ly funer­als, this poignant book man­ages to cap­ture moments of joy and cel­e­bra­tion as a move­ment as well as life­long friend­ships formed in both ACT UP and Gran Fury, demon­strat­ing the impact the move­ment had on this coun­try as well as the rep­re­sen­ta­tion and com­radery it pro­vid­ed for its members.

Incred­i­bly real and often dev­as­tat­ing, It Was Vul­gar & It Was Beau­ti­ful is a valu­able record of LGBTQ+ his­to­ry in the Unit­ed States that also lands a sol­id and use­ful cri­tique of Amer­i­ca’s health­care system.

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