Tag Archives: AIDS

Craft? Art? or Craftivism? A matter of Opinion

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It is hard to distinguish where the boundaries lie between craft and art practices as the determination of this depends on the perception of different constituencies within society and how they respond to cultural materiality and visual elements. The craft and art divide changes its boundaries based on its socio-political surroundings of that place/ time. Drawing back on the Industrial Revolution which saw this transfer of craft from private to public, is something which only occurred due to the development within a society of machinery and an increased need for produce which could be traded. Just because men where predominantly in charge within these factories does not mean however that they gained more respect for the chores faced day to day by women. There was a distinct difference in doing crafts because you had a love for them and because you had to in order to survive. However if in contrast we consider the AIDS quilt and its production it is riddled with key moments of socio- political happenings. The recession saw gay rights and the AIDS epidemic being pushed to one side as society was divided on how to approach these subjects. Yet through the effective use of activism in a street march the idea of the AIDS Memorial quilt was formed and it now stands as the biggest piece of craftivist work to date. This tactile piece of community work raised awareness of the AIDS crisis on a global level and appears to have effectively led to President Reagan stepping forward discussing the growing issue. However the formation of this piece from fabric, using a traditional method of quilting automatically defines it as a piece of craft, but we also have to consider the rich political, historical and social periods the piece continues to adapt in.

Craftivism is a term which only came around at the start of the 21st Century, which was after the beginning of the AIDS quilt. However just because the term was yet to be coined, does not mean the piece cannot be referred to retroactively as craftivism, the quilt has had a major role in allowing craft to be viewed as art in itself and thus bridging the gap between art and craft. With the piece steeped deep in politics and awareness within society the piece could be seen as being of historical context and belonging more so in a museum than a gallery or craft fair. The piece is formed wholly of the traditional American folk art of quilting which is a craft, however the piece draws so many morbid thoughts of how many dead people it represents it could draw similarity to the mass graves of the Holocaust, which is viewed as a horrific happening of historical context. The quilt could also be viewed as a political piece, encouraged by the death and words of a politician, the piece and its number of contributors to convey one message, draws similarities to a union. By all coming together as one voice, they were finally heard when it boiled down to getting noticed through this impressive action. To draw similarities between the quilt and the roles of a union and how this could relate to the politics of the world at its time of production, we must consider the work of Thatcher. Though her political changes occurred in the UK they still impacted on the US as the two countries worked closely together and carried out trade. In the UK Thatcher reduced the power of the unions so significantly that for the most part they simply ceased to exist. In doing this she left people trying to protect themselves and their families as one lone voice. The nature of the scale of how many activists took part in the quilt in order to lobby the government and enforce change quite clearly draws similarities to the models of a union, a group of like-minded people coming together to be one loud voice. So taking all of these aspects of the quilt into consideration, where exactly does the quilt lie in the intersection of art and craft?

The reality of the situation is that the distinction of where the boundaries between art and craft lie cannot be fixed as a predetermined definition. There are too many factors which can come into play. For example in its home town of San Francisco the quilt may be viewed as a piece of activist history as the area is and was so deeply rooted in its awareness of why the quilt was produced in the first place. Therefore if you were to ask a member of this city where they felt the quilt lay on this spectrum they might say nowhere at all, as it could just be viewed a symbolic representation of the deaths of thousands of people. Yet other people, part of the activist movement or not could argue either way for the piece to be classed as craft or art. Those more aware of American Folk art history and who enjoy the visual ad tactile nature of the quilt might be more inclined to refer to it as a piece of craft. As the craft and values of quilting served as a method of bringing people and communities together allowing them to discuss different issues, drawing them together over a calm craft which had pleasing results. Yet another member of the same community might be inclined to view the piece as art rather than craft. This could be because although the piece has a tactile nature, it is of such a vast scale it removes the audience from itself. It essentially forms a gallery of its own as each piece is unique and it can’t physically be viewed all at once. This essentially removes the tactile nature of the piece as the audience can’t interact with it on a personal level as its scale could become overwhelming. This would therefore enable them to view the quilt as a gallery of art.

