Guest post by Avram Finkelstein.
While we prefer to think of art as a reflection of our culture that mirrors our higher selves—and it frequently is—art can also serve as a dividing line.
Without access to the education needed to pry open the class codes woven into the cannon of Western European art, it can be impenetrable. And without the economic mobility that allows us to visit the great galleries of the world, or the leisure time to go to a museum just a few train stops away, art can easily exceed our reach.
So there can be no discussion about the meaning of art without also considering the institutional walls that surround it.
Running parallel to this reality, however, is a rich tradition of art that springs directly from institutional critiques. These are the art practices that pierce through those class codes, or stand in resistance to them. This is art in the public sphere, and political art, which is designed to activate our social spaces.
In his 1995 essay "This Is to Enrage You: Gran Fury and the Graphics of AIDS Activism," Richard Meyer drew an elegant line between The Government Has Blood on Its Hands and John Heartfield's 1928 poster, A Hand Has 5 Fingers. With 5 You Can Repel the Enemy! Vote List 5. His analysis situated this poster within the history of agitprop, favoring a historical reference to its political significance over an explanation of the political circumstances surrounding it.
Which is completely appropriate in an academic journal. But having been asked about this poster for over two decades, I've come to realize that studying the canon it belongs to does nothing to articulate the urgency of the moment. So I'd like to describe the specific political question that led to this poster's production, and I do it for the following reason. The meaning of a political poster is inadvertently degraded by academic consideration. The very process of exploring this work within this setting also plays a part in its neutralization.
When we describe art as a reflection of culture, that gesture superimposes a presumption of participation in it. As such, it assigns assent. Fair enough, if the goal of its production is cultural. But posters made during times of crisis are a call to action, a reminder of individual agency. They have a completely different set of goals. Political activism is not exactly cultural production. A community in crisis is not art.
So when political posters enter the canon that undetectable mechanism—the one that implies assent - strips them of their radicalism. That's not to say their only meaning is political, and they may never be explored as artifact. I am saying that once the echo of the artillery dissipates, all that remains is how we talk about them. And the cannon that elevates the "art of dissent" simultaneously domesticizes it, by privileging its contribution as cultural production over the more disorderly truths that brought the work into being. We get to claim these works as symbols of productivity, rather than symbols of resistance. It is a defanging.
I prefer to talk about the teeth.
On July 19th, 1988, the New York City Commissioner of Health, Stephen Joseph, suddenly halved the number of estimated AIDS cases in NYC, a move that threatened to drastically reduce funding for AIDS services. The cut was purportedly based on cohort studies in San Francisco's gay community, but the data was also rumored to have had a basis in a position paper from a right wing think tank that called the Kinsey Institute estimates of the number of gay citizens into question. Regardless of its origins, ACT UP NY declared war against him.
During a sit-in at Joseph's office a copy of his itinerary was taken, and it became the basis for a campaign spearheaded by an ACT UP affinity group, Surrender Dorothy, named after the sky-written threat by the witch in The Wizard of Oz. The pursuit of Joseph was so relentless and high-profile it created skirmishes between local gossip and news columnists over protester calls to the commissioner's home, which led to a case squad visit to one activist's apartment by an NYPD police intelligence unit generally tasked with police slayings. The Village Voice reported Joseph as having been responsible for the investigation.
Further tightening this tense political landscape was the Tompkins Square Park Riot, which began within days of the phone harassment of Joseph. It was an incident referred to by the New York Times as both a "police riot" and a "war zone," and it included mounted officers doing battle with bottle-hurling protesters and low flying helicopters combing the rooftops with searchlights.
Several Gran Fury members were involved in the effort to remove Joseph from office, myself included. In the early months after the formation of Gran Fury, and before the group's decision to close the collective, then-member Mark Harrington proposed the bloody handprint image as a poster to support the campaign. We produced two versions of the 8.5" X 14" poster, with different texts and two different bloody hand splatters. One read "You've Got Blood On Your Hands Stephen Joseph. The Cut In AIDS Numbers Is A Lethal Lie," and the other said, " You've Got Blood On Your Hands, Ed Koch. NYC AIDS Care Doesn't Exist." Harrington was one of the blood splatter hand models.
The posters were wheat pasted around NYC by members of Gran Fury and the ACT UP membership. To support the postering, Gran Fury organized a small budget and brought buckets of red paint and rubber gloves to the floor of ACT UP to instigate a parallel graffiti campaign of bloody handprints that would go where posters could not, further reinforcing the image's ubiquity. Handprinting the East Village and Lower Broadway was my first date with a boyfriend at the time, who narrowly escaped arrest.
That same year, ACT UP decided to target the regulatory agency responsible for the testing of potential AIDS therapies in the US, The Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Given the high and rapid mortality rate, it had become clear that any risks the medications carried could not exceed the risks of non-intervention, and that the clinical trails for the safety and efficacy of these drugs were de facto healthcare for individuals confronting the fatal disease.
To unpack the complex questions at work in the decision to target the FDA, I thought something iconographic would be useful, to open the door to a broader series of conversations and to have a longer shelf life than a single-message poster. The bloody hand seemed like the perfect candidate.
I proposed the nationalization of this image to Gran Fury, and we produced the larger version of the poster with the statistic "One AIDS Death Every Half Hour." We made sticker versions to replicate the gesture of the graffiti handprints, and t-shirts to be used as agitprop and fundraisers. It was impactful, and the image was used over the following years to help articulate the AIDS activist struggle.
In hindsight, however, I have come to think of this poster as the signal post for a major turning point in the AIDS activist movement, the transition from resistance to investiture. From a grassroots organizing perspective, a similar institutional mechanism to the one that degrades the art of dissent caused AIDS activists to become absorbed by the system they were pitted against.
So I also consider noteworthy the way this poster has crystallized within the canon. The national Bloody Hand poster has come to represent an orchestrated campaign to expand access to life-saving AIDS medications, and it represents the efficacious deployment of collective direct action. Both of those things are true. But in terms of an AIDS historiography, the fact that the national version of this image has eclipsed the original ones somehow hobbles the point of studying it, which would be to gain strategic insights into this social movement.
This image had its genesis in a local skirmish that has been jettisoned from the story because it makes no greater point. In my estimation, however, it was politically significant. Even though you may never have heard about it, the pursuit of Stephen Joseph was no less pitched or potent than having taken on the FDA. This small sit-in at the local Department of Health office was instrumental in ACT UP NY's finding its voice, and it set the stage for an ongoing relationship with the commissioner that spilled over into a later needle exchange pilot program.
Within this unwieldy story is also a tale of a community, compelled by despair and the urgency of the moment, covered in red paint and doggedly willing to risk arrest, over and over again, simply because it had to. The klieg light of the national media was not trained on this story, but ACT UP would not back down. And as a result, a tiny affinity group, powered by the tight solidarity of an only-slightly-larger collective of enraged individuals, took risks that set the stage for tensions between ACT UP NY and the police that led to ongoing surveillance of the organization and the political levy that accompanied it.
These risks were also a contributing factor in the solidification of the reputation for resistance that enabled ACT UP NY to exert national influence over HIV/AIDS research protocols and the drug development pipeline. In fact, the Stephen Joseph saga may be part of the reason you have heard of the national Bloody Hand poster in the first place.
I am not juxtaposing the two stories to downplay the importance of activists taking on the drug approval process. I am doing it to help explain that it was grassroots political organizing that made it possible, organizing that was shaped in part by a local resistance struggle.