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Manhattan-Hanover Transfer

Published onJan 05, 2022
Manhattan-Hanover Transfer

We got to know Douglas Crimp, maven of New York AIDS activist art, in the summer of 1990. He seemed to us to be the living embodiment of an intellectual. Jean Paul Sartre describes intellectuals as being concerned with relating the way they act and see themselves in concrete terms to society at large, as distinct from academics, whose efforts are confined to expanding a specific store of knowledge.1 The intellectual Crimp was aware of the contradiction between the general nature of his knowledge and the specificity of the political and social context to which he applied it—a contradiction which he never forgot.

Our contact with Douglas Crimp motivated us to reflect on the contradictions in our own German culture specifically, and lives. We came to realize that we needed to confront our cultural unconscious.

The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu coined the term l’inconscient culturel (cultural unconscious) to denote the key aspect of human habitus that is formed when the individual develops modes of perception, cognition, and behavior. The habitus can be seen as a system of internalized patterns, by means of which the individual can reproduce all the conceptions, perspectives, and actions typical of a certain culture, and only that culture. Eventually, the knowledge thus, often painstakingly, learned and rehearsed over time goes without saying for the learner. After completion of the learning process, the individual operates as if these learned patterns were entirely “natural.” They habitualize the fundamental; it becomes “part of their DNA.” The outcome is akin to the way experienced car drivers no longer need to think about using the brakes if they see an obstacle on the road ahead, but simply carry out the action in a reflexive manner. The individual has learned routines, and these form the sphere of the cultural unconscious. Anyone who has been socialized by a process of acquiring knowledge and consolidating it in everyday praxis is in a situation of “carrying” and “being carried”: “He is not aware that the education he possesses also possesses him.”2 Unlike the psychic unconscious of Freud’s psychoanalysis, the cultural unconscious is “a social and historical unconscious.”3

In his studies of the German society, Norbert Elias stresses that the fortunes of a country over the centuries have an impact on its people’s habitus. He talks of a “national habitus” that is thus formed: “Sociologists face a task here which distantly recalls the task which Freud tackled. He attempted to show the connection between the outcome of the conflict-ridden channeling of drives in a person’s development and his or her resulting habitus. But there are also analogous connections between a people’s long-term fortunes and their social habitus at any subsequent time.”4 The word “national” here refers to nation-specific characteristics. The “we-layer” in the individual’s personality structure is also part of the cultural unconscious.

We were acutely aware of such structures during our first visit to New York City and our subsequent activities in Germany, as we will describe in our personal account in the first part below. How the nation-specific habitus not only impacts the individual, but is also a determining factor in academic theory, and gives rise to different positions on either side of the Atlantic, will be the focus of the second part. Douglas Crimp is at the center of both parts since he played a crucial role in our lives and work, both as a personal acquaintance and as a theorist. We will therefore subsequently consider his significance for the German-language social sciences.

Our Experiences in New York City

In 1988 we spent our summer vacation in New York City. With one of us emerging from a costly divorce and the other just embarking on a career, we could only afford the trip thanks to the newly favorable exchange rate. It was the end of the Reagan era, and the dollar had at last dropped to an affordable level.

On this first visit, we moved through the city, or rather, Manhattan, seeing everything through German eyes. We visited two exhibitions that shook our cultural preconceptions. It is not often that art exhibitions are life-changing, but these were. The changes they triggered were gradual but far-reaching. It was not until some years later that we realized we had pursued other interests and explored different avenues ever since then.

The first cultural shock was The Modern Poster exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Through the lens of the German concept of art, a survey of the history of the poster in a leading modern art museum seemed positively revolutionary. In German-speaking countries, the contemporary arts are divided into “art” and “applied art.” Modern art museums in Germany, true to Adorno’s aesthetic theory, hold almost exclusively autonomous artworks; that is, works created for purely artistic reasons. “Applied art,” such as posters, design, architecture, and movies, is physically and conceptually housed elsewhere. Douglas Crimp described this tendency to separate art and practical life from a critical perspective: “The modern epistemology of art is a function of art’s seclusion in the museum, where art was made to appear autonomous, alienated, something apart, referring only to its own internal history and dynamics.”5 Yet the MoMA treated the poster as an art genre. It did not suggest that all posters are “art,” but that there are artworks among them, just as a painting is not guaranteed to be an “artwork.”

