AIDS, Culture and Society: Course Outline

Arizona State University

(Course was also offered at Columbia University and the New School for Social research)

Film, Politics and Society
Cultural Responses to the AIDS Crisis

Professor Emanuel Levy Class: Wed, 1:40-4:30
FALL 1997 Computer Bdg, BO9

FILM 394
SBS 410

HUM 394

SOC 394

Film, Politics and Society
Cultural Responses to the AIDS Crisis

This course is not about AIDS; it’s about the culture and arts of AIDS. It examines AIDS as a cultural phenomenon, or more specifically, the various ways that popular arts, particularly film and television have treated the AIDS crisis over the past 15 years.

The goal of this course is to present a chronicle of the various artistic-cultural responses to AIDS, a survey of the scope and impact of AIDS-related art, as it is manifest in American popular culture of the 1980s and 1990s.

The changing responses to AIDS are a measure of our changing times–and changing mores. They are also a testament of our deepest fears and anxieties, our various values and norms, and our political aspirations and collective consciousness.

It is impossible to truly understand the role of AIDS in our lives unless we consider the socio-economic and political contexts of AIDS-related behavior. The course is designed to clarify several key domains in AIDS and the cultural sciences.

Like AIDS itself, the art of AIDS at first seemed chaotic and unmanageable. Nonetheless, AIDS has altered significantly not only the way we live our everyday lives, but also the way we perceive life and the way we perceive and create art.

As responsible and responsive citizens, we need to raise these questions and understand the changes in art as well as in ourselves. We need to examine and reexamine the deep, often disturbing responses that are being elicited by AIDS.

Granted, there’s no one “proper” or “legitimate” way to respond to AIDs. Phrased differently, no response to the epidemic is invalid. Personal eulogies and elegies can–and do–coexist with calls-to-arms and political manifestos, abstract paintings, emotional television melodramas, and even Hollywood comedies about AIDS.

Course Description:

The major goal of this course is to demonstrate what is distinctive about the social sciences approach to film as a mass medium of entertainment, art form, and ideological weapon. The various theories, concepts, and methods used by scholars when they study film andf popular culture will be examined and illustrated. This semester, the course focuses on one major issue: How has American popular culture dealt and treated the AIDS epidemic?

In the years since the advent of AIDS, the many artistic and cultural communities which have been deeply affected by the epidemic–the worlds of painting and sculpture, classical and popular music, dance, theater, photography, film, television, and video–have responded to the crisis in different ways, from public, celebrity-oriented benefits to very private and personal works that express both anger and eloquence, despair and hope.

These artistic statements–the dances, the songs, the novels, the poems, the plays, the paintings, the TV programs, the movies–created by people with AIDS or by people without AIDS–form the central concern of this course.

Some of these statements have received wide media attention: Tony Kushner’s Tony Award-winning play, Angels in America; the Names Project, AIDS Memorial Quilt, Tom Hanks’s Oscar-winning performance in the Hollywood movie Philadelphia, and so on. But for every high-profile event, there are literally dozens of less familiar and less celebrated works, which address the same urgent issues, but the large public never hears about.

Some of the issues to be discussed in our course are:

The historical and political contexts for AIDS-related cultural products;

Which medium (television, movies, dance, theater, music) was the first to respond to AIDS and under what conditions?

The scope and diversity of the artistic statements;

Cultural responses by People with AIDS and by People who have not been inflicted with the virus;

How are these diverse reactions interrelated and how have they reinforced each other;

Ideological and political challenges presented in the cultural products;

The influence of AIDS on creativity and diversity of art forms;

The impact of AIDS-oriented popular culture on collective consciousness in the U.S. and in the global world;

The power of AIDS-related art on setting the agenda for an informed debate;
The impact of AIDS on the conscience and consciousness of our society–the healthy and ill, male and female, rich and poor, gay and straight members.

Several feature films, documentaries, television programs, photographs, and art exhibits representing the immense diversity and creativity of AIDS-related cultural products will be screened and discussed.


1. Attendance

2. Participation in class discussions.

3. Outline for research paper (3 pages) to be submitted on Sep. 17.

4. Midterm examination (take-home, around late October).

5. Research paper (10-15 pages) to be submitted at the end of the course.

Required Readings:

Baker, Bob. The Art of AIDS. N.Y.: Continuum, 1994.

Feldman, Douglas A. (ed). Culture and AIDS.
N.Y. : Praeger, 1990.

Kistenberg, Cindy J. AIDS, Social Change, and Theater:
Performance as Protest. N.Y.: Garland, 1995.

Levy, Emanuel. Cinema of Outsiders. NYU Press, 1999 (hardcover and paperback)

Nelson, Emanuel S. (ed). AIDS: The Literary Response.
N.Y.: Twayne, 1992.


Gott, Ted (ed). Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS. Melbourne: National Gallery of Australia, 1994.

Kinsella, James. Covering the Plague: AIDS and the American Media.
N.Y.: Rutgers University Press.

Feature Films, Documentaries and Television Movies:

And the Band Played On 1992
Angles in America 1990s
Andre’s Mother 1990
As Is 1985
Common Threads 1990
An Early Frost 1985
Jeffrey 1994
Longtime Companion 1990
Robert Mapplethorpe’s Photography
Our Sons 1991
Parting Glances 1986
Philadelphia 1993
Poison 1991
Zero Patience 1993