PRINT May 1989


I WAS NEVER ESPECIALLY INTERESTED in David Wojnarowicz’s art. Part of the problem was that I associated it with the heyday of the East Village scene, and all that faux-naiveté and self-conscious expressionism, the presiding cult of the (youthful, male) individual, the hustling and the profiteering just left me cold. Under those conditions it would have been difficult to give his art a proper chance; instead I dismissed it as private fantasy—a category, of course, for things that couldn’t possibly matter.

Back then what did matter was subjecting all kinds of cultural production to a litmus test in which one determined its position relative to a politics of representation. And these things still do matter, as much now as ever, but the business of ascertaining whether a form of cultural production is redeemable in some stable sense has given way over the years to a far more ambiguous situation made up of matters of degree, conflicting responses, and concessions to the value of pleasure. Earlier in the ’80s it seemed that some artists addressed the relationship between representational conventions, authority, and power head-on, while others remained oblivious to it. Still others colluded with power, through esthetic strategies so counterintuitive they bordered on pathology—although, in terms of the artists’ careers, that may have been the only cost incurred. Back then you were either thoughtful or retrograde. Either you clung to the tenets of conventional, male-defined cultural myths or you interrogated them. The lines were clearly drawn, and that felt rather comforting in a way—the way certain logical constraints and limitations on one’s freedom often do feel comforting.

I’m still not sure how much of Wojnarowicz’s art I like, but I know I find it more than merely “interesting.” Has it changed? Or have I? Or have the circumstances in which we’re living? Seeing a recent exhibition of his work was a moving experience, one that provoked reflection on things that have bothered me, and I suspect other people too, for some time. Again, those things have to do with logical boundaries and constraints, with the way people tend to construct oppositions in order to justify and/or fortify their own positions; the way people— whose motives might include commitment to social justice, fear of death, a taste for power, or all of the above—reinforce the fine lines between things that seem correct and things that don’t; between things that are “reasonable” and add up, and the ambiguous stuff that “just clouds the issues.” The inclination to separate reason from affect, to segregate thought from emotion, in the pursuit of theoretical truth has, on occasion, turned the critical discourse on cultural production into an instrument not so much of antihumanism as of inhumanity.

One of the things that struck me about Wojnarowicz’s exhibition was that despite this polarized system of responses to art, it performed at both imaginary and activist levels. By “imaginary” I am referring to the idealist or estheticist function of Modernist art. To that end Modernists have exploited art’s anachronistic character as a unique repository of harmonies and human affect, or as a privileged site where evidence of a subjective coherence otherwise lacking in the industrialized world can be witnessed. According to one view of Modernist cultural history, this estheticist tradition has variously been challenged or interrogated by historical avant-gardism, which employs montage, productivism, or collective processes, and can develop into an activist model of, or instrument for, social transformation. This opposition between idealist and vanguard art—the elements of a dialectic within Modernist cultural history—has been a convenient theoretical tool for the historian. It has also provided a rationale for critics on the left to dismiss entire bodies of objects as repositories of a debased cultural idealism. Such wholesale dismissal is predicated on an abstraction: rarely does art belong solely to one of these categories. The same object that performs at an imaginary level can also function—at the level of language—to enlighten, to inform, to develop people’s empathic identification with others, and possibly even to provoke them into action. This, I feel, is the achievement of Wojnarowicz’s recent work.

Among the most remarkable pieces in the show were those of “Sex Series (for Marion Scemama),” 1989. The series consists of eight unique photomontages, fairly large black and white prints in which Wojnarowicz, by putting color slides in an enlarger and exposing them directly onto black and white photographic paper, achieves an inversion of light and dark similar to, but even stranger than, that particular to photographic negatives. Motion is of primary importance in these X-ray visions of a world gone awry, and a discomfiting sense of time’s accelerating passage emerges as its coefficient: a steamship ascends a storm-tossed sea; a military airplane disgorges paratroopers; the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges converge like luminous arteries seen from the air; a train snakes its way through a desolate region; a massive tornado obliterates a landscape; a clapboard building and watertower are glimpsed as if from the window of a speeding car. Only the shot of tree trunks in a forest, seen from near ground level, hints at stasis and duration. But the fact that these trees are rooted in the flooded terrain of a bayou hints at both death and decay.

Impinging on these images are one or more subordinate montage elements, all but one of which are round. These disks—made by exposing previously blocked-out areas of the photosensitive paper to additional photographic material—function as peepholes that open onto something approaching the diversity of human sexuality, that truly human diversity proscribed by our masters with the force of law. Thus, high above the near-intersection of the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges, a woman sits astride the face of another; a man sucks another’s cock inside an opening that reads—suspended as it is in the black sky midway between building and watertower—like a planet of inverted pleasure; one guy fucks another while, behind them, the sky is littered with falling parachutes; a man prepares to enter a woman from behind, her hand reaching back to guide him.

