Douglas Crimp and Malik Gaines on Queer Liberation and the Decline of Radicalism

My Barbarian's ongoing New Museum residency "The Audience Is Always Right" includes workshops, performances, and public programs geared towards theatricalizing social problems and imagining ways of being together. Today, Thursday, November 3, 2016, the art collective will host "Post-Party Dream State Caucus," a mock political convention, including Christine Sun Kim, Tavia Nyong'o, Kali Wilder, and Document contributor Zoe Leonard. In this special story from Document No. 9, My Barbarian co-founder and an assistant professor of performance studies at New York University Malik Gaines speaks to Douglas Crimp about his forthcoming memoir, gay life in the age of the internet, and the problem of diversity in art, both then and now.

 

As an art critic, curator, and activist for more than 40 years, Crimp has defined much of contemporary artistic practices and discourse. In the fall of 1977, he organized the epochal “Pictures” exhibition at Artists Space, a small but renowned nonprofit gallery in downtown New York. The show and its associated essay, which examined the work of five young artists (Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, and Philip Smith) who used photography and appropriation-driven strategies to reflect on the functions and codes of representation, defined a generation of artists—indeed, this group, along with artists including Louise Lawler, Richard Prince, and Cindy Sherman, came to be known simply as “The Pictures Generation.” By the next decade, Crimp became one of the most influential voices in not only art criticism but also the response to the AIDS crisis, shaping the development of queer and AIDS politics beyond the art world. This fall, Crimp will publish “Before Pictures,” a memoir-cum-cultural history of his life as a young gay man and art critic in New York City between the late 60s and 70s, before his infamous “Pictures” show. 

 

Malik Gaines—As a person in his 40s, who came out during the height of the AIDS crisis, going back to the moment of gay liberation is really liberating in a sense. I wonder how it felt for you. I imagine you’ve worked on this [book] for some time.

 

Douglas Crimp—Of course it was fun to return to my youth and to a time before AIDS—well, not only fun, but mostly fun. When I joined ACT UP in 1987, most of my fellow activists and the people who became my friends there were 20 years younger than me or thereabouts. Like you, Malik, they didn’t experience the  70s in New York; they came to maturity during the AIDS crisis. I think, for them, the period of gay liberation immediately following Stonewall was a bit mythologized, a sort of golden period, because it was pre-AIDS. But it was also a period that we all felt was in danger of being rewritten from a conservative perspective as the period of gay men’s immaturity that led, supposedly, to AIDS. In my writing on AIDS, I attempted to counter that narrative, and at the same time I was working on AIDS, I got involved with the new academic field of queer theory. When I would tell them anecdotes about my life in the 70s, many of my ACT UP friends would say, “You know, you really should write a memoir.” That put the notion in my head. In a way, my Warhol book [“Our Kind of Movie: The Films of Andy Warhol”] comes out of that same impetus, both to counter that conservative narrative and to provide a queer-before-gay view of a queer culture, before gay identity got so fixed with a turn from the liberation movement to a rights movement. 

 

Malik—I moved to New York five years ago, and I was surprised and excited at the return of promiscuity. It’s not the same kind of public space you describe, where the streets are yours and you can make them into any kind of counter-normative space you want to. It feels a little more like a shopping center, where a range of possibilities are opened. Now, there is a kind of pharmaceutical promiscuity. I wonder what you think about that shift in culture. Or shift in gay practices?

 

Douglas—I’m 72 years old, so I don’t go out very much. I used to go out often, as you can tell from the memoir. I was a bar/disco/sex club devotee. After AIDS, that shifted; I experienced so much loss because that scene was so decimated. Then there was [Rudy] Giuliani, who destroyed it even more. Then came internet culture, which is not my culture. I’ve never adapted to it. It has always seemed to me, given what little I understand or have experienced of seeking sexual partners over the internet, that people not only advertise who they want to appear as, but also believe they truly know who they are and what they want. What I took from the gay liberation ethos was that we didn’t know who we were and we didn’t necessarily know what we wanted. Instead, we felt we should be open to everything, even things we thought we didn’t want, which might open you to partners of different races, to differently abled partners, and certainly to people with different sexual proclivities. I tried many things that frankly I was quite repelled by, but I was just being a good liberationist, thinking, “OK, I can’t say, ‘No, I don’t do that,’ or ‘That’s not who I am.’” I didn’t necessarily seek such things out a second time, but I often surprised myself. I guess that would be my question to you: How much do you surprise yourself? Or how much does one surprise oneself in the current situation? When people first started talking about themselves and their desires as coded in terms of “bottom” and “top,” I almost didn’t understand what they were talking about. I mean, of course I understood, and there were hanky codes and all of that, but to say, “Oh, I really only want to top, or only am a top,” didn’t make sense in my experience.

