'Deviant', 'Dangerous', 'Deserving' and 'Doomed': The Cultural Construction of People with HIV/AIDS

 

Paul Sendziuk

 

In the first five years of the AIDS epidemic in North America, Europe and Australia, the popular press, television, and early government-sponsored AIDS awareness campaigns established the dominant portrayal of people with AIDS and 'high risk' groups as 'deviant', 'dangerous', 'deserving' and 'doomed'. (Some of the early images can be viewed opposite - click on them to enlarge.) These representations did not necessary reflect the reality of infection and transmission. Rather, they were cultural constructs and the product of a range of existing myths, prejudices and narratives about disease and the types of people most at risk of HIV infection, namely homosexuals, drug users and sex workers. As constructs, rather than biological reality, these representations could be contested. As the American art critic Douglas Crimp explained: 

 

"AIDS does not exist apart from the practices that conceptualise it, represent it, and respond to it. We know AIDS only in and through those practices. This assertion does not contest the existence of viruses, antibodies, infections, or transmission routes. Least of all does it contest the reality of illness, suffering and death. What it does contest is the notion that there is an underlying reality of AIDS, upon which are constructed the representations, or the culture, or the politics of AIDS. If we recognize that AIDS exists only in and through these constructions, then hopefully we can also recognize the imperative to know them, analyse them and wrest control of them." (Douglas Crimp, AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism, 1988, p.3.)

 

Adopting the method of critical discourse analysis favoured by Crimp, this project will first seek the origins of the early stigmatising representations of AIDS and suggest their effects on the formation of public policy, community attitudes and political responses of the period. Before examining the work of artists and cultural activists, whom Crimp implored to "wrest control" of the politics of representation, it is first necessary to understand what they were reacting against.

 

Of particular interest here is how the discourse about AIDS during the first five years of the epidemic in Australia differed from that of the United States. Preliminary findings suggest that this was a reflection of the very different socio-political contexts of the epidemic in these two countries. In the United States, for example, President Reagan's conservative social agenda (and the Republican Party's strong stance against illicit drug use and homosexuality), as well as the influence of the religious Right, significantly shaped how the news media would tell the story of homosexuals, drug users and prostitutes dying from - and exposing others to - AIDS. An understanding of the varying socio-political contexts that produced different political and cultural responses to AIDS in Australia and the US in the early-to-mid 1980s facilitates an explanation of why artists in these two countries adopted different themes in their AIDS-related work in the second half of the 1980s and early 1990s. 

 

If using this information, please use the following citation:
Paul Sendziuk, '"Deviant", "Dangerous", "Deserving" and "Doomed": The Cultural Construction of People with HIV/AIDS', The Art of AIDS Prevention, www.aidsart.org; accessed <insert date>

 

Proceed to:

 

2. Art as Activism (c.1987-1994)

 

3. Challenging Representational Strategies in the Second Decade of the Epidemic

 

4. Artists Respond to the AIDS Crisis in South Africa

 

5. The Art of AIDS Prevention

 

Nicholas Nixon
Nicholas Nixon

'Tom Moran, East Braintree, Massachusetts', silver gelatin print, 8" x 10", 1987.

Nicholas Nixon
Nicholas Nixon

'Nathaniel and Donald Perham, Milford, New Hampshire', silver gelatin print, 8" x 10", 1988.

AIDS hysteria
AIDS hysteria

Front page of 'The Sunday Telegraph' (Sydney, Australia), 18 November 1984.

Nicholas Nixon
Nicholas Nixon

'Tom Moran, East Braintree, Massachusetts', silver gelatin print, 8" x 10", 1987.

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