Sport and virtue have been linked since ancient times, when the two were often interchangeable. The Greeks believed that sport helped cultivate virtue, and that virtue in turn helped one excel as an athlete. Ancient texts such as the Iliad feature not only battles but also athletic encounters such as footraces, where human cunning as well as human strength might carry the day, and show victors to be favorites of the gods. Aristotle believed that sport was akin to contemplation, taking us out of ourselves to concentrate on something greater.
Today we celebrate athletes as exemplars of courage, persistence, generosity, and discipline because we believe in the virtues inherent in athleticism, as well as believing in athletes as virtuous. Sports coverage almost always features back stories of athletes overcoming adversity, injury, and personal setbacks on their way to success, accommodating audience expectations that gifted athletes must also be gifted human beings. Conversely, we continue to be shocked and disappointed when great athletes demonstrate vice or bad character traits. We require that our athletes perform virtue, with advertisers often pulling endorsements from players who are less than stellar role models, and giving endorsements to those competitors who have shown especially strong discipline and conviction. Television coverage of this year’s Olympic skaters seems especially interested in the persistence and discipline of young athletes, fixating on the sheer duration of time—all of their young lives– spent training for national and international competition, as well as the sacrifices that accompany such training. Each night of skating has featured film footage and photographs of U.S. team siblings Alex and Maia Shibutani as small children training together, while the internet has parsed and rehashed interviews with former Olympians Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir where each claimed not to have attended their high school proms because “we had no childhoods.”
It is no surprise, then, to find descriptions of the virtue cultivated by practicing sports and the virtue inherent in sports celebrated everywhere on the official Olympic site Olympic.org. We at the Virtue Project thought we would share with you some of the highlights of the site, and encourage you to explore the resources on virtue and sport the Olympic committee has put together there.
Paul Christesen, Professor of Ancient Greek History at Dartmouth College, USA, notes the importance of the Olympic games for the Greeks, who interrupted and delayed wars in order to participate in them:
“The classic example is that when the Persians invaded Greece in the summer of 480 (BC) a lot of the Greek city states agreed that they would put together an allied army but they had a very hard time getting one together because so many people wanted to go to the Olympics. So, they actually had to delay putting the army together to defend the country against the Persians.”
Of special note, too, is the “About” tab, where links to information of the Olympic mission of promoting sport for hope, the ethics of sport, women and sport, healthy body image, peace through sport, and promoting Olympism in society, among many other topics, can be found. The “Promote Olympism in Society” tab is especially inspirational, with links to the Olympic Charter, material on education through sport and social development through sport, and the declaration, in bold, that reads:
OLYMPISM IS A PHILOSOPHY OF LIFE, EXALTING AND COMBINING IN A BALANCED WHOLE THE QUALITIES OF BODY, WILL AND MIND. BLENDING SPORT WITH CULTURE AND EDUCATION, OLYMPISM SEEKS TO CREATE A WAY OF LIFE BASED ON THE JOY FOUND IN EFFORT, THE EDUCATIONAL VALUE OF GOOD EXAMPLE AND RESPECT FOR UNIVERSAL FUNDAMENTAL ETHICAL PRINCIPLES.
We hope as you watch the Olympics and rejoice in the courage and grace of so many diverse athletes from our own country and from all over the world, you take a minute to page through the Olympic website, and to contemplate the ancient Olympics, where the thrill of sport could redirect the passions of war, and our modern Games, founded on the notion that the cultivation of character through training and competition might bring the people of different nations together to celebrate human endeavor in the spirit of brotherhood and world peace.
Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.
The abstract below and full article are online through January 31, 2018 at Feminist Modernist Studies Volume 1, 2018 – Issue 1-2: Inaugural Special Double Issue: Toward Feminist Modernisms.
The medieval crossdressing warrior Joan of Arc became a popular figure during World War I and its aftermath, appearing in silent films, political posters, plays, novels, and speculative biographies. Her youthful idealism, chivalry, and courage associated her with young soldiers sacrificed on the field of battle, and her canonization in 1920 made official the centuries-old veneration of her as a virgin martyr. Modern figurations of Joan emphasize the ethical dimensions of her transmasculinity, where queer gender identity and desire are actively engaged in the struggle to build a more tolerant world. Looking at Cecil B. DeMille’s film Joan the Woman (1916), Radclyffe Hall’s novels The Unlit Lamp (1924) and The Well of Loneliness (1928), and Vita Sackville-West’s biography Saint Joan of Arc (1936), I argue that Joan’s chivalry and saintliness model an ethical transmasculine gender that emerges in wartime, but gradually shows up elsewhere in modernism to insist on queer social justice, fighting “for the good of all.”
