Avram Finkelstein’s Words Resonate

“Silence = Death”. That simple phrase became – and remains – an anthem for AIDS activists. And it wouldn’t exist without Avram Finkelstein.

Raised by appropriately Marxist parents here in New York, the natural born activist became involved in the AIDS movement after his boyfriend died of the then-new disease. Mourning the loss of friends and family, Finkelstein and his five friends organized a casual group that would later become Gran Fury, a creative collective responsible for much of ACT-UP’s visual campaigns.

Old Belonsky spoke with Finkelstein recently and got an earful on how the public space has evolved, the role of gender in the presidential campaigns and whether a thirteen-year old American Idol fan can be called an “activist”. The answer’s “yes”.

Andrew Belonsky: Have you always been drawn to art?

Avram Finkelstein: Yeah, I was raised as an artist – I was the artist in the family. I’m a red diaper baby, so I come from a lefty background. It’s one of the few family situations where people want you to be an artist, instead of discouraging it.

AB: What was the first art that attracted you?

AF: A lot of friends of the family working for the WPA, so I’ve always loved social realism work: political posters, I’ve always loved that.

AB: So your view of art has always been tied to the political message behind it?

AF: Yes, very much so. Truthfully, the whole idea of Silence = Death came from street posters – I formed this small men’s consciousness raising group with three friends of mine before ACT-UP even existed. We felt like there was no place to talk about AIDS. It was having such a dramatic impact on our lives and we just didn’t know what to do. So, I had dinner with a couple of friends and we all said, “We should form a CR group and meet up every week”. We decided to each ask one person and that became the Silent = Death group.

AB: What year was this?

AF: 1986.

AB: This was after your boyfriend died?

AF: Yeah, he died in ’84, so actually I think we started meeting in ’85. We were going for about a year. We had dinner and talked about our fears and fears of sex, loneliness – and every week it would come back to politics. After about six months of that, I said, “You know, in the 60s, if people wanted to communicate – and there was no way to find a voice – people put posters in the streets”. That’s how people knew about meetings, ideas – everything! It was in the street.” So I said, “Why don’t we do a poster?” I proposed the project and that’s how it happened.

AB: Do you think posters are effective today? There are posters and advertising on every space.

AF: I do – I mean, there was advertising then and that was part of the strategy: to intervene on the commercial space with a message that was not commercial. That’s why we chose postering. We decided against doing these flat-footed, didactic Marxist tomes with lots of text and instead chose to do high gloss posters. And, in fact, the design of the poster – we discussed it endlessly and decided to go with what we called “yuppie graphics” – fonts that were popular at the time, so it was deceptive and would draw an unsuspecting bystander into a very serious conversation. It had to work on two levels: you had to be able to see it and think about it as you were whisking by in a cab, but then it had to work on a street level.

Having said that, I don’t think it could ever work in this social landscape, no. I don’t think it would be possible. It’s not so much about having to compete on the media landscape as what public space is now, as opposed to public space then. Public spaces – although there are a lot of people who would argue against it – are largely new media. I don’t really think it’s about the streets. It’s about the internet.

AB: Do you think there’s going to be a backlash against the internet. If I remember the argument correctly, my colleague, Rebecca Aronauer says that with the economy shrinking and people being out of work, they’re not going to be on the internet as much, but on the streets looking for work.

AF: I think that’s a very good point. There are a lot of arguments against the internet as an organizing space – that’s one of them – and I don’t think she’s wrong about that, but let’s not forget cell phones. Even if you’re out of work and don’t have a computer, everyone has a cell phone – not everyone uses it the same way – but it’s certainly a way to reach a certain portion of America. The real question is “Who are activists now?” And that depends on the issue.

If you’re using cellphones, it’s a totally different demographic. And ultimately these things are just like advertising – it’s about the audience. You have to fully consider the audience. We live in a culture that’s run on images, so the kind of image is essential and the audience always has to be considered.

I had one other thought about whether the poster strategy could work today – in the eighties, they had given all these tax abatements for building and there was tons of construction going on in New York. That’s the only place you’re allowed to paste posters; if you put it on any other site, it’s illegal. The fact that there’s no construction in New York is another reason why it wouldn’t be possible.

AB: But there’s so much construction in New York. I walk by at least five construction sites every day!

AF: Well, there’s more than there was ten years ago, but not as much as there was in the eighties, and it’s about to freeze up again. All of this stuff comes into play.

AB: What you were saying about who is an activist and an activist existing in relation to their audience – that could be a thirteen-year old girl talking to her schoolmates about which boy they should vote for on American Idol.

AF: That’s right.