These differences in judgment and preferences for materiality or visual qualities will vary from person to person based on their social upbringing and their awareness of political happenings as to where they view the piece would belong.

 The realism that that piece cannot be defined into one category actually draws on the triumph of The AIDS Memorial quilt. It was designed by Jones to raise awareness and get communities talking. The fact that it could easily find itself placed not only in both end of the spectrum of craft and art but also find itself considered a historical monument and a pivotal political representation emphasises the success of the quilt.

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The AIDS quilt’s continuing work

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The quilt continues to be added to today as AIDS is still an issue all around the world and was used as recently as July 2012 when the International AIDS conference was in America for the first time since 1990. President Barrack Obama has increased funding into scientific research in an attempt to combat and eradicate AIDS in America with the goal of treating 6 million people by the end of 2013. (Whitehouse, 2012) The quilt was on display at the White House on this very important day to represent those who had lost their lives and with the aim of minimising as many more facing the same fate through better investments in resources. However despite this effort to ensure an AIDS free America in the near future many remain skeptical as to Obama’s commitment after he failed to attend the International conference despite pressure from activist groups. (The Washington Times, 2012) Activist groups are still as prominent in America now as they were prior to the AIDS outbreak, as they not only fight for the end of AIDS but they continue in an ongoing battle for equality and acceptance. LGBT couples face a constant battle regarding the allowance and acceptance of gay marriages across America as well as same sex parenting. In December 2012 there was a turning point when the U.S Supreme Court agreed to hear two gay marriage cases (The Denver Post, 2012), whilst this may not seem like a big deal the Denver post points out the overwhelming rejection of gay marriage in the U.S.

Nine states and the District of Columbia currently allow same-sex marriage, which leaves 41 states that don’t. Of those that do not, 30 have gay marriage bans written into their constitutions, as Colorado does.

This hearing in the Supreme Court makes it clear that LGBT issues are slow to be accepted in the U.S. The Aids Quilt provides a stark reminder not only of the extent of the gay community but to what lengths they are willing to go to through both craftivism and activism to achieve equality.

Bringing AIDS to the attention of Reagan

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Gay men faced particular trials during the years Reagan was in charge, the first ever case of AIDS was in 1981 and rapidly it became clear that it was spreading. ‘Those infected initially with this mysterious disease — all gay men — found themselves targeted with an unprecedented level of mean-spirited hostility.’ This was due to the concerns of this becoming a national health crisis. However, Reagan had caused such a deficit in funds there was no money to give to health care in order to try and stop the spread of the disease although those in medical and scientific positions were deeply concerned at the rate at which it was spreading. As a consequence this led to the deaths of thousands of gay men.

 AIDS casualties multiplied rapidly throughout the 1980s; in 1981, the mortality rate was 225, jumping to 1,400 by 1983, 15,000 by 1985, 40,000 by 1987, and over 100,000 by 1990.6 The great majority of these deaths were young men between the ages 25 and 44.7 The disease spread rapidly within urban centres, most notably New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. After the mid-1980s, however, the disease had made its way to other North American cities and rural areas (Murray, H. 2008).

