In part I of “Paving Paradise” I started to discuss the results of some of the research I’ve been conducting for a large painting diagramming the history of the East Village art scene. Patterns of circumstances began to leap out at me with regards to the current situation in burgeoning Bushwick. Although the EV scene pretty much flamed out over 25 years ago, a surprising number of similarities are playing themselves out in Brooklyn’s here and now. It’s my hope that in pointing to some of these attitudes and factors, the pain and depression might be softened when reality bites, and the inexorable mill of history grinds on.
The Golden Age
Ideologues, often as not, posit the idea of some pre-existing perfect utopia—a Garden of Eden untouched by cares or woes, where mankind lived in perfect loving harmony with nature and each other. If only we could relinquish the rot and decadent corruption of the current era, these pundits tell us, we could return to these unsullied glory days. The truth is, there never was a “Golden Age.” The “good old days” are good because they’re gone. Each generation, and the individuals within that generation, create their own: It usually correlates to they and their friends’ early enthusiastic achievements and bloom of youth. This became apparent to me, shortly after the publication of Ward Shelley’s “Williamsburg Timeline” drawing in 2002. Here, Shelley designated a five-year stretch in the mid-’90s (his own young adulthood) as “The Golden Age.” Upon seeing this flowchart, a young Williamsburg dealer, disgruntled by the implication, stated “What’s this crap? I wasn’t here in the mid-’90s. If you ask me, Williamsburg’s ‘Golden Age’ is right now.” Get in your time machine and bore through your wall of nostalgia to revisit Williamsburg (1990 – 96), or the East Village (1981 – 87) during their “Golden Age.” People were complaining just as loudly about how, in the history of civilization, things have never been as fucked up as now, and how it was way better before all the fakers and takers showed up to exploit the situation.
Darwin is Your Friend
While within the art scene the fetishistic notion of an ever-evolving aesthetic of the new, the novel, or the original is widely worshiped, mention any corollary evolution in economic or social structures and you’d better brace yourself for exploding heads and bare-fanged attacks. As many see it, “Darwinian Economics” (could we not also say “Darwinian Aesthetics”?) is code for greed, racism, hatred of the “poor and downtrodden,” and the capital sin of the Occupiers “1%”. Ironically, to argue against it is to buy into a fuzzy-headed fundamentalist utopia that’s a perfect mirror image of the Evangelical Christian notion of “creationism” (the universe is controlled by some pure, all-knowing extra-human organism that exists beyond time, and ideally, beyond mankind’s intervention). To rail against the forces of human nature is akin to protesting gravity, or death (you can still do both if you have the luxury of time). The most important aspect for surviving as an artist is the same as for any successful species—“adaptability.” While seeking an ever-improving world (or better art) may be the motivation on a day-to-day basis, it brings with it equal if not greater potential for obliteration and mayhem, what’s been called the principal of “creative destruction.” A true measure of creativity is the ability, or at least the attempt, to harness both the good (positive) and bad (negative) aspects of this force, and channel them in the most productive form. To those of you who will mutter “easy for you to say” I can only respond, yeah, it’s that or death.
Attention must be paid
Perhaps the scariest part of art history in general is the insatiable appetite of obscurity. While many artists who got their start in the East Village are today’s “establishment” (Jeff Koons, Marilyn Minter, Richard Prince, Peter Halley, George Condo, Madonna), and despite the presence of over 120 exhibition spaces, a quick glance at the EV galleries remaining in living memory is small, perhaps a half dozen. Arguably, they are: the Fun, Nature Morte, Gracie Mansion, International With Monument, Civilian Warfare, Pizo Electric, and Pat Hearn. Unless you were involved with other venues personally, the rest have pretty much been broomed into the dustbin of history, their passions, piss, blood, sweat, and dreams relegated to the “forgettable.” Entire swathes of the scene, galleries, artists, movements, clubs, and coteries have all vanished into the void. Some pundits (unadmitted Darwinians out to “streamline” the historical narrative) tell us, if the artist or art is forgotten, it’s because it deserves to be forgotten. The future won’t miss it, or them. I will contend that culture is formed and shaped by many forces, some visible and some, maybe most, invisible. It’s a cultural analogy to the “dark energy” and “dark matter” of astrophysics. Creative vigor and ideas generated by the “unknowns” have profoundly influenced the “knowns.” If it’s possible to keep some of this information available, there may yet be useful material awaiting new users to discover, exploit, and extrapolate. Even if there isn’t, aren’t the valiant attempts and sacrifices, even the funky fun made by our art tribe, worth at least a minor historical mention? Shouldn’t we learn as much from their failures as their successes, and perhaps take a second glance before their memory sinks into the dark ocean of obscurity?
For you “Bushwickers” wondering what any of this has to do with you, congratulations, you can go back to sleep. To those of you who do understand, remember, the best thing you can do in the present to protect the future is to preserve the past, not be a slave to it, but a student of it.
JAMES KALM has written extensively on the Brooklyn art scene. In 2006 he began posting video reviews of local art exhibitions at his two YouTube channels that have generated over six million views.