by Sarah Simpson
On view at MoMA through February 12, 2017, it was initially put on display following the horror that happened at the nightclub in Orlando; the hate crime in a popular gay nightclub. It reminds us of the experience of the other, specifically the gay other, in American history. Set in a period that my generation has only known through a mythologizing narrative, it opens a window to what Christian Viveros-Fauné writing for artnet news called “NY’s last bohemia”: a generation and a time destroyed by AIDS. The montage follows a group of people desperately seeking to escape or live through drugs, sex, and friends. Flitting through images of smiling friends, brooding lovers, self-portraits of the artist with a black eye from her boyfriend, unprotected sex, needle-based drug use, parties, weddings, and finally funerals, the ballad is a journey through tumultuous times. It is equal parts funny, wistful, sad, grotesque, and horrifying. I urge you to stay till the end, even though you will see nudity, aggression, and drug-usage, it is necessary to see the full album like a pilgrimage in order to understand, in part, how we came to today. It tells more than a story, though, it speaks to an often glazed-over reality that has impacted so much of modern day American life in too many subtle ways to count. At the end of the montage, the sequence moves abruptly from images of people – friends and lovers – to empty beds, and finally coffins and graves. It achingly reflects the sudden devastation and loss brought about by AIDS, a genocide still felt today in how it has colored our perception of love, freedom, and sexuality, perhaps unchangeably.
David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (One day this kid…), 1990. Photostat, 30 x 40 1/8 in. (76.2 x 101.9 cm). Edition of 10. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the print committee 2002.183. Courtesy of The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York, NY. Image taken from the Whitney Museum of American Art website.
Orlando, a new string of hate in a decades long war against the gay “other,” makes me think about the irreversible damage that the AIDS epidemic had among the gay community and the lasting weight that the Reagan administration’s indifference has had upon the stigma associated with gay men and women, specifically to gay sex. Many Americans associate gay sex and gay love as dirty, unclean, and sinful. This correlation was strengthened and perpetuated by the AIDS epidemic, thought by many to be a gay disease, even a punishment. According to an article published on the San Francisco Chronicle’s webpage, Reagan's communications director, Pat Buchanan, called AIDS "nature's revenge on gay men" and the Rev. Jerry Falwall said “AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals." To this day homosexual men cannot donate blood in the US, even though AIDS knows no gender, no sexual preference, no age or color, for many it is still tied closely to one group. Insidious and subtle insinuations like this, especially when indoctrinated into law, inform a subconscious distrust and alignment against the “other” in societies that are so heavily based upon an “us vs. them” mentality. These subconscious ideas that homosexuals are different, dirty, and wrong can only lead to outbursts of conscious rage when they fight for, and thankfully finally win, equality in life, love, and status. These outbursts grow more and more dangerous escalating from threats and insults to hate crimes and massacres, and they will not stop until we admit that it is the small semantics in daily life and law that allow the development of such drastic hatred. The AIDS epidemic, the amount of time it took for the Reagan administration to call it an epidemic, and the words of hate so often spoken threaten to tear down the fight for equality and the sense of community that many have spent so much time developing. Indifference is just as threatening as outright hatred; it is used to push the onus of responsibility away from the individual or governing body in a plea of ignorance.
Donald Moffett (1955-), He Kills Me, 1987. Offset lithograph. 23 ½ x 37 ½ in. Edition unlimited. Published by Donald Moffett. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Gift of David W. Kiehl in memory of artists and artworkers who died of AIDS, 2012.160, © Donald Moffett. Image taken from the Whitney Museum of American Art website.
I look around me today, at all of the supportive posts, pride events, and beautifully written articles that celebrate the victories of equality, both big and small, and I have faith that we are moving forward, that true equality is as possible as it is necessary. But, I also see a slow erosion of the memory of past horrors and how they continue to color our perceptions and beliefs. AIDS is still an active and terrifying disease, despite the medical leaps that have been made in eradicating its threat that is still evident. What isn’t mentioned, however, is how long it took for AIDS to even become a topic of conversation, how long it took before anyone in power took notice and truly push for change and concern. Indifference and trivialities led to this topic being silenced and shunned for years, thus allowing the health, safety, and welfare of the gay community, and all others affected by AIDS, to become inconsequential. This indifference, and the laying of blame and shame on the gay community for this horrible disease can be directly related to today’s acts of hatred. We must all remember the long hard fight for the beginnings of awareness as much as we remember the continuing fight for equality. Just like a great dam can be brought down by the tiniest of cracks, so too can our perceptions be influenced by seemingly inconsequential oversights and flippant words. Why can gay men still not donate blood? Why is the word “gay” still used as an insult? Why, when we speak of NY’s lost bohemia, do we see it bathed in the golden glow of nostalgia? Why don’t we all remember the horror as well as the freedom? The AIDS epidemic shook NY’s bohemian youth out of their age of innocence and into the harsh reality of pain, indifference, and disease. NY hasn’t been the same and the gay community across America suffered a blow that is all too often left on the silent sidelines as a taboo topic. It is through art that I have learned to question this silence. The art created by those diagnosed with, or close to those diagnosed with AIDS has taught me to open my eyes to the hidden history of individual suffering and strength.
Nan Goldin’s montage, its painful end following too quickly from a frenzied, bright beginning, asks that the viewer see all sides of this past. By drawing us in with family album style images of friends and lovers that invoke feelings of nostalgia for a past that many of us never knew, it can then subvert these feelings, brushing up against the darkness of the truth of loss and pushing us to realize and remember that memory all too often glazes over the unhappy memories in search of the happy ones. It is important that we know everything that happened, the bad along with the good, so that we may move forward with full knowledge of what happened and an attempt to understand how these wounds left scars that continue to inform our actions today, regardless of whether or not we were there. As Georg Simmel said: “It is not our task either to accuse or pardon, but only to understand.”
 For example, the massive depression we fell into over the real estate bubble bursting.
 Here it is important to note that the title was chosen after the pictures were taken, in retrospect, and that she continues to edit the piece since its initial debut in 1985.
 Christian Viveros-Fuané, “Nan Goldin’s ‘Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ lights up MoMA,” artnet news, June 17, 2016, https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/nan-goldins-ballad-sexual-dependency-lights-moma-521078
 Allen White, “Reagan’s AIDS Legacy / Silence equals death,” SFGate, June 8, 2004, http://www.sfgate.com/opinion/openforum/article/Reagan-s-AIDS-Legacy-Silence-equals-death-2751030.php
 PBS, “President Reagan’s AMFAR Speech,” last modified May 30, 2006, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/aids/docs/amfar.html
Copyright © Sarah Simpson & art plus thought. All Rights Reserved