David Wojnarowicz continues to make headlines more than 20 years after his death. The aritst/provocateur's most recent moment came when the National Portrait Gallery was forced to remove an excerpt of Wojnarowicz's short silent film A Fire in My Belly after it was attacked by Catholic and political leaders for its sacrilegious depiction of ants crawling on a crucifix.
Wojnarowicz's compelling and lurid tale of how he went from being a street hustler to internationally renowned artist and writer (as well as filmmaker and photogapher) is the stuff of legend. Having emerged in the hey day of the East Village art scene in the '80s when the streets were dangerous, drugs were rampant, AIDS was killing (mostly gay) young men and the culture wars were escalating, there's a richness to his story that attracted the attention of Cynthia Carr, the author of Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (Bloomsbury, out July 17th). Carr knew Wojnarowicz and covered the art scene for the Village Voice -- back when the paper was good.
Today the East Village is a very different place and AIDS is no longer shrouded in mystery, but the story of Wojnarowicz is bigger than ever. Carr's book does the best job yet of putting all its glorious and heartbreaking squalor in perspective. At the same time, it's a loving tribute to an artist who became one of the leading voices of his generation by being uncompromising and fierce in his belief in the power of art to influence the world. I recently chatted with Carr.
Why did you decide to write a biography of David Wojnarowicz?
It just seemed like a way to bring together things I had been involved in myself, like the East Village scene, and the culture wars. And I just thought David was an interesting subject too, just as a person. There's something enigmatic about him and mysterious. And I knew there were lots of papers available, over at [NYU's] Fales Library. All the journals and things were there.
And nobody had really gone through them in this way before?
No, no one had. And there were things there in fact, like some boxes filled with audio tapes that no one had ever listened to.
He was a big talker, right?
As soon as his art career took off he stopped writing his journal. He got too busy painting, and doing all the other things that he was doing as an artist. But he would sometimes come home and tape something, and no one had ever listened to these things.
That must have been a big thing to discover.
Yeah. I transcribed every single one of them. [laughs]
In working on the book, what was your biggest surprise.
Well, the biggest surprise was his early life, it's the chapter I call "The Secret Life." He was doing all these things like being a poet, and editing a literary magazine, and he never told anyone he'd done that. He used to talk about how he'd spent years riding the rails cross country, and back. Which he did once, but he didn't spend years doing that. But he did that to try to cover over those poetry years. It was such a weird thing to try to hide.
Did he want people to think of him as more of an art brut than a literary personality?
Well, that's the persona that he crafted.
Today it's all about going to art school, and getting your degree from Yale.
Maybe it was just the time when there was some opening [in the art world] for people to get in, if they didn't get an MFA. They could still come up some another way. The East Village was about that, a lot of doors opened there, and there was a certain amount of bad art that came up then too, but other people got in like David.
Yeah, there's always a question with him as well, did the time shape him, or did he shape the times. Was it being in the right place at the right time, with the right person.
He was someone who reacted. When he had an emotional reaction to anything, he would make art about it. And one story that I thought was such a good example of that, was when he had one of his early shows at Civilian Warfare, when Allen Barrows came up to him, and said, "This painting, you've called it 'Fuck You, Faggot Fucker.' You have to change that name." And David said, "That's the name."
In the next ten or 20 years, when people look back at his work, and life, what is likely to stand out?
He embodied so much of what was going on during that time, in the culture, in gay life, but in the wider world also. And I think young gay men who become aware of him, the story of his life and what his work was about just really resonates for them.
So how do they discover him, the young people today? Is it through his memoir, Closer to the Knives?
Yeah, that seems to be one way, but, you know, a lot of people discovered him through the Smithsonian controversy.
A lot of people had never heard of him before that. Closer to the Knives is still around, and I think that piece he made in 1990 called, "One Day This Kid Will Get Larger" (pictured above), resonates with the whole bullying thing -- it's about growing up with homophobia. We who live in New York don't realize how bad it can be for the rest of the country, for gay people. We're a little bubble there, of tolerance, and it's really not that way in a lot of the country for gay people, especially teenagers I think.
Looking back at those years there was a lot of bad stuff going on -- drugs, AIDS, culture wars -- yet people today look back on it with nostalgia as a golden age of New York.
Sometimes, I myself forget how dangerous it was, but there was a kind of energy in the air, and so much creativity going on. You could walk out your door and not know what great thing was going to happen. It was un-programmed and un-colonized events in un-colonized spaces. And that's really disappeared. And it was just great fun, and so interesting and stimulating. So that's what people hang on to and remember instead of how, you know like when I went to Club Chandelier, I had to walk down the middle of the street.
The young people hear about the eighties and all that cool stuff and wish they could have lived here then, but at the same time, the city was bankrupt, there were so many things wrong.
Even those of us who lived through the AIDS crisis don't think about it. It was just so awful, a traumatic event that you put out of your mind. That was going on then too, and it was just a terrible thing to live through.
So many great people died. How do you think David would have reacted to the world today had he lived?
I think he would just be so appalled by politics. He was angry as the first George Bush and look what came along later. He would have just been so outraged by the rightward tilt of the country. But, the other thing is that I feel like, boy, if only he'd gotten to use digital media. He would have loved it!
You think so, yeah?
I think so, yeah. Using a digital camera -- that's what I'm thinking of. Maybe he would have done a blog or something, but I think he would have liked it, he would have had a website. He would have loved doing films that way.
Would it have as much power though? There's so much out there right now.
Yeah, that's true. He used to talk about that, about the pre-invented world, you know, the official reality. When you walk out your door there's so much that you're taking in at every moment, it's hard to even know what you're feeling, and focus on anything, and that's all gotten more intense since his death, But I think he would have found a way to work with these things though. I have that kind of faith.
It's hard to imagine where he would live, so much of the city that he explored like the Piers have disappeared.
This is pure speculation on my part, but just because he loved nature so much, and loved critters, I keep thinking maybe he would have moved upstate. I thought about him everyday so this is me just going on about, 'where would David be today?' I know that now in upstate New York there's a big arts community, and there's a gay community. One time I ran into him on the street when he had his early success and I congratulated him, and he just looked so stricken, and he said to me, "if I weren't gay I'd move out of New York now, and into a little town and get a job at a gas station."
Today AIDS is less of an epidemic, the East Village is what it is, David is gone, but the culture wars are still with us.
Well, that whole thing at the Smithsonian actually really surprised me, but it's just David pissing people off from beyond the grave. It shows that his work still has power. The first culture war was apart from this larger attempt to destroy the National Endowment for the Arts, but right wingers learned that they can get a lot of traction out of these attacks -- where they are attacking something that most people are unfamiliar with, and don't understand, and might find a little scary, or whatever. And they could motivate their followers as well as make money, so that must have been part of what happened at the Smithsonian also. That people could jump in and say, oh we can make some, we can score some points by attacking this tiny video.
Photo of David Wojnarowicz by Marion Scemama; "(Untitled) One Day This Kid..." courtesy of P.P.O.W.