In Search of Bohemia

A worn gray tepee sits at the edge of the city’s oldest shantytown, just yards from where Manhattan Bridge traffic hits Canal Street. But it also sits in terra incognita. The two artists who’ve lived in the tepee since Thanksgiving 1990 admit to feeling “muddled” at times about what they’re even doing there.

Seated in the dim interior on foam pads, Nick Fracaro and Gabriele Schafer began to explain. For years, they’ve collaborated as Thieves’ Theatre, trying to “embody and articulate” the voice of the disenfranchised. Doing Genet’s Deathwatch with prisoners in Illinois. Doing Marat/Sade with punks and ex-mental patients in Toronto. Trying to work with the homeless in the city’s shelters, but rejecting it as an “us/them” experience. That propelled them into the shantytown, where they decided to stage Heiner Müller’s Despoiled Shore Medeamaterial Landscape With Argonauts in the teepee.

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As the artists struggled to explain their mission, I got the impression that they’d spent hours, days, months trying to unravel the koans presented by their new life. How to do theater in the shantytown without being elitist. How to go public without being consumed. How to determine who the audience would be, could be, should be. Such questions become inevitable to artists without a community. I mean — apart from one’s own circle of friends, is there such a thing anymore as an artist with a community?

Schafer and Fracaro had settled in among the alienated, but homeless people aren’t necessarily bohemians. Most of them share the values of the larger world, and other residents of the Hill (as those who live there call it) saw the artists as the outsiders they really are.

1992 Village Voice article by C. Carr In Search of Bohemia

Several times someone called in through the tent flap, “Hey, Chief,” and Fracaro would ease himself out to talk to a neighbor. The Hill is clearly a man’s world. Schafer is known there as “Mrs. Chief.” She made the tepee last fall out of 78 U.S. mailbags while Fracaro spent weeks getting acquainted. The artists did not want to move in without the other residents’ permission. (And after much discussion, they decided not to give up their Brooklyn apartment.) They share a job at a movie production warehouse and live sparely. A few tools. A few books. They dubbed the tepee the Living Museum of the Nomad Monad. They’ve kept it drug-and-alcohol-free, providing coffee to their neighbors in the morning. Fracaro and Schafer say the others accept them now, but still regard them as odd.

The artists call the shantytown a “Temporary Autonomous Zone.” They had come across this phrase in an obscure text called T.A.Z. [The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism] by an arcane anarchist who calls himself Hakim Bey. I’d read the book myself, since I’m interested in what’s passing for autonomy these days, when a New World Order seems to permeate even our attempts at disorder or dissent. “Realism demands not only that we give up waiting for ‘the Revolution’ but also that we give up wanting it,” writes Bey. “In most cases the best and most radical tactic will be to refuse to engage in spectacular violence, to withdraw from the area of simulation, to disappear.” The artists in the tepee had managed to disappear by refusing to speak to reporters. (“As soon as the TAZ is named [represented, mediated] it must vanish, it will vanish …”) Only now, as they intuit that their days on the Hill are numbered, are they willing to talk to me.

I was reminded of other art satellites I’ve encountered over the last few years — the Neoist rituals in Tompkins Square, the Sideshows by the Seashore on Coney Island’s boardwalk, the Festival of the Swamps beneath the Williamsburg Bridge — all of it unfolding far from the grant-getting vortex, part of no movement, isolated from any larger context.

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Certainly I’ve found it harder to track the art margins lately. The climate for things experimental, for things adversarial, has not only worsened; the damage to those “autonomous zones” seemed irreparable. That historic institution once called “bohemia” has been so intensively exploited that it’s had to become invisible. For the first time in 150 years, bohemia can’t be pinpointed on a map. The dematerialization of the artist’s milieu has had a devastating impact on the entire culture — more intangible, and therefore more insidious, than the problems posed by shrinking corporate and government funding, the march of the real estate developers, and the debilitating war over free expression.

Dissent cannot happen in a vacuum. Nor can social or aesthetic movements grow in one. Community is the fabric that sustains experiment, stimulating that leap into the void and maybe even cushioning a fall.

Back when subterraneans still had a terrain, the bourgie types might go slumming through a Left Bank or Greenwich Village, but the colonizing process took much longer. No instant condos. No developer-spawned neighborhood acronyms. Now — relentless in its hunt for the Next Big Thing — the media cut such a swath through the demimonde that colonizers follow instantly, destabilizing and destroying. So, the energy that moved from Paris to New York, from West Village to East Village, from Old Bohemia (1830-1930) to New Bohemia (the ’60s) to Faux Bohemia (the ’80s) has atomized now into trails that can’t be followed: the ‘zine/cassette network, the living-room performance spaces, the modem-accessed cybersalons, the flight into neighborhoods that will never be Soho.

They’re all part of the bohemian diaspora.

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One winter night in 1916, Marcel Duchamp, John Sloan, and several other artists made their way to the top of the Washington Square arch, where they built a bonfire, ate a picnic, shot off some cap guns, and declared Greenwich Village an independent republic. And why not? Home to the wild advocates of socialism and anarchism, free love and free verse, the Village was a place out of sync with puritan America. Here, a left-wing monthly called The Masses actually opposed the Great War (for which the federal government effectively censored it). Here in 1918, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap began serializing the banned Ulysses in their magazine, The Little Review (for which they were charged with pandering obscenity). Here, at a time when women in American did not even have the right to vote, some were joining together to form the Heterodoxy Club for “unorthodox women” — which included feminists, several “out” lesbians, and one black woman.

They were bohemians in the classic sense — people alienated from middle-class values (artistic, sexual, political) who knew where to find a community of like minds. The word came from bohémien, the common French term for gypsy, a people defined in the popular mind as social outcasts. By now, “bohemian” has been recycled so endlessly it has no precise meaning — though it continues to evoke an image: the Rebel With an Aesthetic. “The bohemian spirit. Not too hard to spot,” says a current ad for Bohemia beer, beneath a photo of a man in a leather jacket repairing a motorcyle in his perfect white-walled loft, while a draped and available woman sits on his bed.

Even though it originated in 1830s Paris, the whole notion of a bohemia seems so American (Dream) to me, so much about “lightin’ out” for the frontier. Bohemia still plays a role in bourgeois fantasy as the road not taken, where you could’ve would’ve done your own thing, free from the yoke of work and family. This quest for breathing space was always less about art than about capitalism, an escape from the rat race and the cultural cookie cutter. In this fluid zone, someone from the lower class could slip in and someone from the upper class could opt out. Certainly, a revolt against capitalism is something few people — and few artists — are interested in these days.

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In 1991, it’s becoming something of a cliché to describe Western culture as a flattened landscape where the boundary between margin and mainstream has eroded. As critic Hal Foster put it, in his book Recordings: “the center has invaded the periphery and vice versa.” It’s the media spotlight that erases the line between them.

The demimonde, for example, revolved around its “third spaces” (not home, not work), the now-legendary cafes and clubs: Toulouse-Lautrec at the Chat Noir, Pollock at the Cedar Tavern, every East Village artist at 8BC. Expatriate Paris flocked to Gertrude Stein’s salon, while the Harlem Renaissance had A’Lelia Walker’s. But there are no equivalent hangouts now, because once they’re discovered by the media, they disappear. (The night I spotted Jerzy Kosinski and David Lee Roth at 8BC, I knew the end was near.) Compound that with the problem of finding any affordable downtown space at all, and it’s no accident that most of the boho energy I’ve encountered in Manhattan in the last couple years radiated out of a squat (Bullet Space) or someone’s living room (Gargoyle Mechanique, Gusto House). An exception like the Nuyorican Poets Cafe — holdout from an older era — simply proves the rule.

Of course, bohemia was something of a media invention right from the start. The first stories about it, written by Henry Mürger and based on himself and his friends, appeared in a small Paris newspaper in 1845-46. They were adapted for the musical stage in 1849, collected in Scenes of Bohemian Life in 1851, and immortalized in Puccini’s La Bohème in 1986, romanticizing what some still romanticize: the garret, the bonhomie, the “sacrifice for art.”

But the lore of the starving artist changed with mass media, till image was everything. The artist became the emblematic chic figure of the ’80s — the rebel fit for a beer ad. The media feeding frenzy around “East Village art” developed in part because those promoting this scene used its marginality as a marketing ploy. The ensuing spotlight quickly corrupted the playful impulses behind the original galleries and inflated the relatively modest accomplishments of many of the artists. Such inflation of reputations, of expectations, of the very idea of what it means to succeed as an artist — distorted the ’80s art world. Made it a bottomless pit of neo-celebs. And of course, it inflated rents as well. Now, even the faux bohemia once known as the East Village Scene is gone, replaced by the usual Manhattan real estate protectorate where the extremes of capitalist life coexist like two sides of a knife.

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By the late ’80s, more and more artists had decided to leave what some of them now called the Beast Village. For the most part, they were moving directly across the river to Greenpoint and Williamsburg, just one subway stop into another space-time continuum. This is the newest artists’ neighborhood, and a quiet one, barely visible in the working-class nabe around the L train or the barrio-near-the-bridge fed by the J and M. A few “spaces” are open, like Minor Injury and Brand Name Damages. (What could such names portend?)

But in contrast to the publicity-mad East Villagers, many artists in Greenpoint don’t seem to want their neighborhood publicized. As a friend who’s lived there for years put it, “We don’t care about getting validated by people from Manhattan.” There’s nothing for the hype to stick to, anyway. No trendy new ism. No glamour. No “No Wave.” Just cheap rent. But the artists find one another. There’s a knot of community. For example, Mike Ballou and Adam Simon run a symposium called Four Walls out of Ballou’s home. (“Don’t print my address.”) Simon started Four Walls in Hoboken a few years ago, so its move to Brooklyn follows the trail of cheap loft space. Once a month now, guest curators hang a show in Ballou’s studio for a day; it ends with a discussion of the work among the exhibitors and artists from the neighborhood. It’s always crowded.

But there are crowds and then there’s the Crowd. Last June, intrigued by flyers wheat-pasted all over the East Village, I made my way to an abandoned warehouse on the Williamsburg waterfront for a one-night-only art extravaganza called the Fly Trap. I’d heard good things about an earlier event called the Cat’s Head, and so had everyone else, apparently. By midnight, the line waiting in the rutted dirt road to the warehouse was two blocks long, complete with the old buzz surrounding the place-to-be. Inside, I found 20,000 square feet of huge and uninspired installations, live bands, and beer — club fun, a contrived atmosphere of outlaw revelry. Hanging art in some decrepit quasi-forbidden old building? A veritable tradition — and we did it better in the ’70s (Times Square Show). Then we did it better in the ’80s (Real Estate Show, Warren Street Pier).

Artists who fled to Williamsburg precisely to escape trendification are horrified to find it following them. Painter Amy Silliman, a longtime resident of the area, said of the Fly Trap: “Don’t assume that this is a summary of the neighborhood. It’s just the bad old East Village come to haunt me.”

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Allen Ginsberg gave his first public reading on October 13, 1955, at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. Kenneth Rexroth played MC for the five young poets who would all go on to achieve some measure of poetry-fame — Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen — while an unpublished and unknown Jack Kerouac, too shy to read, passed jugs of wine through the packed gallery. But this became a legendary evening on the strength of the one poem, still unfinished, read by Ginsberg: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness/starving hysterical naked …”

As his biographer Barry Miles reports it, Ginsberg was “transported … arms outstretched, eyes gleaming, swaying from one foot to the other with the rhythm of the words” while Rexroth listened with tears in his eyes and the audience yelled “Go!” at the end of each line. “Howl” was an explosion in consciousness heard round the world, the collective howl reverberating through every outsider enduring the lonely-crowd ’50s. This was poetry that changed people’s lives.

In Memoirs of a Beatnik, Diane di Prima describes the electrifying moment when she first encountered the poem and sensed that, for better or for worse, her isolation was over. Someone had brought Ginsberg’s now-familiar little square book to a dinner party at her “pad.” Scanning the first lines, she immediately left her own party to read the whole thing, then returned to read it out loud to everyone. “Allen was only, could only be, the vanguard of a much larger thing. All the people who, like me, had hidden and skulked, writing down what they knew for a small handful of friends — and even those friends claiming it ‘couldn’t be published’ … all these would now step forward and say their piece … I was about to meet my brothers and sisters.”

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It’s hard to imagine anything with “Howl”‘s impact emanating from “high culture” now. The breakthroughs, such as they are, seem to come from the “low” — the first Sex Pistols record, for example, which rewrote every rule about what music could be or say or spit on. It was during the ’50s that the spite of “danger” and “rebellion” began to shift from the art world to mass culture. The Beats were the first bohemian movement born under the eye of the mass media. Ginsberg’s biography notes that “he took pains to show the difference between the Beat Generation … and the beatniks.” But the media didn’t observe the distinction, “and the public perception was that Allen was the progenitor of all the bearded young men who wandered around Greenwich Village in handmade leather sandals.” The Beats thought they could inject their vision into mass culture, but what the “bearded young men” really signaled was the beginning of the community as artifact.

In the ’50s, the media image of the beatnik became a corollary to masscult images of rebellious teens. James Dean, that icon of Misunderstood Youth — wasn’t he also the Tortured Artist? As for Elvis Presley — wasn’t the emblematic scene in each movie the one where he dropped the dumb ballad and learned to rock, blow, go-man-go? Today it’s easy to forget how two people as different from each other as Presley and Ginsberg would have grated against the status quo in the Eisenhower years.

