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

There are a couple of things. They're fairly inexpensive. You can plaster them all over. If somebody takes them down, you can put them back up. You can change them. You can add to them. They're a very effective way of grabbing people's eyes. We're very used to posters because we live in a world that's saturated with advertisements and images that are trying to sell us something.

I think also -- and this is going to be a generalization -- there was a number of people suffering from or touched by AIDS who worked in the graphic design industry. This sort of public service announcement, it's a genre of communication that's time-tested and it's something that they knew. I think it's also a way, at least within the 20th century, for artists to enter public discourse.

The poster was a claim for power and attention. It was a way for activists to say, 'We're going to do it ourselves.'

To me, it's interesting because posters are these ephemeral sort of throwaway objects. Very few people collect them. And I think what's so interesting about this collection -- and I find this with any kind of collection -- is, when do you start collecting? When do you say that this is something worth having? Because the collection bestows value upon the object, the posters, which for the most part are value-less. But we now know that there are posters from different civil liberties unions like the Black Power movement that now have tremendous value. Those things now are worth a lot of money.

Why aren't there as many posters today?

I think the discourse on AIDS has become so much more normalized. I have a son who's in third grade and he's actually learning about it. They don't know about sex yet but they know about AIDS, which I think is weird.

I don't want to say that the posters are not necessary but their immediate work isn't necessary anymore. The poster was a claim for power and attention. It was a way for activists to say, "If the state or the institutions aren't going to support the cause, we're going to do it ourselves." The Gay Men's Health Crisis, ACT UP, and all these not-for-profit or activist wings are the ones who really initially put up these posters into public circulation. And then the United Nations and the World Health Organization got involved too. It was really intended to educate populations that did not know.

035838_1Saab_30.jpg

Now, it's written into curriculums. Pregnant women get tested for HIV as part of their pre-natal treatment. In the '80s and '90s, as the disease was just emerging and people didn't even know what it was and how it was spread, the need for the posters was graver and greater. The original target audiences, drug abusers, gay men, and the sexual partners of those people, they now know.

If you look at the collection, it's interesting how very few celebrities were featured. Were these art icons or their masterpieces used as substitute endorsers?

Oh, that's interesting. I hadn't thought of that -- having a high-profile artist like Matisse and having him be the spokesperson. That's something worth thinking about.

Do you think that was the intention though?

I think the intention differs from person to person and country to country. If you look at one that's from Tunisia, it says, "You want to avoid AIDS? Be faithful!" Others are about pleasure, tolerance, protection. They represent so many points of view. You've got people who are pissed, who are scared, who are just compassionate, and they're all making posters for different audiences.

It becomes interesting when you see these continuities across countries. Why are there so many posters of the David? Why are there so many cartoons -- I think about 10 variations -- of Condom Man? You see these different tropes emerge. You think of these universalizing stories that cross borders, cross emotions, and cross groups. All these posters juxtaposed provides multiple narratives that allow each viewer to find their own point of entry, whether they're laughing or crying or shocked. And with any kind of historical moment, it's important to step back and take stock. It's been 30 years. That's a long time, but it's not long ago.

Images displayed were shared by the University of Rochester's Rare Books and Special Collections Library.


MORE ON AIDS ART & ACTIVISM:

Why are these AIDS visuals so important to see?

What about the medium itself? Why were posters such an effective way to communicate?

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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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