Emblem Health Careers
AIDS may be the first disease to have its own gift shop. Housed in the Workshop Building of the AIDS Memorial Quilt--the acres of fabric that commemorate the deaths of thousands of AIDS victims--Under One Roof is at the epicenter of the burgeoning industry of AIDS kitsch. Catering to an upscale clientele beaming with good intentions, the store, on Market Street in San Francisco's Castro District, peddles memento mori as shamelessly as tourist traps peddle souvenirs: 'Cuddle Wit' teddy bears that sport tasteful red ribbons; Keith Haring tote bags; and T-shirts stenciled with the words 'We're Cookin' Up Love for People With AIDS.' The boutique also sells a unique line of AIDS-related sympathy cards, including one picturing a seductive man leaning inconsolably against a tombstone angel. Inside an unctuous caption that smacks of an undertaker's condolences reads: 'I wonder at times why some are chosen to leave so soon. Then I remember who has left, and I know. God must have wanted them home because he missed them.' One of the store's best-selling items is a macabre coffee-table book of the Quilt itself, lavishly illustrated and presumably meant for bored guests to casually thumb through while ignoring the presentation of death as political knickknack.
Although Under One Roof donates its profits to a variety of AIDS-relief organizations, commercial businesses have not hesitated to wrap their products in the shroud of AIDS to promote their own merchandise. Benetton, in the early 1990s, placed in glossy magazines an ad that featured a skeletal male figure, obviously dying of AIDS. Stretched out in a hospital bed, beneath a print of Jesus Christ, he is attended by a sobbing father, who clutches him like a rag doll, and a grief-stricken another, who sits crumpled in despair. In the ad's left-hand comer several words sit quietly in mourning, like unbidden guests maintaining respectful silence in the company of the family's anguish; they read, 'United Colors of Benetton ... For the nearest Benetton store location call 1-800-535-4491.'
AIDS kitsch now appears in mind-numbing variety: as rap songs and safe-sex brochures, as the panel in the Quilt representing an enormous airmail envelope addressed to 'A Better Place,' and as Andre Durand's painting Votive Offering, which depicts an ethereal Princess Di, amid saints and bathed in celestial light, placing her hands on an emaciated AIDS patient while dying men in surrounding hospital beds strain at their dripping IVs as if pleading to touch the hem her skirt. AIDS has been so thoroughly sentimentalized that it inspires such publicity stunts as Elton John flying Ryan White to Disneyland or Miss America haunting AIDS wards, where she consoles dozens of victims like a beauty among lepers. Whoopi Goldberg has turned up at displays of the Quilt pushing around a man in a wheelchair, an image that serves as the allegorical emblem of the kitschification of AIDS; just as politicians dandle babies, so celebrities use patients in wheelchairs as props for photo opportunities that dramatize their generosity and humanitarianism. There now exists an entire social circuit of well-advertised benefits--like the dusk-to-dawn dance-a-thons held by New York City's Gay Men's Health Crisis--each of them masterminded by an expensive breed of charity-ball impresario. The events provide celebrities on the order of Marky Mark, Madonna, and Liza Minnelli with venues to shore up their credentials for tolerance or bolster their flagging careers.
Although terminal illnesses have often been sentimentalized--who can forget Love Story or Brian's Song?--the AIDS epidemic in particular encourages the production of kitsch, inviting the abuse of activists, yellow journalists, New Age healers, pop psychologists, holistic chiropractors, and Hollywood producers. Manufacturers of kitsch use gaudy cosmetics and stagy lighting to make the pathetic more pathetic, the sad sadder, transforming AIDS into a trite melodrama, a cozy bedtime story narrated in a teary singsong for the American public.
The proliferation of AIDS kitsch can be linked to the unusual conditions under which activists were initially forced to raise money for research, treatment, and education. Given the minimal federal response to the disease in the 1980s and the public's hostility to the epidemic's first casualties, homosexuals and IV drug users--activists used a barrage of cheap images specifically designed to elicit pity in order to persuade the private sector to bear the financial burden. The epidemic was sold to the public, like the red-ribbon paperweights and ruby brooches sold at Under One Roof. The marketing campaign has proved highly successful; last year the Gay Men's Health Crisis and the American Foundation for AIDS Research, two of the larger AIDS organizations, together raised more than $45 million.