If this didn’t quite make for a mass Bohemia — yet — Kerouac could still complain that the Beats were nothing but “a fad.” His own overnight transition from vision-seeking subterranean to flavor-of-the-month celebrity was a painful one. When On the Road appeared in 1957, he’d been trying to get the book published for six years. Suddenly The New York Times declared it the testament of a new generation, and one day later, the interviewers began to arrive. What was it really like to be Beat? they wanted to know. Soon Kerouac was appearing on talk shows spouting metaphysics to the likes of Mike Wallace (“we are great empty space … an empty vision in one mind”). He never seemed to understand that the press wanted hot copy, not enlightenment. It was a San Francisco journalist who invented the word beatnik (after Sputnik), and soon the media had the movement boiled down to jive talk and a set of bongo drums. By 1959, the most famous beatnik in America was Maynard G. Krebs.

Back in 1957, while the brand-new Village Voice covered a few Beat moments like Kerouac’s appearance at the Village Vanguard, it featured much longer pieces on old Bohemians — infamous Village characters like Joe Gould and Maxwell Bodenheim, who were virtually unknown outside the neighborhood. Fierce rivals, these two impoverished writers were reportedly fed and given drinks at one Village bar for awhile “so customers would come to watch the hostilities.”

Bohemia itself was moving from West Village to East at the end of the ’50s, and would house a very different sort of “freak.” There would be no more Goulds. The Voice piece on his funeral speculates on the whereabouts of Gould’s lifework, The Oral History of Our Time — 11 million words written in dime-store notebooks as he sat in Goody’s Bar on the Minetta Tavern. (Oral History remains a lost work.) Today, Gould’s portrait hangs in the Minetta Tavern, but surely someone so unkempt, ornery, and wild-eyed would no longer, uh, suit the decor. This was the boho as hobo: the rebel who could not be televised.

What the full flowering of electronic media made possible was alienation as a growth industry rather than an emblem of community. Malcolm Cowley, part of the so-called Lost Generation, describes in Exile’s Return how the First World War and a new set of values set his generation irrevocably apart from the one before it. In the ’60s, of course, this feeling infected mass culture, creating the infamous “generation gap” — for it took no more than loving the Beatles, the world’s most popular group, to set one apart from one’s parents. While “do your own thing” was the notion at the heart of the old bohemia, during the ’60s it found a place in the heart of every teen consumer. Nonconformity, transgression, risk — adjectives once associated with bohemian values and avant-garde art — suddenly described superstars whose hits played in Peoria. And Jimi Hendrix became a Fluxus artist when he burned his guitar.

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On February 9, 1967, 16 patrol cars pulled up around the Filmmaker’s Cinematheque on West 41st Street. Helmeted police converged on the stage inside and arrested artist Charlotte Moorman during a performance of Nam June Paik’s Opera Sextronique. Moorman had been playing the cello topless. The Brahms Lullaby. A “lewd act.”

Three months later, a Manhattan criminal court judge convicted her of indecent exposure. Moorman faced one to three years in prison. Judge Milton Shalleck suspended the sentence, however, calling the cellist “weak and immature.” His 29-page opinion is a classic artifact of official contempt for the avant-garde, with its references to “bearded, bathless Beats” and “those ‘happeners’ whose belief it is that art is ‘supposed to change life’ as most of us know it.” There the judge had a glimmer of art’s true potential for transgression. It could change life.

And that never seemed more possible than it did in the ’60s, when every art form broke apart into something rich and strange. Remember cynaesthetic cinema? Cybernetic sculpture? Intermedia? Destruction art? Underground film? The death of painting? The death of the novel? The death of the theater? One could make a case for the ’60s as “the end of the avant-garde.” But the media gravitated to Warhol and Ginsberg and the other supernovas of an official demimonde, ignoring the aesthetic ferment behind the personalities. It was up to critic/advocates like Jill Johnston (performance) and Jonas Mekas (film) to witness the revolution. Certainly Charlotte Moorman, an emblematic figure in the ’60s avant-garde, could not expect a Times review. Nor a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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To be part of the art netherworld then was to be part of something suspect, outré, and perhaps even illegal. Moorman’s arrest was no anomaly. In 1961, postal inspectors busted LeRoi Jones and Diane di Prima for sending obscenity through the mail — their literary magazine, Floating Bear. (A grand jury failed to return indictments.) In 1964, Lenny Bruce got a one-year sentence for using words like fuck and cocksucker onstage at the Cafe Au Go Go. (It was overturned on appeal after Bruce’s death.) That same year, two detectives broke up an East Village screening of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, arresting Jonas Mekas, who had programmed the film. (Mekas got a six-month suspended sentence, and Smith’s film was banned in the state of New York until 1970.) These were people who’d chosen a life in art that would keep them impoverished, marginal, embattled. They were “don’t-wannabes.” Bohemians.

The difference between censored artists in the ’60s and the ’90s goes to the heart of how things have changed in the bohemian margin. Artists like the so-called Defunded Four — Holly Hughes, Karen Finley, John Fleck, Tim Miller — have now been catapulted out of their contexts on the backs of the media. All the publicity did was expose them to an audience guaranteed to find them intolerable, while artists of the “any-ink-is-good-ink” school looked on with envy. But none of the four have ever done work for a mass audience, nor have they wanted to. These days, however, transgression is just one more sluiceway into the undifferentiating whirlpool of media attention.

Censorship used to mean arrest; now it means publicity. That’s the superficial observation. Imagine Jack Smith’s fate if Flaming Creatures had been targeted by the religious right, discussed on Good Morning America, and televised across the country on CNN. As it was, Smith found the exploitation of his movie so unbearable he withdrew it from circulation, at one point declaring it “lost.” He never completely finished another film.

As Smith once said of his own work in Semiotext(e), “Nobody wants to open a can of worms, but that’s the thing that has been handed for me to do.” His was never work intended for mass audiences, but for kindred souls. And such work is valued less and less. Such work was the demimonde’s raison d’être.

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Bohemia has always been an official margin, the dominant culture’s test site for new isms, its holding pen for “different drummers.” And from its funky confines, certain artists have been able to launch themselves into the mainstream. Such outsiders-turned-insiders fill the pages of 20th century cultural history. But from Rimbaud to Kerouac, they’ve been mostly of the whiteboy persuasion.

While there have always been significant Others in bohemia, they’ve rarely articulated their own cultural realities — in part because their audience, though unconventional, has always been, for the most part, straight, white, and male. If key figures in the Beat movement were bi-or homosexual, they didn’t consider that an identity with its own potential for radicalism; like their straight buddies, they worshiped masculinity, despised effeminacy, and shafted women. And gay men were the most likely Others to cross over. As for women, writer Joyce Johnson, one of Kerouac’s girlfriends, would write years later of being a “minor character” in the Beat Scene. And as for people of color, bohemia American-style has always included folks like LeRoi Jones [Amiri Baraka], Ralph [Rafael Montanez] Ortiz, and Yoko Ono — to name just a few. But people of color and women in general remained outside the canon long after Ginsberg and Burroughs had become the stuff of Hollywood films and Nova conventions and papers presented to the Modern Language Association.

There has always been a single bohemian tradition — and it didn’t include something like the Harlem Renaissance, still the demimonde most bohemians know least about. (It’s barely mentioned in most boho histories.) Of course, Harlem in the ’20s was different from the Village. Reacting to life in a racist nation, writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston struggled to give voice to the voiceless African American, and so were less alienated from a larger community. They sought their roots, while white artists fled from theirs. But like any other demimonde, the Harlem Renaissance had its salons and soirees, little magazines, quarrels, cranks, and utopian political ideals. Its artists and writers occasionally crossed paths with their Village counterparts at, say, Mabel Dodge’s salon on Lower Fifth Avenue. But Harlem’s so-called Talented Tenth made few inroads into white America. Their particular margin — being unofficial, thus invisible — couldn’t launch them into the big time.

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These days the whole concept of marginality is in flux, thanks to the advent of multiculturalism. No, that’s not a code word for “minority representation,” but a movement that would have recognized both Harlem and the Village; a movement in which every margin is visible; a movement that would redraw the map of the art world to make it more like the real world.

Much more is at stake in the margins now than there was during, say, some style war leading to the triumph of Abstract Expressionism. Throughout modernism, the demimonde had a worthy but narrow function as an official periphery. In that milieu, artists defied the official center, some crossed over and the art world got a steady flow of new product — but never a challenge to its basic assumptions. Now, however, multiculturalism is exposing art history as exclusionary, art theory as incomplete, and bohemia as one margin among many.

Performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña, who has played a major role in shaping multicultural debate in the art world, invoked the image of Columbus when he spoke of the Latino Boom and the margins from which he emerged: “The model of discovery is in place. Going into the territory of the Other, discovering the Other, bringing the Other back into the mainstream. The big question of the ’90s for the Chicano movement is, can we be in control of our context? Will we be able to keep our negotiating powers, or will we just die on display like the Arawak [the native people Columbus sent back to the Spanish court]?”

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Now the shifts and schisms in the margins reflect the tug-of-war going on throughout the world: the trend towards globalization versus the trend towards community. The pressure to assimilate versus the urge to segregate.

Traditionally, an artist like Gómez-Peña would be seen as culturally specific, not universal. In fact, he is both, though his universalism is lost on those who see only Otherness. “Our generation belongs to the world’s biggest floating population,” he once wrote in one of his manifestos. And he’s not just referring to an ethnic group. He means all of us — “the weary travelers, the dislocated, those who left because we didn’t fit anymore, those who still haven’t arrived because we don’t know where to arrive at, or because we can’t go back anymore. Our deepest generational emotion is that of loss.” This perfectly describes the bohemian diaspora: an autonomous zone of the mind.

We’ve come full circle, back to the original meaning of the word bohémien: “gypsy.” Of course, bohemia was always part of the exile tradition, the place where the lost ones went to find each other. But it was exile from one tangible place to another. Now that there is no place, the exiles have become nomads, and there’s a whole culture of the disappeared. ❖

1992 Village Voice article by C. Carr In Search of Bohemia

1992 Village Voice article by C. Carr In Search of Bohemia

1992 Village Voice article by C. Carr In Search of Bohemia

1992 Village Voice article by C. Carr In Search of Bohemia

1992 Village Voice article by C. Carr In Search of Bohemia

1992 Village Voice article by C. Carr In Search of Bohemia

From The Archives From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

BLACK LIKE WHO? Arguing With the Homeboys

Since Spike Lee has consistently promoted himself as the down voice of black life — the homeboy who, with his other homeboys, speaks to and for black community — it should come as no surprise that black folks feel free to talk back to Spike. We speak about him in ways that suggest familiarity, closeness, the right to butt into his business. In traditional black community, elders would stop you when they thought you were out of line and set you straight. They would call you over, find a quiet space, and let you know what they thought you were doing wrong: this was not the stuff of con­troversy. In the world of racial integration where one’s shit gets “checked” publicly, in the newspapers even, with everybody watching, such critique becomes not only controversial, it plays right into racist as­sumptions that there can only be one pow­erful black (usually male) voice at any given time and that a struggle (preferably one that creates entertaining spectacle for racist onlookers) must take place to see who will retain the title of “head negro in charge.”

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The recent conflict between Spike Lee and Amiri Baraka has all the qualities of darky spectacle. When Lee boasts that “there are thirty million blacks in this country” and that “more of them are on my side than his,” he trivializes the importance of progressive cultural criticism that dares to speak on issues related to black experi­ence, reducing socially relevant conflict to a battle between two black male egos. Had Baraka and crew simply privately voiced concern about the way Spike might portray Malcolm’s life on the screen, it would not have become the stuff of controversy. It would not have raised in the public’s imagination fears of black fascist censorship, of a Rushdie-like affair with Lee as the potential victim of image or life-threatening attacks. When this conflict gets talked about as though it were merely a war between phal­locentric black males for public voice — for authority over black experience — the more serious issues having to do with the place of cultural criticism in black life, ongoing de­bates about issues of identity and authen­ticity (will the real black person please stand up?), as well as the role of artistic production in progressive black liberation struggle, are obscured and all but ignored. These are the happening issues that black folks do not talk about enough or with the level of critical seriousness and sophistica­tion that would enhance and enrich our understanding of black life and simultaneously strengthen our collective struggle. Both Spike Lee and Amiri Baraka would probably agree that collectively black folks are not FREE; that most of us have not decolonized our minds, are caught in the grips of paralyzing internalized racism; and that as a people we lack the kind of ongoing radical analysis of our economic plight that would lead us to understand fully the im­pact of capitalism on black life (contrary to what Spike and others would have us be­lieve, black capitalism and black self-deter­mination are not one and the same).

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Given that black folks make art and mar­ket it within white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, none of us can ignore the reality that any black person who wants to create a product with mass crossover appeal must do some serious soul-searching. It’s all too easy to sell out, to be co-opted, seduced into a conservative artistic practice that allows one to pretend that somehow it’s all right to produce reactionary, right-wing representations of black life that neither threaten nor challenge the status quo — if one is well-paid. Black folks, and all other critical thinkers who are concerned about the fate of black people, who want to see an end to racist domination, are justifiably concerned about the impact of race and representation. In this culture, what group of people could know better than black folks the danger of the IMAGE? And it is politically astute for us to raise questions about the way black life is represented (and that includes the biography of Malcolm X). But if we want such critique to act as constructive intervention, then it cannot be shallow or rooted in superficial personal conflict.

