Gran Fury, The New York Crimes, 1989.
The New York Public Library Digital
Collections. Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library.
Already in the 1980s, at the time of the AIDS crisis, the pharmaceutical company Hoffmann-La Roche was embroiled in controversy. The crude reasoning behind a statement by its spokesman was that, unlike people with AIDS in the 1980s, patients with asthma had a lower likelihood of dying. In other words, asthma medication is be used for longer than AIDS medication. Research into drugs to fight AIDS was therefore less profitable than research into treatments for asthma. In March 1989, the activist artists’ collective Gran Fury brought La Roche’s statement to the attention of several thousand New Yorkers who had unexpectedly received a copy of The New York Crimes
in their New York Times
. The collective had produced 6000 copies of an almost exact copy of the Times
and folded it around the original newspaper. Assuming they were reading the daily news, Times
readers were presented with politically charged information on various issues related to the AIDS crisis: from the relationship between AIDS and financial interests (‘Aids and money: Healthcare or Wealthcare?’) to the failures of the health care system (‘N.Y. Hospitals in Ruins: City Hall to Blame’), the lack of government action (‘When a Government turns its back on its people, is it civil war?’), and the disproportionate extent to which the disease adversely affected disadvantaged communities. (‘What About People of Colour? Race Effects Survival’).
Each virus behaves differently. The AIDS epidemic, which peaked in the 1980s and 1990s, differs in many ways from the current corona crisis. But in at least one respect, there are important similarities: the medical crisis exposes a much deeper socio-political crisis. And that socio-political crisis plays out identically in so many ways.
Art at the time of crisis
It is an oft-heard creed that art can offer hope in times of crisis. British artist Mark Tichner literally put this assertion into practice last month by placing gigantic billboards in various cities in the UK with the message ‘Please Believe These Days Will Pass’ on them. Throughout New York the public can also find such beacons of hope, in collaboration with various artists a total of 1800 billboards with hopeful texts and thank-you messages have been designed. The balcony concerts that buzzed through Europe like a polyphonic canon reminded us that art could alleviate suffering with the beauty of social harmony even at a time of physical distance. In the April 8th edition of the NRC
Sandra Smets argued, among other things, with reference to the balcony performances, that art can make the universal dimension of individual suffering experienceable. ‘Epidemiological art is, in short, an expression of support, a call for a consciousness of togetherness, empathy’.
This view of art goes back to a Kantian aesthetic tradition where art is seen as something that can transcend its subjective and historically or geographically specific reality. In other words, art is not bound by the contingencies of time, place or individual lives. As such, the work of art can serve as a kind of universally accessible meeting place where shared experience becomes possible. Numerous attempts have been made to eradicate this eighteenth-century idealistic notion of art. Such attempts, in their stubbornness, only seem to reassert arts universal, timeless character.
At the time of the AIDS crisis, art was also acclaimed for its supposed ability to grasp the power of the human mind; to facilitate the sharing of experiences of catharsis; or to express the universal human condition. Art could transcend life. Ironically, the crisis could even be good
for art, as it could inspired such beautiful expressions of human suffering. It is a sobering reality that the current corona crisis may actually have a positive effect on art. The artist Andrea Fraser, known for her critical reflections on art institutions, demonstrated, in her contribution to the Whitney Biennale of 2012, that there is a direct link between the increase in economic inequality and the rising prices of art. Economic research showed that ‘an increase of one percent in the share of the total income of the top 0.1% causes an increase in art prices of about 14%’. Many artists will not get survive the crisis unscathed, but the art market may thrive as never before.
