Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Hoş Geldiniz, Papa Benedict

On the streets of Istanbul, Pope Benedict's arrival inspires Turks to spontaneous, decadent, and quite limber celebration. And you thought they only twirled like dervishes.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Been Down So Long It Looks Like Art to Me

Why don't people read more, why don't they want to read more, and most specifically, why do they want to read poetry least of all?

The simple answer is that almost a century ago the celluloid image began to replace the written word as our preferred mode of cultural expression. Fair enough, but it hardly seems adequate to explain and dismiss such a sweeping cultural transformation in a single sentence. The shift from page to screen must have occurred incrementally in numerous smaller, more specific dislocations, the cumulative effect of which has been the near-collapse of written culture. By studying one particular place and moment in this long seismic shift, we can perhaps better understand why magazine layouts increasingly resemble TV screens, and why a well-received book may now be written by someone who has never read one.

One bit of forensic evidence to have been pulled from the wreckage is "Up Is Up, But So Is Down: New York’s Downtown Literary Scene, 1974-1992,” edited by Brandon Stosuy. This anthology is reviewed in this week's New York Times by Meghan O' Rourke, who, in doing so, faced a series of uneviable tasks. First, in order to write the review, she had to read the book, or at least flip through it. Stosuy's writing may be fine, but sadly, this isn't an anthology of his writing. Second, she had to cobble together a semi-interesting piece of journalism about a stillborn literary movement that somehow persisted, according to the book's subtitle, for almost 20 years. Finally, while feigning enthusiasm for this project (perhaps her editors found the first draft too caustic), O'Rourke clearly felt a duty to warn her readers as to what Stosuy had actually anthologized. Fortunately, a few choice quotations serve to sound the alarm:

"terror is released in Lower Manhattan
and the terrorists neither carry guns
nor subvert the state
but simply buy it off with ... their mastercards.”

You know, you don't actually have to be a terroristic plutocrat to own a Mastercard.

Though O'Rourke claims to find passages like the one above compelling, her own distate for the material keeps bleeding through: " 'Up Is Up' itself has a scrap-book feel. It gathers poems, excerpts and short stories as well as handmade magazine covers, pamphlets and posters that capture the collaborative, on-the-fly spirit of the period."

In other words, it's a garbage bag full of rotten writing. Here is another example of O'Rourke offering praise, then allowing the quotation to make clear what politesse forbids:

"There are surprises, too — like Holly Anderson, who writes haiku-like prose-poems of delicate lyricism trapped in crossword grids. Each letter is separated from the others as if imprisoned, evoking both the density and the loneliness of the city, and challenging the reader to make “sense” of the lapidary inscriptions. One series reads “LASt Nt ON A BLACK ROAD I tOLD tHEM MY COUSINS WOULD CAtCH FIREFLIES SMASH tHEM & SMEAR tHEIR LIGHt ON OUR FACES. But the effect is partly lost in transcription."


This quotation reminds me of one of those horrific, accident scene photographs you were shown in health science class to frighten you away from ever mixing fast cars and hard liquor. Lady, I'm convinced! But, if you're not yet, here is "New York: 1979," written by "cultural provocateur" Kathy Acker, who wrote under the pen name "the Black Tarantula" and who now gazes at you "transgressively" from the photo above:

“New York City is a pit-hole: Since the United States government, having decided that New York City is no longer part of the United States of America, is dumping ... all the people they don’t want (artists, poor minorities and the media in general) on the city and refusing the city federal funds; the American bourgeoisie has left. Only the poor: artists, Puerto Ricans who can’t afford to move ... and rich Europeans ... inhabit this city. Meanwhile the temperature is getting hotter and hotter so no one can think clearly. No one perceives. No one cares. Insane madness come out like life is a terrific party.”

Wait a minute, let me get my pen. OK, the government is dumping all of its wretched refuse onto the city of New York. Isn't that what the Statue of Liberty celebrates? Ah, but now the abandoned rabble consists of neglected artists, poor minorities, and "the media in general." Evidently, those condemned to exile in New York include Time Magazine, CBS News, Knopf Publishing, and Kathy Acker. Oh, and some Puerto Ricans.

Does she regret the departure of "the American bourgeoisie?" Does she regret the arrival of "rich Europeans?" Does she regret the fact that "no one can think clearly?" (A classic case of confusing oneself with one's subject.)

And look at the final line, or sentence, depending on whether this is supposed to be a work of poetry, or of prose. Does Acker not "perceive," or does she not "care," that the words "madness" and "insanity" are synonyms, and therefore, to speak of "madness" as "insane" is as crazily demented as describing "moisture" as "damp," or "eternity" as "endless?" My God, it's chaos gone out of control!

Sorry, Black Tarantula, but this sort of writing is a pile of shite. What I can't fathom is why this art action, or liberation movement, or free-form guerilla campaign, is considered by anyone to be worthy of notice, or study, or anything other than contempt. In New York, the self-proclaimed cultural capital of America (perhaps because the government keeps dumping unwanted artists and media people there), this sort of bourgeois-baiting declaration was being "emitted" a quarter century ago by a coterie of talentless adolescents pushing 40, and is now being anthologized, reviewed, and worst of all, revived.

