Author Archives: Josh Weiner

The Art of the Aids Crisis: Cautionary Oeuvres From the 1980s


A 1985 protest in New York City, the hub of the AIDS epidemic and the corresponding art movement. Source:


This essay will analyze the artwork produced in the United States during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s, and engage with the following question: What were the dominant messages and intentions of the paintings and posters that emerged from the 1980’s AIDS crisis? Using a modest sample of case studies, this essay will demonstrate how the AIDS epidemic inspired still artwork of many styles, all inspired in their own right by one of the greatest nationwide scares of the late 20th century. The essay will also establish the sociopolitical forces that shaped the artwork of this era. For instance, what was the federal government’s role in and response to the AIDS crisis, and how did that influence the manner in which chief political figures (particularly Ronald Reagan, who was president throughout most of this period) were portrayed?

By visually analyzing a number of paintings from this period, as well as consulting the scholarship related to them, this essay will reveal what elements of the AIDS crisis most inspired the resulting artwork of the era.




Just as Picasso did with Guernica and Van Gogh did with The Potato Eaters, artists across America produced works which visually encapsulated a period of great sorrow and suffering: the nationwide AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s.

Early on in the decade, the Center for Disease Control reported the first cases of a strange new illness, which had affected five previously healthy gay men living in New York City. Although the disease remained mysterious in many regards, physicians could recognize that it was “a blood-borne and sexually transmitted disease, probably viral in origin” (Caldwell, pg. 203). By 1984, the disease was given a formal name— “AIDS,” which stands for “acquired immunodeficiency syndrome”— and identified more thoroughly as “a deadly new blood-transmitted viral disease that was primarily striking down young men, particularly homosexuals and drug users who shared contaminated needles. (Reeves, 2005, pg. 211).

The causes of this disease were not all that were being recognized— so was the ever-mounting death toll. According to the United States Public Health Service, “AIDS deaths had gone from one in 1978, to 151 in 1981, and 1,145 in 1983.” (pg. 306).  “The disease, which had been identified early in Reagan’s first term, had killed more than 4,000 Americans by 1984,” (pg. 212). “By the end of [1987], more than twenty-nine thousand Americans— predominantly gays and minorities— had already been killed by the disease” (Bunch, 2010, pg. 111). As AIDS claimed more and more lives, and left many others grievously sick, the epidemic evolved “from headline to hysteria to global pandemic” (Moffitt & Duncan, 2011, pg. 229).

AIDS remains without a cure and globally widespread— over 37 million people are now living with the disease, with about 1 million fatalities per year, according to the World Health Organization. Yet the medical world has responded— thanks to antiretroviral therapies and other contemporary medicine, the annual death toll is now scarcely half of its 2005 peak of 1.8 million — and so has the arts community. “Because of the scope and gravity of the AIDS crisis, cultural activism pertaining to it has assumed every imaginable form,” author David Deitcher observes (1995, pg. 194).

Plays like The Normal Heart, As Is and Safe Sex “played an activist role throughout the 1980s, not only drawing on popular perceptions of the disease, but contributing to them by increasing both education and compassion.” (Moffitt & Duncan, pg. 244) Rent continued that process in the 1990’s, and anti-AIDS activism also raged on television and in literature. Films like Living with AIDS were nationally televised on PBS and other stations, while Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On “established the vocabulary with which popular discussion [on AIDS] has been conducted ever since.” (Mills, 1990, pg. 202).

Furthermore, a number of paintings and posters rank among the most stirring cultural projects to emerge from the height of the 1980’s AIDS crisis. These works ranged considerably in terms of style and artistic qualities; yet all emerged from their authors’ intense feelings of sadness, anger, and fear from a period that freely triggered such emotions across the nation. The main body of the essay will engage with a number of such paintings, while determining their similarities and differences as works of art and sociopolitical statements.

The conclusion of the essay will return to the primary research question of what sort of consensus statement, if any, was made by the art created in response to the 1980’s AIDS crisis.




Our first case study is the piece which inspired this whole essay: He Kills Me, a 1987 street poster which Texan-born artist Donald Moffett created in memory of his deceased friend, Diego Lopez. Our class trip to the Hirshhorn Museum to visit the exhibition Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s was very memorable, and seeing this piece on display was both powerful and unsettling. I became keen to place He Kills Me in conversation with other works inspired by the AIDS epidemic, so as to determine how political and accusatory they were by comparison. I was also curious as to whether the arts community portrayed Ronald Reagan as the consensus villain of the era, the way that Moffett so explicitly does.  

Moffett made this poster on behalf of ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and the three-word slogan he chose “concisely communicated the group’s thoughts about the President’s effect on AIDS patients” ( ACT UP’s basic feelings were shared by other activists and advocacy groups of the era: as severe as the AIDS crisis had grown, Reagan was nonetheless “ineffectively responding to the disease. In particular, they were concerned that the administration was underfunding AIDS research and obstructing prevention efforts by opposing sex education” (

Academics are seemingly divided on the merits of these accusations. As the title of his book suggests, political journalist Will Bunch is fiercely critical of the president in Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future. He agrees that Reagan “failed to address issues such as AIDS and homelessness in any meaningful way” (pg. 20) and that “on AIDS in particular, Reagan’s lack of leadership was appalling— it would not be until 1987, when the disease had already claimed thousands of American lives, that the president even uttered the words in a prepared speech” (pg. 97). Bunch promotes Reagan’s severe mishandling of the AIDS crisis as a clear example of how “in pushing his nostalgic and rose-colored vision of the country he marginalized many groups of Americans” (pg. 97).

In his book President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination, historian Richard Reeves recognizes that Reagan was criticized for “refusing to acknowledge the lethal spread of AIDS across the nation” (pg. xvi). However, Reeves remarks that one of the most inflammatory accusations levied against Reagan— that he was “ignoring the disease because most of the victims were homosexuals or drug users, ready targets of the Moral Majority and other religious fundamentalists” (pg. 306)— both upset him and ultimately inspired him to respond to his critics more deliberately.


The day after his 1985 inauguration, Reagan spoke to the Department of Health and Human Services, describing the search for a cure for AIDS as “one of our highest public health priorities” (pg. 308).  A few months later, in a speech to the College of Physicians in Philadelphia, he declared AIDS to be “Public Enemy Number One” and that “government-financed progress toward a cure was being made faster than similar drives in the past against polio and hepatitis.” (pg. 389)

In certain respects, Reagan was right: “Federal spending on AIDS research, which had been $5.5 million in 1982, would reach almost $400 million by the end of 1986” (pg. 306) and the Presidential Commission on the HIV Epidemic was established the following year. However, Reagan’s critics still blasted him for not reacting to the AIDS crisis until it had claimed many lives (“his proposals were seen by many as too little, too late,” Bunch writes (pg. 111)) and for allowing his conservative and religious values to undermine his commitment to fighting AIDS. “Until the Reagan administration realizes that the government’s responsibility is saving lives and not saving souls, we will continue to see the virus spread through the society,” Dr. Neil Schram, head of Los Angeles AIDS Task Force, wrote in response to Reagan’s remarks to the HHS Department (Reeves, pg. 389).