The propaganda surrounding AIDS has embraced kitsch precisely because of the means by which the disease is transmitted. Because AIDS has ravaged communities of people toward whom Americans have shown little compassion, the marketing of the AIDS 'product' has involved considerable ingenuity, including a full-scale revision of the image of AIDS sufferers. Unlike less controversial illnesses, like multiple sclerosis or leukemia, AIDS is vulnerable to kitsch in part because of the urgent need to render the victim innocent. In order to thwart the demonization of gay men, activists have attempted to conceal sexual practices that the public at large finds unacceptable behind a counter-iconography that has the unfortunate side effect of filling the art and writings about AIDS with implausible caricatures of the victim as a beseeching poster child. The infantilization of the epidemic's victims has come to play an increasingly important role in AIDS propaganda, whether as the uplifting tendentiousness of a coloring book en. titled It's OK to Be ... Me: A Cool Book About Life and Being HIV+ or as the mawkishness of the songs of HIV-positive children on the album Answer the Call, where piping choruses of quavering sopranos recite such plaintive lines as 'We need love/We need compassion to live/ We've got hugs/We've got kisses to give.'
Among mainstream magazines, People has responded most strongly to the imperative to supply sanitized portraits of AIDS victims in the name of fostering an atmosphere of tolerance and understanding. The magazine played a pivotal role in the beatification of Ryan White, whom its editors transformed into a living Hallmark card, a modem version of Dickens's Tiny Tim wasting away on the hearth, racked by chills and a hacking cough. People's bathetic accounts included tear-jerking scenes of mother and son kneeling in bedside prayer, and seemed to relish the gruesome decay of his frail body, which was described in prurient detail, from his dainty feet in 'huge, furry |Bigfoot' slippers' to 'his tiny blue fingers,' which he constantly warmed over the coils of his mother's electric stove. White appeared in People's frequent profiles as an anachronistic piece of Victoriana, a poetic wraith who enjoyed wandering among the tombstones of his future burial place, the cemetery in Cicero, Indiana, which he preferred hands down--or so we were told--to the cheerless plots of Kokomo, the home of those despicable bigots who railroaded him from their ranks because of his disease.
Almost from the inception of the epidemic, AIDS propagandists have found themselves in a peculiar moral bind. On the one hand, they attempt to elicit compassion by portraying the victims of the disease as seraphic innocents, as Sylvia Golstaub does in her memoir, Unconditional Love, when, after returning to Florida from her son's funeral, she imagines that she sees him soaring like an angel outside of the window of the plane, waving his hand and saying, 'Hi Mom! Hi Dad! Don't Worry! Be Happy!' At the same time, the epidemic's salesmen must avoid portraying HIV-positive people as bedridden invalids unable to fight for their own interests. Those who die are often embalmed in their obituaries in heroic cliches: 'foot soldiers in the war against AIDS' who die after 'beautiful battles' and 'long and courageous struggles,' exhibiting 'tenacious spirit' and a 'brave refusal to surrender.' The representation of the AIDS victim thus oscillates between two extremes of stylization: the childish image of the guiltless martyr clutchug his teddy bear and warming 'his tiny blue fingers,' and the 'empowered' image of the stouthearted hero whose gutsy brinkmanship in the face of death is held up as a model of unshakable resolve and pitiless optimism--a punitively high standard of behavior, it should be noted, for people suffering from a deadly disease.
If the propaganda of AIDS. activists targets the housewife in Topeka, another variety of kitsch addresses the AIDS victim himself. It is he who buys the distinct and highly 'niched' line of the AIDS product sold by marketers exploiting not the lucrative emotion of pity but the more profitable one of panic. Taking advantage of the desperation of people grasping at straws, New Age healers and human-potential gurus have rushed to fill the void created by the failure of traditional medicine to resolve every health crisis it encounters. AIDS has been overrun with kitsch also because it has breathed new life into moribund New Age fads. Channelers now serve as conduits for the pronouncements of ancient 'Beings of Disincarnate Intelligence,' who, in certain circles, are touted as leading AIDS experts. Kevin Ryerson, for instance, is a 'fully accredited' clairvoyant who channels a spirit known simply as Spirit, a sagacious entity who advises victims of the epidemic to tune their unbalanced chakras like musical instruments, using as a basis not '|C' of the major scale, but |B,' and to proceed up the scale from there to A flat [since] this pitch is closer to the |A' of 438 vibrations per second which is the note that is sounded if one strikes the sarcophagus in the King's Chamber of the Great Pyramid.' Spirit also encourages AIDS sufferers to buy his friend's meditation tapes.