The most frustrating aspect of this Spike/Baraka affair is that as spectacle it does not serve as a catalyst for the making of new critical locations, spaces for open, honest communication. On the positive tip, at best it reminds those among us who would commodify blackness so as to render us objects to be consumed by a ravenous racist public (many of them people of color suffering from internalized racism) that we have not all lost our minds to greed and the lust for fame, that it is still crucial that black people critically examine the nature of the images we project so as not to be guilty of perpetuating the very domination we oppose. The issues raised by the conflict between Spike and Baraka remind us that there is a need for critical vigilance, that artistic production is always, always political.

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It is important that Baraka and crew urge black people to take a critical approach to cultural production, but the field of contes­tation they project is much too narrow and leans toward censorship. The point should not be to “check” or censor Spike or public­ly threaten him, but to urge black folks to be critical viewers committed to a libera­tory politics that would check our tenden­cies to passively consume images. A dynamic space for critical exchange should exist in which meaningful black artistic production could emerge and be critiqued. Many black folks, ruthlessly obsessed with the desire to further racial uplift by pro­moting “positive images,” refuse to ac­knowledge that we need a diversity of per­spectives, and seek to suppress the voices of dissent. Spike should know this since he has shown little interest in critical voices that he does not control, that do not un­equivocally affirm his projects.

Censorship is happening on all levels of the black culture scene. It threatens to keep black artistic expression and cultural cri­tique confined to narrow, suffocating spaces, where they serve as vehicles for the recycling of old images and thought or mindless propaganda. We need to get a grip! During the controversy over Satanic Verses any voice that supported Third World readers’ critical interrogation of the ways people of color are represented in a white supremacist context was automatical­ly seen as betraying the cause of artistic freedom, threatening democratic principles. Yet many folks (myself included) felt we could unequivocally oppose violent intimi­dation even as we could simultaneously ac­knowledge the political necessity of op­pressed and/or marginalized groups asserting in resistance that all forms of ar­tistic expression seeking to perpetuate and maintain imperialism, colonialism, racism, and sexism must be contested. Contestation and censorship are not the same.

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The work of Spike Lee and of all of us who create black art should be critically interrogated. There should be a space to discuss work — in progress as well as com­pleted. As the field of contestation widens for black artists and audiences, as we insist on a critical openness that expands our visions, that invites ongoing transformation of consciousness, we will not need to worry about who produces what kind of image, for the structures will be in place to chal­lenge, critically interrogate, and, if neces­sary, subvert. ■


An Ofay’s Indirect Address to LeRoi Jones

The Press of Freedom: An Ofay’s Indirect Address to LeRoi Jones
March 4, 1965

Four men — each a well-known practitioner of one of the arts — appeared on a recent Monday night in the small basement room of the Village Vanguard to address an overflowing crowd on the grandly entitled subject “Art vs. Politics.” The men were Larry Rivers, painter; Archie Shepp, musician; Jonas Mekas, film-maker; LeRoi Jones, play­wright. The audience was predominantly — predictably — white, liberal, middle-class. They had come to be entertained and instructed. They stayed to be­come serious or delighted. They left in a roar of confused frus­tration, feeling as though they had, with unexpected stunning, been dealt a kick in the stomach and a few swift blows to the side of the head. For LeRoi Jones and Archie Shepp, whose evening it was, had told them repeatedly, “Die baby. The only thing you can do for me is die.”

It is almost impossible for me to train total recall on a con­versation which developed with the bewildering speed of a bar­room brawl. But here’s the gist of it:

Larry Rivers led off, reading from a prepared statement. Speaking of the artist’s relation to his audience, Mr. Rivers traced that changing phenomenon through Courbet, the Im­pressionists, the Futurists, the Surrealists, coming at last to the present time, in which, he concluded, the artist is his own audience; this not merely in the sense that a painter works for himself, but in the broader sense that in our time the art­ist’s greatest urge is to emphasize the similarity between his own fundamental desires and those of every other member of society. He put it something like this: I want to eat good, fuck good, work good … just like everybody else.

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Uneasy Stir

Archie Shepp, the next speaker, gaped for a moment at Ri­vers, seemed a bit nonplussed, muttered something about “Art, art. What the hell is all this talk about art?” and, with a shrug of the shoulders, launched into a comparatively mild ram­ble about a book he’d been reading the other night which described the first passage of slaves to this continent, a passage in which two-thirds of those slaves had died in the hold — and if this (Shepp’s) life and work didn’t represent an attempt to pay the homage of eternal remembrance to those two-thirds, well then … He ended by looking out at the au­dience and telling them that while he didn’t particularly want to put them down for the ofays they obviously were, still they couldn’t hope to understand what he was talking about.

Rivers’ head went back; the audience stirred uneasily (what was this? they were here as partisans — was this how you talked to partisans?); LeRoi Jones laughed softly and said “Take it easy, Archie. We’ve got all evening.” (The man is a veritable prophet.)

Mekas then struggled through a vague and rather incoherent speech (unfortunately because I suspect his point was, ultimately, the most worldly of them all) about how the experiences of wartime Europe had led him finally to understand that man’s only valuable occupation was his struggle to fashion for himself a more beautiful soul.

Theatre of Victims

Then Jones took the stand. He read a piece entitled “The Re­volutionary Theatre” (a piece, he informed the audience, which had been commissioned by the New York Times and then re­fused). In language of  poetic and highly imaginative insistence Jones claimed that it was the business of the theatre to reflect life … to stir up such hatred and such feeling that when the curtain comes down the theatre seats are soaked in the blood of split heads (needless to point out whose blood and whose split heads). This, he maintained, is a theatre of victims; by Western standards (sneer) perhaps a theatre of heroes … but victims all the same. He went on to quote the famous Oxford professor Wittgenstein as having said: “Ethics is aesthetics” and to point out that the white world has never understood or accepted this pro­position, intimating that the new Negro artist does understand it and will make damn sure that the whites do before they die.

In the long give-and-take (to be generous about it) that then ensued among the panelists, the dominance beat was one of unflagging insult from Shepp and Jones to the audience, the city, the country, the world — that is, to that section of it which was white, pure white. Nor did the other (white) panelists get off the hook. Mekas, who had been describing an interview between himself and Jack Smith and Mike Wallace, was suddenly asked by Jones: “Tell me, of you can, what is the difference be­tween Jack Smith and Mike Wallace.” To which Mekas had enough humorous composure to reply: “Mike Wallace would never be interviewed by Jack Smith.”

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The Different

But it was Larry Rivers who bore the brunt of the assault:

Shepp would turn to Rivers every now and then and say: “Man, you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.” And then: “They hire YOU at the Five Spot; they don’t hire me; that’s the whole difference, right there.” And then: “How do you feel about that? I know how I feel. How do you feel? What would you lay your ass on the line for? Nothing! That’s what. Or you? (To the audience, now.) You wouldn’t lay your asses on the line for shit!”

Jones told Rivers he was the exponent par excellence of the middle-class white world: “You aspire to the society of those faggoty uptown art dealers. You paint for them … ”

A round of protesting noises now went up from the audience. “What are you talking about?” cried a woman.

Shepp spoke with elaborate disdain or open anger of the pain with which he lived every day of his Negro life. Finally, in an eloquent outburst, he spoke of James Chaney, the young Negro who was murdered last summer In Mississippi:

“They beat him until unrecognizable. Unrecognizable! They only KILLED Schwerner and Goodman, but they beat Chaney to a pulp. They beat the humanity out of that boy. And in that act, in that heinous crime, in that unspeakable crime they accepted Schwerner  and Goodman and refused me. Even in death they are embraced and I am refused. Even in death America accepts its own. You” — he swung on the audience —  “you accept your own —and refuse me. And in that fact lies my pain.”

A boy in the audience, agitated now beyond endurance, jumped up and screamed, “Oh shit!”

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‘World ot Pain’ 

Shepp turned a glance of loathing on the boy. “Oh man,” he sighed,  “sit down. Just sit down. You hear that?” he ask­ed the audience, ”you hear that? Between me and that ‘Oh shit’ is a world of pain.”

“Oh shit, baby,” the boy screamed again. “I’ve been up tight for a year because of you!”

“Man,” said Shepp, “I don’t want to hear your life story. Will you listen to that? We’re getting a confession here.”

Then LeRoi Jones made a re­mark of stunning contempt. “His life story?” he sneered. “Why, you can turn on the TV set and get it any day of the week on ‘The Guiding Light.’ ”

From that instant it was cry­stal clear that the night be­longed to Jones — and had from the very beginning. (One had the feeling that Shepp had been tak­ing cues all along.) His anta­gonists multiplied by the min­ute … and, with incredible ease, he swung like a beam of light from one to another; his retorts came with deadly speed and precision; it was no sweat for him, no sweat at all, because it was abundantly clear that there were no separate faces in that audience for him. (For when it suits his purpose, Jones produces in his mind a vision of the “homogeneous American soul,” a soul whose only relevance consists in the fact that it dwells in a white skin.) The distinctions of age, sex, background, occupation were as though they never existed. Jones was talking to The Man and only The Man.

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What to Do

A small, round, bespectacled man, shaken with emotion, rose: “As a Jew and as a white man, I hear you.” (“Could you pos­sibly hear me in any other way?” interjected Jones.) “You say we are all guilty. What do you want us to do? What on earth do you want us to do?”

“Do, man? Do? There’s noth­ing you can do!” The malicious pleasure in his voice was thick enough to cut with a knife.

A woman with a contorted face and an eerie fluff of sil­ver-blonde hair shrieked: “What about Schwerner and Goodman? Don’t you care about them?”

“Absolutely not,” rapped out Jones. “Those boys were just artifacts, artifacts, man. They weren’t real. If they want to assuage their leaking consci­ences that’s their business. I won’t mourn them. I have my own dead to mourn for.”

A civil rights worker, his eyes popping behind his glasses, yelled: “These are not the facts! Maybe we are guilty be­cause we’re white. But God­dammit, we’re not all equally guilty. Some are more guilty than others.”

“Sort of like being ‘almost pregnant,’ Isn’t it?” laughed Jones.

A Women Strike for Peace type lady called out: “This af­ternoon 400 people marched on the U.N. to protest the bomb­ing in Vietnam. There wasn’t one Negro among them.”

“Why didn’t you send buses down to the garment district to collect some Negroes if you wanted to be all nice and representative? I mean, man, man, when were you marching? At three in the afternoon?” An answer for all eventualities.

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Clowns and Gorillas

A roar of anger began to fill the place; out of it Jones was suddenly saying: “You’ve all elected a Texas cracker to represent you, all of you!”

A sandy-haired man dressed in denims jumped to his feet. “Now that got to me,” he said in a soft Southern voice. He be­gan a rambling retort on the variety of pains to be suffered in this world, blurting out: “Man, I’ve paid my dues. And you know it, LeRoi.”

No-mercy Jones, a little tired now: “So you’ve been in jail and you write your confessions for the Saturday Evening Post.”

“I don’t write for the Satur­day Evening Post!” the blue-­jeaned man cried. “Just ’cause they buy it, don’t mean I write for ’em. I write for people … ” (Thus is passion seduced by farce.)

Casting a cold eye on the increasingly infuriated audience, Shepp said (straight into the mike): “Look at them. The clowns who come to throw peanuts at the gorillas. Only in this case it’s gorillas throwing peanuts at humans.”

Well, why go on with this? By now the direction of all this was obvious. By the end of the evening the audience was reduced to a screaming plead­ing, degraded, bewildered mob: Jones goal from the very beginning, of course.

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LeROI JONES LOOKS into my ofay face with cold steady eyes and in a soft, seductively rea­sonable voice accuses me:

  • You can never — but NEVER — understand the nature of my pain. To wake up in my skin, fall asleep in my skin, and live all the hours in between in my skin — this you can never know. There is nothing on earth you will ever experience that will give you the remotest clue to my life …
  • All whites are equally guilty — ALL — of the unforgivable crime of attempting to destroy my humanity.
  • The world under white au­thority has become a disgust­ing place: weak, shallow, cow­ardly. When we Negroes are in command things will be differ­ent. Your sins, your failings, your mistakes will be unknown among us; we will prove to be a better people.

As to the veracity of the first accusation: who is there to say him nay? Certainly not I. His pain, he claims, is relevant, and mine is not. I believe him. I believe every word of it. His ex­perience will remain forever foreign to me. This too I believe. Every now and then one looks into a man’s face or overhears an exchange or reads a page of print or sees a photograph and for one hideous instant there is revelation: blind, wordless, over­whelming. You stumble in your tracks, you have difficulty breathing, there is a terrible pressure in your head. That is the most, I think, that we who pass for white can ever know. That is the closest I can get to realizing the words of a young Negro woman I once knew — the intelligent, restrained, pro­foundly bourgeois daughter of a Harlem doctor — when she said, in an unbearable moment: “There are mornings when I get up and walk out in the street wishing I had a rifle with which to mow down every white face I see.”

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Lines Broken

As to the second accusation: where does one begin — in the name of reason and justice — to unravel the half-truths and the painful falsehoods? Now­here. Here the lines of communication are entirely broken down. Thus every white works now (in or out of the civil rights movement) on the side of the Negro does so in the knowledge that he is committing an act of conscience, an act which is essentially lonely and which to a large extent is unwelcome, unrewarded, unremarked. And rightfully so. The Negroes who tell us: “You’re doing this for yourself, baby, not for me,” are right. Or at least they should be. So now, in America, white men of conscience find themselves in the same ironic position that the Russian Jews who fought in that remote Revolution found themselves in. Anyone with half a brain could see that in anti-Semitic Russia, comes the revolution, the first ones to be purged as counter-revolutionaries would be the Bolshevik Jews … and sure enough. But what choice did those Jews have? By the same token, many white men know now that when the barricades are thrown up in the streets of this country, they will have no choice as to the side they find themselves on, even though comes the revolution, they too will probably be in the first purge.

