On the Redemption of American Culture
I was in an optimistic mood, encouraging a writer friend to go for larger opportunities. I turned to her and pressed, "But don't you want your work to be more out there, more present in the culture?"
She thought for a moment, then asked, "What culture?"
Good question. We were sitting on her roof in Bushwick, a neighborhood where the price of some bedrooms has tripled within a few years. When I first came to New York, the previous it-zone of Williamsburg felt eerily like a college town without a college, teeming with much-maligned ‘hipsters’ – reputedly great admirers of art yet questionable practitioners of it. More extreme, though, is today's Bushwick; it feels like a college party with neither college nor town, and art has floated out of the picture. Every night is Friday night, a blur by morning. Drunks in sandals amble through streets lined with posh, discarded furniture, presumably the result of endless move-outs or upgrades. The rich white kids coming here are the living dead, roaming a cemetery of expensive trash. And they make hipsters look like true aesthetes.
Gentrification has psychologically aged me. A decade and change into New York life, here I sit, grumpily, like a cat that doesn't want you to pet it, complaining about the new people moving to the city, and shouldering so heavy a resentment against the chain restaurant that replaced my local diner that I am driven to treat it like Medusa, never looking at it straight on. The landscape here changes so fast I struggle to recognize myself inside of it. I’m aware that as a white transplant to the neighborhood, I am both a witness to, as well as an unwitting, un-wanting participant in a colonial cycle of displacement about which generations of Black, Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Chinese people have far greater reason to complain. I also did not experience the dramatic changes to the city – including the ravages of AIDS – that my older friends in the art world did. But I find myself prematurely becoming like the baby boomer artists I know who are holding out in the East Village, a faction of whom seem to view themselves as the designated mourners of New York's cultural death, their gazes fixed on the disappearance of that particular neighborhood.
New York City has too long been caught in a feedback loop with its own televised image. Before gaggles of pajama-clad Caucasians were traipsing across the sidewalks of Bushwick while speaking loudly about exfoliating, there was a string of sitcoms that advertised a lazy-days existence of breezing in and out of newly renovated flats to fixate on picayune dilemmas. I'm climbing up the mountain with a bullhorn to announce the obvious, but here it goes: just as many Americans could picture our president as a man in charge because he'd already played a boss on TV, so for decades New York has distorted into a re-imagined, de-imagined version of itself that the public became familiar with through their screens. Art should come from life, but right now in the United States too much of life comes from entertainment. Even the Brooklyn drag scene, one of the city's liveliest phenomena to spring up in recent memory, was ignited by a television show, rather than the other way around. Is New York still the beating heart of American culture, or merely the locus of a cadaveric spasm at the end of an empire?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m recklessly committed to living in the city and participating in new moments. And I'm certainly not wishing it were as it was when I arrived – New York’s official glory days were long gone by then, too. The late aughts were about: a vague electroclash hangover; the antifolk scene, often crafty but also, too-cute; indie outfits who largely acted out rock star fantasies, offering up depressive anthems, pulsating with forced pathos, as well as auto-soporific lullabies redolent of a lost childhood, when the video games were simpler; experimental theater plays that often felt like wheel-spinning college skits taken too far. All the while, nightlife was dominated by freshly refurbished expressions of cabaret and burlesque.
I participated in many of these scenes when I started out, delivering an array of half-baked performances – my contribution to the un-glorious decline of civilization. Yet there were also shining masters who transcended the given medium in every one of these scenes. Still, none of the movements felt like a vital counterculture to the mainstream, more like sideshows of nostalgia. As the nation watched televised talent competitions featuring contestants who hoped to be raptured up into the realm of celebrity after singing to karaoke tracks of songs from bygone, and livelier, eras, we were singing those same songs onstage in New York clubs. The only difference was, we were singing them lugubriously, with a piano and some fleeting sense of irony.
New York, of course, isn't the end-all. There are interesting scenes in Miami, Detroit, Baltimore, Austin. There are many other cities I haven't seen, temples of grit and districts of new pleasures to which I've yet to be admitted. Whatever is going on, though, will most of us ever know? And how can we shine a light on culture that’s already there, but is simply invisible?
"How long has everything been so corporate?" a 22 year-old friend asked me the other day, in regards to mainstream music and TV. Well, basically as long as I've been around, I'm sorry to say, but it's a relief that you noticed. In the course of several rich diatribes on homogenization in the performing arts, a 62 year old friend asserted that those individuals currently typed as character actors would have been leading ladies and men in the heyday of Hollywood. Supposing this is accurate, one wonders: what would become of character actors of that time period, were they transported to the present? Perhaps their strong facial features and distinctive manners would read as pitiably monstrous enough to inspire people to toss them coins on the train? In a recent New York Times profile on him, the legendary music producer Hal Wilner similarly lamented that the nation once lifted the weird into mainstream, but was left now without heroes or a genuine interest in culture. Even within my lifetime I have watched blander and blander performers being trotted out and announced as new messiahs. Soon enough, we may prefer watching actual robots sing, dance, and act – a Roomba has more duende.
