“The formal word precise but not pedantic/The complete consort dancing together/Every phrase and sentence is an end and a beginning,” T.S. Eliot wrote in “Four Quartets.”
I’ve been thinking of Eliot’s words on writing since I learned that scholar, curator, author, editor, AIDS activist and cultural and art critic Douglas Crimp died at age 74 at his Manhattan home. He had multiple myeloma. I hadn’t heard of Crimp until after his death. Now, how I wish I could have known him! A polymath in cultural, intellectual and pleasurable pursuits, he’d never have been boring.
Crimp not only wrote dance criticism, he danced in discos and cruised in bars. His well-regarded art criticism was published in ARTnews and Art International. Crimp taught at the School of Visual Arts and was a curatorial assistant at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Yet, he regularly attended meetings of the AIDS activist group ACT UP. In the 1980s, he disrupted the mainstream art world (which viewed itself as being apolitical) with his insistence that art had to engage with AIDS and the queer community. Crimp started to study poetry near the end of his life, his friends told The New York Times.
“What was very remarkable for all of us who have taken care of Douglas in the years of his illness was his opening to new things,” art historian Rosalyn Deutsche told the Times. “In a way, it was as though as his body was dying, his spirit or his heart was opening and growing.
Crimp, born in 1944, grew up in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. “It was very difficult, growing up in the ‘50s in Idaho, being gay, being a sissy, I guess,” he told writer Sarah Schulman, who interviewed him for the ACT UP Oral History Project. “It was jock culture; it was incredibly conformist culture.
He found gay culture and queer friends when he became a student at Tulane University in New Orleans. Crimp fell in love with the city and gay life. “I went to Greek sailor bars, with other friends and faculty members and assorted drag queens and prostitutes and sailors,” he said in the Oral History Project interview, “…I was able to be out to the group of people that I knew in college, that I was friends with.
Why am I so drawn to Crimp? Because he championed new art forms (such as “Choreomania,” Joan Jonas’ performance art piece), advocated for queer art, and challenged institutional conventions and indifference to social justice
Throughout his career, Crimp opposed the idea that the art world – art and museums – existed in a vacuum, unconnected to its social, political, cultural or historical context. In 1977, he curated an exhibit called “Pictures” on the connections between art and culture.
In 1987, he edited a seminal issue of the art magazine “October” on “AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism.” It was radically different from the usual art criticism of the time. The issue with its glossary of AIDS terms and stories of people with HIV was a wake-up call to the art world
“I wanted to talk about all of the issues of culture and representation that were raised by AIDS,” Crimp told Schulman.
Art is activism by its alternative purpose and nature, Grace Cavalieri, Maryland’s Poet Laureate, emailed the Blade. But, she said, “Activism is not solo. It’s making the path wider by … bringing others along. Only then do we have heft.
Though committed to activism, Crimp was, he told Schulman, “temperamentally just so put off” by moral and political certainty. Crimp called out the homophobia of those who, he felt, claimed that the promiscuity of gay men caused AIDS
In the Trump era with its anti-LGBTQ agenda, the connection between art and activism is vital. As artists and activists, let’s honor Crimp by being open to new ideas, challenging conventional wisdom and being wary of moral certainty. R.I.P., Douglas Crimp.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.