“ACT UP, as much as any movement yet invented, has made self-conscious cultural struggle part of its core work. Those of us who now see culture everywhere, even in movements from earlier centuries, owe a great debt to groups like ACT UP, which have brilliantly highlighted the impossibility of fully separating cultural from political dimensions of movement activity.”
– T.V. Reed, The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2005.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT Up established one of the most dynamic and successful social movements with the motive of instigating political change. ACT UP was established in 1987 by individuals “outraged by the government’s mishandling of the AIDS crisis” (Act Up NY). Through a commitment to direct but non-violent action, demonstrations, and creative exposure through the use of visual and performing arts, the movement challenged traditional media packaging of protest and trivialization of movements.
As outlined in the above quote, the movement addressed political issues through cultural movements, and consequently broke the barrier between the two spheres for the future of art. As a result, the mass publication and broadcasting of aesthetically rich and moving images in addition to witty cultural slogans successfully reached and educated a mass audience that may have previously been numb or ignorant to the political context of the health crisis. Ultimately, ACT UP revolutionized the use of images, art, and slogans to bridge the barrier between the social and political realms and therefore demonstrated the drastic effectiveness of educating and appealing to a mass audience rather than specifically those most interested in the political.
Followings its founding in 1987, ACT UP created a strong presence throughout New York by utilizing mas media, arts, advertising, and corporations. Academics and artists comprised a large portion of the group, and therefore ensured that the coalition’s campaign addressed the specific demands and qualities of the “information age”. In this “knowledge economy,” ACT UP realized that power and knowledge are inseparable, which consequently aided ACT UP in analyzing and using mass media framings of real medical knowledge in order to make it more relatable to the mass public and to increase mass awareness to those who may otherwise have been uninformed. Through the use of modern technologies and cultural assumptions, ACT UP could indeed link the territory between medical and political contexts and cultural society. Eventually, ACT UP’s strategic use of media and aesthetic shrewdness merged to establish a series of incredibly catchy images, slogans, and texts to catch the attention of both the media and mass public. Although “in an image-saturated, sound-bite culture, getting people’s attention was no easy task,” the presence of media veterans and artists within the group’s leadership offered the expertise necessary to help the group gain an unprecedented degree of media coverage. Overall, the combination of brilliant, direct slogans and the expert influence of artists and advertising professionals provided the group with the aesthetic powers that were critical to its success in the “post-modern” information era (Reed, 189-193).
ACT UP exhibits the successful use of art to spread information and knowledge about political issues through cultural rather than directly political mediums. As demonstrated by the group, art can be used as a “social process embedded in political contexts.” However, the art created by the group also verbally addresses the difficulty in using art to achieve political change. The slogans and images produced by ACT UP were indeed critical in spreading information and knowledge about the national AIDS health crisis to a largely uninformed society, especially by targeting individuals who were not politically knowledgeable or interested. Yet, as suggested in one of the slogans itself, the goal of ACT UP was not solely to make the issues known and appreciated by the public, but also to instigate policy change within the government. One of their posters reads:
Since direct action and political change were the ultimate motives and goals of the ACT UP coalition, they wanted to do more than use art to spread information. Art serves as a critical barrier between the cultural and political spheres and an outlet for demonstrating and openly expressing a political belief, but another step must take art further than exposure. Through a combination of art, civil disobedience, and direct challenging of political organizations, ACT UP successfully altered the then-president’s position on the health crisis and forced political leaders to recognize the severity of the issue. Nonetheless, from the perspective of understanding the role of art within the tradition of non-violent civil resistance, ACT UP demonstrates the potent significance of art in exposing political issues through a social medium, but simultaneously highlights the importance in understanding the limits of using art as a political weapon.
1. T.V. Reed, The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2005.
2. ACT UP