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AIDS absurdity

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Appalling, isn't it, that artist/ writer/activist Gregg Bordowitz calls his collection of essays The AIDS Crisis Is Ridiculous? Which shows that the truth hurts, since the AIDS crisis is ridiculous. It evaded prevention by exploding out of nowhere, but it also profited from the tendency of all levels of government to react with denial and sanctimonious homophobia. (Remember the argument that people with AIDS should be denied medical coverage since, after all, they decided to have sex with men? Funny how no one said that about pregnant women, even though pregnancy has the same cause.)

But if the link that AIDS forged between sex and death repulsed some people, it inspired others, and that's what this book is about. Pioneering AIDS activists saw that, since people insist on having sex or shooting up, effective policies must confront that chain's "death" part -- through education, needle exchanges and research. An early member of ACT UP and Gay Men's Health Crisis, Bordowitz helped work out how to push that agenda as an artist: using theatrics, alternative media channels, and sophisticated writing and speaking skills.

The most fascinating aspect of this book -- edited by Emory University's James Meyer, and fondly (but not fawningly) introduced by prominent art historian Douglas Crimp -- is that it chronicles Bordowitz's own development as it parallels the larger movement. Early on, he is compelling because his energy and intelligence outweigh his clunkiness. He soon develops better control, however, shifting smoothly between humor, poetry, and argument in chapters like "The Effort to Survive AIDS Considered from the Point of View of a Race-Car Driver." "It's best to keep yourself out of the race," says Bordowitz-as-racer. "Though it may look exciting from the stands, it's terrifying on the track."

The earlier essays earn their keep, though, by recalling that one of the most ridiculous aspects of the AIDS crisis was the culture war it fueled. And that battle is back. But it wasn't just about homosexuality then (see Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ") and it won't be now. So if you value free speech and meaningful artistic expression, this book's a good primer on fighting back.

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