Where Are All the Angry Young Men?
By John Reed
David Wojnarowicz. Two reasons you may not know that name:
—our culture can’t remember, can’t deal with, can’t fathom the angry young man;
—it’s too hard to spell (and pronounce).
Let’s deal with the second reason first. Everyone spells it wrong. Forget it.
And the first reason, of course, is why you should know who David Wojnarowicz is. Where are all the angry young men? Contemporary life is not only culturally constrained, it is a compromise of privacy, of identity, of rage. We have to log on. We have to survive. Network, or perish. What happens to the fuming young artist who sledgehammers his dealer’s wall? Who ditches his friends by the road in Nevada? Who marches in and takes paintings out of the exhibit? It’s a romantic picture, the outsider, the rebel, but in reality, we are all too replaceable, too jaded, too doomed to wield our mallets. Or perhaps, we are too doomed to do it all the time. The anger that David Wojnarowicz channeled, his lashing, spitting invective against a life prescribed from birth, has become familiar, a mundane emotional disorder, easily treated by another prescription. Rage, at the governmental handoffs to hemorrhaging corporate behemoths, at the senseless cues of teleprompters, has become the dial tone of everyday life.
Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz, by Cynthia Carr. Two reasons why it should be anticipated as the cultural biography of the year:
—sex isn’t criminal;
—political art is not a compromised, twisting branch of art, rather, it is the truer art, while non-political art, art devoid of politics, is the poor sick offshoot of creativity.
1999. The New Museum hosted a retrospective of Wojnarowicz’s work. Amy Scholder, his editor—first at City Lights and then at Grove Press—had worked on the catalogue, and was a year from releasing her third Wojnarowicz project, In the Shadow of the American Dream: The Diaries of David Wojnarowicz.
By ostensible measure, Wojnarowicz, 46 and relatively young, had cracked popular culture. But Wojnarowicz had been dead for seven years, and the aftermath of September 11, 2001, would put the country on a cultural course, literally, of zombies and vampires. In his early paintings, employing out-dated supermarket posters as his ground, Wojnarowicz satirized a contemporary ethos akin to the undead. “Scientists,” Wojnarowicz told Carr, who wrote about and was consequently friends with the artist, “have discovered that if the head of a moth is cut off it can still continue to lay eggs. Somehow I don’t think civilization is all that different… Society is almost dead and yet it continues reproducing its madness as if there were a real future at the end of its collective gestures.”
The backstory of this difficult creative attitude is the stuff of Carr’s first two hundred pages: the Dickensian upbringing that messed David up—foster parents, abusive father, flakoid mother, and years as a Times Square Hustler. Then, David as a young man, falling in love in Paris, obsessing over Arthur Rimbaud, and seeking to shock himself into a higher awareness. It is the biography’s least scintillating stretch: Carr doesn’t bring much life to Wojnarowicz’s alcoholic father, who must have had something going for him to get all those women to fall in love with him—and while Carr does animate Wojnarowicz’s mother, it won’t be for another couple of hundred pages. But the promise of Wojnarowicz’s future work, and the horrorshow of Wojnarowicz’s personal catastrophe, push Carr into the glorious years of New York City’s East and West Village: the sudden excitement of galleries springing up like mushrooms in a land that rich people had forsaken; the open spaces of big lofts and cheap rent; and the shame-free sexuality of city nights— from the swaggering cruisers on the Hudson waterfront to the wife swappers at Plato’s Retreat.
“Arthur Rimbaud in NY (in meat packing district),” 1978-1979. David Wojnarowicz. gelatin silver print