We got our second cultural shock when we visited the ACT UP exhibition in White Columns, the art space then on Spring Street. Our awareness of AIDS at the time was based entirely on the West German government’s public information campaign, which portrayed the risk of HIV infection as an individual problem, to be avoided by practicing monogamy. West German politics were dominated by a steadfast conservatism at the time. Helmut Kohl had won the elections by promising an “intellectual and moral turnaround,” away from the emancipatory ideas of the 1960s. In campaign speeches, Kohl declared his government’s intent “to leave the ‘socialist path’, raise the status of the family, and revive traditional virtues such as patriotism and pride in achievement.”6 This was the tendency that defined national politics during the AIDS crisis. The government’s sister party, CSU, in power in Bavaria, echoed Kohl’s approach by pledging to clean up Munich’s red-light district. In 1987 they drafted a bill to introduce compulsory HIV tests, as well as work bans on and registration procedures for, HIV-positive patients.7 The German relief organization Deutsche Aids-Hilfe, founded in 1983 by activists of the German gay movement and modeled on the US Gay Men’s Health Crisis organization, worked in these hostile conditions. Under the sword of Damocles of the German Federal Law on Contagious Diseases, severe penalties including imprisonment were threatened.

The exhibition ACT UP showed a different picture than the one we knew from our country. This New York protest movement focused on the political dimension of the AIDS crisis, bringing it to public attention on posters, banners, T-shirts, badges, and stickers, which helped make ACT UP’s demonstrations and actions a success. We saw this political art in the White Columns exhibition the day before we left New York City in 1988. We were so deeply impressed that we spent almost the entire return flight talking about the objectives and functions of political art and the new protest movement.

Long after the event, we heard about Frank Wagner mounting the exhibition Vollbild in the Neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst (NGBK) gallery in West Berlin (from December 1988 to February 1989). The catalog accompanying this extraordinarily forward-looking show contained a German translation of Crimp’s article “How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic” from issue 43 of the journal October. Yet the exhibition had only limited reach. There were two reasons for this: First, West Berlin was like an island at the time. The Wall, with its guard towers, which the East German state had built around its territory in 1961, encircled West Berlin and closed it off to the outside world.8 Anyone traveling by car or train from a West German city such as Hanover to West Berlin was subject to extensive checks at the border from West to East Germany, and again at the border from East Germany to West Berlin. Second, the German art world was still firmly rooted in the modern era with its strict separation of high art from popular culture.9 This was a legacy of the Nazi era, when the historic avant-garde had been obliterated. The strict separation of high art institutions from any form of popular culture had built invisible walls around art, detaching it from real life. As this “world of art is in conflict with the world of everyday life like the sacred with the profane,” these institutions exclude those who have not been initiated into them by the right education.10 For these two reasons, West Berlin’s insularity and the social obstacles to accessing art, the impact of the Vollbild exhibition in the Neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst gallery remained limited to a circle of insiders.

We wanted to take a different route. The inspiration we took with us from New York in the summer of 1988 spurred us on to become politically active. Back in Hanover, we resolved to make ACT UP, its political art and activities, known to a broader public in West Germany. There was only one telephone company in West Germany at the time, the national Deutsche Bundespost. It cost 7.59 DM (equivalent to $ 4.20) per minute to call the United States. Fortunately, Lutz had access to the facilities at the sociology institute where he held a professorship. He managed to get in touch with White Columns and, in parallel, we liaised with a community center in Hanover that agreed to host an ACT UP exhibition. Several months later, after many phone calls to New York, we received a parcel from the curators of the White Columns exhibition. All it contained was some T-shirts and postcards. We were so disappointed! It was not nearly enough to show what ACT UP was all about and how its activities were unlike anything known in the arts in West Germany!