In Jones’s eye there is blood and in his system a raging bile. The burning sword at his side (or is it the hatchet inside his breast pocket to which he continually and ominously alludes?) is his blanket indictment of white America. For him now there is only passion … which is not always the same as truth. His effectiveness as a revolutionary lies in the emotional power with which he seeks to wrest his humanity from his oppressors by in turn denying them — every last one of them — their humanity. From this wretched vantage point in these bloody terms, I supposed we ARE all guilty. Who is there to give the final judgement?

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Naive Belief

It is to the third accusation that I most strenuously address myself — this utterly wrong-headed insistence that when the Negro’s turn comes to rule, he will do things differently. Under his authority the precious fluid of the human spirit contained in a chalice broken in white hands will be scooped up and treasured as the white world never knew how to treasure it. In the lifetime of Negro authority a particular level of spiritual decrepitude, moral rot, and demeaning weakness will vanish. The human race will develop a lovelier form, occupy a handsomer skin. The Negro will, once and for all, show the white world how a man can and ought to live.

This entire speculation turns on the incredibly naive belief that suffering has ennobled the Negro, that his pain will continue to exert an influence over him even long after it has passed from his life.

What rubbish! The sad, sad point about suffering is that there is no point at all. The lesson to be learned is that there is no lesson. It is simply a fact of life which has no after-life. While it endures it is the entire universe. On the very instant that pain ceases, the process of forgetfulness already begins. (And this is an element of white experience that no Negro can comprehend for the simple reason that while a man is suffering, he is unable to en­vision a time when it will have no meaning for him.) The scars begin to fade, the memories be­gin to dull, the relaxed hand can hardly remember the shape of the clenched fist. If there is any single great lesson to be learned from the 20th century it is this lonely and barbarous fact (witness “Hiroshima, Mon Amour”), which is at once the salvation and the irony  of our lives. If we retained the memory sharp and clear of every  wound ever inflicted on us, we surely could not survive; and the fact that we do not remember our wounds makes or our lives a primitive and unexalted thing. For all men in all conditions at all times this has been true. It is therefore hardly likely that it will be less true for the Amer­ican Negro. When it’s all over but the shouting, the American Negro will lose along with his soul-destroying fury the memory of that fury; his spirit, in time (in a generation, in two generations,) will become as flimsy and as shapeless and  as impoverished as the spirit of that decadent white bourgeoisie he now so comfortably despises.

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‘Starting Point’

Poverty of the spirit has nothing whatever to do with the life of a race. It has to do with the seduc­tion of men’s souls at the hands of that prosperity. For men do not thrive on the good life; they are, rather, atrophied by it. Thus very few men are in possession of the middle-class life; mainly they are possessed by it. And for the most part there is no escaping it. For the point is not so much that the nation has aspired to the middle-class life, but rather that, in the absence of certain specific tensions, it has acquired it. Without war, without depression, without foreign troops in occupation, without social oppres­sion, without combat with the elements … what is one left with? One is left with what nine­-tenths of the world spends its life fighting for: freedom from want, the so-called starting point of life. But freedom from want is not enough. Not enough? It doesn’t even come anywhere near the mark. The demons are still with us, in fact they loom larger than ever, and oddly enough, they even get harder and harder to identify. Thus freedom has become a desperate affair. Freedom from what? Toward what? FOR what? Very few men have the talent or the imagina­tion to know what to do with themselves once they have achieved the good life. They never did have it — in no class and during no age. In some remote and distant time (say, 50 years ago?) there did exist a belief in a unifying structure of principle, a perception of contin­uity, a conviction that he lived at the center of his universe, which allowed a man to live out his life relatively unshaken in his faith in the validity of the pursuit of life. In our time those principles have been shattered, and we have been left with nothing — nothing but the rotten hoax of he good life and the contemplation of futility. And so in the Land of Peace where the Meaningless is King, there exists an insatiable hunger, an unfillable emptiness, a numbing aimlessness — in response to which we open more supermarkets and more psychoanalysts’ offices. In a frenzy we seek the orgy of accumulation: the accumulation of more goods, more personal loyal­ties, more uncommitted opinions. The result, of course, intolerable isolation, so that instead of being the master of his split-level dovecot, a man finds himself wandering about its rooms as though under house arrest. And still he will not open his doors to strangers …

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There is no one in this country who understands the meaning of this condition better than the American ex-radical. What des­troyed him was his insight into the paltriness of the political vision, that long look down the road to Utopia which told him suddenly that the enemy was inside us, not outside us. The passion of the American radical was certainly as whole-souled (and as naive) as that of the Negro revolutionist, and the loss of that passion drove half of them into existentialism and made of the other half gibbering idiots, men terrified of the void, who — in the most literal sense of that word — copped out after 1938 by simply refusing to take further note of the world’s changing knowledge.

It is one of the bitterest ironies of our life that the tension that keeps men alive in their nerve­-endings and equipped with a sense of urgency is the tension of deprivation. And deprivation is what — with an imperative need  — we work to rid ourselves of. Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer have both written with understanding about the first half of this proposition. It is on the second half that they screwed up. To romanticize oppression in order to stimulate waning passions is a disgusting perversion, and the yearnings of these two finely confused men for the Ne­gro’s life-sense (knowing it is based on his unspeakable condition) are on a parallel with the Japanese tale of the businessman who encouraged an affair between his wife and a young doctor and then spied on them while they were making love in order to awaken his own failing sex­uality. It was with obvious truth and in perfect justice that James Baldwin declared that should Kerouac or Mailer get up on the stage of the Apollo Theatre and recite one of  their white Negro hymns, they would be stoned to death. If there is justification on any level for the Negro’s contempt for the white liberal, it is certainly on this one. Norman Mailer sitting in his Columbia Heights mansion, drawing thousands in royalties, complaining of his lost appetites … Christ!

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Rewards and Payments 

The point is that this is what we are stuck with. The rewards and the exacted payments of Western culture are the accumu­lation of goods and the existen­tialist’s sense of loss. “Western culture!” LeRoi Jones sneered the other night. But it’s ridiculous. After all, who the hell does the man think he is? He’s not a Chinese communist or an African soldier or a Hindu religious. He is a Western man, and the shape of his anguish and of his longings has been determined by Western culture. When he says he wants his, what he means is that he wants his share of this life — and no other. And he will reap the rewards and the losses of this life just as every other American has. For Negroes are, indeed, men like all other men, which means that for the most part they are weak and greedy and anxious, of limited imagination and hopeless mediocre ambition. While suffering depresses their spirits and causes rage to flare up in them, it is true that their sensibilities are dipped in fire. But when that suffering ceases (and as sure as the sky is blue and the grass is green, it will cease), the fire will die down, the holocaust will pass, its former existence will be marked only by ashes which eventually will be kicked into oblivion … and Negroes will live exactly — but exactly — the same lives as every other American now lives.

In answer to all of which LeRoi Jones will beyond a doubt reply: “Yeah, baby. But I want my chance. My time is coming, and I want my chance. You dig?”

I dig. And he will get his chance. He’ll get more than that, he’ll get everything he is now straining for. And then he will live, to his everlasting sorrow, to look up one day, aged 75, at his grown grandchildren, leading utterly ordinary lives — absorbed in taking Johnnie to the dentist and not opening the door at night to strangers and telling a psychoanalyst once a week, “Doctor, I don’t know what’s the matter with me. No matter what I do I have this strange feeling of emptiness … ” — and, remembering these draining days, he will say (as OUR revolutionary grandfathers have said to US): “Is this all? Is this what it was all about?” And his grandchildren will answer, with affection and mild irritation, “Oh, for good­ness sake, Grandpa! This is 2005, not 1965. All that stuff is over and done with!”

Like the man said: “That’s the way it is, man. That’s the way it really is.”

From The Archives Uncategorized

Cult-Nats Meet Freaky-Deke

Cult-Nats Meet Freaky-Deke
December 1986

Somewhere along the road to probable madness or a meaningful life, I decided that what black culture needs is a popular poststructuralism — accessible writing bent on deconstructing the whole of black culture. Anybody who’s read Harold Cruse’s scathing dissection of black leadership, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, knows his argument that each generation of black leaders has failed from an inability to conceive black liberation totally and systemically. Meaning they failed to develop agendas that fused protest and reform politics with self-­help economics, sophisticated cultural critiques, and a Marxian take on the political economy of capitalism. Twenty years later, the void Cruse railed against remains. If you think I’m going to try to fill it, you got another think coming. I’m bold but I ain’t that bad. This whatchamajiggy here is about how black aestheticians need to develop a coherent criticism to communicate the com­plexities of our culture. There’s no periodical on black cultural phenomena equivalent to The Village Voice or Artforum, no publication that provides journalism on black visual art, philosophy, politics, economics, media, literature, linguistics, psychology, sexuality, spirituality, and pop culture. Though there are certainly black editors, journalists, and academics capable of producing such a journal, the disintegration of the black cultural nationalist movement and the braindrain of black intellectuals to white insti­tutions have destroyed the vociferous public dialogue that used to exist between them. Consider this my little shot at opening it up again.

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Given the lack of debate and discussion among educated blacks today, Harold Cruse’s remedies for the black intelligentsia’s failings seem more quixotic now than 20 years ago — particularly because back then the civil rights and black power movements were pro­ducing a generation of artists and activists who could be provoked into getting hot and bothered. (You ask a buppy mofo his stand on the race, he’ll tell you he favors Carl Lewis.) Cruse presaged the black cultural nationalist movement as conceived by Amiri Baraka and Ron Karenga. While the founding fathers have long taken deserved lumps for the jiver parts of their program (like the sexist, anti-Semitic, black supremacist, pseudo-African mumbo-­jumbo paramilitary adventurist parts), to their credit they took black liberation seriously enough to be theoretically ambitious about it. Perhaps their most grandiose scheme involved trying to transform a supremacist sense of black cultural difference into the basis for a racially bonding black American zeitgeist — one that would serve blacks as Judaism was believed to have solidified Jews. The plan was to convince 30 million people they constituted a nation, not only because they were an oppressed minority, but also because they were superior to the corny white man and his Western civilization. 

A considerable amount of this philosophy was developed by Baba Baraka, formerly a prized black stepchild of Western mod­ernism. Baraka has acknowledged that he derived his black su­premacist gumption from African-American music, which definitely represents the one modernist arena blacks are the masters of. (It is our music, especially jazz, which confronts Western culture with its most intimidating and improbable Other: the sui generis black genius. But that’s a whole other dissertation.) The leap from per­ceiving the genius of jazz to envisioning an Afrocentric master race is quite a doozy. Generously, it could be understood as an extrem­ist’s reaction to blacks being classified for centuries as subhumans without culture and history. Given that context, let’s be generous. Two decades ago, Malcolm X implored blacks to cast aside their differences and unite against the common foe we all caught hell from, the white man. Yet that dream of black unity addressed racial oppression more meaningfully than it did the more crucial dilemma of cultural identity. (If being black meant nothing but being oppressed by white people, black liberation would have no meaning. Like if white people weren’t around to be mad at, people into being black would be out of a job.) 

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What the cult-nats made possible is a conception of black culture where anything black could be considered an aesthetic object of contemplation more beautiful than anything produced by the white man. In this sense the cult-nats were our dadaists. While the dadaists tried to raise anarchy to an artform and bring Western civilization down with style, the cult-nats figured a “black is beau­tiful” campaign would be enough to raze Babylon, or at least get a revolution going. The cult-nats’ black-übermensch campaign obviously didn’t do much toward liberating the masses, but it did produce a post-liberated black aesthetic, responsible for the degree to which contemporary black artists and intellectuals feel them­selves heirs to a culture every bit as def as classical Western civilization. 

This cultural confidence has freed up more black artists to do work as wonderfully absurdist as black life itself. The impulse toward enmeshing self-criticism and celebration present in the most provocative avant-garde black art of the ’70s and early ’80s (cf. Miles Davis, David Hammons, Senga Ngudi, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Ishmael Reed, Charles Burnett, Pedro Bell, George Clin­ton, Samuel R. Delany, Richard Pryor, Charles Johnson, Octavia Butler, Jayne Cortez, Ntozake Shange, Toni Morrison) owes a debt to the cult-nats for making so much noise about the mythic beauties of blackness that these artists could traffic in the ugly and mundane sides with just as much ardor. (Admittedly, most of these artists have at one time or another confused a passion for black exotica with detached representation. On the other hand, we all know there’s not a single freak in their work without a counterpart even more out-the-box somewhere in the kinky wilds of black America. Such is our mutant diversity.) What’s unfortunate is that while black artists have opened up the entire “text of blackness” for fun and games, not many black critics have produced writing as fecund, eclectic, and freaky-deke as the art, let alone the culture itself. (Some exceptions: Henry Louis Cates, David Levering Lewis, Lor­enzo Thomas, Nathaniel Mackey, Adrian Seaward, Clyde Taylor, Houston Baker.) For those who prefer exegesis with a polemical bent, just imagine how critics as fluent in black and Western culture as the post-liberated artists could strike terror into that bastion of white supremacist thinking, the Western art world. 