The production of Joan during the Great War and its aftermath as a figure of what I am calling virtuous transmasculinity offered her gender comportment – gallant chivalry, courage, fortitude, and self-sacrifice – as a noble way of being queer. Joan’s youth – she was only 19 when she died – made her a powerful symbol of martyred innocence to the young Allied soldiers fighting at Verdun and the Somme. Viewed as a paragon of virtue at least 1400, when Christine de Pisan praised her for doing what 5000 men could not do by saving France,Joan of Arc, Joan became the “perfect” World War I propaganda tool, according to recent film historians, because she embodied the nobility of sacrifice, and linked the deaths of soldiers to abstract ideals of “eternal greatness.”Joan’s transmasculine saintliness helped bring together traditional discourses of virtue with newer discourses of sexology and psychoanalysis, including the work of Freud, who increasingly sought to reconcile a wider range of sexual and gender behavior with the greater good, and whose famous text about lesbian desire and transmasculine chivalry, “Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman,” was published the same year Joan was canonized.
Read the full article here – open access through January 31, 2018
Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.
Tonight at sunset, the three-day Celtic New Year begins with the festival of Samhain, an old harvest ritual marking the end of summer. When you give out candy on Halloween to the children who come to your door, or take kids disguised as superheroes and fictional protagonists out to hit up the neighbors for candy, you are participating in a ritual that is more than a thousand years old. Trick or Treating in disguise is only a modern version of mumming and guising, where alms were distributed to those who came knocking at harvest time and yuletide. The result of the rare occurrence of plentiful food and alcohol marking the end of the reaping and gathering season, Samhain was a magical time where people shared food and visited each other to celebrate the cycles of fertility and death foretold by the coming of winter.
Halloween may owe some of its dual nature–a mix of fascination with the supernatural with charity towards others and a reverence for the dead–to Catholicism. In an attempt to replace Samhain with Christian holidays similarly focused on the care of souls, Pope Gregory III in the eighth century moved the feast of the martyrs to the beginning of November as All Saints Day; two hundred years later, All Souls’ Day was added as the day after All Saints’ Day. Lisa Morton notes in Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween that by 1493, partying on Halloween was an established custom in Britain, though both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I tried in vain to stop the practice of ringing church bells all night long on Allhallow Day for souls in purgatory. While the Church may have once hoped to transform Samhain into a Christian holiday, the convergence of “Halowen Daye,” All Saints Day, and All Souls Day had the opposite result, lodging Samhain securely within the religious calendar, and with it, preserving the old Irish and Scottish celebrations marked by feasting and drunken revelry.
Halloween also owes something to Guy Fawkes Day and the Catholic Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament. Bonfires celebrating the failure of the conspirators to kindle their 36 barrels of explosives beneath the House of Lords have been lit regularly in England since November 5, 1605. Morton tells us that even when the Puritans banned all holidays in 1647, they preserved Guy Fawkes Day, and Halloween in Britain merged with that holiday, which remains its most popular autumn celebration. Elsewhere, in Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man, Halloween survived, and was brought to the New World by immigrants in the nineteenth century.
Día de los Muertos, the Day(s) of the Dead, is another holiday with similarly ancient roots celebrated in Mexico and many parts of the U.S. (and elsewhere) on November 1 and 2. It is thought that the Spanish who invaded Mexico encountered Aztec and Mayan autumn rituals honoring the dead and the cycle of life and rebirth and attempted to replace them with the Christian holidays of All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day. The result has been a Christian holiday that–like Halloween–retains many older practices of feasting and honoring the dead. Large Mexican American populations in the U.S. have spread the customs and popularity of Día de los Muertos, and some Americans have come to see it as another layer of Halloween. While some blending of the two holidays is probably inevitable, particular stress on the unique nature of the Day of the Dead has emerged this year in the media, emphasizing the specificity of this holiday to Mexican culture as a reverential celebration where relatives and neighbors who have died are remembered with altars of flowers and lit candles, and those who survive them also give thanks for their own blessed lives upon the earth.
