Honors Theses

Date of Award

Spring 4-30-2021

Document Type

Undergraduate Thesis


Art and Art History

First Advisor

Kris Belden-Adams

Second Advisor

Nancy Wicker

Third Advisor

Joshua Brinlee

Relational Format



“Art & AIDS: Viral Strategies for Visibility” examines the complex relationships between social stigma, healthcare, homophobia, and mortality, and how these impacted the lives of Western artists and manifested in their works. Most of the art discussed in this thesis was produced during the height of the AIDS crisis (late-1980s to mid-1990s). During this period, gay artists and their allies employed new strategies in their work to inspire activism, and convey intense emotions –– predominantly frustration, grief, and anxiety –– associated with HIV/AIDS. In the U.S., the inaction of the Reagan administration was largely due to widespread homophobia kindled by reinvigorated social/cultural/religious conservatism in the 1980s. Against all odds, gay artists and their allies persevered against two deadly forces, homophobia and HIV, using their voices both in and out of the gallery to increase the visibility of the gay community, thus keeping AIDS at the forefront of the public’s minds. AIDS radically changed “gay” art, eventually migrating into its own sub-category: “AIDS art.” This thesis discusses the various “viral strategies” adopted by AIDS artists to argue for change. Introduced by Joshua Chambers-Letson in the 2010 essay “Contracting Justice: The Viral Strategy of Felix Gonzalez-Torres,” a “viral strategy” makes an impression on the viewer by metaphorically functioning like HIV. Like a virus, an artist’s work requires a “host” (viewer) to implant itself in, and thereby “infect” (make an impression upon). Some artists took a more literal approach to “viral strategy” and literally entered the body of the viewer. However, more subtle works employed a “viral strategy” by simply provoking the mind of the viewer, and/or using media “virality” or mass dissemination to spread its ideas. Today, the impact of the AIDS crisis still haunts us as the art world lost countless great artists and connoisseurs to the virus, Medical advances have led to improvements in the quality of life for HIV+ persons, so contraction is no longer a certain death sentence. Nevertheless, AIDS art of the past and present reminds viewers that HIV/AIDS still carries millions, and homophobia remains a stigma , affect rampant against the LGBTQ+ community.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.



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