We planned another trip to New York City to collect more information, gain access to political artworks, and develop a concept for an exhibition designed to portray ACT UP activities and their context. Ideally, we hoped to meet the activists and artists themselves. With that in mind, we attended an exhibition in Berlin in early March 1990, entitled Übers Sofaauf die Straße! Kunst und schwule Kultur im AIDS-Zeitalter (Over the couch—on the streets! Art and gay culture in the age of AIDS), which Frank Wagner, again, mounted in the Neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst gallery. It featured solo works by the ACT UP members David Wojnarowicz, Donald Moffett, Félix González-Torres, and John Lindell. We told Frank about the exhibition project we were planning, and he gave us Douglas Crimp’s phone number. That paved the way for our second visit to New York City at Easter a few weeks later. As soon as we arrived, we called Douglas and arranged a meeting. He was working with Adam Rolston on AIDS Demo Graphics, which was published later that year.11 Our meeting with Douglas turned out to be a pivotal moment in our lives.

We visited Douglas at his Fulton Street apartment. He showed us a range of visual material and explained how it was used in the context of ACT UP activities, and he gave us the phone numbers of ACT UP members. The ensuing days were full of meetings and fascinating insights. Adam Rolston, Donald Moffett, Loring McAlpin, and Vincent Gagliostro gave us banners, posters, flyers, and stickers.

In Germany, the public was informed about AIDS by a national agency under the Conservative Kohl government, the Bundeszentrale für gesundheitliche Aufklärung (BZgA). It broadcast TV clips, put up posters, and ran advertisements addressing the majority population. The campaign’s initial, relatively neutral objective was simply to encourage condom use. But it soon started to blend the warnings against HIV infection with political propaganda supporting traditional family values and mainstream morals. One example was a TV clip entitled “Treue” (Fidelity) (1989/90). Here, an off-screen narrator stresses the virtue of a married man when faced with temptation with the words: “He could say ‘NO’ even before Aids” (meaning before the disease arose). Other TV clips the agency produced also promoted conventional bourgeois morality, perhaps less directly but no less unambiguously. The underlying message they conveyed was: The guilt you feel if you are promiscuous will be amplified by the danger of HIV infection. Violation of the moral convention of coupledom will be punished by damage to one’s health. In effect, the campaign aimed to link promiscuity with fear. In this spirit, the clip “Mädchen in der S-Bahn” (Girl on the Local Train) (1989/90), shows a young woman regretting having had a fling with “Rüdiger of all people, with his harem.” Had the clip been made in the emancipatory spirit that ACT UP represented, it would certainly have turned out differently. The young woman would have looked forward to seeing Rüdiger again and checked in her bag that she had condoms. But the BZgA took the opposite path: It used the issue of AIDS to demonize promiscuity.

Going largely uncriticized, the conservative tendency displayed by the BZgA campaigns increasingly colored the cultural mood. In this climate, German research into virology, molecular biology and immunology remained at a modest level.12 The unchallenged influence of conservative forces angered us and fueled our commitment to the work of art activists.

With the material we had brought back with us from New York City, we mounted the exhibition Bilderschock (Picture Shock) in Hanover’s Pavillon in November 1990. An accompanying catalog13 was funded by the Lower Saxony ministry for social affairs. Over the next eighteen months, the exhibition went on to Berlin (Mann-o-Meter and Druckausgleich), the universities of Duisburg, Heidelberg, and Hildesheim, the Frankfurt (Main) gay-and-lesbian community center (Lesben-Schwulen-Kulturhaus), the Upper Hessian Museum in Giessen, and Sub in Munich. The choice of venues reflected our goal of taking the exhibition to the groups most affected by the AIDS crisis.

During this first run of exhibitions, we attended several openings, gave talks, and participated in discussions. We knew from our long-term involvement in civil movements that political culture in Germany diverged considerably from what we had become familiar with in New York.14 In Germany, civilian activists tended to stay among their own kind (we will consider an example from 1992 below). But through this series of exhibitions in the years 1990 to 1992, we made many contacts, including members of German ACT UP groups that emerged in several cities, modeled on those in New York. However, due to a lack of effective publicity, they remained unknown to the broader public. And due to the typically German separation between high art and popular culture, artists who might have spearheaded campaigns, as they did for ACT UP New York, offered little support. The Bilderschock show, then, provided vital impetus for ACT UP groups in West Germany to develop their own activities. 