In Art After Modernism: Essays on Rethinking Representation, Brian Wallis laments that there’s never been a serious study of the relationship of black culture to institutionalized art. (Like don’t nobody know that since Cubism, black culture and Western mod­ernism have been confused for conceptual kissing cousins; that since bebop’s impact on Abstract Expressionism and the Beats, black modernism has been confused with white alienation and social deviance; that since Duke Ellington compared Picasso to Miles Davis, black genius has been confused with the formal ex­haustion of Western art; that since Norman Mailer wrote The White Negro, black cool has been mistaken for a figment of white heterosexual anxiety; that since Thomas Pynchon shabbily dis­guised Ornette Coleman as McClintic Sphere in V., black alienation has gotten confused with existential parody; that since Ornette Coleman called Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” the most beautiful since Toscanini’s, the power to impose cultural democracy has fallen into the hands of black people with strange ideas; that since I heard a snotty white DJ say he stopped thinking Parliament/Funkadelic was stupid disco when Brian Eno cited them as an influence, I’ve known George Clinton was right when he said that as soon as white folks figured out funk was intellectually acceptable they’d try to hop on board the Mothership.) To this post-liberated black aesthetician, Wallis’s whine sounded like an invite to bomb the white bastion rather than know my place relative to it. At first I thought I’d have to go it alone, but then I discovered a smart, empathetic white man I could cannibalize — one all ready to see MOMA collapse in the dust with an Air Jordan high-top at its throat. 

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A big round of applause, then, to my host culture-bearer, Hal Foster, senior editor at Art in America, editor of the post-mod col­lection The Anti-Aesthetic, and now author of Recodings: Art, Spec­tacle, Cultural Politics (Bay Press, $9.95 paper), a primer in poststructuralist discourse and debate with its sights on bringing about the end of Western civi­lization in theory. Taking aim, he blasts away at those involved in rationalizing capitalism through the culture industry. For people who look toward critical theory as a way to outthink the powers that be rather than to disguise fuzzy thinking behind hermetic verbiage, Foster makes a lot of sense. He doesn’t see theory as an end in itself, but as a “toolkit” to pry apart the hidden collusion between the corporate class and its artsy running dogs, like big bad MOMA and those messy Neo-Expressionist painters. Having arrived at the astounding conclusion that criticism is of marginal value to the art marketplace, Foster prizes his marginality as license to speak “out of place.” 

The margins from which Foster speaks are indeed extreme — so extreme that by book’s end he’s set himself up against not only pluralism, Neo-Expressionism, postmodern architecture, primitiv­ist-modernism, and The New Criterion crew, but Barthes, Baud­rillard, Hegelian dialectics, and the very idea of Western history. (The “enemy” identified throughout Recodings is “the white, pa­triarchal order of western culture and its pretenses of sovereignty, supremacy and self creation.”) In the early sections Foster goes about exposing those postmodern artists who profess autonomy from corporate power or pretend to be political by acting like social outlaws. To this end he is such a thorough deconstructionist that not even artists he admires escape his powers of dissection. Though his demolition of Neo-Expressionism (“The Expressive Fallacy”) comes as no surprise, it’s unexpected when an infatuated appre­ciation of Robert Longo’s work ends on the downbeat. “A utopian principle of hope may be evoked here but no actual community is engaged. This work has no social basis (other than the dominant class whose representations are collided). Its mix of archaic and futuristic forms attests to this absence — as does its apocalypticism, which is symptomatic of the failure of the dominant culture (and its ‘artist guardian’) to conceive social change in terms other than catastrophe. In the absence of such a social basis utopian desire may well become a will to power — or an identification with the powers that be.”

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Behind the facades of the postmoderns, Foster never fails to detect the presence of the corporate class. Echoing Baudrillard’s crucial revision of Marx, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, Foster opines that the corporate class, having achieved mastery of accumulation, now desires mastery of “symbolic production,” meaning mass media and modern art. The “penetration of the sign by capital” is a major theme of Recodings, along with the problems that penetration represents for those committed to “cultural resistance,” Foster’s favorite form of theory-mongering. 

Where others find total freedom in the pluralistic postmodern marketplace, he finds no more than the franchised freedom of the commodity. Here artists suppress all desire for social change and are rewarded for producing consumable art, “safeguarding social inertia by participating in an illusion of democracy.” Equally sus­pect is the return (through Neo-Expressionism) of the myth of the modern artist as bourgeois transgressor and last refuge of “humanist values.” (This gets kinky when you consider how much transgressive shock value, and hence “humanism” in modern art, derived from the moderns’ primitivist ideas about Africa.) Though these myths once served early modernism by making the artist an adversary of the bourgeoisie, today they serve the corporate class by making artistic transgression “a posture available to everyman.” (Reading this brought to mind the Jean Michel Basquiat behind the bar in the Palladium’s Michael Todd room.) Attacking post­modern architects for elitism, Foster finds in their vernacular re­vivals not a populist modernism but a supercilious lowbrowism, not a regeneration of modernist ideals but a regression to classic architectural forms for the myths of authority they sing to the powerful. 

For Foster, the most provocative American art of today situates itself at a crossroads where representations of sexual identity and social life can freely intervene in critiques of institutional art, mass culture, and the corporate class. Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, Hans Haacke, Cindy Sherman are artists Foster finds significant because they don’t just make consumable objects but also manip­ulate signs, seeking to make “the viewer an active reader of mes­sages rather than a passive contemplator of the aesthetic or consumer of the spectacular.” The history of these artists’ practices begins in the adversarial site-specific work done in the ’70s by Hans Haacke and Daniel Buren. At that time their work centered on confronting the power of the museum to marginalize radical art, updating Duchamp’s antiaesthetic. Yet Buren believed that the real perfidy performed by galleries and museums was not aesthetic but economic: they protected the very idea of the art market by supplying exchange-value to art. Foster notes that this critique became particularly crucial once the bourgeoisie had abandoned its classical culture for a consumerist one, and reinvested in the museum as modernism’s warehouse. Barbara Kruger, Jenny Hol­zer, and other feminist manipulators of “sign-value” revise the work of these male artists by mocking the power invested in official language. In “For a Concept of the Political in Contemporary Art,” Foster draws on Baudrillard’s critique of a belief held clear by Marx, Walter Benjamin, and the Russian constructivists: that political art must be aligned with the production of the industrial worker. Baudrillard found that model faulty because it identified the white male worker as the sole force for social progress. This denied the significance of struggles by those outside or subordinate to production: students, blacks, gays, women. Because the site of their struggles is as much for representation, for significance and signification within academia and the media, their active resistance of patriarchal and racist practices must take place there. The intent is not to segregate the struggles of blacks, gays, and women from those of the white male worker under capitalism, but to equalize them. Rethinking political art today means recognizing that per Foucault, power derives its authority not only from social consent and economic determinism but from those “disciplinary institu­tions” which control behavior and the body through “social regi­mens” (at work, school, the corporation) and “structure our lives materially.” 

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It is the realization that disciplinary institutions produce “so­cially adjusted individuals” which has brought poststructuralist concerns with representation, sexuality, textuality, and totalization to the foreground of contemporary political art. Baudrillard rec­ognized that the commodification of culture has rendered obsolete the distinctions between art and commerce, culture and economy, and any reading of signs (art and media) as if they were impene­trable by capital. Since the corporate class dominates symbolic production, art has become a capitalist comprador, out to protect commodity values rather than those of classical bourgeois culture. “According to this position, the bourgeoisie no longer needs a traditional culture to impress its ideology or retain its rule; the commodity no longer requires the guise of a personal or social value for us to submit to it: it is its own excuse, its own ideology.”‘ 

Traditionally, modern art has sought to resist collusion with capital or shock the bourgeoisie through either primitive transgres­sion or formal elitism. But these strategies failed to be truly radical because they didn’t intend to better society and may, says Foster, even have prepared society to consent in the “social transgressions of capital.” He believes that the shock-of-the-new impulse of early modern art contributed to “subtly reconciling us to the chaos of the late-capitalist world.” Nostalgia for avant-garde transgression Foster finds not only nihilistic but of little value to political artists today. What he proposes is a practice which views culture as an arena where “active contestation is possible.” From this vantage point, capital would not be seen as a megalith to be shocked and liberated by, say, “primitivism,” but as a network of disciplinary institutions and sign systems to be constantly targeted for adver­sarial deconstruction. Resistance, then, doesn’t aim for transcen­dence of corporate culture’s limits into some mythical liberated zone, but for critical intervention in the process by which capitalism is rationalized through mass culture and modernism.

Foster believes these interventions could become more than merely theoretical if Western political artists were able to forge cultural revolution alongside subcultural Others — those whose col­lective practices not only create new languages of representation but signify a disbelief in mass culture, modernism, and the West. Among these subcultural practices he cites reggae, black gospel, and Latin American fiction. Where others such as Barthes, Baud­rillard, Deleuze, and Guattari have sought out subcultural codes to call the West’s supremacist ideas of history and difference into question, Foster closes Recodings by pronouncing that Western theorists should chill, and open the field for blacks, gays, and feminists to command the critical foreground of cultural resistance. 

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What Recodings has to say about cultural resistance, commo­dification, representation, and Western supremacy is fascinating to mull over from a black perspective, particularly since so much black aesthetic and political debate has for years been concerned with these issues. If I’m so gung-ho about integrating Foster’s poststructuralist toolkit into a discussion of black culture, it’s not because black culture lacks Foster’s mind but because it lacks his bent for knowing and dissecting his subject in total. In the past, the sectarian nature of black art and politics has worked against a “unified field theory” of black culture. The person who seems to be moving most determinedly in that direction is, ironically, a white man, Yale’s Robert Farris Thompson, whose books and lec­tures on African art and philosophy in the “Black Atlantic tradition” are milestones of comparative analysis on the continuum which runs between black culture in Africa and the New World, spiri­tually, aesthetically, and philosophically. 

Thompson’s work disproves and demolishes at every turn the myth that classical African culture doesn’t derive from as systematic and highly evolved a tradition of critical thought as Europe’s. (Yoruba sculpture, for example, is no less a product of conscious conceptualization than art in the Greco-Roman tradition. The dif­ference isn’t a matter of intellect but of intention.) Thompson ar­ticulates the critical infrastructure at work in classical African art, music, and dance, and its impact on the New World. Yet even that breadth of learning barely touches on what black culture has evolved to in 20th century America. I’m pushing for a popular black poststructuralism because we need theoretical and critical tools as exacting as those that produced a work like Recodings: writings which ask hard questions about where our culture stands in history, what total liberation means to black people living now, and how black art can continue to express that desire for freedom. Another reason, more self-involved in nature, is that I’m part of a generation of bohemian cult-nats who are mutating black culture into something the old interlocutors aren’t ready for yet. 

Though nobody’s sent out any announcements yet, the ’80s are witnessing the maturation of a postnationalist black arts movement, one more Afrocentric and cosmopolitan than anything that’s come before. The people in this movement find no contradiction in de­riving equal doses of inspiration from influences as diverse as Malcolm X and Jimi Hendrix, George Clinton and George Romero, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Lisette Model, Zora Neale Hurston and Akira Kurosawa, William Burroughs and Romare Bearden, Barnett Newman and Sun Ra, Jah Rastafari and Johnny Rotten, Toni Morrison and Laura Mulvey, George Jackson and Samuel Delany, Albert Ayler and Andrei Tarkovsky, Rudy Ray Moore and Nam June Paik, Black Elk and Bud Powell, Cecil Taylor and Joel Peter-­Witkin, Chester Himes and Jacques Tati, Ishmael Reed and Maya Deren, Anthony Braxton and Bruce Lee, Jean Rhys and Nona Hendryx, Antonin Artaud and Amiri Baraka, Robert Farris Thomp­son and Professor Longhair, Julia Kristeva and Chaka Khan, Kurt Schwitters and Coptic scrolls, Run-D.M.C. and Paolo Soleri, Fred­ric Jameson and Reverend James Cleveland, Katherine Dunham and Meredith Monk, Darryl Dawkins and Ndebele beadwork, Ra­mayana and Elegba-Eshu, Kathy Acker and Nina Simone, Audre Lorde and the Maasai, Duane Michals and John Coltrane, Skip James and Bill Viola. Cornucopia for a New Negro Bohemia? Hey, every generation’s got to have one. And that list of odd couples only represents those favored by the freaks I know about. (No telling what kind of black bizarro worldviews are being cooked up by members of the cadre still underground.) But even though quotation is the postmod thing to do, I’m not just namedropping here. The point is that the present generation of black artists is cross-breeding aesthetic references like nobody is even talking about yet. And while they may be marginal to the black experience as it’s expressed in rap, Jet, and on The Cosby Show, they’re not all mixed up over who they are and where they come from. 

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These are artists for whom black consciousness and artistic freedom are not mutually exclusive but complementary, for whom “black culture” signifies a multicultural tradition of expressive practices; they feel secure enough about black culture to claim art produced by nonblacks as part of their inheritance. No anxiety of influence here — these folks believe the cultural gene pool is for skinny-dipping. Yet though their work challenges both cult-nats and snotty whites, don’t expect to find them in Ebony or Artforum any time soon. Things ain’t hardly got that loose yet. 

