Douglas Crimp

  • Professor of Art History at the University of Rochester
  • AIDS activist and "queer politics" theoretician
  • Died in NYC on July 5, 2019

AIDS activist and art critic Douglas Crimp is the Fanny Knapp Allen Professor of Art History at the University of Rochester in New York, where he has taught since 1992. He has 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 is his belief that contemporary U.S. culture has been negatively affected by a moral puritanism which has caused Americans to shun open sexuality, and that the U.S. government has promoted this undesirable attitude. He also believes that the government has been 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 taught at Sarah Lawrence College and Cooper Union in New York. He has also been a visiting professor at Rutgers University, Princeton, UCLA, and the University of Michigan. Crimp currently oversees his school’s Visual and Cultural Studies graduate program. Says 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 has been 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 has 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 says that ACT-UP “was a weird hybrid of traditional leftist politics, innovative postmodern theory, and access to professional resources.” Today the website of the group’s New York chapter derisively characterizes members of the Bush administration as “right-wing Christers,” and accuses the late Pope John Paul II of having helped “spread AIDS.” The website also features a field guide to civil disobedience, and contains links to such organizations as the Ruckus Society, NARAL, and the ACLU.

In his book, AIDS Demo Graphics, Crimp and co-author Adam Rolston write: “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 has 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 belie 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. Current U.S. initiatives put forth in President Bush’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief include: 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 is the media. In particular, he is critical of how media campaigns have promoted safe sex, in part, by making people fearful of sexually transmitted diseases; he would prefer 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 has also attacked abstinence-only education. “People do not abstain from sex,” he says, “and if you only tell them ‘just say no,’ they will have unsafe sex.”

Central to Crimp’s teaching is his belief that moral conservatism not only represses American culture’s sexuality, but that it also thwarts people’s ability to proactively confront the realities of the AIDS crisis. “Having worked on AIDS for a long time,” Crimp says, “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 blames “right-wing Christians, Catholics, [and] the president [Bush].”

Crimp has spoken frankly about his desire to see America return to a culture of promiscuity, a lifestyle he himself enjoyed prior to the rise of AIDS. “What many of us have lost,” he laments, “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 writes, “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.”

He died in NYC on July 5, 2019.