We were in contact with ACT UP Frankfurt, for example, through Rüdiger Anhalt. A comparison of works from the Bilderschock exhibition with Frankfurt posters can illustrate what happened. Bilderschock comprised over eighty pieces, including four of the “guilty” works that we had first seen in White Columns (fig. 1), and the series of posters by Vincent Gagliostro for the “Stop the Church” campaign in December 1989 (fig. 2 and 3). One of the Frankfurt posters was designed by Robertus Schippnik (fig. 4) in 1991 for a protest outside Fulda Cathedral under the slogan “Stoppt die Kirche”: It is a recognizable tribute to Vincent Gagliostro’s “Stop the Church” campaign of December 1989. Schippnik adopts key moments of Gagliostro’s design and runs the quote along the upper edge: “Good morality is good medicine” (eine gute Moral ist die beste Medizin). But below, he adds the comment, “AIDS is caused by a virus and viruses are oblivious to morals.” Two other posters by Rüdiger Anhalt for an action in Wiesbaden, the capital of the state of Hesse, also feature quotes (fig. 5 and 6). They protested measures initiated by then health minister, Horst Seehofer. While one takes the “guilty” concept and translates it into German (schuldig), the other describes the health minister as “the health menace” (Die Gesundheitsgefährdung).


Figure 1. A page from the Bilderschock catalog (Bürgerinitiative Raschplatz 1990).


Figure 2. Vincent Gagliostro, Stop this Man, 1989.

Figure 3. Vincent Gagliostro, Stop the Church, 1989.

Figure 4. Robertus Schippnick, Stoppt die Kirche, 1991.

Figure 5. Rüdiger Anhalt, Schuldig / Minister Seehofer, 1994.

Figure 6. Rüdiger Anhalt, Die Gesundheitsgefährdung / Minister Seehofer, 1994.
 

Frank Wagner had told us that one of the stars of the Berlin Neue Wilde artist group had declined to contribute a poster design to support AIDS activism, believing it would ruin his chances on the German art market. In the hegemonic German perspective of dissociating “high art” from popular culture, the sole field of activity for artists is regarded as creating works that pursue exclusively artistic objectives. As soon as artists pursue heteronomous objectives, that is, their work is influenced by economic or political considerations, they are considered as having surrendered to extraneous interests. Because of such rigid boundary lines between “art” and political activism, groups such as ACT UP Frankfurt were reliant on inspiration from the New York movement.

Following another visit to New York City in 1992, we were able to mount further exhibitions in the Hanover City Library and Hanover College, the Munich Museum of History (Münchner Stadtmuseum) and the German Hygiene Museum in Dresden, showing the movement’s development and growth.15 The seed of our first visit to Douglas was really starting to flower. By this time, as well as Gran Fury, whose work we had shown in our first touring exhibition, there were other artist groups such as fierce pussy, Gang und Dyke Action Machine (DAM!). Having extended our concept to include them, we encountered a surprising response: At one of our exhibition openings, a visitor asked what lesbians and abortion supporters (pro-choice) had to do with the AIDS problem, since that was an issue concerning the gay movement. We were astonished. Due to our experiences in New York, we thought such boundaries had been overcome. We were equally astonished, to mention a final example, by what we heard at the opening of the ART AID exhibition in Frankfurt in December 1992. Frankfurt artists had donated works to be sold at the exhibition to raise money for the Frankfurt local group of Deutsche AIDS-Hilfe. We gave brief talks at the opening: Gisela on “Women and art in the AIDS era”16 and Lutz on “Art and AIDS.”17 Prior to the event, we spoke to Jean-Christophe Ammann, the influential director of the Frankfurt Museum of Modern Art (Museum Modern Kunst, MMK), who was giving guided tours of the ART AID exhibition. Having glanced at a few posters we had brought along, he commented: “That is not art.” He was convinced that works like that belong only in the category “applied art” (see note 9).

