Town’s in Tatters
“10 West Nile Virus I wish people would stay indoors all winter, too.” [Glenn O’Brien’s Top 10 List December 2000]
In Jerry’s requiem for the Neo-Liberal Art World he lets us know – “…while my memories of the 1970s make me sure artists will survive, even thrive, under any circumstances, there is one big thing about the world in which they operate that does worry me. Over the last decade or so, the art world in peril has seemed to lose the ability to adapt. Or, rather, it now seems able to adapt only in one way, no matter the circumstances: by growing larger and busier. Expansion and more were the answers to everything.” [Jerry Saltz The Last Days of the Art World]
But I think Jerry’s tribute to Glenn O’Brien may have as much if not more meaning for us at this moment. In that piece Jerry touched on something ineffable and overlooked about New York’s “High Times Hard Times” of the 70s. “As I watched all this at Campbell, a melancholy thought took hold of me. I’m not even sure what it means — only that it’s been going through my head ever since. I thought, “This is the avant-garde that lost.” Before you get all angry with me, let me say, yes, I understand that the avant-garde flame has seemed to go out at least once in every generation since the term was first used to describe artistic radicals in the 19th century; and that especially since the end of punk, there has been a sort of endless drumbeat of complaining that radical culture is no longer possible (given, you know, late global capitalism). But for a couple of hundred years, fire-eating generation after fire-eating generation of vanguard, underground, combative artistic movements arrived on the outskirts of contemporary culture and made their mark before dissipating; the generations I saw gathered at Glenn O’Brien’s memorial arrived, made their mark perhaps closest to the center of that contemporary culture, and yet no clear successors followed them.” [Jerry on Glenn 2017]
In the West Village across the way from the AIDs Memorial is the Lenox Hill Health Emergency Room. And on that street between that small memorial park and the medical facility is a refrigerated semi truck trailer. The sound of that running refrigerator motor has been unforgettable. Jerry wants to offer us hope for some future that’s unknown and unseen by us. He’s seen hard times, sad times in the past. He’s saying that we should embrace the moment and find our way through. And for most of us, well, we are more than willing to believe that change is now inevitable. But in order to make that change it’s important that we understand and recognize that not everyone survives. And no matter how smart or strong or capable or clever someone might be – not everyone is lucky. The motor keeps running.
The Village has seen its share of triumph and tragedy over the last 30 years. Sadly, this place is no longer what it was – filled as it is with the extremely wealthy and the false antiseptic world that global wealth creates. Today it’s been remade as a museum – you have to look hard to find bits and pieces of its more louche and generous artistic past. The social and cultural history of New York is buried here – many of our great writers, playwrights, musicians, poets and artists spent time walking these streets, living the la vie bohème and making art that changed the culture.
But it’s difficult to think clearly these days. The time allowed outside to do the Tiergarten walk during quarantine is short and purposeful. There are only furtive trips to the grocers, masked and gloved walks through the neighborhood to stretch computer legs, watching the light move through my small studio, and unconnected thoughts about the past and the future. And the biggest questions that come up again and again are which past, which history do we use as a foundation for Jerry’s promised “future” – which history can we build on? How far and how deep dare we go? What will it cost? What has it cost?
Big obvious question: the Walt Whitman poem is a beautiful one with many possible readings, what made you choose it?
‘Song’ has love, and lovely words overflowing, and represents ardent unashamed people abounding, people of all sorts, and that is how and what the memorial must be. My friend, the poet Henri Cole, made the welcome suggestion of ‘Song of Myself’. Another friend, Nick Morgan, and I cut the poem slightly to fit the site, the times and the purpose.
Finally, can you share one personal memory from the time?
Various friends, associates, and I waited to learn if we would die. Some died, and the rest of us were changed and do not forget. [Jenny Holzer in Conversation Mat Smith about the AIDs Memorial ]
“Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.” [Walt]