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It Was Vulgar and It Was Beautiful: How AIDS Activists Used Art to Fight a Pandemic

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The story of art collective Gran Fury—which fought back during the AIDS crisis through direct action and community-made propaganda—offers lessons in love and grief. In the late 1980s, the AIDS pandemic was annihilating queer people, intravenous drug users, and communities of color in America, and disinformation about the disease ran rampant. Out of the activist group ACT UP The story of art collective Gran Fury—which fought back during the AIDS crisis through direct action and community-made propaganda—offers lessons in love and grief. In the late 1980s, the AIDS pandemic was annihilating queer people, intravenous drug users, and communities of color in America, and disinformation about the disease ran rampant. Out of the activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), an art collective that called itself Gran Fury formed to campaign against corporate greed, government inaction, stigma, and public indifference to the epidemic. Writer Jack Lowery examines Gran Fury’s art and activism from iconic images like the “Kissing Doesn’t Kill” poster to the act of dropping piles of fake bills onto the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Lowery offers a complex, moving portrait of a collective and its members, who built essential solidarities with each other and whose lives evidenced the profound trauma of enduring the AIDS crisis. Gran Fury and ACT UP’s strategies are still used frequently by the activists leading contemporary movements. In an era when structural violence and the devastation of COVID-19 continue to target the most vulnerable, this belief in the power of public art and action persists.


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The story of art collective Gran Fury—which fought back during the AIDS crisis through direct action and community-made propaganda—offers lessons in love and grief. In the late 1980s, the AIDS pandemic was annihilating queer people, intravenous drug users, and communities of color in America, and disinformation about the disease ran rampant. Out of the activist group ACT UP The story of art collective Gran Fury—which fought back during the AIDS crisis through direct action and community-made propaganda—offers lessons in love and grief. In the late 1980s, the AIDS pandemic was annihilating queer people, intravenous drug users, and communities of color in America, and disinformation about the disease ran rampant. Out of the activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), an art collective that called itself Gran Fury formed to campaign against corporate greed, government inaction, stigma, and public indifference to the epidemic. Writer Jack Lowery examines Gran Fury’s art and activism from iconic images like the “Kissing Doesn’t Kill” poster to the act of dropping piles of fake bills onto the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Lowery offers a complex, moving portrait of a collective and its members, who built essential solidarities with each other and whose lives evidenced the profound trauma of enduring the AIDS crisis. Gran Fury and ACT UP’s strategies are still used frequently by the activists leading contemporary movements. In an era when structural violence and the devastation of COVID-19 continue to target the most vulnerable, this belief in the power of public art and action persists.

30 review for It Was Vulgar and It Was Beautiful: How AIDS Activists Used Art to Fight a Pandemic

