Maybe it’s all the money, the intellectualism and theory, the competition of the many for the few, the pomp and pageantry of the emperor’s new clothes, the academies or the institutions, but for whatever reason when left to its own devices and proclivities art can often take itself way too seriously. And there’s nothing all that wrong with a bit of gravitas or some fiery polemics in the arts, but well, as one generation’s radicalisms ossified into formalisms a whole bunch of us woke up in the 1980s and decided that most of the prevailing practices were pretty damn boring and we were going to have fun. Really it was simple, but it wasn’t easy. Just as many people laughed at us as with us, and in terms of getting somewhere with a career in retrospect it probably helps to march in formation rather than skipping down the desolate streets with wanton abandon, but in other terms more intuitive then and more consequential with time, there was a degree of success that remains remarkable.
What the 1980s witnessed in art, particularly in New York City and most specifically in the East Village of downtown Manhattan, was a kind of unashamed and truly ingenuous mode of populism. By the consensus measure of the status quo it was everything art was not supposed to be, rather too kitsch to be avant-garde and a bit too frivolous to be taken seriously. But it felt right and it was absolutely honest.
It reached people who never thought or cared about art before, and today it comes across as something still fresh, relatable and extraordinarily spontaneous. Some of the work from that time has indeed become iconic, but in sum it was all rather iconoclastic, filled with an irascible spirit, reckless folly and intoxicating sense of bewildering wonder that suggests just how far afield our creativity can go when it doesn’t know any better. It was profoundly democratic, accessible, and in the scheme of cultural valuation quite affordable. This was its politics, not that of blaming and shaming but of a complete shift away from such discourse and obligations into deviant amusements. It was thus a social art, born of the clubs and streets, ready to get fucked up and hit the dance floor.
Let’s be clear here, because nostalgia can play tricks with the past, there was no way these artists were measurably happier than others of that time, prior or since. The city was a wreck, gutted physically and economically from decades of white flight, as it was called when millions of first and second-generation working immigrants fled the city for the safety of the suburbs, and largely reduced to burnt out buildings, an open-market for drug sales and all the crime and squalor known as urban blight.
Graffiti artist Futura 2000 on his opening night at Fun Gallery, with Keith Haring. Photo by the Sophie Bramly in 1983.
Most of America regarded us as thieves, cock suckers and junkies, were openly scared of and disgusted by our company and almost as overtly despising of the city itself. Our president, the smiling face of fascism incarnate had not an ounce of empathy for the urban condition and by some willful neglect thought it all might just go away if everyone stopped caring and looked the other way. And our lifestyles were killing us, first with the surfeit of heroin and crack and then, most devastatingly, with the plague-like conditions of the AIDS crisis, which wiped out the greater part of our community. No, we were not happy- we found community in the common difference that had alienated us from the rest of society as a kind of misery loves company, and fully rejected the horrible cliché of the tormented artist- we just knew how to have fun as an act of self-empowerment and cultural resistance.
In so many ways the East Village scene was an utter fiasco. Careers were trashed, the fickle desires of the art market and media moved on, and many of its primary participants almost eradicated their involvement from their resumes like a vulgar stigma. But in its failings it constituted a remarkable victory, a break in the hegemony of cultural production that not only forever altered what art could manifest in our society but allowed a heretic vision of self-expression and popular vernacular that has only grown more resonant and relevant with time. History is a funny thing that way. Today it is almost inconceivable to imagine the work of Banksy or Kaws, Ai Wei Wei or Richard Prince, and so many others without the delirious combustion of this downtown revelry.
Outside Cilvilian Warfare in 1983. Photograph published in the catalogue to the Neo York exhibition, 1984. The store front sign by David Wojnarowicz.
Infused by the DIY ethos of Punk and the nascent Hip Hop scene, what happened in this less than square mile of no man’s land was brazenly amateurish, and its staunch dismissal of professionalism was as extremist then as it is refreshing today in the big business of cultural consumption.
In the brief heyday of its glory, I remember when museums would do big exhibitions of this work around the world the local artists would come up to us and say that what we were doing was not all that special, that they could do the same if not better themselves. Exactly, we told them, just do it, and the fact that so many did, on their own terms and to their own desires has made art a better place for us all. Like unruly weeds growing in abandoned garbage-strewn lots, something wild and untamable germinated here, a grotesque urban beauty and an unshakable optimism that was born like a utopian ideal in a dystopian worldview of no future nihilism. From these casually strewn seeds and carelessly tended city garden graffiti, street art, low brow and comic absurdity spread like a global meme far outside the gaze and guidance of art world myopia. And with this new generations have been empowered to not play the carefully coded games of the art world but make up their own rules and their own games based on personal pleasure and the honest desire to communicate with the polymorphous masses rather than the privileged few so that today, wherever we may be, the world is now our playground.