As would be the case for any Commander-in-Chief, Reagan was antagonized in a great deal of artwork throughout his presidency. Keith Haring, Moffett’s colleague at ACT UP, created several slanderous pieces with titles like Reagan: Ready to Kill. A poster which this group released in 1987 placed Reagan’s face behind a giant pink label, “AIDSGATE,” with many horrifying statistics about the consequences of AIDS sprawled underneath. “What is Reagan’s real policy on AIDS?” the caption asked. “Genocide of non-whites, non-males, and non-heterosexuals?”

Based on a survey of other artwork of this theme and era, other artists tended not to demonize Ronald Reagan as explicitly as did Moffett, Haring and the rest of ACT UP. For instance, the book Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS features images of an extensive amount of artwork created in response to the AIDS epidemic; Moffett’s poster is the only piece that includes Reagan’s face at all. The same is true of the book After Silence: A History of AIDS Through Its Images, which also features many images of AIDS-related material from this era. Again, Reagan’s face appears only once: on the “AIDSGATE” poster produced by ACT UP.

Overall, it seems like the art community had more than Reagan on its mind, and the bulk of AIDS-themed artwork from this period reflects that mentality. Perhaps ACT UP, in an effort to draw attention to its cause as an emerging political advocacy group, employed inflammatory images of Reagan far more forcefully than the average artist of the era cared to do. If not the President of the United States, though, who else might these artists have meant to target in the works?




Keith Haring is the artist most often associated with the AIDS epidemic, not only because he was the most famous one to succumb to the illness, but because he made AIDS such a prevalent theme throughout his body of work. Given that the disease ultimately claimed his life, such a theme may come across as eerily prophetic. Yet it also demonstrates how forcefully many artists of the era wished to convey the disease that was killing off many of their peers. “I’m not really scared of AIDS,” Haring wrote in his journal on March 28th 1987— the year before he was diagnosed with the virus. “I’m scared of having to watch more people die in front of me…. If the time comes, I think suicide is much more dignified and much easier on friends and loved ones. Nobody deserves to watch this kind of slow death” (Haring, 2010, pg. 163).

Terrifying thoughts of this nature, as well as awareness of his own mortality— “I am quite aware of the chance that I have or will have AIDS,” he confides in his diary (pg. 162) — had a direct impact on Haring’s late-career catalogue. In the years before he died of AIDS-related complications in 1990, Haring produced an extraordinary number of paintings inspired by this epidemic. This process proved to be quite cathartic for the artist— “Haring painted in the late eighties to save others and keep himself alive,” Robert Farris Thompson observes in the introduction to Keith Haring – Journals (pg. xxxi).

This section of the essay will consider two such paintings: one produced in 1989 named Silence = Death, and another produced in 1988 which, like many of Haring’s works, remains untitled. These pieces features Haring’s recognizable trademark of simple, faceless figures which he graffitied across the New York subway in his early career, and then on canvases once his resources allowed for it. “His style of references were intentionally simple in order to be accessible to as wide an audience as possible,” (Haring et. al., 2011, pg. 206), and that same style has since “been cloned into international graphic vernacular” (Haring & Sussman, 2008, pg. 12). In this particular case, such simplicity proved effective in communicating how urgent it was for everybody to recognize and respond to the early AIDS crisis.



Silence = Death also presents us with two further trademarks: the slogan in its title and the colored shape at its foreground. Originated by a six-person collective in New York in 1985, “Silence = Death” had become ACT UP’s provocative call to action. They now passed out merchandise featuring these words at their rallies, and also displayed them proudly on their shirts and posters. As the group’s manifesto explained, “silence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people, then and now, must be broken as a matter of our survival” (Maggiano, 2017,

This slogan is featured in the painting’s title, and one of the dominant images to emerge from ACT UP and the entire AIDS epidemic is placed at its foreground: the pink triangle. During the Nazi regime, this colored shape had been applied to homosexuals the same way the Star of David had been applied to Jews— first as a public badge of shame, and then as a means of making the deportation process one degree easier.

ACT UP’s website provides the history of what happened next. “The pink triangle was established as a pro-gay symbol by activists in the United States during the 1970s… the appropriation of the symbol of the pink triangle, usually turned upright rather than inverted, was a conscious attempt to transform a symbol of humiliation into one of solidarity and resistance. By the outset of the AIDS epidemic, it was well-entrenched as a symbol of gay pride and liberation” ( ACT UP adopted this symbol as its own, implying that the onset of AIDS, too often met with societal and governmental neglect, had now led to another extermination of the gay community.

The painting’s title and central image forge an unmistakable connection to ACT UP and its central message, although Haring denied that his art should read as works of propaganda. “I don’t think art is propaganda; it should be something that liberates the soul, provokes the imagination, and encourages people to go further,” he said (Leary, 1990, pg. 1). Propaganda or not, one of the chief intentions of Silence = Death was certainly to “encourage people to go further” in the fight against the AIDS crisis, which had reached a fever pitch by that point.


Untitled, 1988 was not produced specifically for ACT UP as Silence = Death was, and so it is missing the fierce politics of the latter piece. Nonetheless, it is every bit a product of the AIDS era, as it portrays that incurable virus in the form of a “demon sperm,” as the artist termed it, with tentacles wrapped around its victims like a giant squid ready to consume its prey.   

The monster “bursts from the egg, like a giant horned insect,” Robert Farris Thompson observes in the introduction to Keith Haring – Journals (pg. xxxii). “Its horns break the frame of crimson, as if escaping from the paper.” This creepy being wound up appearing in a good number of Haring’s paintings throughout this period. Its recurring and gruesome presence throughout his catalogue served as a frightening metaphor for the lethal, incurable HIV virus. “He probes the terror in extreme promiscuity,” Thompson notes, by employing “a machine of desire that gives itself to death, achieving completion by means of grasping, coiling, licking, and opening” (pg. xxxi).

Both Silence = Death and Untitled, 1988 offer clear commentary and penetrating metaphors of the AIDS epidemic. Yet unlike He Kills Me and AIDSGATE, Ronald Reagan is nowhere to be found here. There are a number of possibilities for this shift in tone: perhaps ACT UP had decided to move on from attacking Reagan directly, especially after his administration made visible gestures to respond to the crisis in the late 1980’s. Or perhaps they eventually deemed it unwise to single out Reagan as a culprit, when really it was nationwide indifference to the suffering of AIDS victims that allowed the crisis to become as severe as it did.

“Most Americans, which of course means straight Americans, didn’t flinch as the bodies hit the ground,” Charles E. Morris III writes in Remembering the AIDS Quilt (2011, pg. xli). “Out of apathy of hatred, the “general population,” as it was then invidiously and disastrously called, and every institution of power at every level, moralized, demonized, ostracized, neglected, and stalled” (pg. xli).