Black culture as these artists know it is a debased commodity within black and white popular media, and even within the avant­-garde. Their targets for the kind of “cultural resistance” and “in­tervention in codes” Foster speaks of are complicated by the artists having to take on racist representations and black self-hate si­multaneously. For these reasons Spike Lee’s success, in both commercial and artistic terms, with She’s Gotta Have It, represents a coup of staggering proportions. It is in fact a populist black post­structuralist’s dream. 

Not only does Lee overload his “joint” with black in-jokes and semiotic codes (I’m thinking now of the references to Zora Neale Hurston, Malcolm X, Eleanor Bumpurs, Edwin Perry, and Black Reconstruction that turn up, as well as things like using straight-­ahead jazz to underscore hiphop humor, and the conjugation of “drugs” and “jheri curls” to mark them as equally vile) but he pushed such an uncompromisingly black vision to blacks through mainstream distribution, exhibition, and media channels. Lee’s making a success out of a film shot for jackshit with a collectivist cast and crew demolishes Hollywood’s mega-budget mystique. Now, if all that’s not culturally resistant, I don’t know what is. And Lee’s staunch raceman interviews have been even more rad, breaking on Whoopi’s blue contacts, Michael’s nose, The Color Purple, as well as threatening letters from Quincy Jones’s office (not to mention the MPAA, which he says tried to give him an X because softcore black sexuality tweaked their uptight, racist nerves). The sweetest aspect of Lee’s success is that the only formula it offers for those who’d desire to emulate or exploit it is faith in the brilliance of black culture. What we need now is black criticism as balls to the wall as She’s Gotta Have It.

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Because black people don’t have institutions for serious, so­phisticated study and advancement of our culture, my dream of a populist black poststructuralism is actually kind of loony, but every man needs his own Moby Dick. What I envision is an Afrocentric cross between MIT, MOMA, MGM, Macmillan books, and Motown, a self-supporting facility equipped to bankroll a braintrust of B-boys, feminists, philosophers, visual artists, musicians, athletes, scientists, theologians, historians, political activists and economists, and produce their findings and artifacts for mass audiences. Since I can’t underwrite this black tower of Babel, I can at least target a few white whales for it to harpoon, a few black holes for it to get sucked up into. First off, if it were to take up the Brian Wallis project, a study of the relationship of black culture to institutionalized art, there’d be a need for an encyclopedic reference book on black visual culture. 

Given the kind of money the de Menils are sinking into their Eurocentric project, Images of the Black in Western Art, I’d hire a staff of editors, designers, and critics (Richard Powell, Judith Wil­son, Kellie Jones, and Rosalind Jeffries come to mind) to produce a multivolume bricolage of black images from every source con­ceivable: police mugshots, graffiti, Cubism, race riots, newspapers, hair product ads, comics, black independent cinema, advertising, music videos, lynchings, minstrelsy, break dancing, iconic jazz photography, Bauhaus furniture, images of blacks in Western art, modern art by black artists such as Twin Seven Seven, Leroy Clarke, Skunder Boghossian, Calvin Reid, Al Loving, Senga Nen­gudi, Daniel Dawson, Charles Abramson, Janet Henry, Houston Conwill, Ed Love, Rikki Smith, Nelson Stevens, Selim Abdul Mubdi, Edgar Sorrells-Adewale, Emilio Cruz, Martha Jackson­-Jarvis, Lorna Simpson, Jack Whitten, Randy Williams, Sandra Payne, Jules Allen, Pedro Bell, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Albert Chong, Romare Bearden, Wilfredo Lam, plus the art of every black ethnic group in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The text for these volumes would be drawn from as varied a collection of sources — all making for a veritable postmodern bible of black visual rep­resentation and critical difference. Publish that bad boy and all this bulljive we hear about the impoverishment of black visual culture would have to cease. Next on the agenda would be a series of symposiums on topics like Institutionalizing the Production of Black Musical Geniuses; the First Annual Conference on Black Mother Wit, Phylogeny, and Dub; Zen and the Art of Skip James; Harlem as Hyperreality: Reading Chester Himes; Rags, Hickeys, and Wops: The Etymology of Doo; Jazz and the Heat-Death of the Universe (A Comparative Analysis of the Death of the Author in Postmodern Painting and Jazz); Breakdancing as Telemetry; Genii in the Genome: George Clinton and Jeremy Rifkin’s Rhythm The­ories of Evolution; Race Mutation Theory and Quantum-Black Myth; The Mathematics of Graffiti: Ramm-El-Zee’s Ikonoklast Pan­zerism; The Political Economy of Scratch; and Beat the System to Death: Bootstrap Capitalism and Guerrilla Warfare. The possibil­ities are frightening. You fill in the blanks. 

Now I know some people are going to read all this and level charges ranging from silliness to rank sophistry to Bakuninism. Let them come on with it. My mission is clear. The future of black culture demands that this generation bring forth a worldly-wise and stoopidfresh intelligentsia of radical bups who can get as ignant as James Brown with their Wangs and stay in the black. Give me such an army and we’ll be talking total cultural black rule by the time the eco-system collapses, SDI bottoms out Fort Knox, the Aryan Brotherhood is officially in the White House, and Wall Street is on the moon. 


This is the beginning. We’ll be inviting some of the people you’ve just read about to get together and tackle issue raised in this essay. The results will appear in future issue of VLS.



ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Flyboy in the Buttermilk

Nobody Loves a Genius Child

I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension… I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness… The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion.

— Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself, 1845

In these scant lines, Frederick Douglass succinctly describes the ongoing crisis of the Black intellectual, that star-crossed figure on the American scene forever charged with explaining Black folks to white folks and with explaining Black people to themselves — often from the perspectives of a distance refracted by double alienation. If you want to hide something from a negro put it in a book. Douglass knew from experience the compound oppression of being poorly fed and poorly read, but also of having to stand Black and proud in isolated situations where nobody else Black was around to have your back. When the windchill factor plummets that low, all that can steady you is the spine of cultural confidence and personal integrity.

This business of speaking for Black culture and your own Black ass from outside the culture’s communal surrounds and the comforting consensus of what critic Lisa Kennedy once described as “the Black familiar” has taken many a brilliant Black mind down to the cross­roads and left it quite beside itself, undecided between suicide, sticking it to the man, or selling its soul to the devil. The ones who keep up the good fight with a scintilla of sanity are the ones who know how to beat the devil out of a dollar while maintaining a Black agenda and to keep an ear out for the next dope house party set to go down in Brooklyn, Sugar Hill, or the Boogie Down Bronx.

Dull unwashed windows of eyes
and buildings of industry. What
industry do I practice? A slick
colored boy, 12 miles from his
home. I practice no industry.
I am no longer a credit
to my race. I read a little,
scratch against silence slow spring


To read the tribe astutely you some­times have to leave the tribe ambitiously, and should you come home again, it’s not always to sing hosannas or a song the tribe necessarily has any desire to hear. Among the Senegambian societies of the West Africa savannah, the role of praise singer and historian is given to a person known as the griot. Inscribed in his (al­ways a him) function is the condition of being born a social outcast and pariah. The highest price exacted from the griot for knowing where the bodies are buried is the denial of a burial plot in the com­munal graveyard. Griots, it is decreed, are to be left to rot in hollow trees way on the outskirts of town. With that wisdom typi­cal of African cosmologies, these messen­gers are guaranteed freedom of speech in exchange for a marginality that extends to the grave.

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The circumscribed avenues for recogni­tion and reward available in the Black community for Black artists and intellec­tuals working in the avant-garde tradi­tion of the West established the precon­ditions for a Black bohemia, or a Blackened bohemia, or a white bohemia dotted with Black question marks. Re­markable in the history of these errant Sphinxes is certainly Jean-Michel Bas­quiat, posthumously the benefactor of a loving and roomy retrospective at Vrej Baghoomian gallery. When Basquiat died last year at the age of 27 of a heroin overdose he was the most financially suc­cessful Black visual artist in history and, depending on whether you listened to his admirers or detractors, either a genius, an idiot savant, or an overblown, overpriced fraud. Besides affording an opportunity for reappraisal of Basquiat’s heady and eye-popping oeuvre, the exhibition in­vites another consideration of the Black artist as bicultural refugee, spinning be­twixt and between worlds. When the fire starts to burn, where you gonna run to? To a well without water?

Given the past and present state of race relations in the U.S., the idea that any Black person would choose exile into “the white world” over the company and strength in numbers of the Black commu­nity not only seems insane to some of us, but hints at spiritual compromise as well. To be a race-identified race-refugee is to tap-dance on a tightrope, making your precarious existence a question of bal­ance and to whom you concede a mort­gage on your mind and body and lien on your soul. Will it be the white, privileged, and learned or the Black, (un)lettered, and disenfranchised?

When I die, the consciousness I carry I will to
black people. May they pick me apart and take the
useful parts, the sweet meat of my feelings. And leave
the bitter bullshit rotten white parts alone.

—LeRoi Jones, “leroy,” from Black Art

Spooked, dispossessed, split asunder by his education, his alienation, and his evolving race-politics, Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) sought to perform an exorcism on the learning he’d done at the laps of white men, vaccinate himself against the infectious anxiety of influence that came with investment in that knowl­edge he’d codified as Western. But we can say that African history and the history of border crossings made by Black artists and intellectuals from this country’s ear­liest founding to the present have blurred, blotted out, and disrupted any proprietary claims the Eurocentrists among us would care to make on the languages of ethics, aesthetics, and logic. In light of the mounting evidence of anthropologists and archaeologists and the revisionist scholarship of peoples of color, there is no province more in danger of dwindling to a vanishing point than that of “white knowledge.” Increasing the store of human knowledge has been everybody’s project since the beginning of womankind. The idea that the human brain first began functioning in Europe now appears about as bright as Frankenstein’s monster.

What remains, however, is the en­trenched racism of white-supremacist in­stitutions bent on perpetuating, until their dying breaths, that popular fantasy of slaveholders and imperialists that the white man represents the most intelligent form of life on the planet.

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No area of modern intellectual life has been more resistant to recognizing and authorizing people of color than the world of the “serious” visual arts. To this day it remains a bastion of white suprem­acy, a sconce of the wealthy whose high-­walled barricades are matched only by Wall Street and the White House and whose exclusionary practices are enforced 24-7-365. It is easier for a rich white man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a Black abstract and/or Conceptual artist to get a one-woman show in lower Man­hattan, or a feature in the pages of Art­forum, Art in America, or The Village Voice. The prospect that such an artist could become a bona fide art-world celebrity (and at the beginning of her career no less) was, until the advent of Jean­-Michel Basquiat, something of a fucking joke.

My maternal grandfather used to say, Son, no matter where you go in this world and no matter what you find, somewhere up in there you will find a Negro. Experience has yet to prove him wrong, especially where the avant-garde is concerned. In Wilfredo Lam we had our Cubist adventurer. Ted Joans, Bob Kaufman, and LeRoi Jones bopped heads with the Beats. The British Invasion got vamped on by Jimi Hendrix while Arthur Lee and Sly Stone were spear-chucking protopunk and funk into San Francisco’s psychedelic Summer of Love. Bad Brains reclaimed Rasta and hardcore rock and roll from the punks. And we won’t even get into separating the Black aesthetic inspirations for all these movements, or raising up the counterhegemonic monu­ment that is Black cultural difference.

What’s often as exceptional as the artistic talents of the aforementioned Black crossover acts is their genius for cultural politics, the confidence and cunning with which they established supportive bases for themselves in white circles of knowl­edge, power, and authority. Nobody loves a genius-child? Basquiat, lonesome fly­boy in the buttermilk of the ’80s Down­town art boom, was hands down this cen­tury’s most gifted Black purveyor of art­-world politics. He not only knew how the game of securing patronage was played, but played it with ambition, nerve, and delight. Like Jimi Hendrix he had enor­mously prodigious gifts and sexual cha­risma on his side. He was also, to boot, another beneficiary of being the right Black man in the right place at the right time. Eric Clapton attributed Hendrix’s whirlwind ascendancy in the English rock scene to his arriving just when the scene was in desperate need of some new blood. The blues and soul boom was decaying. Hendrix, Black and from the birthplace of blues, soul, and rock, was extraordinarily fluent in all three styles, could whip up a frenzy from the stage like Dionysus on a tear, and was a preternatural innovator besides. The question with Hendrix is never why him, but how could the British rockers resist?

There is a sickness to the black man living in white town. Either he is white
or he hates white, but even in hating, he
reflects, the dead image of his surrounding…
There is a sickness to the black man in white town, because
he begins to believe he can beat everybody’s ass, and he can,
down there, where each man is an island, and the heaviest bomber,
throwing down tnt can establish some conditional manhood in the land
of the dead, in the country of the blind.

— Ameer Baraka, “Poem for Religious Fanatics,” from Target Studies

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The period of ferment that produced Basquiat began on British soil and was then transplanted stateside. 1981 the number, another summer, sound of the harmolodic drummer! Let’s go back to postpunk lower Manhattan, no-wave New York, where loft jazz, white noise, and Black funk commune to momentarily desegregate the Downtown rock scene, and hip-hop’s train-writing graffiti cults pull into the station carrying the return of representation, figuration, expression­ism, Pop-artism, the investment in canvas painting, and the idea of the master­piece. Whether the writers presaged or inspired the market forces to all this art­-commodity fetishism and anti-Conceptu­alist material is a question still up for grabs. But just as the classic blues, rock, and soul cats were the romanticized fig­ures who made the very idea of a Hendrix seductive to the Mods, it was the invigo­rating folk culture of the graffiti writ­ers — operating at a subterranean remove from the art world that made them all the more mysterious, manageable, and ulti­mately dismissable — that set the salon stages and sex parlors of the postmods up to be bedazzled by Basquiat. Phase II, Daze, Crash, Lee, Blade, Futura 2000, Lady Pink, Fab Five Freddy, and Ramm-­El-Zee. These writers and others might have tunneled their style wars out of “Afrerica” (© Vernon Reid) and into the gallery affairs of the snooty, the elite, and la bohème, but it would be the Haitian boy-aristocrat with the properly French name who’d get to set their monkey-ass world on fire.

