The Effect Of AIDS On The Arts Community

Sunday is the 30th anniversary of the first report on the condition by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Author Michael Cunningham reflects on how AIDS changed the arts and the arts community.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

JACKI LYDEN, host:

Even before the country and the world fully understood what AIDS was, they quickly grew to know who it affected: intravenous drug users, African-Americans, gay men. And its impact on the American arts scene was devastating.

Mr. MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM (Author, "The Hours"): The installation artist Felix Gonzalez-Torrez; performance artists like Leigh Bowery, Charles Ludlam; the writer Paul Monette; Keith Haring, the visual artist - these are people who we haven't heard from, and will not be hearing from.

LYDEN: That's novelist Michael Cunningham. He's the author of "The Hours," which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999, and many other works of fiction. And he joins us from Oxnard, California. Michael Cunningham, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Oh, thank you. The pleasure's all mine.

LYDEN: In your first breakthrough novel, "1990: A Home at the End of the World," a former lover of one the main characters dies of an unnamed virus. Did you feel, as an artist, that this was something you were compelled to introduce into the fictional pages, that you had to deal with this?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Oh, yeah. Writing a contemporary novel set in America without dealing with AIDS in some way would have been a little bit like, you know, setting a novel during World War II in London and not mentioning the blitz.

LYDEN: By then the world had a name for it, but your book doesn't.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, yeah. It somehow felt more powerful, and more horrifying, if this creeping menace was too awful to name.

LYDEN: You would go on, though, to have AIDS appear in two more novels. Talk a little bit, would you please, about the ways in which AIDS began to be reflected in other art forms as time progressed.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Oh. Well, one great work of art that comes immediately to mind, Tony Kushner's "Angels in America." That is probably, to me, the great and significant and enduring work of art. And I think also - it's funny; we don't talk about it much anymore - the quilt, the AIDS quilt, the 40,000-panel work of collective folk art that I suspect will be with us for a long time.

LYDEN: We've talked about dealing with this illness. But it has waned, thankfully, in America - not in other parts of the world.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Right, right.

LYDEN: Has it, therefore, become less potent as a theme?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, I think a fair amount about that. For one thing, we have a new generation of young artists who have no recollection of a time when AIDS did not exist. So I think the epidemic is subtly present in the work of pretty much any good, young artist, but not so literally as it is in the work of us older guys.

LYDEN: Michael Cunningham is a novelist. His latest book is called "By Nightfall." He joined us from Oxnard, California. It's been a real pleasure speaking with you.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Pleasure's all mine. Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: You're listening to NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: