From Haring to Condom Man: Art as Weapon in the War Against AIDS

Historian Joan Saab discusses how clever activists used masterpieces by artists like Michelangelo and Andy Warhol for their advocacy


At the height of the AIDS crisis, fine art was anything but frivolous. Activists all over the world deftly appropriated works by Michelangelo and Henri Matisse to compel people and governments to listen, learn, and act up. Interestingly, history would show that the relationship went both ways. Today, original protest paraphernalia by pop art icons like Keith Haring and Roy Lichtenstein are now considered modern masterpieces.

In the gallery below, view historic placards from the University of Rochester's online archive that used, alluded to, or just plain ripped off works by Eadweard Muybridge, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol, among others. Then, in the Q&A with art historian Joan Saab that follows, find out why visual design was instrumental in the war against AIDS and how the lowly poster became the demonstrators' weapon of choice.

It's a past that's often overlooked, and it's a way of making sense of history by visualizing it. People often think of public art as being something that's abstract or impenetrable or something that's sort of imposed upon them. I think it's important and interesting to look at more ephemeral types of things that encourage engagement. For me, these posters work in that way. I also remember so many of them, so there is this sense of looking back. There's some sort of time travel going on. Having seen these things on the subways, because I lived in New York, and then to now be looking at them as a sort of study, well, it makes me feel old but it also makes me feel, "Wow, I was there." I'm not sure it's nostalgia. It's a multi-layered analysis of their urgency in that moment and also of them as artifacts now.

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The comic strip, the one with Julio and Maricel. I remember reading those repeatedly on the subway and watching the narrative unfold and thinking, "Oh no, what's going to happen?" It was like a soap opera taking place while I was going back and forth from my apartment.

I also really like the one with the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, and the erect condom. I like that one, first of all, because I think it's funny. Every time I teach architecture, there's always a feminist in the class who says, "Oh, they're all phallic structures." I also teach architectural history, and I always try to tell my students that these urban structures have iconic meaning. I like that progression -- liberty, stability, technology, and safety -- and this idea of trying to make safety iconic. I think the way they all line-up as a sort of skyline is clever too. I thought that one was really smart and funny.

It sounds like you responded to the humorous ones the most.

A lot of them are stark and borderline pornographic, and there's some that are all text. Those will only work for people who will stop since these posters were in dorms, clubs, restaurants, and subways. They were competing for people's attentions.

I think that [visual] humor works because it communicates to people across language barriers. Like the one with the Brazilian soccer team where they all have their hands in front of their crotches, which takes a whole new context compared to when you watch soccer. 1034402_1Saab_05.jpgYou just look at it and laugh and also get it. That to me is a successful poster because that's what they're supposed to do. They're public service announcements. They weren't meant to be looked at originally as art or as historical artifacts. They were meant to get someone to get tested or to use a condom.

As an art historian, what did you make of the many appropriations of masterpieces like Michelangelo's David?

Oh, that's just a sampling. Believe me. There were so many more Davids. There were real naked men Davids standing in the David pose. There were tons of them.

The Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel was everywhere too. What's your opinion on that?

I think they're funny and visually engaging. For me, there's an irony there. I think referencing Michelangelo in many cases, who most people will acknowledge was also gay, and taking these religious stories legitimizes the messages in a way. [Practically,] it was also a way of showing this beautiful male body. As I said, a lot of them showed real male bodies but those got censored. But the Davids get shown. It was a way to get this body circulated.

The appropriations of the Creation in some ways is more interesting than the David because there are so many ways you can read it. It's God and Adam, and He's handing him a condom, so it negates that whole idea of creation. You're not going to create with a condom! And it's also two naked bodies so it's so loaded. You can read it as Adam saying, "Can I use a condom?" And God, saying, "Of course you can, but who will you use the condom with? Eve? Another man?" And there's so many ways that people can get pissed off about it. It flies in the face of so many biblical thou-shall-nots.

There were a lot of symbols used as well, like the pink triangles and bananas. Could you talk about that?


The thing that's interesting to me is there had to be some sort of stand-in so you can represent the condom. I think the yellow banana works well, just like the skyscrapers do. There's another one where the condom is a rocket ship and there were two guys riding it, and some where it becomes a superhero. You basically needed to have something to demonstrate it. The banana was a good vehicle for that and it also worked as a reference to Warhol and that Velvet Underground album cover.

The way that symbols work is that they already have some sort of universal meaning affixed to them. They come coded. They count on the viewer being able to place those in a larger context. The banana and the David, they do that. The early ACT UP image pink triangle was certainly one of them too. Everyone knew what that triangle stood for at a certain point in time. They allow the poster to communicate that message about AIDS but also bestow a sense of knowing into the viewer, so they're able to look at it. It's not as scary. Putting art there softens it in a way. Like the one with the bead of the disease. It's the actual isolation of the cell, and it's in this native beadwork. People get curious when they see it, and it makes the problem not as medical.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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