It Was Vulgar & And It Was Beautiful Promotional Image
It Was Vulgar & And It Was Beautiful Promotional Image

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.

Adjacent posts