Haring’s famous style of placing all of his subjects on a visual common ground helps to express some important and dismaying realities about the period of the AIDS crisis. Stripping all of his subjects of their facial and physical features serves as a powerful representation of how AIDS affected all of its victims indiscriminately, and how the suffering of those it struck was so often met with indifference by the general public. Life has essentially been removed from these people along with their identifying traits. They’ve become so reduced by the disease that they now are merely “ghostly silver figures” grouped together into a crowd (Haring, pg. xxxi).

Overall, the ominous features within these two paintings— the demon sperm and the infamous logo— coupled with the faceless, featureless victims make Silence = Death and Untitled, 1988 powerful statements about the disease that ravaged the nation in this era and ultimately claimed the artist’s own life.




He Kills Me and Silence = Death feature provocative text and imagery, but other artwork went further in offering suggestions as to how the average person might do their part to prevent the spreading of AIDS— namely, by practicing safe sex.

This was one of the prevalent messages to emerge from the 1980’s AIDS epidemic at large, and the gay community took especially forceful measures to promote this practice. A comprehensive survey of the paintings and posters from the era reveals a variety of ways in which this idea was communicated. One comic book-style poster produced by ACT UP shows Dick Tracy and Clark Kent kissing, with the crude caption reading “Clark Wants Dick, Dick Wants Condoms.” Another poster, issued by the AIDS Council of New South Wales, featured a naked man seen from behind, with the painting’s title placed in the caption below: “Some of Us Get Out of It, Some of Us Don’t. All of Us Fuck With a Condom, Every Time!” One of the most common slogans across these posters: “Men: Use Condoms or Beat It.”

Much of the art to come from the AIDS movement is considerably profane in such a manner, both through its use of foul language as well as nudity and explicit sexual references. Masami Teraoka’s AIDS Series: Geisha in Bath (1988) carries on this grand tradition. Geishas are usually portrayed respectfully in Japanese artwork, as they were associated with purity and the upper-class, despite their promiscuous activity. Teraoka, whose catalogue features many spoofs of Japan’s iconic ukiyo-e woodblock prints, disregarded that standard entirely.

Geisha in Bath features its main subject topless, ripping open a condom package, “her gesture re-enacting that of a traditional courtesan biting on a cloth to symbolise unrequited passion” (Watson, 2012). The Japanese scripture on the wall behind her reads: “”It won’t open, no scissors, and I don’t want to borrow from next door. Well, I’ll open it with my teeth … oooh, what’s that smell – spermicide? Slippery too. This must be extra-large export size. It sure won’t fit my boyfriend!” (Ibid).


With his AIDS Series, as well as the Tale of Thousand Condoms series that soon followed, Teraoka created work which fit in quite well with the rest of the art inspired by the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s. His work ditches the classy standards of traditional Japanese artwork for the vulgarity and attitude of the gay activist movement. Like his contemporaries, Teraoka touched upon taboo subjects— particularly anal sex and condom usage— which he believed were urgent to address, given the seriousness of the epidemic.

His artistic passion was similarly driven by disdain for the federal government. “He was enraged that governments, such the administration of US president Ronald Reagan, were suggesting abstinence and monogamy for prevention before condom use,” wrote The Australian, when the AIDS Series was put on display at the Brisbane Gallery of Modern Art in 2012 (Watson, “He wanted to get AIDS out there in a popular kind of way and talked about. So he used the condoms and the geisha because they were some of the first people who would have probably experienced AIDS, because they were in the pleasure quarters and obviously slept with numerous people” (Ibid).

Connecting the dots between Teraoka’s art and other work that emerged in response to the AIDS epidemic is very illuminating. It reveals how even a person who lacks the characteristics most associated with the activists of the era— Teraoka was heterosexual, HIV-negative, and a Japanese-born Hawaiian resident— was still moved by the destructive impact of the disease, and employed similar tactics to get his message across.




Frank C. Moore was a member of the Visual AIDS Artist Caucus— the group most famous for launching the Red Ribbon Project and granting AIDS activism its most prominent symbol— and his catalogue drew marked inspiration from the illness that ultimately claimed his life in 2002. One example of his AIDS-influenced artwork is Arena (1992), the final painting which this essay will consider. It bears both important overlap and discrepancies with the other works that have been analyzed here so far.

The lethal nature of the epidemic haunted Moore just as it did Moffett and Haring, and those dreary thoughts are visually conveyed in the works of all three artists. Arena’s ominous circular labyrinth recalls the vortex of death featured in He Kills Me. Like the demon sperm in Untitled, 1988, skeletons are included in Moore’s painting as symbols of death and doom, albeit more traditional ones. Another element which makes the painting even more eerie is that the labyrinth features nine circles, the same number as those in Dante’s Inferno. Like Moffett, Haring, and many others, Moore explicitly wanted to convey in his art that the AIDS epidemic was no laughing matter: it was a plague that would claim many lives as long as it raged unhindered.

More so than the other artists we have encountered, however, Moore’s work features an extensive panorama of the various elements that characterized the era of the outbreak of AIDS in America. As noted by Rob Baker in The Art of AIDS, “he fills his canvases with the entire iconography of the AIDS epidemic… all sorts of signs and symbols, including representations of the virus itself, of PWAs as well as of their tormentors and their caregivers. The canvases are bold and bright and alive with detail, but they are never crammed or crowded, just brimming with life” (1994, pg. 156).



Moore keeps this practice alive and strong in Arena. Within the labyrinth’s inner circle can be seen a figure who is curiously absent from most of the other paintings and posters that emerged from this era: somebody actually suffering from AIDS. In this case, the patient is lying on a hospital bed, getting treated by a doctor. This scene was not often conveyed in much of the activist propaganda and artwork at the time, although images like the famous 1990 photograph of David Kirby on his deathbed later brought the horrors of such settings to heightened public attention. “Many other scenes of the AIDS epidemic take place around or inside the labyrinth,” Moore observes. “Bodybuilders pose, demonstrators march, Buddhists meditate, a Buddhists meditate, a mother carries her son, whose body has suddenly deflated like a painted balloon” (pg. 159).

Arena stands out from other artwork of this era in the breadth of details it contains of the AIDS crisis. Also unlike the bulk of his contemporaries’ output, Moore’s paintings evoke a certain sense of hope. These paintings are “brimming with life,” to quote Baker— life which contradicts the prevailing theme of death that defined this era. As art critic David Hirsh observed when Arena was featured at a New York art gallery in 1993, “buried in the structure of this tangled scene of death is the hope for gentle care which includes respect for an ill person’s ability to, in some sense, transcend his illness. Arena suggests that learning how to care for the AIDS patient could, proceeding back up through the nine circles, change humankind’s knowledge of and functioning within the world for the better” (pg. 159).