Thanks to Douglas’ support, our understanding of the New York art world gradually improved. This learning process led us to reflect on the cultural unconscious we had acquired through our German education. As we hope to illustrate below, there are plenty of stumbling blocks and surprises on the road from one’s original “national habitus” to new ways of living and learning. As well as the national borders marked on maps, there are nation-specific habitus characteristics that also generate distinctions. They are shaped by various processes of social development and the educational and legal traditions in which they occur. The presence of such boundaries has implications not only for the individual but also for the history of thought. We would like to demonstrate this by considering the discourse on postmodernism on either side of the Atlantic, in which Douglas Crimp was a prominent participant.

Postmodernism

The term “postmodernism” appeared in Europe from the United States. Arriving from the other side of the Atlantic without the cultural practices it had been coined to denote, it gained different connotations in Germany. In the German-speaking countries, postmodernism was associated with an agenda of ambivalence and ambiguity and consequently came under attack. A debate on postmodernism started that mainly focussed on aesthetics and rarely touched on aspects such as the legitimization of political action.18 Until well into the first decades of this century, the dispute was essentially over the question of what is aesthetically important in literature, painting, music, and architecture.

In 1968, Leslie Fiedler held a talk on “The Case for Post-Modernism” in the auditorium of the University of Freiburg. The weekly newspaper Christ und Welt ran a German translation of the talk. Fiedler asserted that since 1955 at the latest the modern era had been in its death throes and the postmodern age had dawned. “The literature that claimed the name ‘modernist’—by which it suggested that it represented the last word in sensitivity and form and that nothing new could come after it—and whose reign lasted from shortly before the First World War to shortly after the Second World War, this literature is dead, that is, a thing of the past and no longer of the present.”19 Hence, in the field of prose fiction, he declared the age of Proust, Mann, and Joyce over, and in poetry that of T.S. Eliot and Paul Valéry. He named Boris Vian the prototypical new author. Although Vian had not entirely managed to overcome the gulf between high culture and popular culture, he had built an initial bridge over the divide between the two. And the young Americans who succeeded him had taken the final step. “When they get really personal and speak of their innermost problems and troubles, they are using Pop forms.”20 Among the examples Fiedler cited in Freiburg were Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey, and William S. Burroughs.

The publication of Fiedler’s Freiburg lecture in Christ und Welt immediately sparked a lively debate among renowned authors and literature scholars, conducted via the weekly. One participant was the poet and German studies scholar Hans Egon Holthusen. A member of the Academy of Arts in Berlin and president of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, Holthusen had recently declared the moment he voluntarily joined the SS in fall 1933 to be his first “step on a road that would lead to the resolute depoliticization of his thought.”21 He responded to Fiedler by arguing that European high culture had timeless validity, in contrast to “comics” which he saw as the “most boring spawn of American mass culture.” Although he noted that “the new American authors (…), who Fiedler recommends are almost all unknown in this country,” which made it impossible to “judge their artistic substance,” he nonetheless concluded that, “the emergence of a literary pop culture in America (…) should not be blown up into an epoch-making event.”22 Even young rebel Peter O. Chotjewitz contradicted Fiedler, writing that the buzzword Pop “stinks and is bourgeois,” and of the “increasingly evident dangers of commercialization,” which he detected in it.23 Chotjewitz also complained that Fiedler did not take a clear stand on class issues.

In the ensuing years, a range of diverging attitudes to postmodernism evolved alongside one another. Jürgen Habermas stressed the necessity of a nuanced “regeneration of modern culture with an everyday praxis that relies on vital traditions but is depleted of mere traditionalism,” which could only succeed if the internal dynamics of economic and administrative systems were constrained.24 In a climate lacking such efforts, he asserted, the Western world had engendered modernism-critical tendencies, of which postmodernism was one. The “neo-conservatives” supporting this tendency welcomed economic progress so long as it propelled technological progress, capitalist growth, and a rational administration, and “for the rest they recommend a policy of defusing the explosive contents of cultural modernism.”25

In contrast to Habermas, the sociologist Bernd Guggenberger did not criticize the new tendency but embraced it, writing: “Postmodernism is a liberation from the trammels of traditional left-wing and eco-alternative allegiances.”26 In Guggenberger’s view, it is essentially about rejecting the visionary and utopian. Revolting against the “prescription philosophies” of the 1960s and 1970s, it had given rise to a postmodern supermarket of ideas, serving a cult of ethical and aesthetic relativism. But there is still purpose behind the postmodern attitude’s demonstrative lack of opinion as it “attacks especially the sensitive and gentle ones of the bygone Flower Power era.”27 To Guggenberger, then, postmodernism is a farewell to the revolutionary phase around 1968, with its dynamic impact on the arts, architecture, and design. It favors the noncommittal, parallel use of various aesthetic forms of expression as the perfect way to visualize a mosaic of arbitrariness.