A star should seem like an alien who came crashing down. A being that bubbles with particularity and moves, thinks, and behaves in accordance with her own mysterious set of principles – runs on her own strange motor. But I think of many recent pop stars the same way I think of the Freedom Tower: yes, there you are up in the sky, undeniable yet generic, more obstructive than alluring, erected in the wake of a violent loss. I accept you as part of the scenery, but I won't be visiting you. To refer to many of the famous figures of today as ‘stars’ is misleading. It would be more apropos to describe them as black holes; devouring of attention, offering no illumination. I remember a bubble gum pop singer performing on late night TV last year, sharing the stage with a bevy of dancing drag queens and voguers. Stunningly, she was upstaged by every last one – a silent chorus of authenticity prancing fiercely along the sidelines. Meanwhile, she strutted stiffly in cropped blond hair, like a babysitter on a tangent. When might we know their names and not hers?
Novelist, playwright and cultural critic Sarah Schulman – who, along with performance artist Penny Arcade, has created an entire body of work chronicling cultural loss – recently observed that in American culture there is a "constant false messaging that repetition of what is already known is good ... and familiarity equals quality." She went on to point out that the opposite is true: “the most culturally valuable work is the invitation to question ourselves, how we think, and to vigorously question how we live." She couldn't be more right, and yet this is hardly a new problem: a century and a half ago Oscar Wilde wrote, "The public has always been badly brought up. They are continually asking Art to be popular, to please their want of taste, to flatter their absurd vanity, to tell them what they have been told before, to show them what they ought to be tired of seeing …”
Artists themselves at once desire and distrust popularity, as their task is to create something new and therefore somehow unfamiliar. They, we, exist “to disturb the peace,” as James Baldwin put it. If my work is being widely embraced, it must be bad, thinks the artist, after spending her entire life trying to invent a language and praying to be understood. Another proposition: popularity could actually transform good art into bad. "Even the most beautiful melody sounds vulgar once the public starts humming it," mused Huysmans' Des Esseintes in Against Nature. In the current climate, though, one needn’t go out of one’s way to avoid being popular – trembling in the face of fame is a remote concern for most ‘creatives’. In fact, all the best minds of my generation I've checked in with this week are apparently consumed with the demands of survival, making statements such as “Help, I’m locked in the psych ward at Bellevue Hospital,” and "I’m sleeping in my studio space this month – do you think the night janitor will tattle and get me kicked out? I hope no one finds out I’m homeless!”
Many of the greatest luminaries I've encountered are still toiling in the shadows, but those who have become celebrities have it bad, too: I have been perched on balconies in Hollywood, in condos about to be sold, listening to aging household-name actors tell me they can no longer even get an audition. I’ve seen visual artists break down after being ignored and dismissed, dropped by their galleries, following a rhapsodic fifteen. Putting people on pedestals and knocking them off, an unconscious pastime in America, precisely reflects the pattern that pop psychology articles warn us to watch out for – the telltale tactic of a clinical narcissist.
Speaking of which, the ultimate celebrity, the ultimate American of the moment, famous for being rich and richer for being famous, happens to be our president. This state of affairs is the result of a sick culture. We knew he was an attention monster, but thought he lacked the vision and focus of an actual dictator. Then he said he’d like us to treat him more like the North Koreans treat their fearsome leader. Our task as citizens is to stop him. Our task as artists – should we wish to be practical – is to create a culture that would never again dream of electing a raging xenophobe who absent-mindedly lapses into infomercials advertising his line of steaks during political rallies, and speaks predominantly in non-sentences. Beyond that, we choose the course: some of us will observe and depict what is going on in a direct manner. Others will offer comic relief. Some of us will grope around in the dark in attempts to envision new ways of being. Now is as much a time for radical sensibilities and wild aesthetic maneuvers as it is for bold political strategies.
Culture will not be saved by our universities. The academy is still an intellectual haven to some degree but it is also a ghetto of the hypothetical. A theater of careful gestures where discourse precedes art, rather than the reverse. The arts will not be saved by the internet. Though the web once promised to reinvigorate the culture by revealing hidden artists and audiences to one another, it has largely failed. Its design required the labor of evolved minds, but it turns out the internet appeals to a primitive part of us. It mostly turned us into mobs without streets and transfixed us with GIFs, the visual equivalent of a skipping record. Isn’t it time to go outside?
Finally, to continue looking to corporate entertainment for the redemption of American culture is to stuff quarters in a claw machine: what is in there will never be ours, and that’s the only reason we ever wanted it. It is time to give away what we don’t need and what is weighing us down. (An Academy Award, by the way, is made of brittanium, which melts at a mere 255 degrees.) It is warm in Bushwick tonight and the rats are running through the streets, ransacking our garbage, poised to inherit the earth. I am not throwing stones from a glass house, just taking a breather on a wet sofa on the sidewalk, launching paper airplanes to pass the time.
'On the Redemption of American Culture' is excerpted from our latest print issue – Somesuch Stories #4: Redemption, now on sale at Barnes & Noble stores in the USA, and in the UK/EU via AntenneBooks, with online subscriptions available through Newsstand.
Joseph Keckler is a singer, musician and writer. He is the author of many songs and videos, and both short and evening-length performance pieces and plays. His beguiling, erudite book of essays, Dragon at the Edge of a Flat World, was published by Turtle Point Press.
Photograph by Joseph Keckler