Picturing a Day With(out) Art

Today, December 1st, marks the 23rd observance of Day With(out) Art, the art world’s way of observing World AIDS Day. At the time of that first observance in 1989, the AIDS epidemic and public awareness of its extent seemed to reach an apex. With greater understanding of the disease itself—enough to prevent it in many cases, but still not enough to find a cure—the disease that took so many lives during those days and nearly decimated a generation of great artists seems more of a product of that ‘80s era than something still taking lives today. In marking this day of remembrance, artists around the world want to remind us of the magnitude of what we have lost as well as what we have to gain by eliminating the disease.

Day With(out) Art began in 1989 as Day Without Art—a national day of political action and somber mourning over the AIDS crisis in which nearly 800 art and AIDS groups participated. Museums either shut down or shrouded their art for the day to symbolize how the deaths of these artists took away the art of their hands. Today, approximately 8,000 museums, galleries, AIDS service organizations, high schools, and colleges both in America and across the world join together to mark Day With(out) Art—a parenthetical addition that allows museums to either shroud art in mourning or display art in celebration of the lives of those taken by AIDS.

For Day With(out) Art 2011, the centerpiece of the observance will be free screenings across the country of a new film titled Untitled (movie poster above). (A list of screening locations can be found here. The trailer can be found here.) Filmmakers Jim Hodges, Encke King, and Carlos Marques da Cruz call their 60-minute snapshot of the AIDS crisis “a non‐linear montage of archival and pop footage [that] conjure[s] up the passionate activism sparked by the early years of the AIDS crisis.” Bouncing between “scenes of tragic brutality and kitschy humor,” Untitled makes references to everything from contemporary news footage to clips from Dynasty. The film takes its Untitled title from the life and work of Felix Gonzalez‐Torres, a Cuban-American artist who called all of his works “Untitled” and who died from AIDS-related complications in 1996.

The beauty of Day With(out) Art to me is how it demonstrates that just as art touches every life, a disease such as AIDS touches every life, either directly or at some degree of separation. Few people may know that an early name for the disease now known as AIDS was “GRID,” or “gay-related immune deficiency.” Scientists soon learned that HIV/AIDS wasn’t exclusively a homosexual disease, yet, as the film Untitled demonstrates, the social stigma remained as politicians turned the search for a cure into a morality play of twisted religious priorities. As C. Everett Koop, Surgeon General under the Reagan Administration during the early days of the AIDS crisis, remarks in the trailer, homophobia is the wrong label for the political climate of that period. It wasn’t fear, Koop concludes. It was hatred. Day With(out) Art aims to erase all fear and all hatred and work towards a future when a World AIDS Day will no longer be necessary.

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