Douglas Crimp commented on the specifically German concept of postmodernism as demonstrated by the exhibition Deutsche Kunst in 20. Jahrhundert (German Art in the 20th Century) (1985) in the Stuttgart Staatsgalerie: “German Art in the 20th Century was an exhibition that claimed for modern German art a very particular national—even nationalist—tradition, the tradition of expressionism. It set the stage, through a series of exclusions, falsifications, and underrepresentations, particularly of the art of Weimar and that of the 1960s and 1970s, for the triumph of expressionism, now supposedly represented by an artist such as Lüpertz.”28 Where visual arts are concerned, he summarizes: “In the culture at large, it is this development that has come to be associated with the term postmodernism.”29 This perspective, he points out, stands in diametric opposition to his own version of postmodernism.

In 1998, a special edition of the journal Merkur was published, intended to bring down the curtain on the postmodern era. Its editorial defined postmodernism as another stage following the conservative fifties, the culturally revolutionary sixties, and the anarchic and political seventies.30 Experts from a wide range of fields, from visual arts via philosophy to feminism, took stock. We will confine ourselves to mentioning two of these experts’ comments. The first focusses on visual art. The art historian Walter Grasskamp held the opinion that “postmodernism did not showcase anything that had not already been valid in modernism.”31 For a long time, he continues, historical periodization in cultural studies had been based on developments in art. But art had now become a marginal phenomenon, and postmodernism had responded to its loss of importance by re-aestheticizing the epoch concept. But in no way does he consider the concept of postmodernism, such as Andreas Huyssen and Klaus R. Scherpe formulate in their book Postmoderne. Here, Huyssen’s essay begins with the words: “Any discussion intending to be more than a polemical statement on the postmodern fetish of the eighties must start with the conditions that engendered postmodernism in America in the fifties and sixties,”32 since postmodernism possesses “a historical dimension of depth that suggests it is culturally and politically linked with the American protest movements of the sixties.” Huyssen cites Pop Art, the Happening, the psychedelic poster, Acid Rock, and alternative theater as forms expressing a critical, countercultural attitude. But Grasskamp disregarded all that. Since psychedelic posters, for one, had never appeared in a German art museum at that point,33 he did not factor them into his concept of visual art.

The second comment we would like to mention focused on architectural theory and was made by Heinrich Klotz. While Klotz saw a need for re-orientation, he argued that it should not consist of a fundamental departure from modernism. That is, of “post”-modernism, but rather, a revision of modernism. He was primarily concerned with ideas of functionalism that were negotiated in modernist architecture. Klotz criticized the “crude functionalism (…) of commercialized, convenience architecture which was all that remained of the avantgarde aesthetic of ‘Neues Bauen’ (New Building).”34 The alternative tendencies were initially described as “postmodern.” But Klotz prefers to call them “post-functionalist.” And he terms the revision of modernism to which he aspires, and which would imply preserving the uncorrupted basic principles of modernism, as the “second modern era.”

These are some of the viewpoints expressed in the German-language debate on postmodernism that started in the 1960s. The German translation of Douglas Crimp’s On the Museum’s Ruins, published in 1996, marked an important contribution. In the introduction, Crimp self-critically remarks: “My essays stop short of a necessary analysis of the postmodernist challenge to the uncompromising distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture.”35 Following his experience of, and activity in grassroots movement to end the AIDS crisis, he came to change his point of view. He corrected and expanded his conception of postmodernism. It was not hard for him to do so. Already engaged in direct-action politics, he did not need to break with his earlier positions, but just carry them further.

