Notes After Edmund White’s “Why Can’t We Stop Talking About New York in the Late 1970s?” (T Magazine)

Read Edmund White’s piece here.

Women, and not only women, still carry Mace in their bags. The bottle might bump up against an iPhone installed with Apple’s new rape-prevention app, Companion.

I recently watched an interview with Madonna where the interviewer asked her about New York in the early 1908s. When asked to explain how it used to be, in her terms, “more fun,” she explains:

Imagine, we’re in this room right now, surrounded by Keith Haring and Basquiat and Warhol, but those were my peeps, we hung out together, and came up together, and we were making art at the same time together, and we shared ideas together. Their art was on the street and accessible to everybody, and that doesn’t exist anymore . . . When I had shows in the early days, at Paradise Garage or The Roxy, Keith would say, “Let me paint on your jacket and your skirt and create your costume for you,” and Andy Warhol would be in the audience, and Larry Levan would be spinning, then the Rock Steady crew would show up, breakdancing everywhere.

White’s premise for his piece is identical to Madonna’s lament: “Then, there were only possibilities. The cultural world—at least the cultural world that mattered—was much smaller then. Painters knew musicians knew writers, and they were all accessible.”

Madonna and White claim to be talking for New York City as a whole when their memories are really only contained to Manhattan within a network of tidy, interrelated, epithet-primed scenes. Their arguments are based in small, localized communities that sprung up amid the chaos of the city, and did work with the chaos, and yet have been repackaged to fit within the print and digital pages of books, articles, magazines, retrospective brochures, the walls of institutionalized gallery shows, and on the small and big screens. There is something to point to and trace, and there is no debating that.

The history of art and culture is a cycle of movements that attempt to break from what came before them in drastic and subtle ways. When there is no more movement, the present ceases to be historical. Madonna and White view late ’70s and early ’80s Manhattan as an apex of culture, rather than a moment in an ever-evolving dialogue about the history of art in the borough. They do not discuss why it did what it did, how that legacy has carried over into the present, or what it may represent other than nostalgia. They only talk about what happened to perpetuate the myth.

If were are talking diverse, youthful, collaborative, Manhattan scenes, one current example can be found in a contemporary group of fashion designers that includes Eckhaus Latta, Moses Gauntlet Cheng, Gogo Graham, Women’s History Museum, Vejas, Vaquera, and 69 Worldwide. These designers are indirect descendants of that Manhattan for their exploration of gender fluidity, unconventional—or, debatably, conventional—models, one-of-a-kind pieces, and experimental shoots and fashion shows. Artists, musicians, designers, and writers are healthy collaborators, and hopefully, if not always, are making a little bit of money from it.

White seems to say that all an artist had to do to be successful in Manhattan was to be there. It didn’t take much work to read the right magazines, go to the right neighborhoods, parties, readings, and openings. Money and jobs and work do not really factor into the discussion. Success in New York today is only a product of work, artistic and otherwise, and not creativity, vision, or strangeness. How one makes their money is an integral if hushed topic surrounding young, successful artists, and whenever somebody approaches it I am instantly relieved.

They say everything was more fun back then, and free. Yet twice White brings up the distinction between high and low art. Artists were stuck in cultural castes, and within their medium. It seems everyone was just a writer or a painter or a musician. Now, it is more common for artists to be all of that and more. The freedom of old Manhattan was that you had your thing and owned it. Today there is freedom in owning nothing and being everyone and everything.

White suggests Robert Mapplethorpe “with his lubricious African-American nudes, portraits of society ladies and still lifes of ‘‘New York flowers’’ (as he once called them) — was one of the few people of the period who braided these high and low strands of New York culture. Could such a phenomenon occur today? Maybe in Berlin. But not in New York.” Perhaps not in art but in life, and in art when it is a reflection of life. The young artist today might work in Uptown or Midtown or Chelsea as a personal assistant or marketing manager or designer or grant writer, before descending home to Brooklyn or Queens, to a roach- or mice-infested apartment, they will have a drink, they will recenter, they will get weird, and they will go low. And vice versa.

Still, artists come to New York. Scenes and movement emerge and fade, though they may never be named. And even if they didn’t, although they do, it is unlikely that White, or Madonna, would know about.

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