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Marc Siegel

Douglas Crimp (1944–2019)

Douglas Crimp in his Chambers Street loft, New York, ca. 1975

Douglas Crimp in his Chambers Street loft, New York, ca. 1975

Marc Siegel

I met Douglas Crimp in the spring of 1995 when he was a visiting professor in art history at UCLA, where I was working on a master’s degree in critical studies in film and television. I already knew of him, of course, and followed his work, at least since the special issue on AIDS that he edited for October in 1987. [1] I hadn’t studied art history and wasn’t much interested in it back then. That’s why he wasn’t really on my radar until October 43. But it was Crimp’s texts on AIDS and queer politics that motivated this then college drop-out to recognize the possible relevance of scholarship to everyday life. That recognition led me back to the university, where I have more or less remained for the past 25 years or so. You can therefore imagine my giddy surprise and joy at actually becoming friends with this man in Los Angeles in the spring of 1995.

On one hot Friday night, early in our budding friendship, my boyfriend Daniel Hendrickson and I took Douglas to Mugi’s, a gay Asian bar in East Hollywood, which hosted our then favorite weekly club, Hai Karate. We eased through the packed crowd on our way to the bar and brushed by our beautiful friend Bhaskar Sarkar, who we introduced to Douglas. Daniel and Douglas moved on, as Bhaskar grabbed me and said, “I can’t believe I’m meeting Douglas Crimp. ‘How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic’ saved my life.”

“How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic” saved my life. Bhaskar was referring, of course, to Douglas’s contribution to that October AIDS issue, to the essay in which he first argued against moralistic responses to the AIDS epidemic. But to claim that an essay written for the modernist art theory journal October could do anything at all, let alone do something with such extra-textual significance as save a person’s life, is of course to suffer from a case of queeny exaggeration, right? From the distance of over 30 years, it may seem hard to imagine, but Bhaskar was certainly not exaggerating. He was also definitely not alone in feeling that Douglas’s writing – alongside that of such fellow travelers in matters of AIDS cultural theory as Simon Watney, Cindy Pattton, and Paula Treichler – was so engaged, so committed to intervening in social and political life, that this scholarship offered the kind of counterintuitive perspectives and essential information that enabled one to reconceptualize – and live – life anew. [2] “Our promiscuity taught us many things, not only about the pleasures of sex, but about the great multiplicity of our pleasures. It is that psychic preparation, that experimentation, that conscious work on our own sexualities that has allowed many of us to change our sexual behaviors […] they insist that our promiscuity will destroy us when in fact it is our promiscuity that will save us.” [3]

Given the paucity of non-moralistic information about sexuality and viral transmission, and the lack of available counterarguments to the horrific discussions of the AIDS crisis in the US mainstream media, the clarity of Douglas’s insights and the explanatory force of his pithy formulations made his work resonate deeply within the developing AIDS activist and queer communities. He conceived the AIDS issue of October as an answer to impoverished art-world responses to the crisis that either took the form of charity fundraisers for scientific research or elegiac art works memorializing loss and thematizing suffering. “AIDS belongs to the domain of science” (so we in the art world can’t do much about it) and “art lives forever” (so we should at least be thankful for a cultural renaissance in the midst of this scientific crisis) seemed to be the two dominant perspectives in the art world at the time. In the face of such narrow thinking, Douglas wrote in the introduction to that special issue:

“Art does have the power to save lives, and it is this very power that must be recognized, fostered, and supported in every way possible. But if we are to do this, we will have to abandon the idealist conception of art. We don’t need a cultural renaissance; we need cultural practices actively participating in the struggle against AIDS. We don’t need to transcend the epidemic; we need to end it.” [4]

Both scholarship and art, if they abandon their parochial concerns, have the power to save lives. For scholarship to actively participate in the struggle against AIDS, it had to make evident its own limits in adequately accounting for the complexity of a cultural object. Throughout Douglas’s work, whether on AIDS or art, he revisits his earlier essays, reevaluating previous theoretical perspectives based on knowledges gained by listening to others; those not only outside his discipline, but outside the academy altogether – be they lovers, tricks, family, or friends. Think, for instance, of the essay titled “Photographs at the End of Modernism,” which introduces On the Museum’s Ruins, in which Douglas discusses his first essay on photography, “Positive/Negative: A Note on Degas’s Photographs.” [5] The modernist interpretation that he offered of these images in the earlier essay hinged on a Derridean-inflected analysis of a little girl’s lace dress, which Douglas read as a signifier of the photograph’s savvy self-reflexive medium-specificity. When his 80-year-old grandmother read the essay, however, she saw something else in the photograph:

“‘That isn’t a lace dress the little girl is wearing […] it’s eyelet embroidery.’ […] My grandmother was not an art historian; her seeing was situated differently. Her recognition of the difference between lace and embroidery […] resulted from an expertise uncredited within the disciplinary dispute I imagined. It may be true that it matters little in this case whether it was lace or embroidery, but it matters much that my grandmother could see what I could not: it demonstrates that what any of us sees depends on our individual histories, our differently constructed subjectivities.” [6]

