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Winter 2004
Art in the Time of AIDS
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David Gere is harnessing the power of art as a potent weapon in the global war against a killer epidemic

Sapphire Dance Workshop
Sapphire Dance Workshop created a powerful message about AIDS as part of David Gere's Make Art/Stop AIDS conference in Kolkata.

by Roberta G. Wax
Photograph by Ranjit Sinha

ART, WROTE THE AIDS ACTIVIST AND CRITIC DOUGLAS CRIMP, HAS THE POWER TO SAVE LIVES. BUT TO RECOGNIZE, FOSTER AND SUPPORT THIS POWER, “WE WILL HAVE TO ABANDON THE IDEALISTIC CONCEPTION OF ART. WE DON’T NEED A CULTURAL RENAISSANCE; WE NEED CULTURAL PRACTICES ACTIVELY PARTICIPATING IN THE STRUGGLE AGAINST AIDS.”

Enter David Gere, an associate professor of dance studies in UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures (WAC). For Gere, Crimp’s words, written in 1987, clearly define the purpose of his own work. He is not interested in entertaining art, in flowery art, in purely aesthetic art. His goal is art with a powerful, fundamental purpose — to inform, to educate and, most importantly in this time of AIDS, to prevent.

“What I am trying to do in my work is to cut down to the bone,” he says. “In the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, many artists felt that the best thing they could do was to show a dance, sell some tickets, make some money and give it to an AIDS organization. But that wasn’t enough, not then and not now.”

It is Gere’s hope that artists, whether visual or performance, will abandon the notion of themselves merely as fund-raisers and instead come to see themselves as true activists who focus their efforts not on trying to transcend AIDS, but on bringing an end to the epidemic around the world.

Gere’s awareness of art as a powerful weapon in the global war on AIDS began in the 1980s when he lived in San Francisco and wrote as an arts critic for such papers as the Oakland Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. “I saw what was happening with dances that were being produced during that period that played a role in slowing and controlling the epidemic in the U.S.,” he says. “And I began to think that those same tactics that were effective here in the United States could be used elsewhere, in places like India, for example. Some things don’t translate well across cultural boundaries, but some do, and from my viewpoint, the scroll painter in Calcutta is a close cousin to Bill T. Jones making dance in the United States.”


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