According to Stosuy, "Though much of it is out of print and difficult to locate, Downtown writing has never been more relevant." Horrible to contemplate, but in a way, he may be right. As awful as the crayon books and "Xeroxed zines" of the downtown scene may have been, they do raise the unavoidable question. "Why?" Why would anyone want to write like this? Why would anyone want to read this? More disturbingly, why am I writing about this in 2006?

Was 1980 some pivotal moment when the visual image gained its ultimate ascendency, and the word "art" came to signify a bit of a joke to anyone with an IQ above 105? Wouldn't a quiet afternoon with a paper sack and a tube of glue prove more illuminating than subjecting oneself in the outcries of these rebel angels? Does this explain in any way the triumph of the electronic image? And finally, care to guess how many of these black-clad doomsayers are still subsisting on their parents' "terroristic" Mastercards?

Lest I create the impression that I hate everything, I should say that O'Rourke's review does mention two artists of the period whose work I have found both interesting and entertaining. The late Spaulding Gray, who committed suicide, or is believed to have committed suicide (no body was ever found) could be an amusing, witty, and gently ironic writer and performer, once described as a "WASP Woody Allen." David Wojnarowicz, a painter mostly, was a weird talent, but a real one, whose canvases incorporated images of gigantic dinosaurs, dung beetles, crumbling Mayan ruins, and graphic gay sex, all fused with anger, a kind of found-object mysticism, and an ironic sense of grandeur. Wojnarowicz died of AIDS in the early 90s.

I think it revealing that O'Rourke quotes from neither Gray nor Wojnarowicz (whose prose pieces, though not nearly as compelling as his visual art, at least occasionally offer a kind of hyper-paranoid intensity more intriguing than anything Kathy Acker ever dreamed of writing). It is this that leads me to believe O'Rourke selected her quotes with an eye toward the protection of unwary readers . By the way, "Up is Up" sells for ninety bucks hardback, and thirty paper, if you have no idea what to do with your money.

One more quotation from O'Rourke's review:

" 'Up Is Up' may not entirely convince us that this particular literary efflorescence is as remarkable as the literary movements that preceded it; plenty of the writing here is mediocre, in particular the poetry. But as one publisher-editor says: 'Yo, listen up, Cultural Elitists, wherever you’re hiding! Most of the art may have been' — insert a four-letter word here — 'but it was a g l o r i o u s time.' ”

Consider the premises of this "publisher-editor['s]" statement:

1. That there were "Cultural Elitists . . . hiding" from these Downtown Scenesters. If so, I'm sure they had their reasons. I suspect that, back in the 80s, the Cultural Elitists were in hiding, in the same way that, in high school, you avoided that isolated and perhaps dangerously unstable kid who latched onto you for six months simply because you made the mistake of speaking to him in Gym class, once.

2. That the tastes and inhibitions of this Cultural Elite stifle raw, provocative, expression. Would that it were so! This is rather like arguing that toilet training shames and suppresses the animal psyche within the human shell, when in fact, it's just a technique to avoid shitting yourself.

3. "Most of the art may have been" . . . why all the hedging? We will assume that the four letter word to be inserted is "shit" Well, this claim seems credible, though I think "may have been" is unnecessary.

4. "but it was a g l o r i o u s time." Perhaps so, if your idea of glory is slouching around in a studded leather jacket, cropping your hair in increasingly unattractive ways, and agreeing to fake an interest in your friends' scrawled musings, if they will fake an interest in yours. For others of us, however, this again brings up painful high school memories.

Walking around Manhattan in the mid 1990s, I happened across a denzien of the streets who had copiously shit in his pants, which were now gathered haphazardly about his ankles. He kept smiling and bowing to the scurrying crowd, all of whom were doing their best to pretend they hadn't seen what they quite obviously were seeing, and I can't be sure, but I think there was a hat or a styrofoam cup at his feet. This "cultural provocateur" had turned his personal humiliation into a public display, possibly even an art event. How could I have then known that I was witnessing a downtown revival?

Update: I so enjoyed my trashing of Kathy Acker (about whom I'd known nothing before) that I got curious and Googled her. The first thing I learned is that she's dead. Breast Cancer. Are any of these people still alive? I then ran across this interview with Ms. Acker, conducted by someone called "R. U. Sirius." (Clever, eh?)

If any of you believe I was overly harsh with "the Black Tarantula," especially in light of my recent discovery of her death, I suggest you sample this conversation for yourself and see just how much of it you can stand. I was able to read maybe three-fourths.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Status Porn

Arts and Letters Daily led me someplace I rarely go, New York Magazine, which has published Jay McInerney's lastest bit of society fluff, titled, The Death of (the Idea of) The Upper East Side: How New York’s most prestigious neighborhood lost its place atop the social hierarchy.

If you are of a certain age you may remember McInerney's lucrative, featherweight bildungsroman, Bright Lights, Big City (Oh come on, it wasn't that bad). McInerney's turf for the past two decades has been Manhattan, where he spins fantasies of dissolute yet raffishly charming young men whose spiritual quest seems to involve a fashion model. I'm not sure why people would want to read fantasies like this, but apparently, many do.

