In the late 1980s, the AIDS pandemic was annihilating queer people, intravenous drug users, and communities of color in America, and disinformation about the disease ran rampant. Out of the activist group ACT UP, an art collective that called itself Gran Fury formed to campaign against corporate greed, government inaction, stigma, and public indifference to the epidemic. Jack Lowery examines Gran Fury's art and activism from iconic images like the "Kissing Doesn't Kill" poster to the act of dropping piles of fake bills onto the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
His book focuses on the Gran Fury art collective ... The logistics behind demonstrations...would not seem to be the most scintillating material, but Lowery painstakingly reconstructs conversations and negotiations that compel a reader to feel the era’s anguish and urgency. Much of the collective’s work now hangs in major museums ... Lowery is young...but writes like an old soul, scholarly and indignant at how AIDS was for so many years minimized and marginalized. Occasionally he permits himself an exclamation point of delight or mild sarcasm ... But mostly It Was Vulgar, ...is a deeply sober story about a vulnerable population ... It Was Vulgar isn’t perfect — this critic wanted to get out a blue pencil whenever Lowery overused the word 'ultimately,' sometimes multiple times on a page, and his endnotes are scant. But it’s an important contribution to the annals of AIDS, and, in hewing close to but fanning out from a narrow cast of characters, a sturdy template for chroniclers of complex sociopolitical movements.
Vivid, frank portraits ... Lowery’s raw emotion strikes deep into the reader’s conscience. The context of how the art was incubated makes this narrative essential to the history of the AIDS epidemic; as Lowery demonstrates, Gran Fury increased public awareness of AIDS by inventive use of art and unquestionably saved lives ... Readers especially interested in HIV/AIDS in New York in the ’80s and ’90s will find this book essential; general readers will also profit from Lowery’s insights on issues of art and activism. Recommended for all interested in how art can change the world.
Lowery lovingly portrays the strength, effort, happy victories, and overwhelming sadness of these historic efforts. Art had a major role in the movement, and as this testimonial lays out, the people behind the art stand as pillars of beautiful humanity. This is a rich and necessary documentation.