This June marks the 20th anniversary of the moment when AIDS entered our consciousness. In that time, the epidemic has wrought enormous changes in style and sensibility, but some of these shifts are hard to see—or perhaps we’d rather not see them. Like all social traumas, AIDS begets forgetting, and new treatments have given artists and their audiences the margin to think about other things. “The implication is that this epidemic is now the responsibility of other communities,” says Patrick Moore, director of the Estate Project, which preserves work by artists with AIDS. It’s a daunting task in an age when silence equals distance, if not death.
On March 29, a panel of writers drawn from the anthology Loss Within Loss: Artists in the Age of AIDS, edited by Edmund White, will try to break through the amnesia. Some may find this attempt elitist in an era when millions are infected, but as Moore notes, “Art is how people looking back on the epidemic in 100 years will see it.” So it seems important to trace the changes in art about AIDS.
The first thing to notice is the shift in mood: less explosive than elegiac, less constructive than commemorative. Survival allows the intrusion of emotions that were overshadowed by the need to arouse and organize. The first wave of AIDS art gave us a reason to believe our anger was necessary and justified. But this rage wasn’t just a righteous response to bigotry. It was also a reflection of our inability to mourn. There were no rituals to express gay grief. So art wasn’t just a political instrument; it was a wake.
But now there is world enough and time to explore the personal dimension of AIDS and the particular ordeal of gay couples denied the familial rituals of dying. At such a time, says Moore, “one tends to be encapsulated by family. But for gay people, there’s nothing to hold them. They fly around.” This explains the desperate traveling that haunts so many accounts of AIDS, and the burden placed on the healthy (or healthier) lover. The theme of shared isolation has always been present, if not privileged, in art about AIDS, but it’s a signature of the most emblematic new work.
In The Married Man, Edmund White’s recent novel, and Lies, the latest installment of Ned Rorem’s famous diaries, we see the need to commemorate not just a dead lover but a life together. It’s not always pretty, especially when illness sets in. Along with devotion there is resentment, terror, and guilt. These are feelings that can’t be sewn into a quilt or expressed by acting up.
“I may have gone too far toward objectivity and coldness in The Married Man,” says White. “But I didn’t want to fall into the opposite thing—the bathos and cliché that seem to have marred most AIDS writing. I wanted to talk about the hidden resentments before and after someone’s death, but also about the way you give up your own life if you are the caretaker. I felt so isolated and overtaxed. I must have put on 10 years in the last year of his life.”
White’s lover, Hubert Sorin, is the fictionalized boyfriend in The Married Man, and his dying is rendered with an unsparing urgency that violates the American impulse to see illness as a source of inspiration. This is no Tuesdays With Morrie but a relentless account of ambivalence and chaos. “I like sincerity in art,” says White. “It’s the hardest of all qualities to define aesthetically, but I think it’s something you know when you’re in the presence of it. Part of what’s great about fiction is that, unlike drama or movies, it conveys people’s thoughts, and it seems to me that sincerity adheres more in thoughts than in action.” For White, art about AIDS is a repository for the seriousness that postmodernism denies, because the epidemic provokes “the two great themes of love and death. I think of our culture as very death-phobic and almost too jokey to talk about love. AIDS fiction is able to do both.”
In this novel, the epidemic’s social dimension is all but missing. Instead, one sees the survivor, a baffled and battered man, struggling to control himself. “I never had such dramatic proof of the role that writing plays for me,” says White. At the airport, after his lover’s death, he felt “like a Sicilian widow” about to burst into shouting and tears, “but I knew they don’t let Sicilian widows onto planes.” The only way to calm himself was to write, and so he began the introduction to a book about Paris he and Sorin had been collaborating on, finishing it during the flight home. The repetition compulsion that drives so many works about a lover’s death had helped White survive. “As a writer,” he explains, “you repeat terrible things. But whereas you originally felt out of control, in the retelling you’re in charge.”
For Ned Rorem too, art is control. As he has quipped, “You can’t write with tears in your eyes because it smears the ink.” For much of his career, this renowned composer has set the most emotional poetry to a music richly resonant but spare of sentiment. He has left meaning to the text, because, as Rorem notes, “The other arts have subject matter. Music has subject matter never.”
Perhaps that’s why Rorem also practices the plainsong of prose. In his diaries, which chronicle more than three decades in the cultural fast lane and its broad intersection with gay life, Rorem has never shied away from feeling. Nor has he evaded AIDS. Previous diaries documented the deaths of some two dozen friends. But in the latest volume, Rorem deals with the epidemic’s intrusion into the marrow of his life, as Jim Holmes, his lover of 30 years, slips away. His dying hovers over the cultural judgments, the gossip, and the aperçus. “What you learn from this experience is that death has no meaning,” says Rorem. Yet, as with the poetry he sets to music, there is meaning in the text.
Like White, Rorem conveys the weight of dying in a relentless accretion of precise details. The model here is the realist novel, but the insistence on representing emotion in all its physicality seems altogether gay. This palpability of feeling is present in the dances of Bill T. Jones, the painting of David Wojnarowicz, the theater of Tony Kushner, the poetry of Mark Doty (set by Rorem). It’s there when Doty hears the virus humming in his lover Wally’s chest “like a refrigerator.” It’s so unpostmodern, this aching tangibility, so easy to dismiss as “victim art.” The difference between sincerity and sentimentality is hard to detect in a casually ironic time. But that distinction is the most enduring legacy of art about AIDS.
Thursday’s panel on the cultural impact of AIDS will be held at the New-York Historical Society, 2 West 77th Street, at 7 p.m. For reservations, call 212-873-3400.