Rosalyn Deutsche’s Testimonial to Douglas Crimp’s Kessler Lecture

It’s an honor and a pleasure to introduce Douglas Crimp, whom I’ve known
for more than thirty years. In that time, Douglas has been my fellow student,
my inspiring colleague, my attentive editor, my concert, opera, fi lm, and
dance-going companion, and, most important, my dear friend.
We met in the mid-1970s, as PhD students in the art history department of
the The Graduate Center, CUNY. But Douglas was no ordinary graduate student.
By 1981, while still taking courses, he had already played a key role in radicalizing
the fi eld of art history, publishing a group of essays that theorized the
meaning of critical postmodernism in the visual arts. Douglas questioned the
idealist aesthetic of autonomy, the notion that a work of art is a self-contained
entity defi ned by its independence of the everyday social world. He argued, by
contrast, that the signifi cance of an artwork arises in relation to a social context.
“Pictures,” the earliest of the postmodernism texts, grew out of a groundbreaking
exhibition of the same name that Douglas had organized a couple of years
earlier, and gathered together several young, at the time relatively unknown
artists and drew them into a constellation. Douglas called their work “pictures,”
and he called it “postmodern” because, he said, they presented images not as objects
with transcendent meanings but, rather, as “representations” that construct
meaning and transmit ideological messages. “Pictures” also suggested that images
are objects of desire — desire in looking, of subjectivity in aesthetic representation — delivering a serious blow
to the myth of pure, innocent, disinterested
vision, the myth that lies at
the heart of the West’s most cherished
notions about its high art. “Pictures”
became an instant classic. Artists, art
historians, and critics devoured it, and
Douglas followed it with a cascade of
brilliant essays on postmodernism,
which, drawing on Michel Foucault,
explored, among other things, the
museum as an institution of power. All
possess the combination of traits that
distinguish Douglas’s writing: intellectual
rigor, theoretical sophistication,
and lucid argument.
In addition, these early essays exhibit
something even more distinctive, a
quality that strengthened as Douglas’s
work unfolded: commitment. Douglas
had bound himself, and has since remained
true, to a course of action that
places his work in the service of social
emancipation and that refuses conservatism.
Later in the decade, Douglas’s
commitment provoked a new direction
in his work. In
response to
the suffering generated by the AIDS crisis,
he became an AIDS activist and in
1987 edited a now-famous issue of
October on “AIDS: Cultural Analysis/
Cultural Activism.” Arguing against
aestheticizing images of people with
AIDS, Douglas said: “We don’t need to
transcend the epidemic; we need to end
the epidemic.” Douglas’s new direction
would bring him into conflict with the
sector of the art world he had formerly
inhabited, but it seems to me that it
marked the beginning of his remarkably
integrated intellectual life. For
it was at this moment that Douglas’s
longstanding commitment to radical
aesthetic politics fused with his perhaps
longer standing commitment to radical
sexual politics and with his more recent
interest in anti-homophobic theoretical
analysis.
Combined with Douglas’s formidable
intellect, it was a powerful brew. It
required Douglas to revise his earlier
aesthetic ideas, something he’s always
been willing to do. “Ultimately,” he
wrote in retrospect, “it was the specter
of death that revealed to me the limits
of my conception of postmodernism.”
If radical art is
going to become part
of social praxis,
he now said, it must move outside the conventional
institutions of artistic distribution and
reception and change the way art functions
in society. AIDS activist art was
his example.
The rest, as they say, is history. With
regard to art history, Douglas became
a beloved professor in the University
of Rochester Program in Visual and
Cultural Studies, where he inspires
and nurtures students, passing on to
them the freedom to pursue experimental,
interdisciplinary scholarship,
which he fought so hard for. What I’ve
described as the moment of unification
in Douglas’s work, when, responding
to the demands of commitment, he
made the personal political, has borne
its latest fruit in the talk we’re going to
hear tonight—an uncommon memoir
of artistic and sexual experimentation.
We’re in for a treat.