The crisis taking place within the corona crisis is a crisis of increasing inequality. We are not all in the same boat together, many have long since missed the boat. Once again, it becomes clear whose lives are not worth saving, who has or does not have the opportunity to escape, and who is able to wash their hands at all. Specificity of place, time and individual lives ensure that suffering is less fairly distributed than we might allow ourselves to believe. Meanwhile, a massive shift of capital is taking place. Air and rail traffic may be at a standstill, but the flows of finance continue unhindered. Large portions of the support packages from governments and the European Central Bank flow directly to private parties and are used to pay dividends. Booking.com
had the misfortune (of course not undeservedly) that its financial practices were noticed and they were crucified in the press. But of course Booking
is only a singular example in our all-encompassing market system. Economic inequality is the political crisis within the medical crisis. Or maybe it is the other way around: the SARS-CoV-2 virus is the medical crisis within the crisis of a sickened system.
In response to the traditionalist role that art was also given during the crisis of the 1980s, the art critic Craig Owens wrote that the contemplative attitude, which demands that art transcends reality, is passive. Art must intervene. Douglas Crimp was involved in the activist group ACT UP (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power), from which Gran Fury also emerged. Like they did with The New York Crimes
, Gran Fury used art to raise awareness for the lack of government funding and pharmaceutical industry investment in AIDS education and research, also bringing into public consciousness the violent forms of homophobia, racism, and sexism that were being revealed in the crisis. Inspired by agitprop, dada and Situationism, the collective used the formal language of advertising and mass media to intervene in public space with critical posters and stickers. It was art with a goal: to change the attitude of governments, institutions and the public and to combat the lack of (accurate) information about infection and prevention. Recurring themes in their critique were the inability of the free market economy to formulating an adequate response to the crisis and the disproportionate extent to which economically vulnerable groups and social minorities were adversely affected. Economic and political decisions demonstrated time and again that not every life, and especially not every lifestyle, was equally legitimate or deserved the same care.
In Simone Leighs Free People’s Medical Clinic
, 2014) and the sequel The Waiting Room
(2016) the focus is on racial discrimination in the US healthcare system. Leigh refers to a long history of medical exploitation, neglect and discrimination against the black population. A shocking example is the Tuskagee Experiment, in which 600 Afro-American men participated in a study of syphilis in exchange for free health care but were never informed whether they had the disease, or had been treated for it. Or a recent incident in which 49-year-old Esmin Elizabeth Green, an immigrant of Jamaican descent, died after waiting in vain for 24 hours in the waiting room of Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, New York to see a doctor. The surveillance footage shows a guard bending over Green’s collapsed body and walking on again. By the time a nurse checked her pulse, she had been dead for nearly an hour due to a blood clot that had moved from her leg to her lungs. Green’s death appears to be a case of extreme negligence but is merely demonstrates, according to numerous statistics, that women of color in the U.S. systematically have poorer access to care and are systematically more likely than white women to suffer from diabetes, heart disease and fatal complications in childbirth. Again, figures show that the black community is disproportionately ill-affected by corona infections. Economic deprivation, inadequate health insurance and discrimination in hospitals and medical practices lurk behind these worrying statistics.
According to Leigh, the number one cause of death for black women is obedience
. Waiting, as she demonstrates in her tribute to Green, is literally fatal. She combines the stories and histories of the oppression and neglect of black bodies with records of various social movements that rebelled against this, such as the Black Panther Party’s free medical clinic and the United Order of Tents, a secret black sister order. In the Free People’s Medical Clinic
and the Waiting Room
project Leigh organised several workshops and meetings in which self-care and new forms of collectivity were explored. Her work thus combines a critical historical awareness of oppression and struggle with the exploration of alternatives that cast into question the prevalent forms of public health care.
Gran Fury and Simone Leigh are examples of artistic interventions that arose from a deep sense of urgency. Both show how the body is a political battleground. The coronavirus once again shows that this battle is not yet over.
