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It Was Vulgar and It Was Beautiful: How AIDS Activists Used Art to Fight a Pandemic

Jack Lowery

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Social & cultural history

The story of art collective Gran Fury-which fought back during the AIDS crisis through direct action and community-made propaganda-offers lessons in love and grief.

In the late 1980s, the AIDS pandemic was annihilating queer people, intravenous drug users, and communities of color in America, and disinformation about the disease ran rampant. Out of the activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), an art collective that called itself Gran Fury formed to campaign against corporate greed, government inaction, stigma, and public indifference to the epidemic.

Writer Jack Lowery examines Gran Fury's art and activism from iconic images like the "Kissing Doesn't Kill" poster to the act of dropping piles of fake bills onto the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Lowery offers a complex, moving portrait of a collective and its members, who built essential solidarities with each other and whose lives evidenced the profound trauma of enduring the AIDS crisis.

Gran Fury and ACT UP's strategies are still used frequently by the activists leading contemporary movements. In an era when structural violence and the devastation of COVID-19 continue to target the most vulnerable, this belief in the power of public art and action persists.

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