In one of six elements that flank the picture of the tornado, two women embrace. That an image of an embrace should be juxtaposed with one of nature out of control underscores the emotional sense of peril and ambivalence that suffuses the entire series. This sense of menace is in no way alleviated by the contents of the five other openings: a microscopic view of human blood, a view of a radio tower transmitting waves, a close-up of cash, a baby’s skeleton, and finally a detail of a Renaissance painting of Saint Sebastian’s pierced abdomen. These juxtapositions approximate the sort of free associations one might involuntarily make to any one of the images, leaving ample room for poetic correspondences and emotional effects. But this is no latterday Surrealist parlor game. As the Dadaists well knew—and Madison Avenue has since found out—montage can produce a rudimentary syntax, and the series delivers its overriding message with surprising urgency. The struggles over human sexuality and fantasy, on the one hand, and over economic and other forms of social injustice, on the other, have historically been held to be unrelated or, at best, distantly related skirmishes. In the AIDS crisis, they emerge as a single field of conflict. The contents of one person’s “private fantasy” have thus become the terms of our public reality.

Wojnarowicz often includes an overlay of text in his pictures. The one that bounds the tornado, in two blocks, top and bottom, begins in seduction and ends by articulating several aspects of the human cost this crisis exacts every minute. It is the story of an encounter between the narrator (read: the artist) and a hot guy he meets on a subway platform and takes home. He describes undoing the guy’s trousers with his teeth, the sensation of warm, smooth skin under a T-shirt, being licked on the inside of his legs, his thighs, and under his balls. But the minute the man’s tongue moves to the vicinity of the narrator’s mouth, the tone switches abruptly from urban idyll to tirade of pain and recrimination:

_I have the secondary stages of Aids and the man on the T.V. who looks like he has a potatoe for a head is telling me and the rest of the country that I must suppress my sexuality—he talks about me in words that makes me sound like an insect: “carrier” “infected” and when he shows pictures or films of me I am always bedridden and alone and on the edge of death and he says I must suppress my sexuality whether I am a man or a woman; whether I am homosexual or heterosexual; whether I have Aids or not, and he says that . . . I must not fuck and I must not suck and I cannot caress and I cannot have desires . . . . The man on the T.V. is also the man in the newspapers; he has a replaceable head—one day he can be a man and on another day he can be a woman; he can have the face of a politician or the face of a doctor or the face of a research scientist or the face of a health-care ‘professional’ or the face of a priest with a swastika tattooed on his heart . . . and it is ironic when he takes on the face of a family man who wants to protect his children because I am his child and I have Aids and I don’t think having Aids is something heavy: it is the use of Aids as a weapon to enforce the conservative agenda that is what is heavy . . . . and in the face of this I will continue to explore my body and the bodies of other men and find the possibilities for pleasure and connection and this will be done with responsibility and need and . . . with deeper understanding of touch and fantasy and areas of pleasure I have still to reach and I will not be silent about this and I will not crawl into the media grave and die quietly.

There are languages of analysis and of emotion that we tend, in this culture, to regard as mutually exclusive. But Wojnarowicz’s texts are neither the reasoned language of political discourse nor, strictly speaking, the stuff of fiction. Here, within the space of individual works of art, an emotional language manages to explicate a social condition, rather than leading, as it so often does in art, to vagueness and mythification.

The “Sex Series” touches upon a wide range of topics: a diversity—echoed elsewhere in the exhibition—necessitated by the complexity of the interrelated issues that inform both the social character of the AIDS epidemic and the individual experience of living with AIDS. One of the two works showing the bridges between downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn uses montage to attempt literally to bridge the boundaries that often fragment the AIDS crisis and artificially partition the sexism, racism, and profiteering that together have determined its progression. The montage elements include images of a man in a hospital bed, a human fetus, a couple fucking, the skeletal jaws of a pig stuffed with money and bound by barbed wire, and, finally, cops in riot gear. At the top of the work a text recounts, in a detached, reportorial tone, some of the obstacles to entering one of the various trial programs that experiment with drugs for AIDS, especially if you happen to be a woman, a person of color, or an IV drug user:

The drug companies insist that in order to be eligible for inclusion in the drug trials one must have a private physician who can monitor the amounts of the drug you take. This automatically excludes the poor or those on welfare since their health care usually takes place in clinics where the doctors are constantly rotated.

Detailing the denial of proper medical care to the poor and homeless, this work finds the AIDS crisis inseparable from the terms of the social predicament that preceded it and now informs it.