McInerney's current article chronicles the supposed decline of Upper East Side prestige relative to the once dangerously scruffy but now increasingly fashionable downtown (i.e. Greenwich Village, Tribeca, Soho, and extended environs). Now, the first thing for me to admit is that I have never lived in or anywhere near New York, so I am somewhat ignorant of its neighborhoods. But even as an outsider, may I ask, "Hasn't it been some time since Greenwich Village, or the West Village, or anywhere near the Village, constituted a dangerously edgy neighborhood?" Anyway, according to McInerney, this is now the stomping ground of those with both wealth and hip radar (the perennial Manhattan ambition). Good to know. I'll keep that in mind when shopping for a condo.

Early on, McInerney's piece abandons the pretense to anything more than shameless name dropping and cash snobbery, the curious effect of which is to make his prose more, not less, interesting:

In fact, this past spring, Forbes announced that Tribeca’s 10013 was the most expensive Zip Code in Manhattan—the twelfth most expensive in the nation, followed by 10007 to the south (No. 19) and Soho’s 10012 (No. 31). Venerable 10021, which includes most of the choicest cuts of the Upper East Side, the default Zip for generations of cotillion and benefit invitations, received a national rank of No. 255. (No. 1 was Sagaponack, the former stepchild of the Hamptons. Apparently, potatoes are way up.) As recently as 1990, before the dot-com and telecom booms, 10021 was the wealthiest Zip Code in the country. The survey was based on median home-sales prices. Meanwhile, the brokerage Citi Habitats reported that Tribeca and Soho are also the most expensive neighborhoods in which to rent (average rent: $3,718 a month) followed closely by Chelsea ($3,041) and the West Village. The Upper East and Upper West Sides are bargains by comparison, with average rents near $2,500. If we broke down the figures for the real tenderloin on the Upper East Side, the three avenues between Lexington and Central Park between 59th and 96th, the real silk-stocking district, the numbers would go higher. But still, it’s hard to deny that the Upper East Side isn’t the ne plus ultra that it used to be.

Last year, I started dating an Uptown Girl, and I’ve been shuttling back and forth between the Village and the Upper East Side ever since, pondering the cultural differences between our respective tribes as well as the question of geographical determinism.

Note the attention he lavishes on the most quantifiable aspects of New York status seeking. Why not, he reasons, just let the numbers speak for themselves? And they speak volumes, the upshot of which is: manage to claw your way into the proper Manhattan zip code, and you too can date an "Uptown Girl." Of course, the real trick would be getting there without the clawing.

Why status porn? Well in the same way that that sexual porn caters to needs of those who will a) never have sex, b) never have sex with someone they are actually attracted to, or c) never have sex that matches their ridiculously extravagant expectations, McInerney's article feeds the fantasy that a) you will benefit from knowing that downtown is now more fashionably outre than the staid Upper East Side, b) you share in the possibility of shuttling between these two, as McInerney does, and c) that you could afford even a six month sublet in either locale.

Let me plunder Jay's article a bit more before I wrap up.

It begins at a dinner party "given in honor of the Italian writer Alain Elkann. Along with Robert Hughes, who’d come in from Westchester, I was one of the few people at the gathering who’d traveled more than a few blocks that evening to attend the party." Thanks for inviting us along, Jay.

In attendance are "Jacqui Safra, scion of the Lebanese banking family and longtime consort of producer Jean Doumanian." No, I don't know who these people are, either. That may be the point of mentioning them.

"At times, these worlds seemed bizarrely heterogeneous; but then again, Patrick McMullan was snapping pictures at Marquee or at the Waldorf, and Donald Trump was likely to be standing next to you at either venue, so it was possible to see prosperous Bloombergian Manhattan as a melting pot of sorts, for better or worse, rather than the Balkan metropolis of disparate, geographically determined tribes that I’d moved to 25 years ago." Other than name dropping, I'm not sure what this is supposed to mean.

"My fiancée is a post-deb with a venerable surname and a deep, burnished voice that sounds as if it had been passed down through many generations." His fiancee is so established that he doesn't even have to drop her name.

"My shrink, a former student of Hannah Arendt’s, lives deep in the Lower East Side, at Houston and Avenue A, in a five-story building that has a stark, army-green, unattended, disinfectant-scented lobby." More pointless name dropping (Hannah Arendt), plus, he can afford a shrink.

The article ends on the following note: "Last night, we started at a reading and book signing in the Village, then joined another couple at Le Cirque, where we waved to at least a half-dozen of her friends, admired some major jewelry, winced at some unsuccessful surgery, and talked about acquaintances at nearby tables, people whose names regularly appear in W and Avenue and Quest, none of whom appeared to have any desire to be anywhere else." A typical evening in the life of Jay, . . . and you, gentle reader?

Despite my criticisms - fueled by envy, no doubt - I recommend McInerney's article for the very same reason that one can tear apart the ridiculous plotting of a porno flick, but never quite get around to shutting off the DVD player. I'm afraid that we are all primates at heart, with lots of primate urges, and that McInerney's status porn may answer a sad, but very human, longing.