 The response of Reagan was to do nothing, this clearly took its toll as thousands of men died from the disease due to this lack of funding. It was not until May of 1987 that Reagan first addressed the issue of AIDS in public. As a consequence of this bad political management it is easy to see why so many gay men turned to activist techniques to try and draw attention to the national crisis. The realisation of the AIDS crisis by Jones in 1985, and its large-scale response was provoked by the entire nations concern of issue at hand. This is proof of how a visual and material object brought not just a community together, but the entire nation. As people learnt of the crisis and had it stare them in the face with the AIDS quilt they had no choice but to discuss the problem at hand and how to deal with it, with growing concerns of the disease spreading through blood transfusions people were unsure of where they stood or how to respond. Gay activist groups tried tirelessly to raise the issue of AIDS openly with the government, including trying to smoke Reagan out as it were, by creating posters with the face of Reagan, bearing the slogan “What if your son gets sick?”, (Murray, H, 2008) These were the posters which formed a street protest by an activist group called ACT UP, a street theatre group. Their posters aimed to remind Reagan and others that all those dying from AIDS were someone’s child and would he want to go through that? It was essential for these examples of gay activism to take place in order to provoke a rise in social consciousness about AIDS, ensuring Milk’s ambition of raising awareness to gay issues was fulfilled. The fact that the AIDS quilt occurred at such a crucial point for gay rights suggests that it had a lot to do with Reagan finally discussing the issue publicly, once everyone was so aware and concerned he had no choice. In the October of 1987 the quilt in its entirety to date went on show in Washington D.C. on the National Mall, coinciding with the National march of Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. After a large turnout the quilt went on tour for four moths raising around $500,000 (The NAMES Project Foundation, 2010).

Defining the AIDS quilt as Craftivism

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Regarding the differences between working in paint and working in embroidery to me it is easy to suggest that this gigantic quilt not only draws on traditional American folk arts of quilting but in its tactile, homely nature provokes a stronger response from the viewer. The symbolic nature of a quilt is that of a blanket, one which offers comfort. This community act helps to draw millions of people together over one significant issue of AIDS and the LGBT’s community. The quilt enabled this community to stand as one, representing themselves as one voice to be heard and noticed, fulfilling the speech of Milk where he said they needed to ‘tell the truths about gays’. As the quilt grows and grows it represents something which is completely beyond the capability of one individual, once again emphasising the need to stand together as one voice and one community to be taken notice of. This became the NAMES Project Foundation, as the founders of the project made panels in honor of their friends who had died of AIDS. The project received an overwhelming public response, ‘People in the U.S. cities most affected by AIDS — Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco — sent panels to the San Francisco workshop.’ The quilt was drawn together by devoted volunteers who were friends, family and lovers of those who had died.
The success of the quilt is almost undoubtedly down to it’s tactile nature, although it sybolises an epidemic and each section represents some one who has died, essentially drawing similarities to a mass grave each panel is the size of a grave in response to gay people not being buried or handled by funeral homes, it’s tactile nature makes it approachable (The Names Project Foundation, 2010). Not only this but quilting is deeply rooted in American history, moving to America along with colonists from Europe it became a part of American Folk art history, particularly as part of the American Indian community. Hans,B. (2010) tells us that

 Quilting also had a social dimension; women and girls within families worked together on their quilts, but, when possible, they also participated in quilting bees where neighboring women from a usually rural community came together to do the quilting…

 These foundations on which quilting was initially established still hold true today, when the quilt was produced it was designed to bring communities together and force people to socialise and to discuss their views and concerns.

Whilst the quilt was an the result of a series of activist actions it is also defined under the modern day term ‘craftivism’, craft as a form of activism which the website Craftivism.com (2003- 2012) defines with an extract written by Betsy Greer, stating that

Craftivism is the practice of engaged creativity, especially regarding political or social causes. By using their creative energy to help make the world a better place, craftivists help bring about positive change via personalized activism. Craftivism allows practitioners to customize their particular skills to address particular causes.

Defining The AIDS Memorial quilt as craftivism demonstrates how the activist actions of the homosexual community led to this large scale act of drawing attention the Aids epidemic. In discussing folk art and creativity Rogoff (2003) discusses the correlation between production through a guided process, community and perspective. By providing rough guidelines such as size and clearly defined subject area encouraged the community to work together in the production of this memorial, to not forget and raise awareness of those who died. This gain of perspective helped this community to connect with those who were in denial or unaware of the AIDS epidemic, but on a calm grounding as they worked together to produce this large piece using traditional methods of their countries foremothers.