PRINT May 2002


Douglas Crimp

IN ADDITION TO HIS WELL KNOWN WORK as a critic and cultural historian of photography and museum studies, Douglas Crimp has been an outspoken and influential commentator within American and international debates about AIDS since the early years of the epidemic. His new collection, Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics, contains an important and impressively reflexive chronological sequence of his writings on AIDS.

For many years Crimp was an editor of the journal October. Following a wide-ranging introduction, Melancholia and Moralism begins with two articles written for a 1987 special issue of October, “AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism.” At a time when gay men were being told to give up sex altogether, he insisted on the importance of defending promiscuity, emphasizing that the ability to sustain safer-sex practices depends on self-confidence rooted in shared sexual experience and experimentation. Because many HIV-related education programs are devised by behavioral social scientists, his was a timely voice reminding educators that sex is not simply “obedient to will and reason” but rather has powerful unconscious components.

At a later stage of the epidemic Crimp was among the first to draw attention to the cumulative effects of loss on his generation of gay men, which has lived through an experience of sickness and death unparalleled by any other constituency in the West since World War II. “Seldom has a society so savaged people during their hour of loss,” he somberly notes in “Mourning and Militancy” (1989). Much of his work has been concerned with the cruelty and stupidity mobilized by right-wing politicians and their allies in the mass media.

Hence Crimp’s repeated emphasis on the importance of cultural representations as sites of political struggle. As he pointedly asks in his introduction, “Can anyone living in contemporary American society honestly believe that media representations are extraneous to 'real’ politics?” Equally significant is his writing on photographic and cinematic representations of people living with AIDS, which is brought together for the first time here.

Wth Adam Rolston, Crimp wrote extensively about the role of graphic design in AIDS campaigning in his earlier book AIDS Demo Graphics (Bay Press, 1990). In Melancholia and Moralism he expands his treatment to consider the legacy of community video and cable TV responses to the crisis and their particular place within the AIDS activist movement, of which there are all too few adequate accounts.This story is doubly significant, as the zenith of ACT UP’s organizational strength is already ancient history to at least two generations of younger lesbians and gay men who have come out since the early ’90s heyday of the activist group.

Crimp’s work is targeted primarily at the institutions of higher education that largely define powerful institutional policies concerning AIDS. Unlike most academics, however, Crimp is not afraid to muddy his hands in political debates about popular culture. Psychoanalysis is his primary tool for analyzing the work of influential populist commentators such as Randy Shilts, Larry Kramer, and Andrew Sullivan. As Crimp explains in his introduction, his aim is not diagnostic but determined by an attempt “to explain a widespread psychosocial response to the ongoing crisis of AIDS.”

Admirable as the foregoing maybe, I don’t agree with everything Crimp writes. There is much talk about the supposedly “intractable psychosexual mechanisms of homophobia.” I persist in thinking that most expressions of prejudice are based on folly, ignorance, and the social processes of group bonding rather than immutable unconscious forces. Surely everything we know about the constantly changing history of sexuality strongly suggests that the latter is not the case. Different forms of virulent, pathological homophobia, misogyny, and racism may indeed be yoked to specific religious or political creeds, but this is by no means universal or generalizable.

Crimp often seems to mourn the passing of classic AIDS activism, yet in doing so does he neglect the positive conditions that have precipitated such change? Lesbians and gay men are used to activism because they were for so long excluded from all other avenues of political dialogue and negotiation. Happily many barriers have dropped, thanks to the work of countless people over long years engaged in many different campaigns. In this light, the disappearance of large-scale AIDS activism may be a sign not of activism’s failure but of its success.

AIDS activism succeeded because it focused on clear aims that have largely been achieved. These included the release of previously unavailable treatment drugs, the involvement of people with HIV in the design of clinical trials for potential treatments, and the contesting of the moralism that held back targeted education work. Confrontational activism is simply not the most appropriate way to achieve current goals, though this is not to say that it may not become necessary again in the future. Unsurprisingly, direct activism flourishes these days in countries whose governments continue to behave badly, like South Africa, where prevention campaigns that were called for many years ago are still neglected, with nightmarishly predictable consequences.

As Crimp argues throughout Melancholia and Moralism, gay politics as a whole have moved rightward in recent years. Yet this is equally true of politics across the board, and we cannot reasonably expect that sexual politics should be immune to the conflicts and stresses that affect all other areas of contemporary political life. In a way, the shift in gay politics has been an unintended consequence of the wider success of the original gay-liberation project. For as the older lesbian and gay movement has gradually achieved its initial libertarian goals, it has inevitably widened as a social constituency. We can hardly be surprised if the long-term changes that continue to ripple out from the late ’60s include a new sense of entitlement among groups of people very unlike the movement’s founders. It certainly makes for a far more exciting and democratic politics than the old top-down vanguardist model inherited from the far left. Sexual identities do not line up neatly with voting blocs, nor should they be expected to.

In a constituency like the lesbian and gay community there are thus bound to be conflicting goals. Unlike Crimp, I don’t happen to think it is intrinsically a bad thing that many lesbians and gay men evidently want to be able to marry same-sex partners. For some it is simply an issue of civil rights; for gay Christians it is primarily a theological question, to be grappled with inside their own churches and not to be confused with wider political issues. In several places Crimp similarly criticizes campaigns to admit lesbians and gay men into the military, as if this issue comprised a smoke-screen alternative to confronting AIDS-related politics. Yet the desire of many lesbians and gay men to serve in their country’s defense should not be belittled, since these wishes involve fundamental symbols of belonging in the world, even if they were not high on the agenda of the older movement. It is important to pay attention to such emergent issues, since these popular campaigns may be a source of new collective identities.

As the AIDS epidemic continues, some issues change while others stay much the same. Many people with HIV keep quiet about their status, and for a number of reasons the epidemic has become inexorably less visible and less audible. The parallel loss of a strong sense of collectivity among people with HIV is another of the many destabilizing factors we could not have anticipated ten years ago.

Hence the significance of Crimp’s discussion of his own seroconversion, written in a personal mode of “well-informed but nevertheless recently infected gay men who find it hard to explain, even to ourselves, how we allowed the worst to happen to us.” Such considerations are especially important at a time when HIV is rarely acknowledged as a primary identity in public, even on the gay scene, however intensely it may be experienced by individuals in private.

I know very well it is not easy to explain how one feels as a recently infected older HIV+ gay man these days, grateful simply to be alive and to have access to treatment drugs that so many of one’s dearest friends, including many much younger people, did not live to benefit from. I don’t feel I “allowed” the worst to happen to me, but it did. We do the best we can. It has long been clear that we can reduce but not eliminate risk, especially within groups with high rates of HIV prevalence. This is after all the whole point of prevention work. Right now the main issue that I find everywhere in the AIDS field and especially in relation to education work is simply exhaustion, particularly among those who have worked the longest. In these circumstances it is imperative that we continue to actively recruit energetic young people to devise new prevention campaigns relevant to their needs. As Crimp notes in the final piece included here, “Sex and Sensibility, or Sense and Sexuality” (1998): “Anyone who truly cares about slowing the HIV-infection rate in gay men might begin by learning more about how we’ve survived so far—against overwhelming odds.” Melancholia and Moralism will help in this vital ongoing task.

Simon Watney is a critic and art historian based in London.


Douglas Crimp, Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 304 pages.