Both Samhain and Día de los Muertos —and to a certain extent, old All Hallow’s Eve– recognize these festival days as a time when the barriers between the living and the dead are more fluid. This gives the holiday a supernatural air of mystery and magic. Old fortunetelling customs such as scrying, or looking into a mirror to see one’s future spouse, were practiced on Halloween even into the 20th century, and contemporary games such as bobbing for apples have their roots in older practices of divination associated with the holiday. The act of dressing up in costumes recognizes this old sense of fluid identity and even incorporation, as celebrants invite spirits from the other world to visit, communicate, and join in the festivities.
Today Halloween is mostly celebrated by children dressing in costumes and Trick or Treating for candy, but even this act of knocking on doors hearkens back to old communal customs. At this time of year, when night comes early, the fields are bare, and the wind blows cold, asking for alms, sharing food, and opening up one’s house to strangers are all ways of recognizing the deep bonds between rich and poor, prosperous and needy, fortunate and unlucky that link communities together. Pundits and politicians often like to talk about the need to share the giving spirit of Christmas during other months, but we might do even better adopting the virtues of old Halloween and Día de los Muertos–reverence for the dead, gratitude for one’s health and good fortune, and generosity towards others—all the year through.
Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.
In 2013, Chicago artist Susan Aurinko visited a 12th century chateau in France’s Loire Valley that was once the temporary home of Joan of Arc. Aurinko returned again and again to photograph the actual places where Joan of Arc once lived or visited, using these layered images to explore Joan’s passion, from her inspired childhood to her military victories, brief political triumph, capture, suffering, and martyrdom. The photographic exhibit of Aurinko’s work at the Loyola Museum of Art in Chicago, “Searching for Jehanne: The Joan of Arc Project,” suggests the ways Joan lives on as a cultural and religious icon, preserved in sculpture, film, and popular memory. Many of the photographs in the exhibit are images of statues of Joan praying or striding triumphantly with her banner, superimposed on dark, churchlike interiors. Other photographs show wistful little girls with faraway eyes standing in the woods or next to rural outbuildings. Some images show teenaged young women in chainmail looking devout and vulnerable. These images float towards viewers with varying levels of immediacy, yet because all are housed in thick, dark, ornate frames, we are reminded of Joan’s distance and separation from us by time and constructed memory. Joan’s words, taken from her trial transcripts, accompany each photograph as a kind of narration or inner monologue.
These various photographic images of Joan—some as hard and remote as a marble statue, some as immediate and moving as a little child peering out through her own windblown hair—remind us that Joan is made and remade for us by religion, the state, and the media, but that we also make Joan what we need her to be. Here Joan is emotional, vulnerable, naïve, and devout, swept up inexorably by forces beyond her control that she cannot fully understand. Joan is also unswerving, courageous, and inspired, a person of frankness, conviction, and great integrity who survived not only the medieval battlefield but months of imprisonment, including physical hardship and deprivation, psychological torture, and probable sexual assault at the hands of military captors and religious tormentors.
Looking at these images inspired by Joan, their subject suspended so near, yet fixed at a distance by dark frames of culture and history, I am reminded of Vita Sackville-West’s Saint Joan of Arc, a biography written in the 1930s by one of England’s most prominent women writers, an admirer and self-confessed nonbeliever who eventually admits to new-found respect for miracles and the supernatural as a result of her research into Joan’s life. Like Aurinko’s photographs bringing us close to Joan yet insisting on our inability to really know her, Sackville-West’s biography alternates between feminizing Joan and marveling at the alien nature of her saintly masculinity. Sackville-West attributes Joan’s shrewdness to “feminine intuition,” and downplays the physical vigor that allowed Joan to spend nearly a week in armor without taking it off even to sleep. She dwells on Joan’s frequent tears: “She was, in fact, emotional, and wept copiously at every possible opportunity—as queer a mixture of feminine and masculine attributes as ever relentlessly assaulted the enemy and then must cry on seeing him hurt.” She notes that witnesses described Joan’s impatience as that of “a woman great with child,” and in her biography she sometimes calls Joan “a girl dressed up.” Such strategies are perhaps designed to bring Joan nearer to people who want their saints to be more “normal,” more intelligible as properly-gendered, tender-hearted beings.