Jean-Michel is the one they told you must draw it this way and call it black man folk art, when it was really white man folk art that he was doing. That’s what he draw… white man folk art. He does not draw black man folk art because they told him what to draw… They called us graffiti but they wouldn’t call him graffiti. And he gets as close to it as the word means scribble-scrabble. Un­readable. Crosses out words, doesn’t spell them right, doesn’t even write the damn thing right. He doesn’t even paint well. You don’t draw a building so that it will fall down and that’s what he draws, bro­ken-down imagery.

— Ramm-El-Zee, B. Culture, No. 1

I just love the houses in the South, the way they built them. That Negritude ar­chitecture. I really love to watch the way Black people make things, houses or mag­azine stands in Harlem, for instance. Just the way we use carpentry. Nothing fits, but everything works. The door closes, it keeps things from coming through. But it doesn’t have that neatness about it, the way white people put things together; ev­erything is a 32nd of an inch off.

— David Hammons to Kellie Jones in Real Life, No. 16

Negative gesture can be just as impor­tant as positive thrust. Indeed I got a richer sense of this characteristic of his work when I showed Basquiat a quick sketch I made of one of his works, Unre­vised Undiscovered Genius of the Missis­sippi Delta, a painting of Southern Im­ages, and all he would say was, “You forgot to cross out CATFISH.”
— Robert Farris Thompson, catalogue essay for Basquiat’s 1985 Mary Boone exhibition

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Clearly, Basquiat’s conception of mak­ing it in the Western art world transcend­ed those of the train-writers. To Bas­quiat, making it did not just mean getting a gallery exhibition, a dealer, or even col­lecting big bank off his work. Making it to him meant going down in history, ranked beside the Great White Fathers of Western painting in the eyes of the major critics, museum curators, and art histori­ans who ultimately determine such things. What he got for his grasping for immortality from the gaping mouths of these godheads was a shitload of rejec­tion, (mis)apprehension, and arcane or inconclusive interpretations. That he re­fused to let the issue of his genius die on the spent pyre of his accumulated earn­ings reminds me of some cautionary ad­vice I was given by filmmaker Haile Ger­ima: “Whenever white people praise you, never let it be enough. Never become satisfied with their praise, because the same power you give them to build you up is the same power they can use to tear you down.”

By all accounts Basquiat certainly tried to give as much as he got from the Amer­ican art dealers, critics, and doyens, most effectively in the end by his sustained levels of production, excellence, and irre­ducible complexity. Though we can cer­tainly point to racism for the refusal in certain quarters to consider Basquiat a serious painter, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that Basquiat, like Rauschenberg and Warhol, his brothers in canvas­-bound iconoclasm, made paintings that were unrepentantly about American cul­ture. There is a strain of Europhilia among our art historians and critics that is as uncomfortable with American art­ists looking to this culture for subject matter and vernacular as they are with artists holding the celebrity of household names. Looking to the uncertainty and reticence that abounded — and still abounds — in so much writing about Stu­art Davis on down through Robert Rauschenberg, Bob Thompson, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Romare Bearden, Red Grooms, Betye Saar, David Hammons, Alison Saar, and Jeff Koons, it seems that the surest way to be con­signed dilettante-hick status, ruining your chances for fawning art-historical hagiography, is to act as if you thought the United States was spilling over with the stuff of Art.

That Basquiat, like Bearden, made work that was unmistakably and vehe­mently about being a Black American male did not help matters any. Basquiat was as visually fascinated as anybody in our culture by cartoons, coon art, high-­tech, and the idea of private ownership. References to these elements are con­stants in his work, sometimes framed critically and other times as a stream-of­-conscious shopping list, pointing up our daily overdose of mass culture’s effluvia. But he also gave equal attention to ex­huming, exposing, and cutting up the nation’s deep-sixed racial history, in all its nightmarish, Neo-Expressionist gory. If you’re Black and historically informed there’s no way you can look at Basquiat’s work and not get beat up by his obsession with the Black male body’s history as property, pulverized meat, and popular entertainment. No way not to be remind­ed that lynchings and minstrelsy still vie in the white supremacist imagination for the Black male body’s proper place. (Any­one doubting the currency of this opinion need only look to the hero’s welcome Spike Lee got in see-a-nigger-shoot-his-­ass Bensonhurst or to Robert Hughes’s New Republic “review” of Basquiat’s death in which he defames the brother by calling him the art world’s answer to Ed­die Murphy.)

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In the rush to reduce the word games found in Basquiat works to mere mimicry of Cy Twombly’s cursive scrawls, we’re expected to forget that Basquiat comes from a people once forbidden literacy by law on the grounds that it would make for rebellious slaves. Expected to over­look as well that among those same peo­ple words are considered a crucial means to magical powers, and virtuosic word­play pulls rank as a measure of one’s personal prowess. From the perspective of this split-screen worldview, where learning carries the weight of a revolu­tionary act and linguistic skills are as prized as having a knockout punch, there are no such things as empty signifiers, only misapprehended ones.

Basquiat’s exhausting lists of weights, measures, numbers, anatomical parts, cuisine, and pop icons function as autop­sies on forms of knowledge, reading the historical entrails of literacy and numer­acy for traces of their culpability in the subjugation and degradation of Black people. In so many paintings it seems Basquiat is on a mission of retribution against the Anglos’ precious and allegedly value-free banks of information, here gutting the store of numbers for racking up the surplus-labor of human chattel, there looting the warehouse of words for legis­lating the difference between slaveholder and savage. Similar abstract historicizing can be found in the work of Basquiat contemporaries, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, Conceptualist photographer Lorna Simpson, and performance art collabora­tors Alva Rogers and Lisa Jones.

All of which is one way of reading Bas­quiat’s wordiness. But remember that this is also an artist who began his public career, roughly around 1978, as SAMO©, a street-level graffiti writer of non sequi­turs. The tag, spoken twice, is Black slang for “the same old shit” but also invites the cruel and punning to identify the writer as Sambo. Poised there at the historical moment when Conceptualism is about to fall before the rise of the neoprimitive upsurge, Basquiat gets the last word and the last laugh during ’70s conceptualism’s last gasp, pronouncing the brute shape of things to come by way of the ironic, sardonic slur he’d chosen for a name. Having a voice, giving a name to new things, multiplying and refracting meaning were always a part of Basquiat’s survival game and image-making procedures.

So Basquiat enters the field as a poet. Truly, many of his paintings not only aspire to the condition of poetry, but invite us to experience them as broken-­down bluesy and neo-hoodoofied Symbol­ist poems. Often the cerebral pleasures of his work are derived from sussing out the exquisite corpses he’s conjured up through provocative conjunctions of words and images. One painting entitled Catharsis is a triptych whose left panel abounds with symbols of power drawn on what appears to be the inside of a subway door: a crown, a clenched Black fist, a circus strongman’s barbells, a model of an atom, and the word Radium. On this last we find the vowels scratched out to pro­duce the Jamaican patois term Ridim or rhythm, another radioactive source of energy. The middle panel lumps the words liver and spleen with throat and positions the term il mano, Italian for “the hand,” between the thumb and forefinger of a limp and possibly blood-­drained hand.

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Things get more active again in the ­right panel. The top left half is dominat­ed by a leg with a dotted line cutting across the base of the foot, over which reads Suicide Attempt, an inscription that invokes race memories of the risks undertaken by runaway slaves as well as the tragedy of urban dance-floor guerillas without feet to fly their escapist maneu­vers. (Much has been made of Basquiat’s ruder street-connections, but his links with hip-hop are high-handed deploy­ments of scratchnoise, sampling, freestyle coloring, and bombing the canvas.) Named and labeled throughout the rest of the panel is a plethora of other de­tached or phantom limbs, four left paws, two thumbs — a dissection chart whose mix-matched labels for animal and hu­man body parts speak to the fate of the captive Black body as much as the energy sources surging through the first panel allude to the Black body in motion, bion­ic and liberated.

Just as diagrammatic and zig-zag with meanings is Wicker, where the scratched-­up name of Black boxer Henry Arm­strong is boxed into a rectangle crowned by the words buzzer and bell. Nearby hovers a Romanesque figure with exposed intestines and a tag indicating its bladder. The boxing anecdote forms a parenthesis around a text all about the bestial body work done to the image of Black men. On one side of the painting a speared elephant is being levitated, his (he has tusks ) physique branded with a black band like that used on TV reports to keep the interviewee’s identity protect­ed and disguised. Implanted into the elephant’s hide is a tacky Instamatic cam­era. Floating around the right side is one of Basquiat’s patented Black-ghost fig­ures, this one materializing out of the urbanized jungle of a willowy potted plant in a wicker basket.

In juxtaposition these images hit us as loaded symbols: of Western man haunt­ing the wild with his voyeuristic technol­ogy, and of Black spooks haunting the living spaces of the privileged with their irrescindable presences.

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The one thing Vladimir Nabokov said that left a lasting impression on me was that the only thing a writer has to leave behind is her style. When people ask Miles Davis what he wants from a musi­cian, he usually croaks, “Somebody who can play a style,” by which I’ve always thought he meant a musician with a unique sound and a personal way of turn­ing a phrase. The best contemporary mu­sicians to come through the academy of Miles have developed styles that enfold emotion and intellect into a captivating species of lyricism. Like any of those mu­sicians, or like Baraka’s poetry in his Dead Lecturer, what’s finally so compel­ling about the Basquiat corpus is the in­divisible meshing of style and statement in his sui generis tones and attacks.

Initially lumped with the graffiti art­ists, then the Neo-Expressionists, then the Neo-Popsters, in the end Basquiat’s work evades the grasp of every camp be­cause his originality can’t be reduced to the sum of his inspirations, his associa­tions, or his generation. For all his refer­ences to pop America and the gestural vocabulary of the late-modern American Abstract Expressionists, Basquiat’s signature strokes dispossess themselves of any value but that of being in a Basquiat painting. He has consumed his influences and overwhelmed them with his inten­tions, leaving everything in his work a map of his imagination and intellect. In the same way that the music made by Miles’s bands always sounds like orches­trations of Miles’s trumpet-persona, Bas­quiat’s paintings read as hieroglyphic en­sembles that glow with the touch of his hands and the unmistakable sign lan­guage that evolved out of his free-floating psyche.

But can’t you understand that nothing is free! Even the floating strangeness of the poet’s head? The crafted visions of intellect, named, controlled, beat and erected to struggle under the heavy fin­gers of Art.
 LeRoi Jones, “Green Lantern’s Solo,” from The Dead Lecturer

You are the only very successful black artist…
I don’t know if the fact that I’m black has something to do with my success. I don’t believe that I should be compared to black artists but rather to all artists.
— Basquiat to interviewer Isabelle Graw

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In the November issue of Elle there’s a Peter Schjeldahl essay about Basquiat and the Baghoomian retrospective in which the critic attributes Basquiat’s sig­nificance to his difference from other Black artists: “Most work by non-whites in the New York mainstream has been marked by a tendency, mordantly popu­larized by Spike Lee in School Daze as ‘wannabe’: a diffident emulation of estab­lished modes, whether already academic or supposedly avant-garde. So I would not have expected from a black artist Basquiat’s vastly self-assured grasp of New York’s big-painting esthetics — gen­erally, the presentation of mark-making activities as images of themselves in an enveloping field… I would have antici­pated a well-schooled, very original white hipster behind the tantalizing pictures.”

In a recent Sunday Times essay about African-American artist Martin Pur­year’s first-place award in the São Paulo Bienal, Michael Brenson asks, “Why is he [Puryear] the first black American artist to be singled out for international attention?” To Brenson’s mind the an­swer boils down to Puryear’s difference from other Black artists: “Part of what distinguishes Puryear from many other minority artists is his lack of defensive­ness about mainstream American art. He remains something of an outsider, with one foot outside the mainstream, but he has one foot comfortably within it as well. Many blacks feel too alienated from the mainstream, or too angry at it be­cause of its continuing failure to make room for black artists.”

Taken together these two opinions pre­sent us with quite a conundrum. Whom can we trust? Schjeldahl, who believes that Black artists can’t make the grade because they’re trying too hard to be white, or Brenson, who thinks they’re too busy being Black, mad, and marginalized to take notes during art history class or keep up with the “mainstream” (read white, male, upper-middle-class) art world? But of course I’m being much too coy and polite.

What’s wrong with these patronizing and patriarchal pictures is their arrogance and presumptions. Most of the se­rious Black artists I am familiar with know as much about art as any of their white contemporaries but would certainly have no interest in proving their Black­ness to satisfy Schjeldahl or in taking a quiz from Brenson. In trying to help oth­er white men figure out by what freakish woogie magic Basquiat and Puryear made it out of Coontown and into Cracker Heaven, Brenson and Schjeldahl regurgi­tate two very old and very tired ploys. Divide-and-Conquer is what we call one, One-Nigger-at-a-Time-Puh-Leeze names the other.