 

“What I took from the gay liberation ethos was that we didn’t know who we were and we didn’t necessarily know what we wanted. Instead, we felt we should be open to everything, even things we thought we didn’t want.” 

 

Malik—Your story of shrimping with Ellsworth Kelly is one of the more delightful moments in the book, and it comes out of what you’re describing, this openness to try whatever. I think with apps and this kind of mainstreaming, which is always a kind of corporatizing, it means sexuality is a little more branded and a little more marketed. In your gay life in the book, which is distinct from the art world you are also participating in, you meet different kinds of people, you go to different places, you talk about the “exotic look of so and so” or an “interest in Latinos” in another space. Esther Phillips appears in a beautiful album cover in your disco section. It’s so great, by the way, to see those fragments of your unpublished disco writing. But I noticed how exclusively white the art spaces were at this time, and I connected that to what you write about where you came from in the Northwest, a white supremacist place. I wonder how conscious you were of that whiteness at the time. Or how conscious anyone was at the time?

 

Douglas—Well, there was a consciousness, it’s probably a failure in some ways not to have written about it, but it wasn’t really enough part of my life. But of course, the art workers coalition grew out of the anti-Vietnam war movement and the Guerrilla Girls out of the women’s liberation movement...A lot of the organizing around anti-exclusivity in the art world did take place in the late 60s and early 70s as part of political movements. There were real eruptions of that among black artists, particularly with the 1969 exhibition “Harlem on My Mind,” at the Met. It wasn’t as if it wasn’t happening at all and there wasn’t a consciousness of it, but my experience of diversity and of racial discourses was all in my queer life, not in my art world life. The latter was a very white world, no question. There only began to be a consciousness about the paucity of women artists and numbers of black artists in the Whitney Biennials around that time. We’ve moved some from there. It was also the time when the Museo del Barrio was founded as a response to the lack of diversity in the mainstream art world. But I would have had to go pretty far afield from my own activities and experience to bring that stuff in. So it really came in terms of my other life, essentially. I experienced that as just one of the really big differences between the kind of people I knew in the art world and the kind of people I knew in the queer world. 

 

I was hanging out at The Cockring, which was a largely Latino bar. I started going to La Escuelita a lot after the experience in a Cuban gay bar in Miami that I describe in my book. My first boyfriend was half-Arab. I was drawn to ethnic and racial diversity purely as an attraction. It probably has to do with the incredibly...I mean it wasn’t just people of color, you couldn’t even be Jewish in my hometown. The Aryan Nation[s] literally ran Jews out of town, it was awful. The worst of that happened after I left, but I remember Irish Catholics being considered weird in my hometown because they weren’t Protestants. They weren’t even Italian Catholics! Talk about the narcissism of small differences! It was very real in my hometown. Then going to a majority black city for college really jerked me around and made me a different person.

 

Malik—Something that I really appreciate about this book is the movement in and out of the disciplinarity of art. Moving between not only the official museum world that you started in, but the contemporary art world that you moved yourself into, and then this world of queer life, where you’re going to different kinds of places and meeting different kinds of people, what you described as a diversity of people. You frame the art world with a lively world around it, something like the ornate School of Fontainebleau frames you explicate in the text. For me, this makes the art world, which at this point is fairly canonical, seem really narrow and a little imprisoning. Still, it’s amazing the way you’re able to use the language of that discipline in the context of this completely interdisciplinary space of the queer city.

