In 1905, German scientists discovered the corkscrew-shaped bacteria Treponema pallidum, the spirochete that causes syphilis. The following year, August Wasserman developed a diagnostic test for syphilis (known as the Wasserman Test), and gonorrhea diagnostics were being developed contemporaneously. But the bright, enlightening light of science does not chase away the moral boogeyman from the site of sexualities in this narrative; 1905 is also the year Dr. Prince Morrow founded the American Society for Sanitary and Moral Prophylaxis. He coined the phrase “social diseases,” securing the valence of moral value within the discourses surrounding VD. And so the story of venereal disease in the 20th century begins in the exhibit VD: Values, Rights, Public Health at the Centers for Disease Control’s Global Health Odyssey Museum. While the wall text describes the exhibit as a “social and cultural history of venereal diseases,” I think of the show as a visual culture essay with a human rights agenda.
As an essay, the exhibition brings many kinds of evidence to bear on its serious goal of exposing the moral imperatives entangled in the discourses of public health. On the one hand, the exhibit presents information chronologically and has no shortage of fun scientific paraphernalia to mark major breakthroughs. These artifacts, however, are contextualized in a flood of visual propaganda and popular culture mementos that frustrate such a clean historical line while graphically illustrating the manner in which discourses about gender, sexualities, race, and class are recursive. This means not only will you find a 1980s public health poster among early- to mid-century posters, for example, but you will also recognize some contemporary rhetoric in the language of the early 20th century’s Progressive Movement with its vocabulary of morals and social diseases.
For me, one of the most shocking stories is the U.S. Health Service’s Syphilis Study at Tuskegee. In 1932, researchers observed the long-term effects of untreated syphilis on 399 African American men. Although penicillin was used to effectively treat syphilis by the early to mid 1940s, the study continued until 1972 when a whistle-blower brought it to the public’s attention. Poverty, lack of access to health care, and racism, especially in the first half of the 20th century, created a disproportionately higher percentage of sexually transmitted diseases within the African American population, and racist discourse has used these statistics to make unfounded claims about moral character. African Americans are not the only victims of this kind of rhetoric. Women are pictured as victims of immoral husbands, true, but flip that card over and you’ll find the diseased whore, a sinister Cruella de VD character phantasmagorically fleshed out, so to speak, in rich visual representation.
Careful detail adds dimension to this exhibit. The wall text description of a late-1960s clinic poster, for instance, references not just its cultural moment, with its psychedelic sensibility, but also its formal debt to late-19th-century British artist Aubrey Beardsley. (Am I still at the CDC?) Also on display are the New York City Health Department’s NYC condoms. This year, the Department will initiate a design competition to establish a limited edition condom package … that’s right, public health paraphernalia as a signal of urban identity and a precious, collectible object. Curator Louise Shaw and exhibition designer Karen Tauches solidly bracket the politics of venereal disease within the far-reaching and critical domains of visual studies and interdisciplinary scholarship. The exhibit will also have an afterlife as an online exhibit, but it may take several months for this to surface. Did that sound like a diagnosis?
(Disclosure: Curator Louise Shaw is a member of BURNAWAY’s Board of Directors, and Karen Tauches is a regular contributor. BURNAWAY is committed to reviewing visual art exhibitions that we feel contribute to important discourse in Atlanta. In our commitment to transparency, our policy is to disclose instead of exclude.)
Joey Orr is a freelance writer, editor, curator, and former instructor in Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is currently a doctoral student in Emory University’s Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts and a member of the Atlanta-based art collective, John Q.