The Beautiful Uncertainty of Douglas Crimp
In a 2007 interview with the writer Sarah Schulman, the art historian Douglas Crimp said that he was “temperamentally just so put off by certainty, by political certainty.” Crimp died on July 5th, at the age of seventy-four. He has and will be memorialized as a visionary curator, historian, and philosopher of art. But, for me, and many others, Crimp, a member and chronicler of the AIDS activist group ACT UP, was the man who made uncertainty compatible with activism. Two essays that Crimp published in the late nineteen-eighties showed that different ways of thinking about AIDS—and about us—were possible.
In 1987, Crimp published an essay called “How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic.” Published in October, an academic journal where Crimp was an editor, the essay took issue with the work of two prominent gay male writers who, to both the gay community and the larger world, were heroes reporting from the front lines of the AIDS epidemic: Randy Shilts and Larry Kramer. Shilts was a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle; at that point, he may have been the only openly gay reporter in a mainstream American newsroom—one assigned to the AIDS beat, to boot. His book “And the Band Played On” had been published that year, to critical acclaim and best-seller status. Billed as an exhaustive investigative history of the AIDS epidemic in the United States, the book was narrated as a story of heroes and villains, the good and the bad, parsed by a reporter speaking the idiom of objective—which is to say, non-political—American journalism. Crimp methodically dismantled the construction, showing that the story of AIDS refused to fit into Shilts’s prefab binaries but, more importantly, that one could speak about the epidemic non-politically only if one accepted the political structures that allowed the epidemic to occur.
Those structures—American political institutions, the health-care system, pharmaceutical companies, and the media—blamed AIDS on the people who had it. So did Shilts, in effect. His hypothesis of AIDS rested on Gaetan Dugas, a Canadian flight attendant designated Patient Zero for, ostensibly, passing H.I.V. to hundreds of men with whom he had sex in the many ports of North America. This theory was debunked in an article in Nature, in 2016—twenty-nine years after Shilts published his book, and twenty-two years after he himself died of AIDS. But Crimp debunked it in his 1987 essay, by pointing out that drug users in New York had been dying of a disease that looked very much like AIDS for years before gay men started getting sick—and the epidemic was noticed because gay men were not as reviled as junkies. One did not have to be an epidemiologist to see this; one had to be a much rarer sort of person—one who is capable of seeing, hearing, and synthesizing facts that do not conform to conventional wisdom.
Crimp’s other target in that essay, Larry Kramer, was more complicated. Kramer had founded two of the organizations that shaped the gay community’s response to the epidemic: the service group Gay Men’s Health Crisis and, later, the direct-action ACT UP. Kramer was also the first person to start writing systematically about AIDS, in the gay bi-weekly New York Native. In 1978, Kramer published a novel called “Faggots,” a bitter satire that seemed to say that drugs and promiscuity were going to be the death of gay men. By the early nineteen-eighties, Kramer seemed to be documenting the plague he had prophesied.
In his essay, Crimp painstakingly traced the logic of both Shilts’s and Kramer’s writings to their intersection with the politics of blame and fear promoted by the obsessively homophobic Senator Jesse Helms, of North Carolina. That year, ninety-four senators voted in favor of a Helms-sponsored amendment to a bill allocating funding for AIDS research and education. The amendment banned the use of federal funds for any materials that “promote, encourage, and condone homosexual sexual activities or the intravenous use of illegal drugs.” As Crimp documented, most educational materials trafficked in fear anyway.
Crimp then turned his attention to other art produced by gay men in response to AIDS—work not nearly as well-known or celebrated as Kramer’s or Shilts’s, but work that groped for the possibility of pleasure amid the fear and despair of the epidemic. Crimp concluded, “Having learned to support and grieve for our lovers and friends; having joined the fight against fear, hatred, repression, and inaction; having adjusted our sex lives so as to protect ourselves and one another—we are now reclaiming our subjectivities, our communities, our culture … and our promiscuous love of sex.”
The essay marked a turning point in Crimp’s work. It was the first time the curator and art historian decided to write about writing. As he told Schulman, he realized that, when he turned his attention to AIDS, he was interested in more than the art world’s response: he was now studying the larger culture, including the culture of science. As Crimp delved deeper, his fellow-editors at October retreated. “They weren’t interested, and they didn’t know what was going on, and they didn’t really want to read the manuscripts, and I, I just did it,” he told Schulman. Eventually, Crimp was forced to leave October, following a thirteen-year tenure; he described it as a “divorce.” Work on the essay also brought Crimp to ACT UP, where, he said, “I felt a part of what is called a community, in a way that I never did before and I never have subsequently.”
Crimp’s 1989 essay “Mourning and Militancy” looked at activism itself—or, rather, used a Freudian lens to look at how the states of grief and activism were mutually contradictory and mutually reinforcing for gay men. For gay men living through the loss of lovers and friends, mourning was difficult for reasons more and less obvious. They were young and unprepared—no one could be prepared to lose so many people, one after another—and, in mourning their dead, they had to face the possibility, or even the likelihood, of dying of the same disease. In addition, the disease was viewed by society as shameful, and the identity it exposed was shameful, rendering mourning itself illegitimate; mourning, according to Freud, was a finite process followed by a return to normality, but normality was not available to these mourners. Activism presented an answer of sorts. Crimp again mentioned Kramer—who raged against gay men who mourned passively, as though their grief could simply be converted into political action. It was so much more complicated than that, Crimp wrote. Activism was a response to mourning, but also a way to obscure grief—a way, in fact, to obscure life itself.
Complexity often feels like the enemy of activism. Political action is driven by charismatic leaders, correct answers, and two-dimensional villains as targets. Crimp wasn’t just “temperamentally put off” by this sort of certainty, he was a walking, writing antidote to it. His work suggested that leaders could be flawed and misguided, villains could be human, and answers could be unknown. The day Crimp died, Gregg Gonsalves, an ACT UP veteran who is now an epidemiologist at Yale, wrote a Facebook post about hearing, in the nineteen-eighties, Crimp present “Mourning and Militancy.” “I felt, all of a sudden, so free, as if a future was possible,” he wrote. “That one piece of writing, brilliant, angry and sad, was a liberation and charted a new intellectual and emotional path for many gay men facing the tidal wave of an epidemic still rising, cresting.” Crimp showed that complexity could be liberating.
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