Whatever facts support their findings, biographies and histories are also inventions that rely upon human imagination and fascination. Conscious and unconscious interpretation, inclusions and exclusions alter our record-keeping. Often memory is cast as “ours,” history “theirs,” but sometimes the two battle: suddenly you—in this case, I—find your writing inside exhibitions and books that represent a period under investigation.
Since childhood, I have gorged on biographies, real-life crime, and literary and cultural histories: Abigail Adams, Bloomsbury, the Surrealists, Freud’s circle, the Cambridge spies, Leopold and Loeb, Americans in Paris. Other lives summoned possibility, freedom, difference; I could imagine people unlike any I knew at home. Then I saw Paris for the first time. Its streets were not paved with bohemians and I realized my bedtime readings were also fairy tales. So there’s a beautiful irony to my inclusion in a cultural designation called Downtown.
Under this rubric, an assortment of art, film, video, music and writing from the mid 1970s to the early 1990s has returned for scrutiny and appreciation. There have been two exhibitions, “East Village USA,” at the New Museum in 2004– 2005, and, in early 2006, “Downtown: The New York Art Scene, 1974–1984,” at the Grey Art Gallery, and an anthology, Up is Up But So is Down: New York’s Downtown Literary Scene, 1974–1992, edited by Brandon Stosuy. Like others included, I am doubtful about Downtown’s significance as well as resistant to being placed inside a “scene,” as if living on a film set or behind glass in a diorama at the American Museum of Natural History. Others may see you as part of something of which you feel no part. So, I reject some of the claims made for Downtown, but I’m also curious about its purposes for the present. Given its apparent return or resurgence, Downtown appears, at least, to have been a moment, or had its moment, because it has taken a room in the historical imagination.
Usually a term exists in opposition to another, but what is Downtown’s opposite? Uptown makes geographical sense, but Downtown is and isn’t a place. It’s also a virtual or mental space. Downtown might mean lower class, but most musicians, writers and artists arrived from the upper and middle classes. If Downtown means avant-garde, mainstream would be its opposite and also incorrect, since many straddled both: Patrick McGrath, Ann Magnuson, Dennis Cooper, Peter Hujar, Barbara Kruger, Richard Hell, Richard Prince, Eileen Myles, Nan Goldin, Eric Bogosian, Reno, Spalding Gray, Gary Indiana, Patti Smith, Richard Foreman, to name some. Downtown comprised many disciplines, and there was crossover between them.
Literary readings happened in galleries and clubs, artists formed bands, poets wrote plays, and musicians published poetry. And, during this brief moment in time, without an overarching plan or script, some people acted in synch, or merely coincided, clustering in some of the same spaces, partaking of the same events.
Watergate, Punk, Vietnam, civil rights, women’s and gay rights, Minimalism, conceptualism, Warhol, anti-aesthetic and anti-narrative theories, these movements, ideas and events were both background and foreground, a kind of political and cultural geography, for Downtown. Earlier art and culture played an influential role: David Wojnarowicz revered Rimbaud, Kathy Acker plagiarized Dickens, and Cindy Sherman recreated a social history in her “Film Stills.” As practiced in various art forms during this time, appropriation was parody and homage.
But styles and practices varied too widely to call Downtown a movement; there was no coherent aesthetic. Cool and hot, figurative and abstract; narrative films; non-narrative video; political art; conceptual and text-based work; graphic sexual photographs; streetwise fictions; gothic fantasy; New York School poems; transvestite; lesbian and gay theater; performance art; AIDS manifestoes: formally, the work was all over the map.
Downtown didn’t represent waving fields of wheat, crumbling barns and open skies. It was urban, the city Downtown’s trickster muse whose characters’ celebrations and problems, visions and traumas, as well as rats and heroin overdoses, were sources and material.
Historically, the city developed along with industrialization and modernism. In early 20th-century New York, Djuna Barnes apotheosized the city as the exemplar of the modem, while in Paris, Walter Benjamin anointed the flaneur, Kazin’s walker in the city, modernity’s citizen. Ecstatic or frightening, the city became a metaphor of freedom, change and chance. It thrived on speed, just as the Futurists wanted, and had a center, so it could be captured as an image by its inhabitants.
Downtown’s shows and parties, held inside a small perimeter, allowed for quick comings and goings. You never had to stay; you could usually walk home. This cosmopolitan life, rootless, maybe, sometimes unheimlich, uncanny, ordained that home wasn’t necessarily homey. The city grew fields of the unfamiliar and unexpected, which trumped the humdrum. The city’s virtues and Modernist values—such as strangers and strangeness—were the small town’s vices and fears.
In a sense, this Downtown of thirty years ago presented America in a new guise. It was no longer small, homogeneous towns complacent with simple pleasures. In Downtown’s music, art, writing, the city represented America, as it was. America was gay and straight, women and men, of all major religions, some minor, believers, nonbelievers, with conflicting values, both high and low, whose manifestations suggested varieties of obsession, disgust, beauty, pleasure and despair. Notably, Downtown was overwhelmingly white, though living inside a city that wasn’t. Many of us didn’t notice our white skin and European stock. Nominally international and without prejudice, debunkers of the so-called real America, Downtown was also American, racially divided like the rest of the country.
Today’s city is post-modern; it sprawls; the walker sits behind a wheel; the crowd is Internet community. Modernism was a European and American phenomenon, no matter from whom it borrowed, while post-modernism is resolutely global. Seoul, Los Angeles, Peking, Tokyo and London are exemplars, though New York City has finally embraced its growing boroughs. If I were an historian, I might declare that Downtown signified the last hurrah from the last inhabitants of the last and premier modernist city.
When your work is historicized as Downtown, it sits inside vitrines or hangs on walls with captions that explain it briefly, often inadequately or quaintly. You—I—never see yourself or your contribution that way. I don’t know if it matters; my version will be countered by another’s. Maybe, as I still do when reading books about the past, people will view Downtown’s art and artifacts as escape, lesson, amusement, hope.
Still it’s implacably odd to know that lives function for others in uncontrollable ways. Historians can agree about an event’s occurrence and importance and dispute its interpretations forever. In the same club at the same time, people tell different tales about how the singer fell off the stage. These contestations engage now in then, in things that might have relevance. We don’t always know what’s relevant or what history teaches, but it affects us, anyway.
Downtown’s inventors contributed some generative, brilliant, and bold objects to consider today, still relevant, I think. And even flawed accounts reveal something about the past. We are all unreliable narrators, after all. Inevitably and maybe not unreasonably, the present will make its own terms with the past.