Cultural studies had already begun to shape Douglas’s thinking when he wrote those words. By the time On the Museum’s Ruins was published, he had been fired from his paying job at October and had to struggle to make a living elsewhere. He finished his PhD and began seriously pursuing an academic professorship. October retreated back into high modernism, where they’ve more or less remained. There was no place at the journal for queer studies. Douglas, fortunately, moved on, in step with a renewed critical and self-critical turn in academic scholarship that was inspired by cultural studies. As he liked to joke, “When I left October it took five straight white men to replace me.” [7]

Post-October, he continued to refine and rethink his theoretical arguments based on knowledges gained elsewhere. In a key short essay, “The Boys in My Bedroom,” Douglas’s informant is not a family member but rather “a certain kind of visitor to my bedroom,” as he coyly put it. (Oh Douglas, as if anyone could replace you!) He uses the 1990 piece to rethink arguments he initially articulated in a highly influential essay from 1982, “Appropriating Appropriation,” where the works of Robert Mapplethorpe and Sherrie Levine stand for two different examples of postmodern appropriation. [8] He argued earlier that Mapplethorpe appropriates the stylistics of classical studio photography (composition, pose, lighting, and even subject matter) for his fetishistic, eroticized nudes. Levine, on the other hand, simply rephotographs Edward Weston’s pictures of his young son Neil – “no combinations, no transformations, no additions, no synthesis […] she makes use of the images but not to constitute a style of her own.” [9] Her appropriations of form, and not style, have only “functional value for the particular historical discourses into which they are inserted.”

Or so Douglas thought in 1982. Fast-forward to that bedroom encounter: For several years I had hanging in my bedroom Levine’s series of Weston’s young male nudes. On a number of occasions, a certain kind of visitor to my bedroom would ask me, “Who’s the kid in the photographs?” generally with the implication that I was into child pornography. Wanting to counter that implication, but unable easily to explain what those photographs meant to me, or at least what I thought they meant to me, I usually told a little white lie, saying only that they were photographs by a famous photographer of his son. [10]

When Douglas later reflected on what the men saw that he didn’t (or didn’t want to acknowledge), he came to realize that their seeing was not so misguided after all; like his grandmother’s, it was just situated differently. “The men in my bedroom were perfectly able to read – in Weston’s posing, framing, and lighting the young Neil so as to render his body a classical sculpture – the long-established codes of homoeroticism. And in making the leap from those codes to the codes of kiddie porn, they were stating no more than what was enacted, in the fall of 1989, as the law governing federal funding of art in the United States” [11] – a law linking homoeroticism to obscenity and the sexual exploitation of children that was proposed in response to some of Mapplethorpe’s photographs.

The knowledge of the men visiting Douglas’s bedroom helped him rethink his earlier interpretation of the boys in his bedroom. He came to understand that Mapplethorpe and Levine were not opposing examples of a definition of postmodernism: with their appropriations, they offered two different strategies for challenging modernist claims to universalism. “Levine claimed [Weston’s nudes] as her own” and thereby drew attention to the “the contingency of gender in looking at them.” “Mapplethorpe puts in the place of Weston’s child the fully sexualized adult male body” and makes it impossible for viewers to escape its eroticism. “We must abandon the formalism that attended only to the artwork’s style. In both cases, then, we learn to experience Weston’s modernist photographs not as universal images, but as images of the universal constituted by disavowing gender and sexuality; and it is such deconstructions of modernism’s claims to universality – as well as its formalism – that qualify as postmodernist practices.” [12]

I began by pointing out that Douglas’s work helped me recognize the relevance of scholarship to everyday life, and now I find myself arguing that his work had this effect because it allows everyday life to be relevant for scholarship. What I haven’t mentioned is how the everyday life of our almost 25-year friendship shaped not only my own scholarship, but my very thoughts, pleasures, and sense of self and possibility. I’ve also left out how difficult it is to carry on without him. The significance of his death to my life – that’s something I can’t yet put into words.


[1]Douglas Crimp (ed.), “AIDS: Cultural Analysis, Cultural Activism,” October, 43, 1987, “AIDS: Cultural Analysis, Cultural Activism.”
[2]See, for example, Simon Watney, Policing Desire: Pornography, AIDS and the Media, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987; Cindy Patton, Sex and Germs: The Politics of AIDS, Boston: South End Press, 1986; and Paula Treichler, How to Have Theory in an Epidemic: Cultural Chronicles of AIDS, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.
[3]Crimp, “How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic” [1987], in: Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002, p. 64.
[4]Crimp, “AIDS: Cultural Analysis, Cultural Activism” [1987], in: Melancholia and Moralism, pp. 32–33. (italics in original)
[5]Crimp, “Photographs at the End of Modernism,” in: On the Museum’s Ruins, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993, pp. 2–31; and “Positive/Negative: A Note on Degas’s Photographs,” in: October, 5, 1978, pp. 89–100.
[6]Crimp, “Photographs at the End of Modernism,” pp. 3–4.
[7]Mathias Danbolt, “Front Room, Back Room: An Interview with Douglas Crimp,”
[8]Crimp, “The Boys in My Bedroom” [1990], in: Melancholia and Moralism, pp. 151–63; and “Appropriating Appropriation” [1982], in: On the Museum’s Ruins, pp. 126–37.
[9]Crimp, “Appropriating Appropriation,” p. 129.
[10]Crimp, “The Boys in My Bedroom,” p. 156.
[11]Crimp, “The Boys in My Bedroom,” p. 156.
[12]Crimp, “The Boys in My Bedroom,” pp. 162f.