Overall, Frank Moore expresses the gravity and lethal nature of the AIDS epidemic as vividly as Keith Haring and Donald Moffett did in some of their works. Yet concealed in this landscape of skeletons and dying AIDS victims is a certain sense of optimism that is absent from much of the art produced in the same vein as Arena. That optimism proved to be well-founded in the end: thanks to emerging medical technology and more cautious sexual practices, AIDS-related deaths in America managed to decline sharply from the mid-1990s onwards. Throughout the rest of the world, sadly, the fight to halt the spread of AIDS is still far from complete.




What were the dominant messages and intentions of the paintings and posters that emerged from the 1980’s AIDS crisis? Having now analyzed five pieces in depth, and learned a great deal about this period through my research, I can conclude that the artwork made in response to the AIDS crisis had the following purposes in mind:  

  • To shock and scare audiences about the dangers of this disease.
  • To identify culprits, both individual and as a group.
  • To urge safe sex.

Be it by skeleton, horned sperm, or Ronald Reagan in boogeyman form, artists of this era employed a number of creepy characters as scare tactics. These figures represented the grave danger which AIDS posed to the gay community, and artists wanted to express to their audiences, no matter what their orientation may be, that they had full reason to be alarmed. The use of colorful language and taboo images of nudity and condoms further contributed to the goal of unsettling viewers and stirring them into action.

Next, artists often wanted to recognize the causes for the outbreak and spreading of AIDS. The consensus they settled on was the apathy of the federal government and of the general public. Whether it be singling out Ronald Reagan as the guilty ones, or implying that AIDS victims were without personality or defining traits in the eyes of ordinary citizens, artists of this era experimented with abundant ways of conveying what had set the stage for this deadly virus to run its course.

Finally, many artists were unsatisfied by simply conveying the horrors of AIDS; they wanted to offer a solution as to combat the disease. There do not seem to be many calls for advanced medical research throughout the artwork of these times— I suspect that artists were keener on reaching out to everyday citizens and expressing how they might do their part to halt the spread of AIDS. Safe sex seems to be the consensus solution: Masami Teraoka’s paintings deliberately promoted the usage of condoms, as did many posters and public service announcements of this era. This was deemed the most effective weapon the average citizen had to fight against AIDS, and artists wanted to send out that message in their creative products.

These are three of the primary objectives of the paintings and posters inspired by the 1980’s AIDS epidemic, and all are concealed, in fascinating and intricate ways, throughout the case studies chosen for this project.  




  • Ashton, Jean. Aids in New York: the First Five Years. New-York Historical Society in Association with Scala Arts Publishers. Inc., 2015.
  • Baker, Rob. The Art of AIDS. Continuum, 1994.
  • Bunch, Will. Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future. Free Press, 2010.
  • Dance, Amber. “Pathways to a Cure for AIDS.” Knowable Magazine | Annual Reviews, Annual Reviews, 9 Mar. 2018,
  • Deitcher, David. The Question of Equality: Lesbian and Gay Politics in America since Stonewall. Scribner, 1995.
  • Finkelstein, Avram. After Silence: a History of AIDS through Its Images. University of California Press, 2018.
  • “Frank Moore.” Frank Moore – Artists – Sperone Westwater Gallery,
  • Gott, Ted. Dont Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS. National Gallery of Australia, 1995.
  • Haring, Keith, and Elisabeth Sussman. Keith Haring. Skarstedt Gallery, 2008.
  • Haring, Keith. Keith Haring Journals. Penguin, 2010.
  • Haring, Keith, et al. Keith Haring: 1978-1982. Verlag für Moderne Kunst, 2011.
  • “He Kills Me.” International Center of Photography, 3 Mar. 2016,
  • “HIV/AIDS.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 2 Mar. 2018,
  • “Homepage.” UNAIDS, 3 May 2018,
  • Leary, Timothy. Keith Haring Future Primeval. Abbeville, 1990.
  • Maggiano, Chris Cormier. “Silence = Death.” The Huffington Post,, 8 Sept. 2017,
  • Mills, Nicolaus. Culture in an Age of Money: the Legacy of the 1980s in America. I.R. Dee, 1990.
  • Moffitt, Kimberly R., and Duncan A. Campbell. The 1980s: a Critical and Transitional Decade. Lexington, 2011.
  • Morris, Cindy E. Remembering the AIDS Quilt. Michigan State University Press, 2011.
  • Oisteanu, Valery. “FRANK MOORE Toxic Beauty.” The Brooklyn Rail, 4 Oct. 2012,
  • Ramer, Andrew, and Anastasia James. “The Pink Triangle: From Shame to Pride.” The Contemporary Jewish Museum, 20 Apr. 2017,
  • Reeves, Richard. President Reagan: the Triumph of Imagination. Simon & Schuster, 2007.
  • Roth, Benita. The Life and Death of ACT UP/LA Anti-AIDS Activism in Los Angeles from the 1980s to the 2000s. Cambridge University Press, 2017.
  • “SILENCE = DEATH.” Why We Fight by Vito Russo,
  • Teraoka, Masami. Masami Teraoka: Early Works,
  • Visual AIDS. “Frank Moore.” Visual AIDS,
  • Watson, Bronwynn. “Masami Teraoka Fires Rubber Bullets to Get AIDS Message Across.” The Australian, 2 June 2012,


Modern Language Association 8th edition formatting by


How Does Society Make Sense of Artwork?

Oh, the joys of studying art. (Photo from Pinterest).

Be it by recognizing the visual and semiotic expressions art is making, or considering the historical and political landscape from which that artwork emerged, I think that viewers have developed effective methods for recognizing the social commentary going on within artwork. I also think we’ve done a pretty solid job at identifying those methods all semester long.

If you think about each of the three exhibits which we visited, we observed that there were a number of social themes which the paintings touched upon collectively. For instance, the artwork at the National Gallery exhibit all featured elements of 17th century Dutch society which Johannes Vermeer touched upon, as did the rest of his contemporaries. The Phillips Collection explored how mid-20th century American artists may have had Paul Klee on their minds, while the Hirshhorn exhibit demonstrated how artists have had wildly different means of interpreting the defining elements of the 1980’s.

In my opinion, cultures, communities, and academic circles are able to “make meaning” out of this artwork by identifying the common thread linking different works of this nature together, thereby recognizing what it is, exactly, that these artists are all commenting upon. By seeing painting after painting of women writing letters or wearing fancier clothes than their maids, we can conclude that social inequalities and the disruptive effect of war on Dutch society were two popular themes that many artists in that period had on their minds.

On top of that, it is important to read up on some of the historical context of the artwork, especially when the visual connections between the collections of paintings aren’t super obvious. That was the case of the other two exhibits we saw. It wasn’t always apparent in what ways the American artists at the Phillips Collection were influenced by Paul Klee; unlike at the Dutch exhibit, the visual similarities between the paintings in this one weren’t always apparent. Even the museum exhibit summary said that a lot of these artists didn’t even cite Klee as a direct influence.