AB: Does that trivialize activism? When you say “activism,” most people don’t think of a thirteen year old girl –

AF: See, I would disagree with you. The thing about me is that I’m part old school Marxist and part pop culture poet. I really love pop culture. I think pop culture in America is almost like folk art to other cultures: it’s the way we communicate with each other, it’s so woven into our identities. I think it’s a big mistake to separate it out.

You know how they say that coming out is about taking the next step? “If you just take the next step, that’s a big thing to do and everyone can participate in moving us ahead in their own way.” Well, I think that’s true for politics in general. Trying to look at it in big strokes isn’t really how our culture utilizes ideas and images. It’s a much slower process – ideas get thrown into the market place for a while, then rejected, but they don’t exactly go away.

I really believe in incremental change. I really believe that anyone can be an activist. I think that almost any action that you take that questions is an act of activism. So, I’m happy to have a 13-year old girl talking about an issue.

AB: What do you think of AIDS activism today? Specifically with regard to glossy MTV’s drives and the such. Do you think too immersed in celebrity, that the message gets lost?

AF: That’s such a layered situation – I have a lot of feelings about it. On the one level, any conversation about it as opposed to no conversation is better. But health care in America is a very separate issue. There’s no way you can address AIDS without considering that and that was one of the mistakes that was made, I think.

There was such a dire, urgent need for activism to save people’s lives. People became very mired in getting drugs into these people’s bodies, but didn’t really consider the context in which those drugs were being approved, marketed, which bodies they were going to, the way that capitalism works in terms of funding health care – all of those issues should have been considered and I don’t think they were. We painted ourselves into a corner by not considering that.

In a capitalist culture, there’s more money to be made on somebody being sick than on somebody being cured. By accepting the model that something can be a managed, chronic condition as opposed to there being a cure, you’re giving up ground. It may have been inevitable, but I think that would have been a wise, strategic fight: trying to put the cure back into everything.

AB: Do you think they’re ever going find the cure? Obviously there are so many factors, but are you hopeful?

AF: Well, scientifically, in terms of research, there could be a cure. I think it’s definitely possible. Whether there will be is another question. I’m dubious about it, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t such a thing as pure science, that a scientist who isn’t connected to a research institute can come up with something. I think probably it’s just a matter of time until they do. I was raised in a world in which nothing the government does is implausible: no plot, no conspiracy is implausible.

AB: Do you have any faith in the government?

AF: Well, yeah, of course I do, but not in these terms. I look at everything with a very skeptical eye.

AB: What do you think of this political season?

AF: As you can tell, I’m a political junkie. I’m fully immersed in it. I’m supporting Obama. Regardless of whether he has a chance or regardless of whether he wins, this is a moment in history that I think is really essential to the American mind and that’s why I’m supporting him. That’s not to say I’m not torn, because I also think this is a moment in terms of gender issues.

AB: With regard to discussions of racism and sexism in the coverage of this election – do you think that Hillary’s femininity is getting eclipsed by Barack’s race?

AF: I don’t think you can look at this presidential race without calling into question our cultural history.

AB: Are people forgetting about gender?

AF: I think the only people who are forgetting about gender are white guys. White guys are very sensitive to the question of a woman presidential candidate. I think white guys are probably much less sensitive to questions of misogyny than to questions of race – but I’m talking about white guys of a certain age. Younger white guys were raised in a different world. There’s something about privilege that’s blinding. I think that privilege and class are really the two issues in America – everything else falls around that. Where ever you fall on the spectrum of privilege, you’re blinded to what’s below you. There’s this one- way mirror that privilege creates. People tend to think that everyone is like them.

AB: Do you think that’s wishful thinking so people don’t have to think about difference or is it from a severe self-centrism?

AF: I’m not sure I would characterize it either way. It could be that either and both of those things are probably at work. It’s interesting you mention narcissim, because I think that does apply to questions of class. Everything seen is a reflection of one’s own status, so maybe narcissism isn’t such a bad way to characterize it. America is such a particular case with such a particular psychology behind it – it’s part pioneer, it’s young – we’re very naive about the cynical motives of people with power. The Europeans have lived through many generations of corruption and we Americans are seen as very naive and trusting. Those are good things and bad things.

AB: And you can’t disregard the Puritanism.

AF: Plus it’s multi-race, it’s multi-ethnic. Truthfully, I think America’s just beginning to show itself. It’s beginning to grow up. Watergate was a wake-up call: it was the first time we ever admitted that it was possible that the corridors of power were being manipulated. I think people are less likely to be shocked by something like that now and more likely to say, “Yeah, this stuff happens.”