At the same time, Sackville-West acknowledges the things about Joan that distance her from the ways many people still think young girls should feel and act. She finds it to be incontrovertible that Joan possessed the gift of prophecy; she also marvels, with nearly religious wonder, that Joan leapt 60 or 70 feet from a tower trying to escape her captors, yet emerged unharmed. She guesses that the Dauphin Charles must have found Joan an “alarming savior,” and imagines that because Joan “was not really a soldier at all; she was not even a man,” she must have had an “astonishing effect” on the troops.
Sackville-West is most impressed by Joan’s courage in leaving her childhood and her village to move beyond the familiar, and seems pleased that unlike many saints, Joan never used expressions like “my heavenly Spouse,” or “my Betrothed.” Sackville-West writes:
She is the least sentimental of saints, and the most practical . . . She is too heroic and bracing to appeal intimately to the average mind. She makes the mistake of being always something over life-size; something which, however much she may command admiration and respect, can never be loved in quite the same personal way as the more human saints.
I laughed when I first read this passage, in part because it is funny, but also because this sentiment about Joan is a common one. Joan remains a strange saint for many people. Despite the extraordinary record we possess of her actual words at her trial, she can seem oddly unknowable. Is this because she leaves her girlhood behind? Is her tender girlhood the thing we cling to as familiar and knowable, because her warrior’s ruthlessness seems too harsh? Sackville-West’s characterization of Joan’s heroically virtuous nature as a “mistake” is a humorous jab at conventional notions that it is more important for a woman to be loved than it is for her to do great things. As these words suggest, it is this ability to be loved that is so reassuring; a woman who does great things without being especially lovable is terrifying. When Sackville-West finally allows herself to imagine Joan as a warrior, she calls her “The Maid,” the title given her by the common people signifying Joan’s status as the figure of myth destined to deliver France from English occupation: “no soft saintly girl, but a stern and angry young captain with very definite ideas of her own,” and “that inexplicable character, the girl-boy captain—La Pucelle.”
Contemplating Joan’s martyrdom allows tenderness and pity to soften Sackville-West’s sense of Joan’s strangeness. Deeply moved by Joan’s death, Sackville-West notes that “many wept,” and notes the care for others Joan demonstrated in warning the priest holding a crucifix for her to get down off her burning pyre. As her biography nears its close, Sackville-West recounts the miracles surrounding Joan’s death without a trace of skepticism—the name of Jesus writ large in the flames, the English soldier who saw a white dove fly out of the fire and wing its way towards France, the executioner traumatically frightened by the refusal of Joan’s heart to burn.
Similarly, Susan Aurinko’s pictures at LUMA also suggest a figure we never quite know, yet who fascinates and moves us. The mystery of Joan’s nature, of virtuous courage at the intersection of human and divine, is the essence of Joan’s appeal, and this sense of mystery pervades these photographs and this installation.
The show runs through October 21, 2017 at the Loyola University Museum of Art, 820 North Michigan Avenue. Admission is free through November 11, 2017.
On October 17 from 6:00 to 7:30, LUMA will host a panel with University of Chicago Professor Françoise Meltzer, author of For Fear of the Fire: Joan of Arc and the Limits of Subjectivity; Loyola University Chicago professor Bren Ortega Murphy; and artist Susan Aurinko on “Joan of Arc in Contemporary Culture,” a conversation about the lasting legacy and cultural significance of this venerated saint. For more information go to: https://www.luc.edu/luma/education_outreach/publicprogramsandevents/paneldiscussionjoanofarcincontemporaryculture.shtml
 Vita Sackville-West, Saint Joan of Arc (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 11.
“I feel very fortunate to have listened to and engaged with such gifted people from so many places…”
“I’m having a great fascinating time and I’ve heard attendees from all perspectives/traditions express how appreciative they are of getting this opportunity to have a respectful interdisciplinary discussion on these topics.”
We feel the same, and grateful for the comments already coming our way from our fabulous participants.
Today’s sessions are Jennifer Frey on Happiness and Candace Vogler on Happiness and Social Life; follow along with our live-tweeting from @UChiVirtue.