However, thanks to the material we were assigned to read that week as well as Professor Irvine’s presentations, we gradually managed to pinpoint escapism as a common theme of the exhibit. The World War II era had been so dreary and destructive; these guys were looking for a way to build an alternative universe where they wouldn’t be troubled by such realities. All of the abstract paintings we saw there were the artists’ own response to that resolution.

This is another way how communities manage to interpret artwork: by placing it in conversation with the rest of the popular culture and political scene of its era. That’s why I’m glad something like the Google Art Project exists: it brings a lot of artwork from around the world together in such a conversation, and also provides some of the historical and cultural background that allows us to make better sense of how such works came to be.

Lastly, a key method for us to understand the meaning of art is to recognize important “semiotics” which they share. What important signs and symbols are included in these artworks? How do they add up to bring additional meaning to those pieces? We spent a lot of time earlier in the semester discussing that, and we saw it come across in the art that we studied later on. Obviously, Paul Klee had a lot of symbols (eyes, arrows, etc.) that popped up a lot in his work, as well as that of the other American artists whose work was paired next to his. And at the 1980’s exhibit at the Hirshhorn museum, symbolism was on constant display.

In the He Kills Me piece which I analyzed last week, the spirals placed repeatedly next to Reagan’s face were a symbol of death and doom– such fitting themes for the AIDS epidemic. All of the everyday products on display in the exhibit also had significance of their own: who new that uncooked pasta could have such strong semiotic value as a representation of the 1980’s-era mass consumerism and corporatism?

As is the case with any art form, identifying the hidden symbolism of paintings uncovers additional meaning for them. Seeing these paintings grouped together in a museum remains an effective way of interfacing art with audiences; as for art and media can be interfaced (the title of this course, after all) we’ve looked a lot at how the Internet and digital photography continues to influence the world of art and bring more and more pieces to audience attention. One of the questions we’ve been asked this week relates to “accepting inaccessibility.” I actually don’t feel like this is such a great concern any more: never before has artwork been so accessible en masse to audiences around the world. It’s been great getting to observe that trend all semester long as part of this course.

The Eiffel Tower, From Many Lenses

As you’ve all likely discerned by this point in the semester, I’m crazy about France, and Paris in particular. So, for this assignment, I decided to compare three photographs of France’s (maybe the world’s?) most iconic landmark, the Eiffel Tower. The location is one of the few common traits all three of these pictures share; it’s amazing how such a great variety of feelings can be evoked by photographing the same statue from various angles, at different moments in history, and with completely intentions coming from their photographers.


I know the instructions were to select a black-and-white photo from before 1940, but hopefully this one taken in 1940 can be considered valid. This was taken by Heinrich Hoffmann, Adolf Hitler’s official photographer, on June 23rd 1940 at the Place du Trocadéro. On either side of Hitler are Albert Speer and Arno Breker, who were, respectively, his go-to architect and sculptor. Behind them, of course, is La Dame de Fer, suffering the fiercest moment of humiliation she has known in her 129-year lifetime.

Like many great historical photos, the context of this one is immediately clear and alarming. This was taken just after Germany had invaded and taken control of France in the spring of 1940. Hitler and several other Nazi leaders made there way over to Paris and immediately rubbed salt into the French wound. They forced France to surrender in the same spot in the Compiègne Forest where France had forced Germany to sign an armistice at the end of World War I. Hitler ordered the destruction of several monuments dedicated to France’s World War I heroes. And he made a triumphant tour around Paris, visiting several monuments and making the Third Reich’s presence known to all.

This picture is probably the best-known image of Hitler’s visit, the only time the Führer ever made it over to Paris. I couldn’t find the exact camera which Hoffmann used to take this picture, but this site lists a thorough variety of the cameras used in this time period, some of which were developed in Germany at the time (especially Kodak cameras). Hoffmann probably used some number of these cameras throughout his career– a career which was dedicated to contributing to “the Nazi propaganda machine.” Hoffman, “Hitler’s most prodigious image-maker and propagator,” shot over 2.5 million photographs of Hitler, images which “projected a Hitlerian image that seduced Germany and left quite a pictorial legacy.”

I would certainly classify Hoffman’s famous picture as a token of the World War II era. Not only because it is a well-known image of the conflict’s central villain and one of its most pivotal moments, but because it is a token example of a prominent element of the Nazis’ strategy throughout this era: visual propaganda. By glorifying Hitler and his entourage by means of posters and photographs like this one, the Third Reich facilitated its own rise to power and control over its people.

Hoffmann’ image feeds into the impression of Der Führer as an all-conquering leader– no one, not the great nation of France, not one of the world’s most beloved and iconic structures, is safe from his clutches. This image was heavily circulated in German newspapers and press, I imagine with the intention of making the news of the fall of France instantly obvious, as well as to send a warning to the countries Germany was planning to invade next (namely, Great Britain) of what was to come. The tremendous symbolism packed into this single image make it a startling and memorable one, almost 80 years later.



My time spent living in Paris was full of happy and exciting memories, but also one very dark one: the Charlie Hebdo shootings, which took place midway through my year there in 2014-2015. Since the perpetrators were tracked and taken down relatively quickly, I didn’t really feel unsafe in the aftermath of the attacks, but I do remember the great feeling of shock and unease that took over Paris during that whole period.

Seeing this image, which French photographer Aurelien Meunier took on a digital camera and released to Getty Images, really brings me back to that grim moment. What’s especially jarring to me is that the Eiffel Tower is traditionally thought of as a positive symbol: it was first built to mark the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, and when it lights up every night as the tallest, brightest structure in the City of Lights, it seems to represent all of the vibrant culture and technology that Paris has to offer. Whenever we pick up a travel guide or brochure encouraging us to visit Paris, the Eiffel Tower is always right there: generally speaking, the simple image of the tower is very inviting and plays a major role in Paris’ status as one of the world’s most visited city.

So, to see all of that symbolism reversed by the sight of this unlit tower on the night of January 8th 2015 is very powerful, about as compelling of a gesture of mourning as Paris could have possibly made in the wake of these shootings. I am not surprised to see this image was scooped up by a lot of major news outlets, including CNN, BBC and the Daily Express. In today’s digital media environment, such an image has the ability to travel far and spark thoughts about how to properly respond to moments of tragedy: a fine use of “interfacing,” if you ask me.



This picture was taken in April 2015, while I was spending the year in France teaching E.S.L. Melissa, my Canadian sightseeing buddy and fellow E.S.L.-teaching assistant, was accompanying me that evening. She took a picture on her iPhone of me playing basketball at Centre Sportif Emile Anthoine, which was my destination-of-choice for pickup ball throughout my year in France (with good reason, as you can tell!)

After Melissa sent me the picture, I knew I had a keeper. I posted it on social media with the caption “Nothin’ like some evening HOOPS! Watch as I grab yet another rebound (my longtime speciality!) in what is genuinely the most awesome place in the world to play pickup.” No one argued.

