Don't leave me this way

In the beginning, art and Aids met in the obituary columns and the safer sex ads. But as the death-toll grew, so did a body - or anti- body - of Aids culture. Claiming martydom as its own, it has invoked the wrath of the Christian right.

In the Seventies, smart-ass Americans with a perverse interest in Vietnam were all the rage. They subscribed to Guns and Ammo, played air-guitar for Aerosmith and had never heard of Aids. When they drove to the gas station, their favourite T-shirt hated all things black and gay. They lived by the redneck motto "Hard Rock Fucks! Disco Sucks!".

Thelma Houston meant next to nothing in those days. Apart from a few obsessives on the British northern soul scene who thought she was near to God, Thelma was just another black girl at the fag-end of Motown. But every year since, the texture of her voice has matured, as death after death has given her song a tragic significance. Every time I hear "Don't Leave Me This Way" I think of Liberace's candelabra, Ian Charleston in Chariots of Fire and Rock Hudson's withered skin. Put more simply, I think of Aids.

More than any other experience in contemporary society - with the possible exception of war itself - the Aids epidemic has provided a unique impetus for public art. Inevitably, one of the most visible campaigns was launched in San Francisco, when the American Foundation of Aids Research commissioned 22 American artists to design "public space statements". Many of America's most prominent avant-garde artists took part - Cindy Sherman, Robert Mapplethorpe, Barbara Kruger - but the most memorable and historic piece was by the artist Nayland Blake. It consisted of nothing more than a delicate bouquet of tangled flowers and shrubs with their roots showing, with the motto "Don't Leave Me This Way" draped around the flowers. A disco hit had been entwined in thoughts of death and departure; a 12 inch single had become a symphony.

Blake's imagery was a powerful statement of art as mourning; the flowers, at once romantic and funereal, were turned into a celebration of love, suffering and grief. The song had been appropriated by the gay community as an anthem for lost friends:

"Don't Leave Me This Way / I Can't Survive, I Can't Stay Alive / Without Your Love / Don't Leave Me This Way".

There is no simple reason why one song stands out more than others and becomes an anthem. It happened to Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive", which emerged from the dancefloor to become a feminist anthem of positive femininity, Nirvana's music entwined with Kurt Cobain's suicide provided nihilistic and sullen anthems for Generation X. Songs have a peculiar immune system - an ability to fight off insignificance.

For the past decade, the relationship between pop music, the media and Aids has tended to focus on obituaries and the interminable list of the dead and departed. We have all seen variations on the list. It recedes like a half-heard roll-call through fashion, photography, visual arts, pop music, theatre and cinema - Keith Haring, Freddie Mercury, Rudolf Nureyev, Derek Jarman, Kenny Everett. The list is endless, and endlessly undervalued, never quite capturing the full impact of Aids on the creative community, and never comprehensive enough to show the full trajectory of culture. From the black ghettos of Compton, LA, to the academies of Paris, from Easy E to Michel Foucault, Aids has been indiscriminate.

Ted Gott's Don't Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of Aids, breaks away from the list and addresses wider thematic concerns. It is brave in its belief that there is a discernible body, or even anti-body, of Aids culture, which keeps returning to specific themes and issues.

These themes add up to something more than an HIV Zeitgeist, and are asserting themselves as one of the most vibrant and imaginative traditions in late 20th-century culture. Some themes are more obvious than others. Inevitably, many campaigns, exhibitions and individuals have been concerned with safe-sex and condomania. Others - most notably the international Names Project - serve to commemorate the dead in a patchwork of memory and sentiment. But beneath those important surfaces other tendencies are beginning to become clear.

Illness is an important metaphor. From works like Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart to mainstream feature films like Philadelphia, the deterioration of the body, the imminence of loss and the threat of departure are familiar themes. But art in the era of Aids has gone beyond the desire to represent illness and suffering, and has created an urgency of response - an aesthetic fever - which for some has manifested itself in urgent protest, for others in urgent creation.

