How does activism become art? How can an artist become an activist? What is the social function of art? And what are the cultural, political, and moral obligations of the artist? These questions structure the argument found at the core of Douglas Crimp’s essay AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism, an analytical reflection on how “engaged art practices” are and were essential and necessary parts of grassroots activist resistance in the fight to end AIDS (11). Crimp’s article necessitates an understanding of art not as a passively intellectual medium that both transcends and is separate from the social sphere but as integral experience with underestimated social function.
Reading this piece, I couldn’t help but be struck by relevance of his argument for the present cultural climate. While America might not currently be going through a public health crisis, it is definitely going through a political one. After the November election, ideas about activism and social justice have become part of the popular discourse almost to a fault (Pepsi’s recent sanitized protest ad is a great example of neoliberal capitalist “resist” sentiment). Not that there has ever been a moment in American history unmarred by the fight for human rights, but under Trump there is a feeling of urgency that has required every American to ask themselves exactly what—if anything—the words action, activism, and resistance actually mean to them. And in the exact same way that Crimp outlines in his discussion of art during the AIDS crisis (the “Artists against Aids” benefit for example), the meanings people are finding fall very quickly into the realms of performative and shallow, passive and ineffective. In the contemporary art/entertainment communities, it seems that making art for art’s sake has somehow been construed in a protest act. Understanding Crimp’s argument however, the idea that it is enough for artists to just keep creating, keep living, and keep loving is simply untrue. What this passive persistence represents is the exact idealized and removed conception of art that has no place in a public crisis. There is no place in activism for art that does not transform itself to meet the demands of injustice—activist art “demands a total reevaluation of the nature and purpose of cultural practices” (12). In order to change the world, art has to change too. The most striking quote from Crimp’s piece is as follows:
“We don’t need a cultural renaissance: we need cultural practices actively participating in the struggle [against AIDS]. We don’t need to transcend the epidemic; we need to end it.”
Crimp’s article is so important to me because it articulates so clearly the dangers of resistance becoming a mainstream conversation topic, of protest becoming something to do on the weekends. Without true engagement in the culture, without a real understanding of injustice, without making political action a genuine part of your life rather than segmented experiences, the impact you’re making is shallow at best. For artists looking for a way to truly engage, the ideas and arguments found in Crimp’s article are a perfect place to start.