One quality that makes this picture so effective is how familiar and yet unfamiliar the setting is. Everyone can imagine what the Eiffel Tower looks like; who knows how many pictures we’ve seen of our friends standing at Troacdéro or the Champ de Mars, smiling in front of the Dame de Fer or pretending to pinch the top. And yet only so many people have heard about Centre Sportif Emile Anthoine or know that there is an amazing place to play basketball right by the Eiffel Tower (not to mention another one not too far away, down the Champ de Mars).

Perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch, but this picture is effective rather in the same way that Hokusai’s 36 Views of Mt. Fuji collection is (I saw an exhibit on Hokusai at the Grand Palais while I was in Paris, so the example comes readily to mind). Hokusai’s original perspectives on one of the world’s most famous mountains make for a fascinating display of paintings; similarly, my original perspective on one of the world’s most famous monuments makes for a picture that never loses its appeal. Never. All I ever have to do to sum up how great my year in France was, I just have to pull out this picture on my phone… and I’ve sold my case.  

In a sense, this picture is a token of social ritual— it’s a major rite of passage for everyone to make it out to Paris and take pictures of ourselves in front of the Eiffel Tower. I’ve engaged in that social ritual as well, only in my own personal manner by having the picture be taken from a non-traditional point of view, and also have it be a picture of me in action playing sports, rather than smiling with my friends and trying to pinch the top. This idiosyncratic spin on a classic tourist ritual makes this a picture I’ll always cherish.


Hyper About HyperMediacy


How is developing a theory of media and mediation essential for understanding how art and all forms of cultural expression can be presented in an interpretive framework or interface?

My interpretation of this question is, how does analyzing the development of media technology allow us to understand the new ways in which art has been publicly conveyed over the years? I’ll take a crack at that, using the texts The Work of Art in the Era of its Technological Reproducibility by Walter Benjamin and Remediation: Understanding New Media by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin.

Walter Benjamin talks about the many ways in which art has been reproduced for display purposes over the years. It started with the Ancient Greeks doing casting and stamping; it carried on with the woodcutting of the Middle Ages; and still endures with the lithography and photography of modern times. Finally, thanks to the rise of film, art and cultural expression have discovered their most far-reaching outlet to date. Film has “mobilized the masses” and been subject to “capitalist exploitation” like no other art form before it.



Benjamin is aware that cinema has its harsh critics, quoting one who described the medium as “a pastime for helots, a diversion for uneducated, wretched, worn-out creatures who are consumed by their worries.” One wonders where all of this intense animosity towards cinema comes from– perhaps Duhamel is simply upset that a non-traditional art form is becoming more popular than the classical ones he so values.

But, as Benjamin notes in the beginning of his essay, there is no use in resisting the changes which emerging media will bring to artwork. There are always “revolutionary demands in the politics of art,” and (quoting Paul Valéry) “we must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts.” The “media theory” which Benjamin presents in this texts explores how art has passed from one dominant framework to the next over time, and what various implications of that trend may be.

The other essays seem to agree that art is ever-evolving, and our frameworks for it have to evolve as well. The whole concept of “La Musée Imaginaire,” for instance, suggests that we must always push the envelope of our imaginations so as to make room for new inventions and developments. Remediation: Understanding New Media takes a closer observation at this whole process– Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin agree that media and art change rapidly and borrow from their predecessors, but also do more to consider how contemporary technologies fit in this whole trend. The current process is similar to what it was previously, they seem to imply, only on steroids.


Probably the greatest difference between “remediation” in our age and previous ones is that there are so many new forms of media out there now, and they’re evolving so much more quickly than ever before, both because technology allows for it and society demands it. Using the film Strange Days to support his reasoning (I watched this film last semester as part of my Global Science Fiction Film class, so it’s fresh in my mind), the authors observe that we’re in a world that pretty much resembles science fiction: our current age features so much new media and technology that it’s impossible to keep up with. Hence, we’ve arrived at a state of “remediation”: “our culture wants to both multiply its media and to erase all traces of mediation; ideally, it wants to erase its media in the very act of multiplying them.”

The film and essay both came out in the mid-90’s, when people were excited about the future and the great new platform of opportunity which the arrival of the new millennium was supposed to represent. This whole culture of excess was summarized in Strange Days, which takes place on December 31, 1999, a date which the world had been obsessing over for years. Modern times are defined by a “logic of immediacy” and “hypermediacy,” and they oscillate between the two of them.

There is a lot to gain from the media theory presented here. It allows us to connect the dots between past trends and old (“the practices of contemporary media constitute a lens through which we can see view the history of remediation”). It provides insight into the cultural borrowing that takes place during mediation (“the desire for immediacy leads digital media to borrow avidly from each other as well as from their analog predecessors such as film, television, and photography”). And it also alerts us to some of the potential consequences of these trends (the “wire” in Strange Days led to many harrowing side effects, such as the observation of a rape scene; will virtual reality presence in the real go the same way?)

People will always be thirsty for new styles and representations of art; it’s useful for us to have media theorists who can make educated guesses as to how that process will unfold and what the end results may be. It’s also nice to see that cinema has gone on to prove its academic value in the long run. Movies aren’t just for dimwits, as Duhamel once scathingly described. As Strange Days demonstrates, they can be put to fine use for critical theory and intellectual conversation (I’ve now had two graduate-level courses prove that point!)

Semiotics, Remixes, and “Young Moe”

A basic underlying theme through many of this week’s readings was the sense that everything has heightened meaning when placed alongside or in contrast to something else.

Introduction to Visual Semiotics talks about how we always should consider what larger conversation the artwork we view may be a part of; we need to consider the “larger socio-cultural context” of the different components of “our cultural encyclopedia.” The piece on Mikhail Bakhtin introduced me to the concept of “hetreoglossia” (“the presence of another’s speech”), which is what gives value to one’s own speech: our words are “shaped in dialogic interaction with alien words,” after all. Lastly, the Remix Studies article concludes by saying remix/hybrid pieces are greatly essential to propelling our culture forward, as they act as “interfaces to the generative, collective, and unfinalizable meaning-making processes that enable cultures to be cultures.”

All of these arguments are fitting to learn about before we study an exhibit in which Paul Klee’s artwork is placed in dialogue with the work of some of his American successors. Young Moe (1938) caught my eye, so I’ll go with that as a painting to analyze as part of this blog post.


1) What are the prototypical elements of Paul Klee’s artwork? Intro to Visual Semiotics mentioned some creative masters (Shakespeare, Hitchcock, Van Gogh) whose works are “prototypes” because of their widely-known and recognizable features. Since I am not super familiar with Paul Klee, I can’t readily say what the signature features of his paintings are– I look forward to learning this further and seeing how they are represented in Young Moe.