In this regard, Crimp refers to Peter Bürger. In his Theory of the Avant-Garde (1984), Bürger states that the historical avantgarde not only challenged preceding artistic directions but the very institution of art. He explains: “The concept ‘art as an institution’ as used here refers to the productive and distributive apparatus and also to the ideas of art that prevail at a given time and that determine the reception of works.”36 As well as objecting to the distributive apparatus to which the artwork is subject, Bürger asserts, the avantgarde criticizes art’s autonomy insofar as it implies a detachment from life praxis. Bürger conceives of the avantgarde as those artistic practices which—despite their many differences—have in common that they radically break with tradition, and oppose the institution of art. They attempt “to organize a new life praxis from a basis in art.”37 His concept of historical avantgarde movements “applies primarily to Dadaism and Surrealism but also and equally to the Russian avantgarde after the October revolution.”38 While highlighting a central core, then, his conception of the avantgarde could well be broadened to include a parallel historical movement. Namely, that leading from Art Nouveau to art schools such as Bauhaus and Vkhutemas, along with associated groups such as De Stijl.

Bürger held that the project of the historical avantgarde had failed. Around the time he wrote his book, the early 1970s, he might have noted that “contemporary artists” had begun “to learn and apply the very lessons of the historical avantgarde that [he] theoreticizes.”39 But he did not. Evidently, all he perceived of the “neo-avantgarde” (as he calls the avant-gardist tendencies of the post-war era) was what had appeared in German museums from the United States. That included some works of Pop Art, examples of which he discusses. They represent a part of early postmodernism that had been reabsorbed into the museum world, while other forms of countercultural expression, such as those named by Huyssen, remained barred from German art institutions.

The lesson is clear: Anyone dealing with aesthetic theory needs to be aware of the theorist’s experience and background. Their modes of perception, preferences, and experience of works all impact the formation of their theories.

The ACT UP movement produced new forms of aesthetic response to AIDS. In light of them, Douglas Crimp was able to expand on Bürger, who referred only to the historical avantgarde and a part of the “neo-avantgarde,” and formulate Huyssen’s conception more precisely. He differentiated between two trends in aesthetic responses to AIDS: on the one hand, “traditional artworks that take AIDS as their subject matter—paintings, plays, novels, poems ‘about’ AIDS,” and on the other, works that consist of “cultural participation in activist politics, most often using agitprop graphics and documentary video.” In the second type, which Crimp describes as “arising out of a collective moment,” AIDS activist art practices “articulate, actually produce, the politics of that movement.” Often “anonymously and collectively made; appropriating techniques of ‘high art’, popular culture, and mass advertising; aimed at and constitutive of specific constituencies,” he sees these as comparable with the historical avantgarde, as both are “an example of the ‘sublation of art into the praxis of life’.”40 Indeed, these postmodern practices seem “to continue the unfinished avantgarde project.”41

As far as German art history is concerned, “avantgarde” is “a historical word; it smacks of history,” as Kube Ventura42 has said,43 and is buried in history. But Crimp saw things differently. The way he discussed postmodernism prompted inquiry into why avant-gardist ideas yielded fruit in the United States, but not in Germany. His approach raised questions such as: What impact did the cultural exodus caused by the Nazi regime have on the United States? What did Germany lose by it? Does the recurring claim that “the avantgarde’s programs were not practically feasible”44 serve to downplay the devastating impact of dictatorship on avantgardes? Is the specifically German debate on postmodernism serving to permanently obliterate the unfinished avantgarde project? Would it not be preferable to host the practices started by the avant-gardists, at the stage they have now reached, in the German-speaking countries?

Douglas Crimp in the German Social Sciences

We would like to begin this last part with an anecdote. In 1999 we presented our New York collection under the title Unbehagen der Geschlechter / Gender Trouble at the Aachen Art Society (Neue Aachener Kunstverein). We had started collecting works by the artists involved in ACT UP in the mid-90s, motivated by our interest in how they and the political activist groups emerging in the movement’s slipstream think, and convinced this was best gauged from the solo works they create in their studios. Hence the exhibition showed group works by Gran Fury, Dyke Action Machine, fierce pussy, the ACT UP Outreach Committee, and solo works by the individual group members John Lindell, Loring McAlpin, Sue Schaffner, Carrie Moyer, Zoe Leonard, Joy Episalla and Carrie Yamaoka.