Below is a sampling from yesterday’s sessions with Fr Stephen Brock on Aquinas and the Law and Dan McAdams on Generativity.
Self-transcendence is in the air, even when selling designer clothes. In a New York Times article in early March that mixes a meditation on the self-transcendent qualities of music with elements of a fashion spread, “Three Iconic Musicians on Artistic Creation—and Its Importance Now: Beck, Kendrick Lamar and Tom Waits Articulate the Creative Impulse,”
Wyatt Mason discusses how Leonard Cohen, Beck, Kendrick Lamar, and Tom Waits view creativity as connecting to something larger than the individual self. Mason recalls a striking moment in an interview with Cohen before his death, when a Japanese reporter asked Cohen about the line “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready my Lord,” from his recent release “You Want It Darker.” “I don’t really know the genesis, the origin,” Cohen began. “That ‘hineni,’ that declaration of readiness no matter what the outcome, that’s a part of everyone’s soul. We all are motivated by deep impulses and deep appetites to serve, even though we may not be able to locate that which we are willing to serve. So, this is just a part of my nature, and I think everybody else’s nature, to offer oneself at the critical moment when the emergency becomes articulate. It’s only when the emergency becomes articulate that we can locate that willingness to serve.”
Mason writes: “Hineni — הנני : ‘Here I am’ — is said by Moses, Abraham, and Isaiah when God appears to ask something of each of them. It’s a declaration not of location but of disposition, of willingness.” He views Cohen’s explanation as a beautiful tribute to the creative power of self-transcendence: “At critical moments, from our depths, out of an impulse not for glory, not for wealth, not for fame, not for power, but out of an appetite to serve — serve something larger than ourselves, however one might define it — the emergency inside us finally speaks.”
The article appears in the Style Magazine section, and Mason’s subjects are artfully photographed wearing Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Ermenegildo Zegna, Vince, AG, Joseph, Falke, Novesta, Sandro, Lanvin, Tod, Saint Laurent, Sunspel. Tom Waits wore his own clothes. Singer Kendrick Lamar speaks to Mason about feeling his audience connecting with music about being trapped by gang culture, and how one man explained to him: “‘I connect through your music not because I know about the gang culture; it’s the sense of wanting to be set free.’ Simple as that. He said, ‘That’s the message that you get across in this album. You’re dealing with that, but I’m dealing with drug abuse; you’re talking about the gang culture and you want to escape that and I want to escape my own self-afflictions and addictions. That’s where the connection comes from.’”
Mason quotes Beck speaking about a similar sense that songs can reveal transcendent connections that exist and have long existed between all of us: “I’ve wondered sometimes — since there isn’t really much record of music past the last few thousand years — if there is some deep memory of music, melodies in there that maybe somehow re-emerge or relate to something that we know already. There must be forgotten melodies.”
Tom Waits talks to Mason about the expression “We went out to the meadow,” as a way of illustrating the feeling musicians have when they have a self-transcendent experience making music. “‘It’s for those evenings that can only be described in that way: There were no walls, there were no music stands, there weren’t even any instruments. There was no ceiling, there was no floor, we all went out to the meadow. It describes a feeling. Usually someone will say it, but they’re probably reluctant to say it — you might be afraid that only you went out to the meadow last night. But it’s one of those things where you go as a group. It’s not like: ‘Last night was a really great show for me and it sucked for you.’ No. We all went out to the meadow. There’s something magical about it. And you can never plan on it.’”
Mason concludes with a meditation on his own sense of music connecting us through self-transcendence: “Although the expression wasn’t known to me, of course the feeling was, at least as a listener: that elemental feeling, a door swinging open in the self.”
This post was written after a visit to ArtAIDSAmerica Chicago, at the Alphawood Gallery, 2014 North Halsted Street, Chicago. The show runs through April 2, 2017.
