Last year marked the “twentieth anniversary” of AIDS, a grim occasion, to say the least, that put major US newspapers in an unenviable predicament. Any assessment of the epidemic was bound to be an indictment, and not the sort we generally like to read about, in which the guilty are few and absolutely so, and the innocent many and untainted. Any writer willing to connect the dots would conclude that the systemic political response to AIDS has been a signal failure. While the advent of antiretroviral therapy has dramatically lowered the number of AIDS-related deaths in Western nations (in the United States from over 51,000 in 1995 to just over 15,000 in 2001), the vast majority of HIV-positive people now live in the developing world and have little or no access to treatment. In the United States, AIDS is the leading cause of death among young black men, and racial minorities account for more than 70 percent of new infections. The current demographics of AIDS, marked as they are by severe economic and racial inequality, were not preordained. AIDS is a preventable and treatable disease, and it exists as it does because it was allowed to unfold this way, through the same kind of gross political negligence that permitted the disease to become an epidemic in the first place.
Into this damning context rushed the most beguiling of narratives, one that began with “How AIDS Changed____” and, with minor variations, depending on what filled the blank (pick one: America, New York, San Francisco, Art, Literature, Medicine, Culture, Sex), presented AIDS as both a natural and redemptive phenomenon. We couldn’t really do anything about the fact that people got AIDS and died from it (and still do), so the story went, but it sure made us better writers, artists, doctors, scientists, philanthropists, a better and more humane people. This is hypocrisy and denial at its most pathetic and, because it instills a sense of powerlessness and feckless optimism, at its most dangerous. It is precisely in this moment of danger that reading one of the AIDS movement’s most prolific and astute writers is vital–as diagnosis, to begin with, and, may I suggest, as political curative too.
Trained as an art critic and historian, Douglas Crimp edited the 1988 anthology AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism and co-wrote (with Adam Rolston) 1990’s AIDS Demo Graphics, an account of ACT UP’s activism through its graphic propaganda. Groundbreaking books, they started, along with Cindy Patton’s Sex and Germs: The Politics of AIDS and Simon Watney’s Policing Desire: Pornography, AIDS and the Media, the still-small field of AIDS scholarship and made key contributions to cultural studies, queer theory and science studies.
Melancholia and Moralism, however, marks the first time that Crimp’s own writings on AIDS have been collected in a single volume. Crimp’s essays, composed over the past fourteen years, many during the late 1980s and early ’90s, when he was a member of ACT UP and editor of the journal October, were intended as immediate political and intellectual interventions. Individually many merit rereading today. Consider, for example, Crimp’s critique of the art world’s early response to AIDS:
Within the arts, the scientific explanation and management of AIDS is largely taken for granted, and it is therefore assumed that cultural producers can respond to the epidemic in only two ways: by raising money for scientific research and service organizations or by creating works that express the human suffering and loss.
Crimp’s concern then was that the very ability of representations of AIDS to raise money and generate publicity were predicated on the extent to which the disease itself was depoliticized, sanitized, deracinated from its social and political conditions. Now consider the recent Bono-led, all-star benefit recording of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” a glossy production so detached from the actual experiences of people with AIDS in the Global South that half the profits were diverted without protest to United Way’s September 11th Fund. When AIDS charities are big business and global AIDS a cause célèbre, Crimp’s admonition against a form of “aesthetic idealism that…blandly accepts art’s inability to intervene in the social world and simultaneously praises its commodity value” ought to be heeded and amplified.