There is no doubt that AIDS is a terrible scourge. Still, some cynics wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, malaria kills three times as many people each year as AIDS has killed in fifteen years, and nobody loses much sleep over that. Perhaps the urgent concern surrounding AIDS relates to the ways in which it spreads. Sex and drugs are "hot buttons" in most people's minds.
The purpose of the annual December 1st Day Without Art is to commemorate and honor the AIDS dead, and to raise awareness of what a grim and empty place the world would be without art. This is done by covering up art work, or closing gallery doors, or not holding performances.
Many objections spring to mind. The first is the implication that art is only made by people who are HIV-positive. As one critic phrased it, "Since when do people with AIDS own the ability to make art?"
When it comes to galleries, opera or ballet, asking the average person to go without them for a day is about as effective an awareness-raiser as asking them to go without brussels sprouts. How many people even know that there was an Art Strike from January 1991 to December 1993? Well, there was. The members of the international arts community who promoted the Art Strike wanted to expose the large-scale manipulation of alleged aesthetic objects and relationships. "Art," they said, "is a glamorous escape that shields us from the realities of injustice, endemic disease, famine and war. In a world in which art is forbidden the deserts would flower. Artists are murderers." And so on.
The only awareness that might come to the average person is the realization that he can perfectly well get along without art for a day. Too many people are already quite eager to prove that they can get along fine without art. Just ask the legislators who cut the NEA budget. "You want no art for a day? Here, we'll give you no art for a lifetime."
The AIDS Day Without Art shares with the Art Strike (and the legislators) a very presumptuous and elitist notion, namely that if professional artists stop producing, art is gone from the world.
If we are to give up art for a day, the cause of mental health would be more appropriate. Over the centuries far more artists have been manic-depressives than AIDS victims.
Even though the Day Without Art originated with the World Health Organization, the concept is pretty damn Eurocentric. The truth is that over most of the globe, the AIDS-art connection is tenuous. In some parts of the world, the virus is spread because women have been genitally mutilated as dictated by their culture, and each incidence of intercourse causes abrasions. Even worse, in an effort to avoid the impossible pain of vaginal sex, anal sex with female partners is seen as an alternative and is equally dangerous. There are places where men believe that AIDS is cured by having sex with a virgin. What do these ugly realities have to do with a painting on a gallery wall?
Another question that arises is, what is the definition of art? Many AIDS victims have worked in television and movies. Has anyone asked the major networks and the studios to shut down for a day? If all the TV screens were blank for 24 hours, that would bring about some awareness!
When it comes to AIDS, if boycotting any activity for a day could really raise awareness, there are more appropriate activities to choose from. How about a Day Without Sex, or a Day Without Recreational Drugs, including alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco? A lot of AIDS victims probably used a car to get to wherever they picked up HIV. How about no driving for a day? That would really make a dent in most people's lifestyles!
Perhaps the worst aspect of the Day Without Art is the opportunity for unearned self-congratulation. Simply boycott art for one day and voila! you have done something about the AIDS problem. It wasn't nearly as much trouble as being a hospital volunteer or a Meals on Wheels driver, and certainly not as risky as fighting for the right of HIV sufferers to use cannabis to alleviate their symptoms and the side effects of their life-prolonging drugs.
AIDS is unquestionably a dreadful plague that needs to be eradicated. But there is plenty of room for doubt as to whether the Day Without Art makes any sense at all.