Another work points to the dramatic increase in the incidence of violence against gay men, and relates such violence to bureaucratic inertia. Blackening a Southwestern landscape, through which a train proceeds, a sizable spot of newsprint chronicles a still-unsolved case of gay-bashing on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The landscape is also dotted by an image of two men engaging in fellatio, a magnification of blood platelets, and lastly a large detail (this time a “positive” image) of cops in full riot regalia—including rubber gloves—charging a crowd of AIDS activists. Unlike many of the other photographs in the series, this one was taken by Wojnarowicz himself, last October, when he joined other New York members of ACT UP (the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power) who bused down to Maryland and shut down the offices of the Food and Drug Administration. The action was planned to dramatize, among other things, the intransigence and criminal torpor characterizing this federal agency’s administration of clinical trials for experimental drugs that might assist people with AIDS [PWAS].1

I DO NOT WANT TO create the impression that the show was entirely in the tradition of John Heartfield, the Berlin Dadaist who made of photomontage a powerful instrument for political enlightenment. That would be to distort this highly personal work and to defeat my own purposes. The show included some 31 pieces in a variety of media, consisting of painting and sculpture as well as photography. To be sure, Wojnarowicz does rely greatly upon photography and the logic of montage, and accessibility is clearly important to him; but so is allusion, and the articulation of the kind of emotional distress and psychological “working through” demanded by human loss and the fear of dying. Crucial to the effect of his art is a symbology informed by dreams, which the artist regularly and exhaustively records. Wojnarowicz values the products of the unconscious; he would evidently agree with Klaus Theweleit’s statement that “consciousness must always be false if it is set in opposition to the ‘unconscious,’ emotion, and human affectivity—and as a rule, it is.”2 That the artist factors unconscious thought processes into his working method is surely appropriate to an art that deals with a sexually transmittable epidemic.

This artist never denies himself the use of art for reverie or for consolation as well as for imaging outrage or inciting it. This is never more apparent than in one of the untitled pieces, from 1988–89. The picture is bordered on all sides by a field of cutup cash (facsimile cash really), big red letters, and spermatozoal shapes, sliced from a map, which swim around this margin. The center contains nine pallid photographs registering the bearded face, the feet, and the hands of a dead man, Wojnarowicz’s friend Peter Hujar. Hujar was well-known for his own photographs of the faces, feet, hands, and other significant parts of the men and women who constituted his community of friends and acquaintances. He took these metaportraits not only of the living but also of the dead; in Wojnarowicz’s words, they are photos of a “serious rich darkness.” Strangely, despite the horrifying circumstance they show, these nine pictures of Hujar are neither clinical nor cold. They are quiet, respectful, and sorrowful. In a way, they commemorate Hujar’s practice by reiterating its own logic. Surrounding them with play money, Wojnarowicz also refuses to relieve these death images of their political weight and context. At the same time, they function as a literalized, photographic act of mourning. Freud described mourning as an act of “reproduction” in which scenes of illness and dying are brought back to those who have suffered the death of someone they love. Such mental picturing, he believed, permits us to weep, and to console ourselves, “at . . . leisure, one might say.”3 Clearly Freud could not have imagined just how little leisure there would be in which to mourn during the AIDS crisis.

A block of black typescript—a veil of writing—inserts itself between the viewer and the photographs of Hujar. This text gives Wojnarowicz’s responses to a few of the many pernicious statements made by straight people, in and out of the American government, concerning AIDS and the gay men who were first widely reported to have contracted it:

“If I had a dollar to spend for healthcare I’d rather spend it on a baby or innocent person with some defect or illness not of their own responsibility; not some person with Aids . . . ” says the healthcare official on national television and this is in the middle of an hour long video of people dying on camera because they can’t afford the limited drugs available that might extend their lives and I can’t even remember what this official looked like because I reached in through the t.v. screen and ripped his face in half and I was diagnosed with Arc recently and this was after the last few years of losing count of the friends and neighbors who have been dying slow vicious and unnecessary deaths because fags and dykes and junkies are expendable in this country. “If you want to stop Aids, shoot the queers . . . ” says the governor of texas on the radio and his press secretary later claims the governor was only joking and didn’t know the microphone was turned on and besides they didn’t think it would hurt his chances for re-election anyways and I wake up every morning in this killing machine called america and I’m carrying this rage like a blood filled egg and there’s a thin line between the inside and the outside a thin line between thought and action and that line is simply made up of blood and muscle and bone and I’m waking up more and more from daydreams of tipping amazonian blowdarts in ‘infected blood’ and spitting them at the exposed necklines of certain politicians or government healthcare officials or those thinly disguised walking swastika’s that wear religious garments over their murderous intentions or those rabid strangers parading against Aids clinics in the nightly news . . . there’s a thin line a very thin line between the inside and the outside and I’ve been looking all my life at the signs surrounding us in the media or on peoples lips; the religious types outside st. patricks cathedral shouting to men and women in the gay parade: “You won’t be here next year—you’ll get Aids and die ha ha . . . ” and the areas of the u.s.a. where it is possible to murder a man and when brought to trial one only has to say that the victim was a queer and that he tried to touch you and the courts will set you free and the difficulties that a bunch of republican senators have in albany with supporting an anti-violence bill that includes ‘sexual orientation’ as a category of crime victims there’s a thin line a very thin line. . . .

