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The Cover
July 12, 2000

A Cover Without Art

Author Affiliations

The Cover Section Editor: M. Therese Southgate, MD

JAMA. 2000;284(2):149. doi:10.1001/jama.284.2.149

Eliot knew well how fragile and, ultimately, how inadequate words can be when we use them in the task of expressing human thought and feeling. They "strain, crack and sometimes break, under the burden," he writes in Burnt Norton. When they fail, pictures—a kind of visual shorthand—often take their place: "One picture is worth more than a thousand words," says the ancient Chinese proverb (the word "thousand" meaning a number beyond counting). Closer to our own time, Samual Palmer, the William Blake–influenced English painter, called a picture "something between a thing and a thought."

Sometimes—many times—however, even a thousand words, even a picture, is too fragile to carry the burden of human experience. When words—and pictures—fail, symbols are born. A symbol is a visible sign of something invisible, the measure of which cannot be expressed in words or even pictures—like human aspirations or human suffering. A symbol is something that, by reason of relationship or association, "stands for or suggests something else." In its beginning, a symbol may have had a historical association, conceived in time and linked to a specific event, but eventually the initial happening recedes and the symbol becomes a convention for a much broader range of inexpressible matters. Moreover, the symbol—eloquent in its wordlessness—creates an instant recognition of the matter at hand. Such is the history of A Cover Without Art.

The nidus of A Cover Without Art was Visual AIDS, an organization of artists and art professionals, who, in 1989, commemorated members of their own profession by observing "A Day Without Art," in which on World AIDS Awareness Day, observed each year on December 1, selected paintings in museums were covered with a cloth or certain galleries were closed. In 1996, the idea inspired JAMA's first A Cover Without Art (July 10, 1996) for its HIV/AIDS issue. So expressive did that cover prove to be that it was repeated on JAMA's next HIV/AIDS issue (July 1, 1998). With time, A Cover Without Art has become JAMA's symbol, its visible sign, of an issue dedicated to global research and study of HIV/AIDS. The fact that this visible sign is blankness is only a reminder of how much there is yet to do and how much more urgent this task is than even before.