Douglas Crimp

Douglas Crimp


* Foprmer Professor of Art History at the University of Rochester
* Former AIDS activist and “queer politics” theoretician
* Died in NYC on July 5, 2019

Born on August 19, 1944, AIDS activist and art critic Douglas Crimp was the Fanny Knapp Allen Professor of Art History at the University of Rochester in New York, where he began teaching in 1992. He had been a gay activist and a proponent of “queer politics” since the late 1970s, when he was the editor of October, a journal of art and culture criticisms and theory that was published by M.I.T. Press. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Crimp wrote a number of books regarding AIDS, art, and homosexuality, including: AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism; AIDS Demo Graphics; On the Museum’s Ruins; and Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics. Permeating Crimp’s writings and teachings was his belief that contemporary U.S. culture had been negatively affected by a moral puritanism which caused Americans to shun open sexuality, and that the U.S. government had promoted this undesirable attitude. He also believed that the government was ineffectual in combating the spread of AIDS.

Crimp received his bachelor’s degree in Art History from Tulane University, and his doctoral degree from the City University of New York. Prior to his professorship at the University of Rochester, he had taught at Sarah Lawrence College and Cooper Union in New York. He also had been a visiting professor at Rutgers University, Princeton, UCLA, and the University of Michigan. Said Crimp, “There’s lots of emphasis on AIDS in my work and I continue to be interested in sexuality. I also am working to return to focus on contemporary art.”

Crimp’s was a prominent voice in the field of “queer theory,” which maintains that each person’s sexual identity and gender identity are social rather than biological constructs, and that it is thus improper to compartmentalize anyone as “homosexual,” “heterosexual,” “man,” or “woman.”

Much of Crimp’s activism stemmed from his work with the group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP), an organization formed in 1987 for the express purpose of using civil disobedience to bring attention to the AIDS “epidemic” and to protest the alleged failure of the U.S. to do enough to stop the virus from spreading worldwide. In describing the early years of the organization, Crimp said that ACT-UP “was a weird hybrid of traditional leftist politics, innovative postmodern theory, and access to professional resources.” During the presidency of George W. Bush, the website of the group’s New York chapter derisively characterized members of the Bush administration as “right-wing Christers,” and accused the late Pope John Paul II of having helped “spread AIDS.” The website also featured a field guide to civil disobedience, and contained links to the websites of such organizations as the Ruckus Society, NARAL, and the ACLU.

In his book, AIDS Demo Graphics, Crimp and co-author Adam Rolston wrote: “Although our struggles are most often waged at a local level, the AIDS epidemic and the activist movement dedicated to ending it is national and international in scope, and the U.S. government is a major culprit in the problems we face and a central target of our anger.” Specifically blaming Republican administrations, Crimp said, “ACT-UP managed to impart to the media important information about and criticism of the way the Reagan administration and later the Bush administration mishandled the epidemic.”

Notwithstanding such assertions, however, hard statistics belied Crimp’s claims. Federal HIV/AIDS funding nearly doubled every year during the Regan administration. From 1981 to 2004, the U.S. government invested approximately $150 billion in domestic and international HIV/AIDS programs. U.S. initiatives put forth in President Bush’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief included: the worldwide treatment of two million people with anti-retroviral therapy; preventing seven million new infections; and caring for 10 million persons infected with and affected by HIV. In 2005 alone, President Bush requested $19.8 billion to be spent on AIDS treatment and research.

Another object of Crimp’s contempt was the media. In particular, he was critical of how media campaigns promoted safe sex, in part, by making people fearful of sexually transmitted diseases; he would have preferred the use of sexual imagery and eroticism as a means of motivating people to use condoms. As an extension of his criticisms of safe-sex campaigns, Crimp also attacked abstinence-only education. “People do not abstain from sex,” he said, “and if you only tell them ‘just say no,’ they will have unsafe sex.”

Central to Crimp’s teaching was his belief that moral conservatism not only repressed American culture’s sexuality, but that it also thwarted people’s ability to proactively confront the realities of the AIDS crisis. “Having worked on AIDS for a long time,” Crimp said, “I believe that, from the very beginning and continuing through today, the discourse on AIDS is driven by a terribly moralistic attitude towards sex.” For this, Crimp specifically blamed “right-wing Christians, Catholics, [and] the president [Bush].”

Crimp spoke frankly about his desire to see America return to a culture of promiscuity, a lifestyle he himself had enjoyed prior to the rise of AIDS. “What many of us have lost,” he lamented, “is a culture of sexual possibility: back rooms, tea rooms [toilets], movie houses, and baths; the trucks, the piers, the ramble, the dunes. . . . Sex was everywhere for us, and everything we wanted to venture. . . . Now our untamed impulses are either prescribed once again or shielded from us by latex.” Defending promiscuity as an essential element of a contented life, Crimp authored a piece titled “How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic.” “We were able to invent safe sex,” he wrote, “because we have always known that sex is not, in an epidemic or not, limited to penetrative sex. Our promiscuity taught us many things, not only about the pleasures of sex, but about the great multiplicity of those pleasures.”

Crimp died from multiple myeloma at his home in Manhattan on July 5, 2019.

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