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The Effect Of AIDS On The Arts Community

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The Effect Of AIDS On The Arts Community


The Effect Of AIDS On The Arts Community

The Effect Of AIDS On The Arts Community

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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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.


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.

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