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jarrett Neal

    A comprehensive and engrossing history of ACT UP and its affinity groups, It Was Vulgar and It Was Beautiful provides an unsparing account of the various efforts activists employed to combat government inaction on AIDS during the height of the epidemic. Jack Lowery skillfully blends research with interviews to craft a book that is sure to become canon in AIDS literature. For readers old enough to remember the dark years when AIDS rampaged through the gay community, this book will open old wounds A comprehensive and engrossing history of ACT UP and its affinity groups, It Was Vulgar and It Was Beautiful provides an unsparing account of the various efforts activists employed to combat government inaction on AIDS during the height of the epidemic. Jack Lowery skillfully blends research with interviews to craft a book that is sure to become canon in AIDS literature. For readers old enough to remember the dark years when AIDS rampaged through the gay community, this book will open old wounds. For those too young to have lived through it, the book will serve as a portal to the past and inspire an appreciation for the struggles their LGBT forbears endured and the sacrifices they made. The historical parallels between the AIDS epidemic (circa 1981-1995) and our current cultural moment, in which Americans are faced with COVID-19, Trumpism, and the impending overturn of Roe v. Wade, makes the timing of this book's publication perfect. History may not move in a straight line but it often repeats itself. Although the queer community enjoys more freedom, acceptance, and civil liberties now than it ever has before, anti-LGBT legislation is sweeping across the nation, rousing another call to arms. It Was Vulgar and It Was Beautiful is an historical document and, to me, an elegy. But more important, it is a playbook modern-day activists can use to rally, resist, and disrupt the systems and individuals who seek to destroy us. Lowery explores every facet of activists' measures to call out Reagan, Bush, and Clinton for their callousness, lack of funding, and for deliberately spreading homophobia and disinformation to the public (sound familiar?). Lowery's access to members of ACT UP and Gran Fury, many of whom are still alive and thriving in the NYC art scene, allows him to weave together years worth of stories, anecdotes, records, archival footage, and interviews to fashion a book that is simultaneously accessible to all readers yet exhibits his prowess as an historian. He gives this period of Queer American history its due, venerating the contributions and sacrifices the queer community made to defend and honor itself, reform public health, alter public opinion about the disease and its victims, and propel the fight for equality into the twenty-first century. Though several groups worked to fight the AIDS pandemic, Lowery places particular focus on Gran Fury, a collective of eleven artists who created some of the most powerful, lasting works of protest art in modern history. Anyone with a Silence = Death T-shirt can thank them for it. This group of artists took risks and meticulously collaborated, often contentiously, on the many posters that would become hallmarks of the movement. Of particular interest to readers will be the controversy of their Kissing Doesn't Kill poster. The fearlessness and anger of those individuals cannot be overstated. Some of them were sick with HIV/AIDS, and all of them witnessed friends and lovers die from the disease daily. To think that an entire generation of gay men was nearly wiped out due to a political genocide in America seems unconscionable, nevertheless it was activists like Gran Fury who stepped into the fray and brought about the reforms we see today. Yet Lowery and his interviewees are quick to point out that balanced with the palpable rage of this era was also tremendous love, and that activists need to muster both fierce rage and boundless love to effectively achieve their aims. Not every poster or instillation was successful but each moved the queer community closer to its reckoning with the federal government, the CDC, and pharmaceutical companies. Lowery leaves no topic off limits, and I'm grateful he took lots of time to discuss the issue of women and Black and Brown men who contracted the disease, going so far as to express that even Gran Fury and ACT UP had to reckon with their own sexism, racism, and class bias in terms of responding to the need to represent these members of the community. It Was Vulgar and It Was Beautiful is an appropriate title for an expansive book that exhibits the brutality of individuals who marshal their bigotry and self-interest to exploit and scapegoat afflicted populations in contrast to those who lavish tremendous love and care upon the sick. That our nation still views illness as a moral judgment, and that our public health system continues to falter, is appalling. The gift of history is our ability to look back on the past and learn from it. Art has tremendous value beyond mere aesthetics, and readers will be all the more grateful for it after reading this phenomenal book.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Bill Hsu

    I really loved some of the iconic Gran Fury images; they were powerful components of my socio-political coming of age in the late 80s/early 90s. The inner workings of the collective have mostly been a mystery to me. It's great to have this book fill in the gaps, and learn about the complex personalities, friendships and relationships that produced this work. I was at an event for the book recently. The author mentioned what struck him while doing the research was how most of the ACTUP actions wou I really loved some of the iconic Gran Fury images; they were powerful components of my socio-political coming of age in the late 80s/early 90s. The inner workings of the collective have mostly been a mystery to me. It's great to have this book fill in the gaps, and learn about the complex personalities, friendships and relationships that produced this work. I was at an event for the book recently. The author mentioned what struck him while doing the research was how most of the ACTUP actions would not be possible today, with post-9/11 security and surveillance. There are many jaw-dropping quotes from callous to downright malicious bureaucrats and politicians. I'm familiar with the quotes from when they were first reported, but revisiting them today is still a shocking experience.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Audrey