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The cold fax is this: the reason that Puryear’s work came before the judges in São Paulo, and thereby under Brenson’s scrutiny, is because of Kellie Jones, the first Black female curator with the un­precedented clout to nominate a Puryear and have it mean something to the art world’s powers that be. Before we can even began to appraise Puryear’s excep­tional talents we need to recognize the political struggles that positioned Jones in her exceptional historical position.

In every arena where we can point to Black underdevelopment or an absence of Black competitiveness there can logically be only two explanations: either Black folks aren’t as smart as white boys or, racism. If the past 20 years of affirmative action have proven anything it’s that whatever some white boy can do, any number of Black persons can do as good, or, given the hoops a Black person has to jump to get in the game, any number of times better. Sorry, Mr. Charlie, but the visual arts are no different. Black visual culture suffers less from a lack of devel­oped artists than a need for popular criti­cism, academically supported scholar­ship, and more adventurous collecting and exhibiting.

During the furor that arose around Donald Newman’s “Nigger Drawings,” I recall hearing talk in the art world de­manding to know why Black people should expect to be exceptional at any­thing else just because they were so good at music. If the Eurocentric wing of the art world wants to remain a stronghold of straight-up white-boyism, one has to sus­pect it’s because the white-boyists want something they can call their own. This might be understandable if they didn’t already own every fucking thing under the sun and made no bones of dehuman­izing the rest of us to maintain hegemony.

The bottom line for people of color is that we don’t need any more Basquiats becoming human sacrifices in order to succeed. We don’t need any more heroic Black painters making hara-kiri drip can­vases of their lives to prove that a Black man or woman can do more with a tar brush than be tainted by it. What we need is a Black MOMA, or, Barr-ing that, a bumrushing Black MOMA-fucker. ■


The First Contact Sheet of the Counterculture

It was a typical Village Voice front page from 1967: Over the left two columns, a street portrait of the “dean of American pacifists,” A.J. Muste; over the right two, an action shot of police arresting Charlotte Moorman, the Juilliard-trained cellist who was a must-see on the downtown art and music scene — not least because she sometimes performed nude.

Both photographs were snapped by the Voice’s always-on-the-scene Fred W. McDarrah.

The Voice of the Village: Fred W. McDarrah Photographs,” featuring many of the Voice staffer’s up-close-and-personal shots of the cultural and political luminaries of the 1960s and ’70s, opens today at the Museum of the City of New York.

As we wrote in an earlier Voice archive piece, “If reporters are charged with providing ‘the first rough draft of history,’ the ground-level, street-smart photojournalist McDarrah gave us some of the first contact sheets of the counterculture.”

It is hard to open one of the green-bound Voice archive volumes from those tumultuous decades and not see, after a few turns of the pages, a “Voice: Fred W. McDarrah” credit line. Born in Brooklyn in 1926, McDarrah served in the Army with the occupation forces in Japan after World War II. When he returned to New York, he began photographing the downtown demimonde, which he termed, “The most colorful community of interesting people, fascinating places, and dynamic ideas.”

In the August 23, 1962, issue of the paper, it was official. Fred W. McDarrah had become the Village Voice’s staff photographer. The announcement appeared on page 2 of that issue, surrounded by ads for galleries, bookshops, bars, and health-food stores.

McDarrah’s name now appeared on the masthead, which was on page 4, surrounded by letters to the editor about the Voice’s coverage of the suicide of Marilyn Monroe and the trial of the murderous Nazi bureaucrat Adolph [sic] Eichmann.

McDarrah, the native New Yorker, could be found on the spot, all over the city.

His main subject, however, remained the creative vanguard of downtown, including a compelling 1966 portrait of LeRoi Jones, the poet, theater director, and activist later known as Amiri Baraka.

The tenor of the times McDarrah was capturing can also be felt on these pages in ads for jazz innovators Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, as well as in calls to redeem war bonds as a way to protest war in Vietnam.

McDarrah also had entrée to studios, galleries, and museums all over town, capturing the avant-garde as it came into being.

McDarrah’s photos document the changes in the gender makeup of the moment — even if the accompanying captions weren’t yet up to speed. As his striking portrait of the seminal feminist sculptor Eva Hesse made clear, she was not having her first “one-man” show at the Fischbach gallery.

Although McDarrah started working for the Voice after the heyday of the abstract expressionists, he knew many of the artists who had made post-war New York the cultural capital of the world. When the painter Franz Kline died from heart failure at the age of 51, McDarrah had only to dig through his extensive archives to create a visual tribute that included Kline at work in his studio, as well as at play with some of his friends, including fellow artists Willem de Kooning and Alex Katz.

McDarrah also tracked the most powerful politicians of the day with his camera. In the spring of 1967, he was along as Robert F. Kennedy toured tenements on the Lower East Side. When McDarrah framed New York’s junior senator in his lens, something in the foreground cast a blur across the bottom of the frame, while a crooked portrait of Jesus crowned with thorns provided perfect compositional counterpoint to Kennedy’s downcast gaze. It is an astonishingly powerful photo in its own right, but a little more than a year later it became an elegiac cultural icon when it was printed on the Voice’s front page shortly after RFK’s assassination.

The first Voice issue of 1969 commemorated both the tragedies and triumphs of the year just past, with McDarrah photos of murdered leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Kennedy, along with a straightforward shot of copies of The New York Times, each featuring a defining headline, including a report of American astronauts flying “around the moon only 70 miles from surface; see ‘vast, forbidding place.’ ”

Inside, a double-page spread of McDarrah images offered a look back at the movers and shakers of 1968, including Andy Warhol, who had been shot and almost killed in June of that year. The caption reads “Warhol found out it was for real,” a reference no doubt to a headline in the September 12 issue of the Voice that quoted the pop maestro after his recovery: “I thought everyone was kidding.”

Another McDarrah shot captured a Republican power broker in mid-spiel above the caption, “Roy Cohn denies everything.” Whichever Voice editor came up with that phrase half a century ago could never have imagined that one of Cohn’s most slavish disciples, Donald Trump, would one day be president of the United States.

In those years McDarrah’s photos were also used for Voice promotional purposes. The publisher no doubt figured that an exclusive picture of the Fab Four might be one way to get New Yorkers to subscribe to the paper.


By 1976 McDarrah appeared on the masthead as the Voice’s picture editor. In the November 22 issue, a reader wrote in complaining that the photographs in the paper were not sexy enough.

Also that year, McDarrah was one of five jurors for a Village Voice photography contest that drew more than 2,000 “generally strong submissions.”

A few years later, Amiri Baraka was arrested on 8th Street amid disputed circumstances. It was apparently no problem for McDarrah to dive into his archive and find a wholehearted portrait of the poet/provocateur by press time. (In 1980 Baraka turned to the pages of the Voice to pen a front-page feature headlined “Confessions of a Former Anti-Semite.” McDarrah’s collection was again plumbed for photos of the literary demimonde — watch this space for a full reposting of that article in the near future).

At any given moment New York City is at the center of a constellation of universes. Fred McDarrah was fortunate to be on the scene during an era when the downtown cosmos was burning exceptionally bright.


Saluting Pianist Cecil Taylor

Free jazz forefather Cecil Taylor has lived in a three-story brownstone in Fort Greene for nearly 30 years, but the 83-year-old reclusive avant-garde iconoclast is finally coming home to Brooklyn.

Produced by Harlem Stage and ISSUE Project Room, “Cecil Taylor: A Celebration of the Maestro” will take Taylor’s acolytes, devotees, and the musically soon-to-be-liberated down the rabbit hole for two nights of his dizzying solo piano work, including a home-borough performance he has effectively been planning since the Reagan era; a program featuring pianists Vijay Iyer, Craig Taborn, and Amina Claudine Myers and poet Amiri Baraka; a tribute featuring pianist Thollem McDonas, bass clarinetist Arrington de Dionyso, and drummer William Hooker; and a retrospective of video footage from his storied career.

Catching Taylor in person is highly unlikely—this writer’s attempts to contact him included an impromptu trek out to his ivy-lined residence and extended correspondence with insect pathologist and jazz advocate Ana Isabel Ordonez over the course of a year. As it turns out, though, despite his status as a free-jazz innovator, Taylor is unable to define what it means to be “free.” “I have no idea,” he says with a bellowing laugh. “Freedom is mostly a written illusion.”

By turns laughing Buddha, Angel of Death, and mercurial court jester, Taylor is the indomitable burning bush of the jazz avant-garde—inscrutable yet inescapable, pounding the keys with a fire that burns up the piano but doesn’t consume it. Famously compared to “88 tuned drums,” his celestial constellations of atonal chords have mystified audiences since he exploded onto the scene in the ’50s, a vertiginous rush that sounds like a baby grand falling down a spiral staircase and hitting all the right notes.

Pianist Taborn had his first close encounter with Taylor’s nebulous brand of ostensibly formless form as a preteen, borrowing it from the library. Like the awestruck protagonist in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann”—who discovers the titular character creating haunting walls of sound to keep demons from another dimension at bay—after hearing Taylor, Taborn was never the same again. “The catalyst for it might have been Frank Zappa,” Taborn says, referring to the antiestablishment rock icon’s 1967 “best of” list in Hit Parader. “Zappa [said], ‘If you want to learn how to play piano, listen to Cecil Taylor.’ It sort of made sense.”

Taylor fundamentally altered jazz vocabulary and revolutionized the function of the piano in an ensemble, a role that had been whittled down during the bebop era. “That influence is so hard to evade in the history of improvised music,” Taborn says. “To some extent, still, it’s like you’re playing Cecil whenever you do a lot of things, no matter how hard you try.”

Baraka first felt Taylor’s influence after his groundbreaking 1957 performances at the Five Spot Café in the East Village, and the two eventually connected on the underground loft jazz scene in the ’70s. “Cecil brought the feeling of avant-garde concert music into what’s called jazz,” Baraka says. “He really forced the boundaries of people’s hearing. And if you’ve heard Cecil’s music, you can estimate how it is to work with him.” The two have a history of performing duets, sometimes with Taylor contributing his own poetry. “Cecil’s certainly got a flair for language, but I told him, ‘Next time you do that, I’m going to play the piano.'”

Myers insists that despite how Taylor’s boundary-shattering note clusters might sound to an untrained ear, the emperor is indeed fully clothed. “He’s so open, but the music is constructed. He’s not just playing randomly. It definitely has a focus,” she says.

Taylor, for his part, says that he has spent his whole life honing this accidentally-on-purpose aesthetic.

“It’s a compositional form that leads to an improvisational form,” he says. “I’ve only been doing it for about 79 years. Practice, practice, practice.”

“Cecil Taylor: A Celebration of the Maestro” continues at Harlem Stage Gatehouse, ISSUE Project Room, and Anthology Film Archives through May 22. Taylor will perform at Harlem Stage Gatehouse on May 17 and at ISSUE Project Room on May 19.


‘Vision Festival’

The importance of this annual event becomes more and more obvious each year, flying the flag for abstraction and experimentation. It kicks off its 14th season with key elder figures: Billy Bang puts his violin in front of three trumpeters, a trombonist, and the traps of Russell Carter. Douglas Ewart pairs his reeds with other winds, Joseph Jarman’s flute, and Amiri Baraka’s verse. Butch Morris lays a little spontaneous conduction on a feisty string section and a chorus of poets rendering the texts of Allan Graubard. Heady stuff that reminds you why it’s called art music.

June 9-15, 7:30 p.m., 2009


‘Vision Festival’

The importance of this annual event becomes more and more obvious each year, flying the flag for abstraction and experimentation. It kicks off its 14th season with key elder figures: Billy Bang puts his violin in front of three trumpeters, a trombonist, and the traps of Russell Carter. Douglas Ewart pairs his reeds with other winds, Joseph Jarman’s flute, and Amiri Baraka’s verse. Butch Morris lays a little spontaneous conduction on a feisty string section and a chorus of poets rendering the texts of Allan Graubard. Heady stuff that reminds you why it’s called art music. MACNIE

June 9-15, 7:30 p.m., 2009


Two Films @ Two Boots

Released simultaneously by ArtMattan—founders of the African Diaspora Film Festival, whose mission is to de-marginalize art depicting the black experience—these two docs spotlight world-music vocalists who are living legends in their respective cultures. Georges Gachot’s flagging 2005 celebration Maria Bethânia: Music Is Perfume is as artistically temperate as the now silver-maned Brazilian contralto (and sister to Caetano Veloso), here seen rehearsing, performing, and waxing earth-motherly over her cinematic renditions of Tropicália and traditional pop. Whenever she (fleetingly) addresses how her impoverished fan base has only radio in their lives, Bethânia seems more comfortable reaching out to them from afar—which makes 2007’s Youssou N’Dour: Return to Gorée stand apart as the humbler, more affecting, and less insular film. Pierre-Yves Borgeaud’s road musical follows the Senegalese mbalax pioneer to Atlanta, New Orleans, New York City, Luxembourg, and a final concert in Dakar, each pushpin on the map tracing the history of jazz through slave routes. You may fault him for his idealism, but N’Dour’s agenda seems to be simply reconnecting with his roots and wrangling collaborators (among them blind Swiss pianist Moncef Genoud and controversial poet laureate Amiri Baraka) to reinterpret his songs. Points to Bourgeaud for not whitewashing the beautifully awkward moments of cultural misunderstanding, be it the baffled gospel singers whom N’Dour asks to remove the religious lyrics, or singer-composer Pyeng Threadgill’s run-in with an African woman who wants her to croon on the spot. Aaron Hillis