It is hard to enter the space of the ArtAIDSAmerica Chicago exhibit without experiencing outrage. The massive human tragedy caused by years of governmental and mainstream social indifference toward a disease that wiped out an entire generation of young men here and abroad, as well as women and children, and that still rages on today, draws comparison to the callous use of soldiers as machine gun fodder by the decrepit British generals of the First World War, or the stubborn insistence by the Johnson and Nixon administrations that teenaged boys by the truckload be shipped off to die in Vietnam. In 1980, 31 people had died of what would later come to be known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Ten years later, the death toll in the U.S. alone was 18,447, and continued to rise throughout the 1990s. People living with and dying of AIDS included all sorts of people–gay men, male and female IV needle users, straight and gay women, hemophiliacs, and children born to HIV-positive mothers. Still, the disease was perceived as particular to gay men, and as a result of the stigma associated with them, the U.S. government failed to respond quickly to the crisis.
Artists responded to the crisis by making overtly activist and political art. Many works in this show foreground issues of exclusion, stigma, and injustice. Entering the exhibit, one is immediately confronted by Nayland Black’s 1991 “Every 12 Minutes,” a clock on the wall with STOP IT! written in the middle, its face divided into 5 equal sections by the words “ONE AIDS DEATH.” The clock exhorts us to stop these deaths, but it also commands us to stop all the other behaviors contributing to the crisis, from spreading misinformation to having unsafe sex to stigmatizing people with the disease.
Turning from the clock, visitors can see a shimmering bluish beaded curtain by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Water), 1995, that stretches across a wide entryway, separating the entryway from the room beyond. Yet through the clear and bluish beads this next room is also gauzily visible, glowing and beckoning from beyond a veil.
In a small, adjacent room Native American symbols speak to both stigma and loss. David Wojnarowicz’s gelatin silver print “Untitled” (Buffalo), 1988-89 is a photograph of a diorama of the Native American hunting practice of herding buffalo off a cliff, suggesting the intentional killing of people with AIDS not only through indifference, but through active hostility and homophobia. Ronald Lockett’s “Facing Extinction,” 1994, made of chalk, metal, and wood, shows a ghostly buffalo, a recurring symbol for Lockett of hunted creatures. It stands on a too-solid three-dimensional cliff, gazing into our space as its body begins to disappear into the background. “More Time Expected,” 2002, by Sicangu Lakota artist Thomas Haukaas, shows figures riding singly and in pairs surrounding a riderless horse, symbolizing those felled by the disease.
“More Time Expected,” 2002. Thomas Haukaas. Photo by Jaime Hovey.
Part Gonzalez-Torres’s beaded glass curtain and enter a large open space with soaring ceilings. On one wall, a recreation of ACT-UP NY/Gran Fury’s 1987 video and neon installation “Let the Record Show” shines like a dark window, dominating the room. At the top a neon pink triangle glows steadily over white letters spelling out the famous ACT-UP logo, “Silence = Death.” The projection of an arched crescent and decorative columns around the outside of the logo gives it an architectural quality, like a temple or a church nave, beneath which long panels stretch down like stained-glass. Here photographs of six people from the Reagan era are superimposed on an old photograph of the Nuremburg Trials depicting Nazi war criminals seated in a courtroom guarded by Allied soldiers. An electronic panel with running titles in red shows AIDS statistics and epidemic facts. The superimposed photographs light up and go dark, alternately revealing the faces of Senator Jessie Helms, columnist William F. Buckley Jr., Cory Servaas of the Presidential AIDS Commission, an anonymous surgeon, and President Ronald Reagan. These are the war criminals of the AIDS crisis. Underneath each face is an offensive quote made by each one about disease victims, such as Buckley’s infamous assertion that people with AIDS should be “tattooed on the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals,” or the surgeon’s quip that AIDS provided a better reason to “hate faggots.” To underscore the work’s declaration that silence equals death, there is no quote from Reagan, who famously said nothing even as the worst health epidemic in centuries raged around him.
Other mixed-media and video works include a bank of screens with headphones and seating for projects such as T. Kim Trang Tran’s “kore,” 1994, which swoops in and away from grainy black and white moving images of Asian men relaxing at the beach or walking through cities, zooming out every so often to show these figures, distanced from us by time, being watched by other men and boys on hand-held screens and scrolls. The gaze created here suggests that cruising after AIDS cannot be dispassionate; the look of curiosity, appreciation, and desire for Asian men created in and by these images is now tinged with melancholy, memory, and loss.