    A fascinating and important story, and a good entry point for a lot of other reading and research into the AIDs crisis, ACT UP, and Gran Fury. A thorough but very engaging read—I finished it in record time for non-fiction, which I usually struggle to get through.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Finnoula

    Oh, another book on ACT UP? Yeah but there’s more stuff in here that I have not learned about yet. These books being published and written during the COVID-19 pandemic is not coincidence, the researchers are using the pandemic/events during the pandemic to relate to other health crises such as AIDS as well as the civil unrest as a way to bridge a connection with the old generation and the new

  5. 4 out of 5

    Megan

    Thanks to Bold Type Books and NetGalley for the free e-ARC in exchange for an honest review. It Was Vulgar and It Was Beautiful details the activity and activism of Gran Fury, an art collective formed to fight back during the AIDS crisis. This book gets into the details of membership, relationships, and the art created by this group. I found it so interesting, but of course heartbreaking. It's devastating to read about people fighting so, so hard for treatments and cures from governments and doc Thanks to Bold Type Books and NetGalley for the free e-ARC in exchange for an honest review. It Was Vulgar and It Was Beautiful details the activity and activism of Gran Fury, an art collective formed to fight back during the AIDS crisis. This book gets into the details of membership, relationships, and the art created by this group. I found it so interesting, but of course heartbreaking. It's devastating to read about people fighting so, so hard for treatments and cures from governments and doctors who didn't care enough to make it happen. It's also heartbreaking to read about members testing positive and slowly succumbing to disease. While this book could slow down at times, it really encompassed the activity of this group and taught me a lot. Some of the art I'd seen, some of the members I'd heard about, but is such a good comprehensive look. I'm so glad I read it.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Caroline - butchesnboots

    4.5 ★ This is an absolutely great reference if you need an understanding of both the actual creative process behind the work of key AIDS propagandists, as well as a look at the personal relationships within the group. Or, if you are like me, a great read to get very angry, sad, and connected to queer history. This book deserves a lot. For one, it deserves a reviewer that is not just an older angry queer teen sitting in their bed below a 'Pits and Perverts' poster they printed at an Office Depot 3 4.5 ★ This is an absolutely great reference if you need an understanding of both the actual creative process behind the work of key AIDS propagandists, as well as a look at the personal relationships within the group. Or, if you are like me, a great read to get very angry, sad, and connected to queer history. This book deserves a lot. For one, it deserves a reviewer that is not just an older angry queer teen sitting in their bed below a 'Pits and Perverts' poster they printed at an Office Depot 3 towns over, desperately trying to cover their face the whole time. But since I inexplicably am the way I am I'll give it a decent shot. First, this topic is very personal to me. I was born and raised in diverse, poor, pockets of the southwest wherein one neighborhood people live with AIDS and live the rest of their life normally and in peace, and in the next streets will be crowded with poor folks slowly dying because they can't afford treatment. This doesn't even speak to the fact that the trauma of being a "post"-AIDS queer has been incredibly damaging. I remember first learning about what the government did (or, technically didn't) do to us. I just got so fucking angry. I don't think that anger ever went away either. I'm angry that the stories of the people we lost are stuck back in time where I can't just drag them back into a world with treatments. I am angry that a whole generation died and that we lost so many beautiful people. We lost large, essential chunks of our community because they just wouldn't listen. This book is excellent in its recounting of not only history but the people behind the history as well. We follow the history of Gran Fury and related art/propagandist organizations. As time passes, the reader follows as members branch away and form new groups, as groups morph into something new, and as people die of the same disease they fight to make seen. This author has taken extreme care to show the person behind each movement/action. I loved hearing some of the jokes these larger-than-life people had between each other because they are so similar to the jokes I share with my queer friends. My personal favorite section was Act 3, Chapter 11. The unapologetic presence and weaponization of death speaks to me so much. A lot of the narration throughout this book allows for the actual historical events to take the spotlight, but in this section, I thought the writing was beautiful. I love how the author consciously chose not to end the story with the political funerals, instead of detailing what comes after the fight has fizzled out- after the height of AIDS activism.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Katie

