An artist asks: war or healthcare?

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

Sue Coe, Aids won't wait, the enemy is here not in Kuwait, 1990, photo-etching on paper, 23.8 x 32.5 cm (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, © Sue Coe). Speakers: Monica Zimmerman, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Dr. Beth Harris

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Coe, AIDS Won't Wait

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Key points

  • Although HIV/AIDS was known in the early 1980s through many positive HIV test results, the crisis was initially ignored and then under-acknowledged, with research poorly funded by the American government. In large part, this lack of action was accepted because HIV/AIDS emerged in marginalized communities of gay men and intravenous drug users. This government silence framed the disease as a moral issue, rather than a medical issue and contributed to widespread fear and discrimination.
  • In 1990, the growing AIDS crisis coincided with the government’s call for a war to defend Kuwait from an Iraqi invasion. With territorial and economic interests at stake, the Gulf War was highly present in the American media. The artist juxtaposes these two crises and the attention they received from the government and the media.
  • By using the format of a battlefield, confronting the viewer with the dead and dying strewn on the ground, Sue Coe critiques media silence about the epidemic, the death and suffering of Americans, and government inaction. She asks the viewer to think about the choices made in supporting war in the Middle East rather than providing healthcare to Americans.

Go deeper

This work at PAFA

Andrew Sullivan, “Gay Life, Gay Death: The Siege of a Subculture,” The New Republic (December 17, 1990) (reposting on June 26, 2013)

Watch Sue Coe talk about her HIV-AIDS drawings

Explore primary sources about activism and the AIDS crisis

Explore an interactive timeline on the history of HIV and AIDS 

Learn more about the American response to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s

Read an obituary of Ryan White, an Indianapolis teenager whose story highlighted attitudes towards people with AIDS, at the New York Times

Learn more about the Gulf War

More to think about

As a black and white print, Sue Coe’s AIDS won’t wait confronts the viewer with a dark, gloomy landscape and creates a stark contrast between the crisp, orderly government building and the randomly placed bodies of the dead and dying. How do these choices help to convey her political message?

Think of a visual image from today that deals with a contemporary crisis. How does that artist make their meaning clear to the viewer? Do you think that messages like this are effective in creating change?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.