2) How will the exhibit compare to the Vermeer exhibit we saw at the National Gallery of Art? Back then, we looked at how Dutch artists of the same era influenced each other’s artwork. I find it intriguing how, in our next museum outing, we are instead seeing how a Swiss/German artists influenced artists from a completely different country one generation later. In what ways did Young Moe inform the styles of a later group of painters?

3) The exhibit description at the Phillips Collection website mentions how major influences of Paul Klee’s work and of this current exhibition “the art of indigenous cultures, the power of symbolic language, the method of working from the unconscious, and an interest in probing nature’s invisible forces?” How can some or all of these be seen in Young Moe?

4) If the key groups of semiotics can be thought of as “objects,” “interpretants,” and “representamen,” how might the different visual components of Young Moe be classified as one or the other?

Look forward to diving into all of these questions, and more, as part of this unit!




The “Go-Ahead Character” of Samuel Morse.

By Yang Hai, Lei Qin, and Josh Weiner

Samuel Morse and Mechanical Imitation

Samuel Morse was born in 1791, when America had just won its freedom from Britain and was finding its footing as a newly independent nation. As he aged, he witnessed America make further progress in that regard, establishing its government and expanding its technology. 

His work as a painter and inventor mirrored his home nation’s concurrent development. He embraced the technology of the day throughout his whole career, and found a way to have it influence his artwork.

According to Morse and Mechanical Reproduction, there was an “unswerving path” running through all of his career endeavors. Morse’s various interests were “all linked by [his] commitment to his own principle of mechanical imitation.” This is the most basic connection between all of his identities, practices, and ideas: they were all driven by his desire to constantly reinvent work that had preceded him, so as to keep it up to date with contemporary technology and education. What author Sarah Kate Gillespie describes as his “go-ahead character” was a common denominator throughout his body of work.

Gillespie remarks that Morse was busy with “mechanical imitation” from his early career onwards, as seen with his proto-photographic projects and his “attempts to create a marble-carving machine for the replication of sculpture.” He worked in this same spirit as he tested new uses for the daguerreotype camera– taking what the French had already done and seeing whether he could take it further back in America.

All of Morse’s projects and ideas were driven by his deep love of technology. He recognized “the potential impact of technology on culture” and also had a strong “desire to be associated with this particular American brand of modernity.” This mentality is what drew him to the daguerreotype camera, introduced in France in the 1930’s. He was a big fan of the  “marriage of the visual and technological” which this device represented– “art is to be greatly enriched by its discovery,” he said, and it would also be granted a new sense of “perspective and proportion.”

Given that painting, by its very nature, involves replicating subject matters, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Morse was so drawn to this medium. This idea of “mechanical imitation” is seen in his famous paintings, The House of Representatives and Gallery of the Louvre. He used the “camera obscura” technique in these works “to copy exactly what was in front of him.”

Along with repurposing technology for artistic purposes, Gallery of the Louvre fits in with the pattern in Morse’s career of elaborating upon what had come upon him. As Images as Evidence explains, gallery painting had existed in Europe for several centuries before Morse came along. But by imitating this “collection of old masters” with the help of the daguerreotype, Morse not only brought a new technology to this style of art, but also a new purpose and technology.

As author Catherine Roach remarks, Morse was applauded for making a gallery painting which could be used as a means of “bourgeois education,” which had not traditionally been the objective of artists who made gallery paintings. Plus, Morse was giving many Americans their first glimpse of some of the great artwork housed in the Salon Carré of the Musée du Louvre.

Even though, as Professor Irvine notes in his essay, Morse took some liberties in that all of these paintings were never together in the same room at once, “the first American meta-painting in the gallery painting genre tradition” still carried a noble objective. Morse hoped that showing all of this great artwork together at once would serve as inspiration to audiences in America, and create a sense of what was possible. Perhaps he would even “inspire a new American school of thought” with the country’s first official gallery painting.

Professor Irvine is right to note that “We find in Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre the same motivations for encoding and transmitting ideas and for communicating across distances that informed his concepts and designs for the telegraph.” This observation gets at the heart of the common motivation fueling all of Morse’s projects. His love of painting and love of new technology were demonstrably inspired by a desire to see his fellow citizens more cultured and connected. Along with “mechanical imitation,” these represent the connections which Morse’s lifelong projects and ambitions all seemed to share. 


Communicating Ideas: The Art of Samuel Morse

Aside from creating his greatest artistic work—Gallery of the Louvre—Morse also achieved his greatest invention during this period: the single-wire telegraph, which revolutionized communications and ushered in the information age.

Morse’s telegraph was more efficient than other prototypes because it used a single wire. It was also much more reliable because it produced a record of the transmission by using electromagnets to print on paper. Using a different telegraph, the reader would have to watch a needle and transcribe the message they saw, which was far from reliable. But why did Morse suspend his now successful artistic career to focus on developing the telegraph?

At that time, communication was slow. Morse himself experienced communication problems. In 1811, when he arrived in London as an art student, tensions were high between England and the United States. English ships were attacking American ships believed to be carrying goods to England’s enemy, France. Eventually, England sought reconciliation but, tragically, while that message was on its month-long journey over the Atlantic Ocean, the United States declared war in 1812. This war lasted for two years amid similar confusion.

After the peace treaty had been signed, American and English forces engaged in another major battle, not knowing that the war was over. Slow communication also affected Morse in a more personal way. In 1825, Morse was 500 kilometers away in Washington D.C. when his young wife died suddenly in New Haven, Connecticut. He could not even attend her funeral because it took a week for the news to reach him by mail. However, an electrical impulse travels in an instant. Morse realized that the international and personal problems he had experienced could be eliminated if electricity could be put to use in communication.

Samuel Morse and The House of Representatives

In the painting The House of Representatives, Morse paid attention to the architecture; the painting depicted the important figures of American democracy at that time, symbolizing nationalism. The depiction of perspective lines is impressive, as well as the use of lighting.
The depiction of the telegraph in the painting of Gallery of the Louvre, and the appearance of Morse’s daughter Susan in the painting with a drawing board represent a kind of personification allegory of the art drawing (Irvine, 6). While Morse’s portrait of his daughter “Susan Walking Muse” marks the end of his painting career and step into the Daguerreotype photographs.  

I was impressed by the Daguerreotype photographs in the National Portrait Gallery that we visited. They are tiny and kept inside an album.  The Morse self-portrait photograph in 1845 is very different from his self-portrait painting in 1812. Not only they are depicted in diverse period of time, where Morse in his early young ages and later time. The differences in painting and photograph is shown and reflect different style and different meaning as well.

It was noticeable how Morse’s interest in investigating the new technology is reflected in his painting. The telegraph appeared in several painting as not only an object, an invention, but also a sign of technological invasion in the periods of time. The painting Men of Progress in 1862 marked the center and the focus point of Morse’s telegraph in the painting, where everyone else is sitting and standing around it.   