Any previous exhibitions in Germany of work in this field had shown single pieces from group works alongside individual works by queer artists, such as the exhibition Gegendarstellung in Hamburg’s Kunstverein in 1992. Here, the works were presented in line with museum conventions, that is, they were hung on the walls in isolation, as autonomous works, though they were in fact parts of political group works. Our show in Aachen, in contrast, took care to present whole series of images in the chronological order in which they had appeared in the streets of New York City, and to document the political activism they conveyed. We also showed photographs by Thomas McGovern, who worked for the weekly Village Voice at the time, capturing the various formats to which the group works were applied (posters, stickers, T-shirts).

To make the topic more accessible to the interested public, the director of the Aachen art society hosting the exhibition decided to hold an afternoon of lectures exploring the movement and related issues. The session included the appraisals by two art scholars coming from Berlin. They both deemed the exhibition an incoherent hodgepodge of chaotically diverging works. They had probably read the German translation of On the Museum’s Ruins, which had appeared a few years previously.45 But since they had not familiarized themselves with the artistic practices which prompted Crimp to reformulate his conception of postmodernism as a continuation of the unfinished avantgarde project, it appeared to them a mishmash. This occurrence spurred us on to further activities.

Lutz continued to explore the political art field in his research. Many years later, when Stephan Moebius and Dirk Quadflieg approached him for a contribution to a book they were editing on contemporary cultural theories, Lutz suggested a political topic. They gladly agreed, and Lutz wrote a profile of Douglas Crimp and his approach to postmodernism and queer culture that appeared in the chapter on popular culture and counterculture.46 Later, Lutz expanded on the article to write an entire book on Douglas, exploring his journey from postmodernism to queer theory.47

In June 2007, a conference titled “Avantgarden und Politik” (Avant-gardes and Politics) was held in Hanover. Stephan Moebius and Lutz had organized it, and Douglas Crimp, Joy Episalla, and Carrie Moyer from New York were among the speakers. A few years prior, after a long absence, we visited Douglas again on Fulton Street to discuss the conference’s preparation. His book Melancholia and Moralism had recently been published (to which Lutz referred to update his contribution for the second edition of the cultural theories book). The conference in Hanover, in turn, produced an anthology of texts dealing with artistic activism from Dada to postmodernism. The three New Yorkers’ talks were translated into German. Joy contributed a survey of activism by ACT UP, fierce pussy and her own artistic output; Carrie described the development of DAM! in a changing media context; Douglas was an inimitable presence with his account of queer life and artistic production in de-industrialized New York City.

The Present and the Future

When we heard about Douglas’ death, we were shocked and saddened. We talked for a long time about our sporadic contact, and the amazing results it had produced. Bertolt Brecht wrote a poem later in life that ends: “If we lasted infinitely / Everything would change / But since we are finite / Much stays the same.” That would be true if we each struggled in isolation. But we do not, and resignation is no solution. We can apply that to Douglas’ legacy, of course, too. We got to know him as a theorist who analyzed the world not by observing it from a distance but by getting involved in it. And he applied the learning processes sparked by his practical involvement to his theoretical reflections. That is why his work inspires further inquiry and engagement and invites us to continue along the path he took. And that is why—if you will allow us to correct a great poet—the last lines of Brecht’s poem should really read: “We may be finite / But since we are many / All pulling together / A change will come.” We have seen this proven by grassroots movements. Though doubts may arise when progress is slow, it pays off to keep trying.

***

Theo Gordon received his PhD from The Courtauld Institute of Art in 2018, with a thesis on psychoanalysis and art of the American AIDS crisis. He has published in Art History, Oxford Art Journal, RA Magazine, Burlington Contemporary and The Conversation, and is Terra Foundation for American Art Postdoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian American Art Museum for 2021.

Lutz Hieber is professor at the Institute of Sociology, Leibniz University Hanover, 1975-2010. Key focuses of his work include cultural sociology, media sociology, art sociology, political sociology, history of sociology, curating and lending material for exhibitions.

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