Simone Leigh, The Waiting Room, New Museum, 2016
‘Daß es so weiter
geht, ist die Katastrophe’ Walter Benjamin wrote in 1937. What we call progress is
the catastrophe. According to Benjamin, the world as a whole was a permanent catastrophe that was ravaged through and through with destructive force. (‘Real’) progress is only possible when progress ends. To Benjamin, standstill was progress; revolution was to break the status quo. Together with Bertold Brecht in 1930, at the time of the rise of Nazism in Germany, he imagined starting a magazine called Krise und Kritik
. According to Brecht, treating every crisis separately (e.g. in science, medicine, trade, or marriage) will not lead to an insight into the great all-encompassing crisis of which these are only ephemeral manifestations - seemingly independent of each other.
The magazine they had in mind (but never realised) would have the crisis in all its ideological facets as its subject. The original meaning of the word crisis was central to this. In Ancient Greek, crisis
meant ‘decision’ (from krinein
: to decide, to judge, or to distinguish). Later, crisis within a medical context indicated the crucial tipping point in a patient’s disease course. The crisis was the moment when it became clear whether the patient was definitively approaching death or whether the process of physical recovery had begun.
For Benjamin and Brecht, crisis was both the catastrophic state of Europe in the 1930s which they wanted to subject to their analyses and aesthetic reflections, but also implied the possibility of a tipping point. The crisis therefore had to be ‘realised’ in Brecht’s words in the double sense of the word: one had to become aware of the crisis of modernity, and that awareness could offer the opening to a possible revolution. Criticism
was needed for this. Benjamin and Brecht imagined that their journal would provide a platform for an interventionist way of thinking (eingreifendes Denken
), for criticism that was effective and consequential had to be organised collectively. Critique should be the prelude to political action, as the ‘continuation of business by other means,’ as Brecht wrote.
Despite attempts to label the virus an external enemy (e.g. by calling it a ‘Chinese virus’) that temporarily interrupts the ‘normal’ order, it is clear to many that the SARS-CoV-2 virus has its origins in the disastrous way we have arranged the world, and that it works like a magnifying glass for the problems that are intrinsically linked to it. This raises the hope for many that the crisis may be a turning point. Art might now be able to play a role in sketching a new future, to imagining how we can organise the world differently. Benjamin warned, however if we lose ourselves in dreams of the future, we will only wait.
The crisis offers even more opportunities for the further concentration of capital, for the further stripping of the public sector, including the cultural sector, and for authoritarian leaders to draw more power to themselves, legitimised with claims to be serving the common good. ‘Only a crisis - real or perceived - causes real change,’ as Milton Friedman, one of the most prominent architects of neoliberalism said ‘When that crisis begins, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are alive at that moment,’ It’s not hard to guess whose ideas will prevail if we wait until everything goes back to business as usual
and which ideas will remain only dreams.
Gran Fury, Art Is Not Enough [Seize Power through Direct Action], 1987.
Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. (1987 - 1995).
‘Art is not Enough’ was printed on one of Gran Fury’s posters, an ironic message that in its activist intentions seemed to go beyond art but at the same time showed an awareness of its own limitations as art (after all, it was brought forth in the form of a work of art). Neither Brecht nor Benjamin had the illusion that art or criticism were the goal. But if art wants to offer us some hope, it can’t wait too long now. Before we know it, everything will remain just a little bit more of the same.
Noortje de Leij (1986) studied art history and philosophy at the University of Amsterdam and the New School in New York. She is currently a PhD student at the University of Amsterdam where she is writing a dissertation on the relationship between art and social criticism. In 2018 she won the Prize for Young Art Criticism in the essay category.
Art and crisis — Thinking about art in times of corona
The arts are taking a break. Theatres, museums, concert halls and galleries are closed. To a large extent, the art that is so desperately needed right now is inaccessible. Imagine being quarantined at home without films, without books, without music.
Though we may not access the art, we can still think about it. The enforced rupture of this isolation can also be an opportune moment to reflect on and from, the arts.
Every Sunday for the coming weeks we will feature new writing on the arts under quarantine. Today we have the first offering from the initiators of this series: Akiem Helmling and Christiaan Weijts.