The loss of faith in conventional medicine has generated intense nostalgia for a pre-medical era of witch doctors and medicine men. Contemporary internists have been rejected and replaced by anachronistic figures decked out in the costumes of modern medievalism-magicians and alchemists who perform primitive rituals. One of the masterpieces of AIDS kitsch, the independent film Men in Love, is suffused with the longing for an Edenic world without science, a peaceful land of docile lotus-eaters where grieving Californians spurn traditional medicine for moonlit healing circles in Maui at which they don grass skirts, mutter incantations, and dance like savages around a bonfire.
Even more appalling is the mindless optimism of the self-help and human-potential movements. A bizarre dissonance occurs when the bleak prognosis for the victims of the disease collides with the indiscriminately happy-go-lucky, can-do attitudes of pop psychology's euphoric rhetoric, a dissonance perhaps best expressed in the testimonials by gay men with AIDS who deny the imminence of their death and even claim that the disease is, as one Bay Area patient put it in an interview in the San Francisco Examiner, 'the most wonderful thing that ever happened in my life.' This remarkable statement is echoed in a letter that a disciple of the reigning messiah of alternative medicine, Louise Hay, wrote to an anthropmorphized image of his disease:
For so long now I've been angry with you for being
part of my life. I feel like you have violated my
being. The strongest emotion thus far in our relationship
has been anger!!
But now I choose to see you in a different light.
I no longer hate you or feel angry with you. I realize
now that you have become a positive force in
my life. You are a messenger who has brought me
a new understanding of life and myself. So I thank
you, forgive you, and release you.
Never before has anyone given me such great opportunity
... Because of you I have learned to love
myself, and as a result I love and am loved by others.
I am now in touch with parts of my being that
I never knew existed. I have grown spiritually and
intellectually since your arrival .... So again I thank
you for giving me this opportunity to have insight
into my life. How could I not forgive you, when so
many positive experiences have come from your
But you have also led me to the realization that
you have no power over me. I am the power in my
In the self-help treatment guide Immune Power, Dr. Jon D. Kaiser even advises his clients to open up a regular correspondence with their virus. The patient, playing the role of the disease, writes back like a pen pal or a well-bred guest to thank its 'hosts' 'for sharing your feelings with me' '[that l] have overstayed [my] welcome,' adding that 'I appreciate your thoughts and I am not offended by the bluntness of your attitude toward me.'
The banal euphemisms of pop psychology have turned much of the self-help literature on the epidemic into black comedy. Prophets like Hay and Kaiser attempt to incorporate their clients' illnesses into their upbeat programs for self-actualization, as if the disease were simply another hurdle to be surmounted in the quest for personal growth. The demagogues of what might be called the 'empathy industry' promote the notion that we have full control of our lives, that there is no problem so overwhelming that a simple act of self-assertion will not ultimately lead to its resolution. The modem therapeutic paradigms from which AIDS profiteers derive their methods thus fail spectacularly to acknowledge tragedy and refuse to admit that anything could evade the resourcefulness of the human will.
Given the abundance of kitsch generated from AIDS profiteering, it is surprising that the genre in which you might expect to find kitsch remains relatively free of it: fiction. It is not that such authors as David Feinberg, Edmund White, Paul Monette, Robert Ferro, John Weir, and Christopher Coe are (or were) actually all that good; they simply avoid being all that bad. Their novels present few overwrought scenes of tearful bedside farewells, shocking expulsions by heartless parents of their ailing children, or much of the melodrama that so appeals to American tastes. (Not incidentally, perhaps, these novels have never hit the best-seller list.) In fact, it is precisely the fear of sentimentality that defines the fiction about AIDS and makes the literary depictions of the epidemic case studies in authorial restraint. Fiction writers' fear of kitsch is so strong that contemporary literature is in many ways immune to the tragedy of AIDS, inoculated against it by a tendency toward flippant ironizing, like the compulsive jocularity found in John Weir's The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket. Here, the dying protagonist struts and poses through his illness, embracing theatrical attitudes he self-consciously plagiarizes from Hollywood B films, like the addled femme fatale in Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman.