The very fact that such work was in a contemporary art show in a SoHo gallery prompted me to modify my skepticism regarding the character of such spaces and the thorny matter of “art about AIDS.” As disturbing as it is to find ourselves dependent upon art dealers or, for that matter, museum curators for such things, where else could people have gone to connect in this way with the experience, knowledge, anger, and eloquence of a PWA?

“Art about AIDS” is a bewildering matter. AIDS has emerged as a motif, tapping into a traffic in the pornography of grief, or upping the ante in a contemporary art scene where the masochism of collectors finds its only match in the sadistic strategies dreamed up by their favorite artists. But some are responding to the present crisis in more persuasive, forceful ways. There are those who are attempting to counter “the dominant discourse on AIDS” fairly directly and logically; because, as Douglas Crimp has pointed out, that discourse is mostly televised, an important “counter-practice” in video has developed.4 However, other artists (Wojnarowicz among them), though no less concerned with combating media constructions of the AIDS epidemic, may still choose a more traditional medium, perhaps because that is what they best know how to do, or because, for whatever reasons, such methods speak to—and from—their individual experience.

Earlier in the ’80s it may have been helpful, comforting, even right-minded to rely upon a framework of stable categories in the domain of cultural practice. The temptation to draw the lines still proves irresistible: thus Darrell Yates Rist has seen fit to scold gay men in the pages of The Nation for responding to the AIDS crisis while failing to maintain a balanced view of that struggle’s relationship to the broader agenda of gay and lesbian rights, and to the entire panoply of left-wing causes.5 Yet even leaving aside the matter of Rist’s misrepresentations, surely he could have made his point in a more positive, less divisive manner. The problem is, that would have denied him the opportunity to represent himself—by contrast—as such a model of impassioned righteousness.

The fact that the art world is so bound up in legitimating the very power structures that are responsible for the AIDS crisis should in no way serve to justify the dismissal of works of art by category, even those in relatively traditional media. In Crimp’s introduction to the extremely valuable issue of October on AIDS (which he edited in the winter of 1987), he targets those who perpetuate “the idea that art itself has no social function . . . that there is no such thing as an engaged, activist aesthetic practice.” Reasonable enough. But then he states that if the power of art to save lives is to be “recognized, fostered, and supported in every way possible . . . we will have to abandon the idealist conception of art.”6 Invoking the binary opposition between the idealist conception of art and an activist art that “saves lives,” Crimp not only promotes activist art, he also deploys what is surely essentialist logic to limit cultural expression and to dictate the correct cultural response to the AIDS crisis.

It is necessary to abandon adherence to a conception of art that is categorically exclusive. Thus the narrowly “idealist” conception of art must indeed be repudiated. But the equally narrow activist conception of art that leads a critic to sweeping categorical dismissal must be resisted just as forcefully. Imperative though it is to combat the dominant discourse on AIDS, to open the eyes of a passive-aggressive public, and to force the hand of bigoted legislators, we only stand to lose by using the same utterly logical structures with which those in power have for centuries maintained their authority, defined reality, and proscribed diversity. It is harder to deal with ambiguity and matters of degree than to dispense with uncertainty, particularly (though not only) in a crisis situation. To fail to do so, however, will only ensure that the insights we have gained into the entirety of our situation will be lost.

David Deitcher is a writer who lives in New York.


1. See Gregg Bordowitz and Jean Carlomusto, Seize Control of the F.D.A., 1988, a videotape documenting this action. The tape was made for Living with AIDS, a TV show produced by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and shown weekly in New York on public-access cable

2. Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, trans. Stephen Conway et al., Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987, p. 219.

3. Quoted in J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-Analysis, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1973, p. 485.

4. See Douglas Crimp, “AIDS Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism,” in October No. 43, Winter 1987, p. 14. This issue of October is reprinted as Douglas Crimp, ed., AIDS: Cultural Analysis Cultural Activism, Cambridge, Mass., and London: MIT Press, 1989.

5. See Darrell Yates Rist, “AIDS as Apocalypse: The Deadly Costs of an Obsession,” The Nation 248 no. 6, 13 February 1989, pp. 181 and 196-200.

6. Crimp, pp. 6-7.