    I loved reading the history of Act Up through the lens of the political art created. It gave such an interesting perspective that I hadn't read before (and I could have sworn Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993 had covered EVERYTHING). Between the Silence = Death Collective and Gran Fury, some really powerful art was created that I might not have recognized as such without this book. I loved reading the history of Act Up through the lens of the political art created. It gave such an interesting perspective that I hadn't read before (and I could have sworn Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993 had covered EVERYTHING). Between the Silence = Death Collective and Gran Fury, some really powerful art was created that I might not have recognized as such without this book.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Rasheed Newson

    "It Was Vulgar and It Was Beautiful: How AIDS Activists Used Art to Fight a Pandemic" is an extraordinary work that captures so many vibrant and vital voices from an important collision of the artistic and the political. I marvel at all the research and reporting Jack Lowery must have done for this book, and what's more, Mr. Lowery manages to write the book so that it is lively instead of merely academic. I cried, of course, at the loss chronicled here, but I also found places of humor and inspi "It Was Vulgar and It Was Beautiful: How AIDS Activists Used Art to Fight a Pandemic" is an extraordinary work that captures so many vibrant and vital voices from an important collision of the artistic and the political. I marvel at all the research and reporting Jack Lowery must have done for this book, and what's more, Mr. Lowery manages to write the book so that it is lively instead of merely academic. I cried, of course, at the loss chronicled here, but I also found places of humor and inspiration. A masterwork.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Lauren

    I can’t speak highly enough of this book as engaging history that underscores the role of art in activism. While it covers the specific example of Gran Fury in the AIDS crisis, it makes a larger argument/statement. I knew of ACT UP, but learned a lot more details about their activism through this. For me, the most enjoyable parts were the descriptions of the conversations (often debates) that produced Gran Fury’s most memorable designs.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Critter

    This was an excellent book on the history of the AIDS crisis. It recounts the different ways that art was used and includes images of the art used. It describes the processes that they took to create the art. The writing was great and provided a lot of insight into the activism and the attitudes of the people during the crisis. This was a fascinating and well written account. I would like to thank Bold Type Books for providing me with an ARC.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Mira

    probably the most impactful book i've listened to in years. informational, emotional, inspirational, enraging. and incredibly thorough. immediately THE resource on Gran Fury, Act Up, and others involved in AIDS activism. probably the most impactful book i've listened to in years. informational, emotional, inspirational, enraging. and incredibly thorough. immediately THE resource on Gran Fury, Act Up, and others involved in AIDS activism.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    1

  13. 5 out of 5

    Elyssa

    Hands down, one of the best books I've listened to this year. I learned so much about the AIDS pandemic, the lives of the activists, and the ongoing work to end the crisis. Hands down, one of the best books I've listened to this year. I learned so much about the AIDS pandemic, the lives of the activists, and the ongoing work to end the crisis.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Samuel

    Phenomenal well detailed read.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Erin

    I read AIDS Demo Graphics in undergrad nearly 20 years ago and I have been waiting for someone to write this book ever since. Perfectly written through such a strong narrative, I loved it.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Marta Wright

    A fascinating history of the group Gran Fury and its relationship to ACT UP.

  17. 5 out of 5

    B

  18. 4 out of 5

    Claire Beaver

  19. 4 out of 5

    Matthew

  20. 4 out of 5

    Mary Rebekah

  21. 5 out of 5

    Marlee

  22. 5 out of 5

    Kathryn

  23. 4 out of 5

    Robert Bayliff

  24. 4 out of 5

    Amy

  25. 4 out of 5

    Zack Rearick

  26. 5 out of 5

    J

  27. 4 out of 5

    SuáRomXim

  28. 5 out of 5

    Colby

  29. 5 out of 5

    Drew Stiling

  30. 4 out of 5

    Lira

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