Aids has given rise to a significant body of public and commemorative art. Slogans have played an encapsulating role, and this fascination with capsules of culture has accelerated to keep up with the media and the soundbite expectations of a fast-living society.

For Aids activists, the slogan has become a site for intense thought and creativity. SILENCE = DEATH the pre-eminent slogan of the era, incorporates the symbolic pink triangle, with its resonances of historic persecution and the suppression of homosexuality in the Nazi era, but also of more contemporary rhetoric which challenges silence, compliance and closeted lifestyle, encouraging public awareness of a genocidal condition. Like all great slogans, SILENCE = DEATH is resiliently simple and yet intensely complex, it has the range to be both a doctoral thesis and a T-shirt.

Like Dadaism, the art of the Russian Revolutionary era and the culture that emerged in Paris in 1968, the Aids era has generated a political aesthetic which seeks to transform slogans into art. The Australian DJ and artist David McDiarmid, the self-confessed "Toxic Queen" of the Australian gay scene, produced a computer-generated series of candy-coloured posters, inspired as much by the psychedelia of club flyers as the camp effervescence of Sydney's lesbian and gay Mardi Gras. McDiarmid's slogans are confrontational about Aids - twisting pop slogans in on themselves and challenging homophobia with an acidic wit - "It's My Party and I'll Die if I Want To", "Honey Have You Got It" and, the ultimate toxic queen put-down, "That's Miss Poofter to You, Asshole".

One of the most robust themes in the art of the Aids era is best defined through a dispute - the war between blasphemy and morality, a war played out at its most intense in America, where the Christian right has been fighting a cumulative campaign against radical art and the Aids aesthetic. Although attacks on the political arts in America can be dated back to the New Deal era, the concerted campaign against Aids culture can be dated to 18 May 1989 when Senator Alfonse D'Amato denounced an exhibition from the floor of the Senate. His rage was focused on Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, a print depicting a crucifix submerged in the artist's urine. D'Amato's attack on the National Endowment to the Arts (NEA), who part- funded the exhibition, was supported by the notorious Senator Jesse Helms, and the die was cast for a dramatic dispute between Christian politicians and radical artists.

Inevitably, gay rights, Aids and the sexualised body played a pivotal role, and a notoriety grew up around a generation of artists including artist-photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and film-maker Marlon Riggs. In a retaliatory attack, the campaign group Act Up inflated a 5-metre condom on the roof of Jesse Helm's Washington home, accompanied by the slogan "Helms Is Deadlier than the Virus".

In 1994, the Rev Donald Wildmon, one of the figureheads of the turbo- Christian movement, began a sustained attack on Channel 4's dramatisation of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, a series set against the backdrop of gay San Francisco, and co-produced with America's Public Broadcast System. In a tactic now commonplace within Christian fundamentalism, Wildmon drove a wedge between creative and commercial partners. Despite accolades, awards and good audience figures, the backers pulled out of the programme's second series.

The Aids death-toll has inevitably nurtured an aesthetics of martyrdom. Many practitioners have borrowed imagery from religion, particularly from Catholicism. Throughout the art and culture of the Aids era there are persistent re-workings of the Crucifixion, the last temptation, and the stations of the Cross. Caravaggio and Jean Genet are frequent sources.

One of the core hostilities between the Christian right and gay art hinges on the ownership of martyrdom. Aids is responsible for more deaths than the Vietnam war, but has yet to penetrate the American consciousness in quite such a mythic way. As the gay community asserts a sense of historic loss around Aids, their opponents on the radical right have elevated the military, the POW and the Vietnam Vet into their cathedral of significance. But in the wake of the Oklahoma bombing, which has made the far right militia an enemy within, their version of martyrdom no longer enjoys the privilege of national certainty. Their T-shirt feels more shabby than before.

n 'Don't Leave Me This Way' is published by National Gallery of Australia (distributed by Thames & Hudson, £12.95

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