Where AIDS novelists fear to tread, however, journalists and docudramatists go without hesitation, demonstrating a ghoulish fascination for the narrative richness of the disease. In accounts as different as Dominique Lapierre's 'epic story' Beyond Love, an absurd potboiler that turns the history of AIDS into a soap opera, and Randy Shilts's And the Band Played On, the journalism about the epidemic is paradoxically far more fictional than the fiction. The reporting relies on the need to invent scenes, re-create internal monologues, manufacture suspense, devise artful foreshadowings, and evoke menacing atmospheres. The mainstream media have found these methods so profitable that their impulse to novelize the disease has prevailed over their obligation to document it.
Nowhere do the kitschifying effects of narrative appear more clearly than in the HBO movie version of And the Band Played On, itself a tissue of reconstructed dialogues and internal soliloquies. Common sense might suggest that the book should have been interpreted as documentary, with footage from newsreels and interviews; instead, Hollywood created a fictional reenactment with an all-star cast headed by a soulful Richard Gere, an earthy Lily Tomlin, and a brooding Ian McKellen--slow death as entertainment.
While telling the story of the epidemic, journalists have often given readers an improbably intimate point of view. Assuming the perspective of an omniscient third-person narrator, reporters minimize our awareness of the necessarily secondhand nature of the facts they convey, allowing us to imagine that we are viewing the scene through a hidden camera. Thus, for instance, we are literally in the hospital when the grief-stricken wife described in the Ladies' Home Journal article entitled 'AIDS & Marriage: What Every Wife Must Know' paces frantically up and down the echoing corridor keeping 'a silent and solitary vigil' before her dying husband's quarantined room. Likewise, we become eavesdroppers in the mobile home--indeed, in the very mind--of the victim of the bigoted Southern town portrayed in U.S. News & World Report's article 'AIDS: When Fear Takes Charge,' who prays as a teenager for God to make him straight ('|Please, dear Lord, change me,' Steve prayed nightly, as he lay in bed as a youth his father's trailer').
Where the media have sold the epidemic as lurid melodrama, as medical theme park, or as morbid peep show, the organizers of the AIDS Memorial Quilt have sold their product as a nostalgic piece of folk art. The Quilt, a patchwork of cloth that can be visited like a grave site or a war memorial, is an extraordinary and often moving device that is in part intended to manipulate the way the disease is judged by the uninfected. Just as activists attempt to make the disease appealing to the consumer by counteracting homophobic stereotypes with desexed images of AIDS martyrs, so the Quilt wraps the epidemic's infantilized victims in what amounts to a macabre security blanket, an ideological shield. According to Cleve Jones, the Quilt's founder, this embodiment of 'pure good,' which emanates 'coziness, humanity and warmth,' 'touch[es] people's hearts with something that is so pure and so clear in its message' that it creates an outpouring of compassion that helps fight discrimination.
We are meant to discuss this sacrosanct artifact in hushed tones of reverence, but in fact the Quilt is the sublime expression of AIDS kitsch. It evokes nostalgia for a simpler, more innocent time, a pastoral world of buggies and butter churns--an America that never existed. 'From our earliest days,' the jacket copy of the coffee-table book The Quik proclaims, 'the quilt and the quilting bee have been part of American life.' Jones, his 'eyes glisten[ing] with both sadness and pride,' with the 'tears that flow constantly,' describes the Quilt--whose panels are individually stitched by the friends and families of those who have died of AIDS--as 'a way for survivors to work through their grief in a positive, creative way.' 'We sew and ... cry and ... hold each other,' a Quilt volunteer explains. Thus the merchants of the disease place its primary commemorative monument within the context of a wholesome tradition of American history, to create a kind of faux antique, the memento of an apocryphal Arcadia. In this mythic, prelapsarian America, AIDS sheds its stigma as the scourge of depraved homosexuals and is endowed instead with the integrity of our industrious Pilgrim forefathers. Nostalgia, the longing for a legendary, small-town America, is a fundamental component of AIDS kitsch, and the selling of the Quilt obeys one of the primary rules of marketing: the romanticization of handmade goods. The Quilt effectively exudes an aura of the homestead, of kindly old grannies in bifocals and bonnets stitching up a storm, plying a trade that harks back to the naive primitivism of American Gothic.
The images of folk art also provide a substitute for the iconography of the Christian Church. Almost from the onset of the disease, AIDS propagandists have urged us to vent our pent-up grief as part of a regular program of mental hygiene, as well as a means of publicizing the tragedy and rallying new supporters to the cause. Therapists, members of the activist group ACT UP, and other leaders of the gay community now teach us that the suppression of sorrow and rage is both psychologically damaging and politically retrograde, at once interfering with the 'grieving process' and encouraging passivity and resignation.
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