Henry Abelove’s Testimonial to Douglas Crimp’s Kessler Lecture

Douglas Crimp was born in
1944 in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho,
where his brother and sister still live.
As a boy, Douglas imagined that he
might become an architect, and he
went to Tulane University specifically
to study architecture. But soon
after beginning his university life, he
shifted his concentration to Art History.
One Tulane teacher of Art History
in particular enthralled him. This was
Bernard Lehman, an eloquent, learned,
and effervescent lecturer, and a campy
gay man, whom Douglas credits as a
primary influence.
Douglas moved to New York City in
the mid 1960’s, and he has been based
here ever since. While completing his
PhD in Art History at the City University
of New York Graduate School,
and afterwards, he made for himself a
variegated arts career, working with
intellectual verve and rare originality
as a curator, as an art editor, as a critic on photography, film, performance,
painting, sculpture, and dance, and as
a teacher. In all these professional endeavors
Douglas’s impact has been extraordinary.
His writings are translated
into more than half a dozen languages
and he is sought after as a lecturer all
over the world. He is the recipient of
numerous major fellowships and the
College Art Association has awarded
him the Frank Jewett Mather Award
for Distinction in Art Criticism.
Since the mid 1980s, Douglas has
also been a crucial figure in the articulation
of a queer outlook on ethics,
politics, art, aesthetics, and sexuality.
He was a prime mover in, as well as
a chronicler of, ACT UP, a founder of
SEXPANIC; and he has been a ready
and brilliant and courageous commentator
on the AIDS epidemic, homophobia,
pornography, promiscuity, and
more. In reflecting now on these many
contributions, I have in mind three of
their aspects.
First, Douglas’s queer outlook is
in the line, the tradition, of what we
once called Liberation. His early years
in New York City coincided with the
rise of the Gay Liberation movement,
and it shaped him. Gay Liberation was
profusely productive culturally and
politically. We do wrong to think of it
as somehow summed up by a riot at the
Stonewall Bar. Gay Liberation was, for
instance, a critique of the institution
of the family, which the liberationists
wanted to de-privilege, to dis-establish,
as the church had been dis-established
in the eighteenth century. Gay
Liberation was a critique and a firm
rejection of the ideal of monogamy,
an ideal which the liberationists saw
as grounded in rancid possessiveness
and in pleasure-hating. Gay Liberation
taught a suspicion of all the languages
of uplift, including nationalist uplift,
for uplift, the liberationists thought,
was invariably a mode of constructing
and re-constructing the fortifications
of a life-denying regularity. No doubt
each of us who was present to it in
the ‘60s and ‘70’s absorbed Liberation
differently, rich and various as it was.
But no one I know now represents its
fundamental ethos better than Douglas
Douglas’s contributions to queer
activism and thinking have another
aspect beyond liberationism. They are
also theoretically rigorous in a way that
liberationism wasn’t. In his professional
work, Douglas had discovered the
importance and pertinence of a wide
range of theory, had mastered it, and
had deployed it to wonderful effect. He
brought his grasp of theory to the liberationist
legacy, to revise it, to renew
it, and to imbue it with new life and
new cogency.
And there is one final aspect of
Douglas’s contributions to queer activism
and thinking I want to mention.
Douglas belongs to a rare class of
persons who know how to make their
critical vision present and urgent and
vivid to others. Whether he is telling
us what he sees in a dance or in a sculpture,
or what he regrets in the high
valuation of couplehood in our society,
he can draw us to his insight. His gift
of drawing us to his insight is closely
tied to his generous wish to share what
he sees. And Douglas sees so much, so
I count it a privilege to have the
opportunity to present to you, on this
occasion of honor, my beloved friend
Douglas Crimp.