What more, his use of technological devices when painting House of Representatives assisted him imitating exactly as previous work. Morse use camera obscura to help himself sketch the painting. His willingness to adopt technology into his painting work showed his strong awareness of technology usage in influencing the nation as well as his commitment toward mechanical imitation (103).

I think Morse’s strong interest in technology under the big environment of invention and technology arisen in the early and late nineteenth century gave him opportunity and reason to devote his career into telegraph invention.



  • Cash, Sarah, ed. Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Washington, DC: Corcoran Gallery of Art; Hudson Hills Press, 2011.
  • Gillespie, Sarah Kate. “Morse and ‘Mechanical Imitation.’” In Samuel F. B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” and the Art of Invention, edited by Peter John Brownlee, 100–109. New Haven: Yale University Press and Terra Foundation, 2014.
  • Irvine, Martin. “From Samuel Morse to the Google Art Project: Metamedia, and Art Interfaces.”
  • Roach, Catherine. “Images as Evidence? Morse and the Genre of Gallery Painting.” In Samuel F. B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” and the Art of Invention, edited by Peter John Brownlee, 46–59. New Haven: Yale University Press and Terra Foundation, 2014.





The Mediating Functions of Museums

When I think of mediating, I think of efforts being made to resolve disputes (as a “political mediator” might do). This can be achieved if people learn more about each other’s cultures and make a greater effort to understand why people feel and act the way they do. To what extent are museums capable of doing this?

The world’s first great national art museum? It’s been disputed.

Certainly, museums serve as important introductions to global cultures. Museums in Motion outlines many examples of this quite well. To begin with, the Renaissance was a time in which Europeans regained interest in ancient societies after having largely forgotten them during the Middle Ages (a period which was mostly museum-free). The modern concept of museums gained traction during this same period, as scholars, collectors and royal families took great interest in foreign and ancient cultures, and wound up gathering artifacts from those societies to put on display. Notable museums that were products of this movement include the Uffizi Gallery, the Habsburg collection in Vienna, and the palaces at Versailles and the Louvre (which became “the first great national art museum” when it opened to the public during the French Revolution).

Museums in Motion repeatedly promotes museums as positive outlets of cultural discovery, calling them “centers of education and public enlightenment.” The authors note that James Smithson pushed for the Smithsonian to be built “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men,” and they also remark how the beauty of art can “inspire and uplift the lower class.”

James Smithson never even visited America, yet he helped found the country’s most famous body of museums.

In turn, Professor Irvine’s piece on The Institutional Theory of Art and the Artworld describes museums as “mediums with a message,” and praises the collective activities and meaningful collaborations that emerge from art. He also argues that art helps to make society more “nodal,” meaning that the different parts of its network are now better connected. The long, though incomplete, list at the end of the essay of all of the people and groups that combine to form the “Artworld” really illustrates what power art has of bringing people of all different backgrounds and professions together for a common purpose.

Lots of discussion awaits over this topic, I’m sure.

Is that power enough to make art “mediating,” however? Not everyone quoted in these articles appears to be on the same page. Museums in Motion offers a dissenting view provided by Canadian anthropologist Michael Ames: that by “museumifying” cultures, we limit our insight into them, because museums can only tell us so much (and usually only the highlights) about the topic which they are presenting. “Museums by their very nature limit their audience’s abilities to make sense of collections and place them in broader social contexts,” he writes.

This sentiment is echoed in Daniel Burren’s essay Function of the Museum, in which he suggests that museums can limit our appreciation of the fine arts by boiling down the wide variety of works out there to only the chosen few which are put on display– for reasons which are “obviously economically motivated,” moreover. He describes this as a “flattening effect,” and calls the museums that participate in this process “an enclosure in which art is born and buried.”

“Cultural Theft”

Furthermore, the readings describe instances in which museums led a lot of cultural theft, most notably during the Napoleonic era in France. So perhaps museums are not always the great cultural mediators we would like to think of them as being? And since many art museums “are aesthetic rather than educational” and  “allow the viewer to experience beauty, rather than convey information” (according to Benjamin Ives Gilman), perhaps the impression we have of them as providing limitless insight into societies around the world is somewhat overstated?

I see where Burren and Ames are coming from, don’t think that museums should really be faulted for their limitations, since of course they’re restricted by how much can physically fit in a single building. In order to satisfy these two, I think museums should clearly encourage their visitors to study the material which they have on display in greater depth once they get back home, so as to learn the story more thoroughly. Lots of museums I know of emphasize this quite well.

Paintings like “Guernica” prove what great a role art can play in historical commentary and political protest.

I would also argue that art can have more educational value than Gilman gives it credit for: the memory of historical periods such as the American Revolution, the Spanish-American War and the Iberian Invasion have been kept alive in large part thanks to famous works of art like Washington Crossing the Delaware, Picasso’s Guernica and many of Goya’s paintings, respectively. Also, I think we have learned our lesson from the thievery of the Napoleonic era and now make much more proper arrangements when transporting precious artifacts from one country to the other (no more wrenching away big obelisks from Egypt and planting them in the middle of Paris, like the one in Place de la Concorde).

Overall, we’ve learned a lot from the mediating functions of art. We’ve seen how they have introduced many visitors to new cultures and ideas, contributed to intellectual advancement and fostered important communities worldwide. We’ve also had to think about the limitations of such a concept and how they might be overcome; in general, I think that this can and has been done many times. It was nice to get a lot of great insight into these topics through these readings.



“Vermeer & the Masters of Genre Painting” — My Reactions

Having grown up in next-door Belgium and visited many art museums in Europe, I have encountered a good deal of artwork from the Netherlands, and I knew that Johannes Vermeer was one of the big names in that field (the book and movie Girl With A Pearl Earring also made me more familiar with his story). But I have to say, I’d never really thought about the many ways in which Dutch paintings reflected the many important truths about life in Holland during this era. I had yet to really explore the historical context of 17th-century Dutch artwork, in other words.

The setup of this exhibit at the National Gallery of Art was definitely an effective way to better appreciate the dominant themes of Dutch artists. For instance, whereas I might otherwise have seen paintings of girls writing letters and not thought twice about why they might be writing so many letters, this exhibit underscored the very reasons. It’s because their husbands were often out at war, or off conducting trade, which tells us something about the constant state of affairs in Europe throughout this time period. Also, it was pretty clear that pearls were recognized as objects of wealth in that time– much of the conflict of Girl With A Pearl Earring revolves around the social consequences that might arise if people were to see a common girl wearing such a luxury item in painting– but I had never guessed that parrots might be seen in the same light until this exhibit pointed that out.

Who knew that there was so much underlying social commentary in all of these Dutch paintings? Furthermore, I’ve now been acquainted with some of the other big names from this period beyond Vermeer, including Gerard ter Borch and Gabriel Metsu, whose works were prominently featured in the exhibit alongside those of Vermeer. The next time I visit the National Gallery of Art, the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands, or the Fine Arts Museum in Brussels, I will have a lot more to keep an eye out for, thanks to this assignment.