Still from “kore,” 1994. T. Kim Trang Tran. Photo by Jaime Hovey
In what is thought to be the first AIDS painting, Izhar Patkin creates in his “Unveiling of a Modern Chastity” a surface of erupting skin lesions fashioned out of rubber paste, latex, and ink. Moved by the symptoms he saw in patients at his dermatology office, he documented their wounds a year before there was any public announcement about the disease or its victims. Here the sores break open the skin of the painting to ooze and glisten in the light, pushing through from underneath as if something monstrous is housed inside. The painting is shocking, but it also forces the viewer to confront the disease at the level of skin, pain, and the body.
The cumulative effect of these works is to move viewers from outrage at homophobic and indifferent responses to the epidemic to admiration at the courage and resilience of AIDS artists, activists, allies, and survivors. In these works we see creative, political, and deeply moral reactions to the absence of justice, to the withholding of compassion, and to the celebration of love in America at a time when huge numbers of people were suffering and dying.
Religious imagery shapes many of the works, speaking to the gulf between the moral response of the queer community–which involved projects such as public safe sex education and meals on wheels for the homebound–and the judgmental condemnation and indifference of government officials and mainstream religious groups, which shuttered bathhouses and gay clubs in a misguided effort to stop gay sex from happening. In “AIDS—JUDGMENT HAS COME, Slidell, Louisiana,” Ann P. Meredith documents a set of billboards she saw in Louisiana as she traveled to photograph women living with AIDS. Her print shows the harsh messages of the billboards as undercut by a graffiti tagger who writes “Love” and “Peace,” and slyly quotes from Romans 3:10, “There is none righteous, no, not one,” a verse that when it appears in the Bible is followed by the words, “There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.”
Keith Haring’s gleaming silver “Altar Piece,” the last work he completed before he died, shows a weeping Mary with a shining heart and multiple arms holding the infant Jesus under a cross in the center panel of a triptych. Here the Trinity is reimagined to include her, and below her crowds raise their hands in anger and supplication as angels fly and fall.
Echoing the theme of Icarian angels, Daniel Goldstein’s “Icarian I Incline,” fashions a Shroud of Turin from the leather cover of a weight bench that once belonged to the Castro gym Muscle System, nicknamed Muscle Sisters by patrons. Stained with the sweat of a thousand gay men, many of whom have since died, the cover bears the ghostly image of their bodies, framed here as a relic memorializing the exuberant communities that flew too close to the sun, flourished before AIDS, and came together to support each other during and after the crisis.
Martin Wong’s 1988 “I.C.U.” shows an eye in a triangle floating over a brick building. Echoing the pink triangle in the nearby “Let the Record Show,” the eye above the building here resembles the eye on a dollar bill, but appears amidst constellations, like the eye of God. A pun on “I see you,” the letters are also the common abbreviation for Intensive Care Unit, the place in hospitals where so many gay men lay dying during the epidemic. In this work, most of the brick building is dark, and only the wing with fire escapes is lit and accessible. The eye of providence seems not to know or care about what is inside; in any case, here God is only potentially available upon exit.
This is not to suggest that the show is tragic; indeed, the entire exhibit is a triumph of creativity, defiance, and love. Artists pay tribute to the fallen in painting, video, textiles, and sculpture, remember those who were there, and call out those who refused to be present. Charles LeDrey’s teddy bear in a box from 1991 suggests both mourning and the end of innocence. In Rosalind Solomon’s gelatin silver print “Silence Equals Death, Washington, DC,” 1987-90, a young man covered in Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions confronts the camera wearing full protest regalia, including ACT-UP buttons, a straw hat, and a paper Star of David. Frank Moore’s “Patient,” 1997-1998, shows an empty hospital bed painted with leaves and snowflakes, where environmental devastation and AIDS are emergencies that require equally urgent care.
Kia LaBeija’s glossy technicolor photographs, such as “Eleven, October 2015,” and “Kia and Mommy” (below) document her dignity living with hospitals and doctor visits, and celebrate fashion and makeup as creative gestures that make everyday life beautiful.
The pieces gathered here span three-and-a-half decades and include work by people still living, as well as cataloging the talent of too many who died too soon. Their project is a deeply moral one: to remind viewers that sick people are human, that no one deserves to suffer, that death comes for all of us, and that the proper response to tragedy is always—must be—art, compassion, and action.
Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.