In Jack Lowery's book, It Was Vulgar and It Was Beautiful: How AIDS Activists Used Art to Fight a Pandemic, the historian shares how the art collective Gran Fury utilized community-made propaganda to address the HIV/AIDS crisis.
"What I hope people take away from my book is a greater sense of possibility for all the ways in which art can contribute to a social movement," Lowery said.
Gran Fury emerged out of AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP)a grassroots movement dedicated to ending HIV/AIDSand created provocative but easy-to-understand art that demanded better treatment and more empathy for those suffering from HIV/AIDS.
Through interviews with Gran Fury's living members and a compilation of the art the group created, Lowery's book explores the ways the collective contributed to HIV/AIDS activism in the 1980s and beyond.
"Something that kind of helped me build the relationships I had with them was that I did all the interviews for this book between the ages of 23 and 27, which is the age a lot of them were when they were going through this and helped to bridge the generation gap," Lowery said.
Lowery said the collective's art helped with fundraising, drawing people to demonstrations, changing the public perception of HIV/AIDS and creating a sense of belonging for those working to address the crisis.
"The more I started to look into ACT UP, the more it became apparent to me that Gran Fury played a central role in communicating ACT UP's messaging and much more beyond that," Lowery said.
By making noise with art and visual demonstrations, Gran Fury was able to further the goals of HIV/AIDS activists.
"Gran Fury isn't just an example of how ordinary citizens have done this work in the past," Lowery wrote in his book. "It's also a reminder of how badly this kind of work is needed now."
Lowery said one of his favorite pieces from Gran Fury was the poster that read "All people with AIDS are innocent" because it shows how the group, in addition to its political messaging, pushed simply to change people's general understanding of those who got sick and the crisis itself.
"It's not making any demand, other than that you think differently about people with AIDS," Lowery said. "It came at this time where people believed that people deserved to die. I think this poster really does an incredible job combatting this widespread public perception and trying to dismantle it."
In addition to exploring the art collective's work, Lowery depicted the lives of the people involved to show the ways they were intimately impacted by the HIV/AIDS crisis themselves.
"I think to understand why people would give up so many years of their lives for a beyond thankless job, you have to understand what they and their friends are coming out of," Lowery said. "When you hear that someone was screamed at by their in-laws at the hospital or some of the other atrocious things these people had to deal with, you can better understand why they committed themselves so thoroughly to something like ACT UP."
Another piece of Gran Fury's art Lowery especially appreciates is the poster that says, "Kissing doesn't kill," in part because it provides a window into the vibrant lives of the artists and refuted the media's narrative of who they were.
"It's like, 'yes, we're angry, yes, we're upset, but we're also in love with each other and we're sexy and we're fun and we like to go do everything 20 somethings do,'" Lowery said. "We're not just these dower activists. It also does a really good job of portraying that AIDS isn't spread by reckless drug users or promiscuous homosexuals, which was the widespread idea at the time."
Although many of Gran Fury's strategies for distributing artlike wheat pasting posters to buildingsdon't translate to the present day, Lowery found the collective's use of art relevant for current social movements.
"Particularly, their interest in using advertising that has a really authoritative look and feel is definitely applicable to today," Lowery said. "I would say, to people who think art isn't helpful in these situations, to read the book and I hope it changes your mind."