 

Douglas—Thanks. One of the pleasures of writing this book was that I made an arbitrary decision in the beginning, writing the first chapter. I liked the crazy spiraling structure of that chapter; it went from anecdote to critical theory, back to anecdote, and so on. I thought: “I’ll just take the things I did professionally during this period of time, say the Agnes Martin exhibition at the School of Visual Arts in 1971, and I will use them arbitrarily as the starting point for a chapter. Then I’ll just let myself go wherever it takes me.” So one of the reasons it was so fun to write this book was that I didn’t really have an agenda. I had the anecdotes that I knew I wanted to tell and, of course, I had my own critical positions. I also wanted to return to my work and see what my young self looked like from my current perspective. There was really only one overall agenda for the book: to put the two worlds of which I was a part of in the first 10 years I was in New York, the art world and the gay world, into some kind of juxtaposition and conversation. That didn’t take much doing, because that was simply the way my life was. It wasn’t as easy to be gay in the art world then as it is now. 

 

The interdisciplinary or hybrid quality of the memoir flows from that juxtaposition that started with the first chapter, in which I discuss what I call “my two first jobs,” haute couture with Charles James and conceptual art with Daniel Buren at the Guggenheim; two seemingly incommensurate things, I use that sort of incommensurability throughout as a means through which to interrogate both sides. I do this in the chapter about [George] Balanchine and  [Jacques] Derrida, for example. The idea was that juxtaposing the gay world and the art world would unsettle the standard narratives of each and then come up with a different kind of history of both. I’m hoping that is what the book accomplishes. It’s a history of New York in the 70s, it’s a very personal history, but I think it is also a broader history. It’s a very unusual history, because the history of gay liberation is not told this way and the history of the art world is not told this way. Certainly the fact that both of these worlds were radically experimenting at the time makes the story an especially rich one. I think it’s harder to feel that way about the art world right now, and certainly harder to feel that way about the queer world right now. Neither of them feels as radically experimental to me. You mentioned before a difference between the promiscuity of my culture and that of yours. I think the biggest difference is that ours was public; it both took place out in public and there was a public discourse about it. The official discourse of gayness right now is marriage, and has been for quite a while, so while this promiscuity is going on, nobody really wants to talk about it because it interrupts that more proper narrative.

 

“The idea was that juxtaposing the gay world and the art world would unsettle the standard narratives of each and then come up with a different kind of history for both.”  

 

Malik—Well, one doesn’t want to upset one’s husband with too many sex exploits! What you were just talking about—using your life as a context to unsettle the art space that you’re critically describing, considering the framing structure of the book, and thinking about your own writings in your chapter about Balanchine, Craig Owens, and Derrida—I’m wondering if the strategy of the book is a good example of a postmodern strategy?

 

Douglas—I hadn’t thought of it that way. Many chapters in the book are clearly informed by current discussions, and the fate of postmodern theory is one of them—in this case, it’s the new theoretical dance studies in the Academy. Because I’ve been teaching and writing about dance in the past few years, I have read much of that work and am ambivalent about it, so I wanted to at least obliquely enter it with that chapter. I always knew I would write about Balanchine, because his choreography was and still is a big part of my life, and it was certainly something that was central to my friendship with Craig. Then it occurred to me that it was all happening at the same time that Craig and I were reading poststructuralist theory in graduate school. I think one could say that destabilizing standard narratives is a more or less deconstructive or postmodern strategy. But I wasn’t so conscious of using postmodern theory as a model for writing this book. Where theory did play a significant role is the way that the ethos of gay liberation determined so much of the thinking that I grew to maturity with. It’s so embedded in the way I approach things. That was especially true when I was writing about AIDS in the 80s and 90s, because at that point my own subjectivity entered the picture. Writing this book from a subjective perspective is pretty much the way I write now. Certainly, a lot of my AIDS writing was very deeply personal, and my Warhol book has a lot of it that is personal too, although a lot of it is very much close readings of certain films. I’m trying to do both at once. I think you destabilize those discourses by making hybrids of them in some sense, bringing something into the picture that doesn’t “belong” there.