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

Mariner: Houghton Harcourt. Apr. 2022. 432p. ISBN 9781645036586. $35. SOC SCI
In this debut, Lowery recounts his personal involvement in and the history of the AIDS activist art collective Gran Fury, a visual force to be reckoned with in 1980s and 1990s New York City. Gran Fury’s most famous graphics were the SILENCE = DEATH (1987; ubiquitous on posters, buttons, and t-shirts) and the confrontational KISSING DOESN’T KILL: GREED AND INDIFFERENCE DO (1989). The latter was printed on posters plastered onto the sides of New York City buses and made to look like an advertisement; it particularly imitated the style of United Colors of Benetton’s immensely popular clothing ads. Lowery’s memoir evokes the communal furnace that was Gran Fury, with all the attending tragedy of the U.S. AIDS crisis. He writes vivid, frank portraits of Gran Fury’s members and of their relationships with one another and with ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power); here Lowery’s raw emotion strikes deep into the reader’s conscience. The context of how the art was incubated makes this narrative essential to the history of the AIDS epidemic; as Lowery demonstrates, Gran Fury increased public awareness of AIDS by inventive use of art and unquestionably saved lives.
VERDICT Readers especially interested in HIV/AIDS in New York in the ’80s and ’90s will find this book essential; general readers will also profit from Lowery’s insights on issues of art and activism. Recommended for all interested in how art can change the world.
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