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Sue Coe, Aids won't wait, the enemy is here not in Kuwait, 1990

Sue Coe's print, "AIDS won't wait, the enemy is here not in Kuwait," criticizes the U.S. government's response to the AIDS crisis. The artwork contrasts the silence on AIDS with the media coverage of the Gulf War. Coe uses stark black-and-white imagery to highlight the moral imperative of addressing the epidemic.

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Video transcript

(light piano music) - [Beth] We're in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, looking at a print by the contemporary artist Sue Coe. She's known for her political images, images like this one. "Aids won't wait, the enemy is here not in Kuwait." We have almost a battlefield of dead bodies. - [Monica] The way she's laid out the bodies that have been ravaged by the AIDS epidemic looks almost identical to any history painting of an important war-time scene or battlefield scene, except, of course, that here there's no weaponry. The folks have died from this disease that has been ravaging the population around the country for over a decade, and their bodies are strewn about on the battlefield of U.S. politics. You can see that horizon line was actually curved. So it looks like the battlefield would just keep going on and on over the curve of the world. - [Beth] And because this is the print, this is rendered in black and white, these very start contrasts. - [Monica] For her, the AIDS crisis is a black-and-white issue. It is a moral imperative that the government deal with it. - [Beth] AIDS came to the attention of the Center for Disease Control, to the attention of the United States government in the early 1980s. But it was years before Reagan even spoke the word AIDS. And President George Bush, Reagan's successor, was slow to allocate funding, to talk about the problems of the epidemic and what needed to be done. It struck first and most pervasively in the gay community, a community that was seen by many to have brought this on themselves. - [Monica] The way the government didn't talk about what was real about AIDS did allow most Americans to think of it as a moral disease, a moral affliction that was brought on by actions as opposed to healthcare risks in particularly isolated communities. And so what you ended up getting was silence about a public health concern. And of course, what's ironic about it is that it's happening simultaneously with a government call for war. And that's what Sue Coe is up in arms about in this particular work. How can we not talk about something that's right here where people are dying? How can we choose to not see, and to not speak, and to not hear, and yet sell war so easily? - [Beth] 1990 is the year of the Gulf War when Iraq invades Kuwait. There are territorial interests at stake. There's oil at stake. There's economic interests at stake. And tens of thousands of U.S. forces are deployed. This was a war that was really present in the media for the American public, and yet its opposite, the absence of conversation, the absence of imagery about the AIDS crisis. - [Monica] You can see her reference to the silence and the lack of action on the part of policymakers in that television set. You've got this very close-up picture of a mouth, of a talking head, on your television at home telling you what's happening in the world. But of course, this mouth is firmly closed. - [Beth] In 1990, Andrew Sullivan wrote an article about the AIDs crisis. So the very year that Sue Coe made this print. There's a quote that I think helps to capture some of what Sue Coe is saying here in this print. He wrote, "for gay men in America in 1990, "death is less an event than an environment. "100,000 people have now died of AIDS. "This year almost as many have died "as died in all the previous years put together. "10 times as many will die as have died. "More young men have lost their lives to AIDS "than died in the entire Vietnam War. "40% of these deaths have been "among I.V. drug-users and others of both sexes. "But 60% have been among gay men. "While the outside world thinks the worst is over, "800,000 people, on the lowest estimates, "now face the hard task of actually dying." - [Monica] What she's been able to do is remind us that even a country as big as the United States has finite resources, and we make choices. So that we have to think on our own, "Which would I choose? "Do I think I should go to the Gulf War, "or do I think I should fund AIDS research?" She's managed to ask us that question with a print. (light piano music)