I’ve been familiar with New York since childhood, recalling a visit with my family, enroute doubtless to this or that military base, sometime in the early 1950’s, and visiting that wonderland of consumer lust, Macy’s. I think I was given a choice of which toy to get and picked a somewhat elaborate plastic gyroscope, one with dazzling flecks of multi-colored paints embedded in it – one of extremely few memories of my childhood. Since that time I’ve been back many times, for visits for politics (Newsreel 1967, IFP 1978), for screenings (MoMA with a selection of shorts in 1973 or so, later for a complete retrospective in 1991; 1987 for Whitney Biennial with Plain Talk & Common Senses; a number at Millennium); to visit friends. And then I lived in New York from 1989-1991, before and while shooting All the Vermeers in New York. I’d say I knew it pretty well but the truth is no one could possibly know New York (or any massive city) well, even if you spent your entire life-time actively investigating it every day. I, like everyone else, know only the tiny little sliver I lived in or near, which represents not .00001 of the whole. To think otherwise is to be deeply deluded.
My experience of New York City, not hailing from the place, has been rather schizoid: while I like its energy, its multi-ethnic polyglot street life, and all the good things of its density, I dislike its disproportionate sway over much of America’s social and cultural scales. Long ago I surmised (and said publicly) that in the cultural world, if you make a piece of unmitigated pure shit in New York, as an “artist” (any kind – visual, music, writing), you are axiomatically 5 steps ahead of someone’s work of pure brilliance if, say, it comes from Kansas City, or some other city or town out in the vast hinterlands of the States. Having been born in Chicago, and living there a brief while in my youth, I suppose I am afflicted with that “Second City” neuroses which functions to draw people from around the country to New York, like flies to, well, shit. Except for certain realms where LA is the draw – movies mostly, the lure of easy fame.
In the very narrow world of arty/experimental films (and now, more broadly, “media”), the tilt of the cultural scales towards New York was, in my view, obscene. The standard “canon” peddled around the world as to such work – “underground/avant garde” was essentially a list of Jonas Mekas’ friends – virtually all New Yorkers, or people who made the cultural pilgrimage to NYC, whether they lived there or not (Brakhage, Snow) way back then. He blasted out over his column in the old Village Voice a weekly notice of whatever piece of celluloid fell out of their cameras and hastily anointed it a “masterpiece,” whereupon these were lapped up and sent off to the hinterlands to be screened in the film clubs, underground cinemas, etc. that littered small cities and campuses. As 90% of Mekas’ Masterpieces-of-the-Week were cinematic dreck – as is, in my view, most of his own work, the interest quickly waned and collapsed, and, almost worse, was converted in academia into “film studies.” Eager-beaver students were taught “avant garde” and made shitty versions of the shit which was foisted on them as “art.” I sadly report that 50 years later this still persists as aging professors inflict their equally aged views on gullible students who then engage unknowingly in thrusts of a very derriere garde, mimicking the superficial aspects of films from 50 or 80 or more years ago. Very avant.
Of course, one can say pretty much the same for all the arts – visual, music, theatrical – where the dead horses of 100 or 50 years ago are endlessly beaten, while academic scribes write arcane verbiage in a vain attempt to prop up this Emperor’s New Clothes world of empty fashion and pretend it is either “new” or “art” when generally it most certainly is not. The announcements of the upcoming Whitney Biennial seem to underline this. And New York City is the blazing navel of this vast fraud (just as with Wall Street).
These days the arts, particularly the visual and plastic arts are indeed very big business – witness the immense bloat of MoMA’s real-estate, with paintings and sculptures selling for $50,000,000 and up (and down) for contemporary “artists” along with very recently deceased modern masters. Jeff Koons is a good example, having his antennae finely tuned for the jejune tastes of the nouveau riche. Other opportunists similarly sucker in these rubes of Gotham.
Outside of Washington DC, New York would seem to exemplify the deep decadence and corruption into which the country has descended – though I am sure other cities might contest this: Silicon San Francisco, or LA. Not that we weren’t cyclically corrupt before, just that in this time the numbers are exponentially greater and talk of millions is mere chump change. We talk of individuals worth multi-billions and corporations worth trillions, which perhaps hints at the shift from “government” as our overseers (hypothetically in our service) to the dictatorship of corporations. The many homeless people lining the streets of New York would seem to attest to this, as well as the schism between the obscenely wealthy (Soho, Upper East Side, and the usual haunts of old NY wealth along Park Avenue) and the obscenely poor. If any place exemplifies this national tendency in its most visible form, New York is it.
Squeezed out by the Manhattan high-rollers who have step-by-step bought up the former funky-arty quarters of Soho, the Village, the East Village and elsewhere, those locals and others drawn to the New York cultural vortex have shifted eastward, into the borough of Brooklyn. There – if only for the moment – rents are lower, and the youthful “culture” (bars, boutiques, micro this and that) has bloomed in Williamsburg and Green Point. The streets are crowded and Spike Lee, selling his Upper East Side place for a purported 35 million dollar price tag (a place previously owned by Robert Rauschenberg), has loudly (he seldom is less than loud) lamented the take-over of his former burg by “hipsters.” These enclaves of Brooklyn in fact remind me of, oh, Portland, Oregon, where a similar generational culture has set-down, transforming the once drab working-class or black neighborhoods in NE and SE quadrants into strips of chic bars, bicycle shops, exotic ice-cream makers, micro-breweries and all the other accoutrements of a sector of entrepreneurial trust-fund kids. In Portland it is a bit hard to figure out where the money is coming from to support this eviction scheme for the underclasses. Similarly these Brooklyn neighborhoods sprout the same kinds of stores, and the sudden (lamented) new upper-middle-class condo’s now that the area has been ethnically and economically cleansed. Spike is right, though what with his 1.5 million Kickstarter con, he tap-dances on a very loosey-goosey moral tight-rope: whether he likes it or not he came out of the black upper-middle classes and now sits in the nation’s 1%, never mind his ghetto-mouth. I have long since (We Cut Heads) found his rather aggressive assertions an obvious cover for his origins in relative wealth: he ain’t no real Bro. So he uses MoFo a lot and puts on a street-wise air that seems phoney as a $3 dollar bill. If he really wants not to be of the 1% he can easily divest himself of his wealth but I kinda won’t be holding my breath. Though I am certain he has lots more rhetorical hot air left.
Falling way behind courtesy of the travel life, since scribbling the above while in New York, I’ve been to Columbus Ohio (via Amtrak and Greyhound adventures), Cleveland, and now I lie low a few days, whacked by a nasty cold/flu somewhere along the line. Curled up like a sick dog in Miami (FL) realm. Tomorrow northward to Gainesville and then St Petersburg before finally heading back to Stanberry Mo in the mid-west to grab the old Subaru, shoot a quickie film for Blake (and finish up one of mine shot there in November), and finally to head West toward Portland and then Butte. Be good to take a travel break.