Tag Archives: it gets better (but how much better?)

Guest Post: David Wojnarowicz Gets It Better

by Sholem Krishtalka

By now, the It Gets Better campaign – spawned by sex columnist/gay avenger Dan Savage in response to a seeming rash of gay teen suicides – is an international phenomenon.

The user-submitted videos on its YouTube channel number over a thousand; both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have weighed in; an official response from queer Canadian celebs has been added to the roster. More pour in daily. And this is to say nothing of the splinter campaigns: there are, in fact, some It Gets Worse videos.

The more I look at these videos, the more I am reminded of one of my favourite artworks: David Wojnarowicz’s Untitled (One Day This Kid…). I’ve seen it numerous times, in reproduction and “in the flesh.” And each time I see it, its brutal honesty and cutting simplicity shake me to my core (it’s one of the few works of art in front of which I’ve cried).

It’s a gelatin silver print: a grainy school photo of a young Wojnarowicz (he can’t be more than 9 or 10), buck-toothed and gawky, smiling at the camera. The phrase “One day this kid will get larger” appears on the upper right-hand corner of the page, and from there starts a litany of the systems of casual and institutional oppression that will be brought to bear on this kid as he makes his way through life. It ends with the phrase, “All this will begin to happen in one or two years when he discovers he desires to place his naked body on the naked body of another boy.”

Wojnarowicz himself narrowly escaped a viciously abusive family life to wind up as a homeless, underage street hustler in Manhattan in the early ‘70s. His artwork (film, writing, performance, painting, prints) channeled and attempted to exorcize the demons of his life; their chilling directness and hallucinatory power earned him success in the New York art world in the ’80s (he was included in the 1985 Whitney Biennial). He died of AIDS-related complications in 1992.

One Day This Kid… was made in 1990 and, twenty years on, I can’t help but think that Wojnarowicz, in a single print, has eclipsed the totality of the It Gets Better campaign. For one thing, each of the horrors that Wojnarowicz enumerates are still true, twenty years on (as I read through it, I can easily think of news items from the past year that bear these phrases out). Given his art-world fame, one might be tempted to infer that It Got Better for Wojnarowicz. But that’s not the point, and he knew it. (And, eighteen years after his death, conservatives are still attacking his work.)

The face of gay activism has changed radically since the 1990s. Since the 1960s, it always teetered, Janus-like, between assimilationism and radicalism: the button-down civic respectability of the homophile movement versus the disruptive streak of Harry Hay and the Mattachine Society; the Stonewall riots; the “liberated” hedonism of the ‘70s and ‘80s; the AIDS crisis, which spawned a hydra of queer activist organizations, such as the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP), of which David Wojnarowicz was a member.

But a strange thing happened in the ’90s: AIDS activist organizations made significant victories. AIDS became part of the public discourse; its research garnered public funding; the Republicans, with their history of tacit denials (Reagan’s first public uttering of the word “AIDS” was in 1987) were out of office.

A decade of civil disobedience and activism (carried on amidst deaths of friends and lovers) had left many exhausted (I urge the watching of Gregg Bordowitz’s seminal 1994 video Fast Trip, Long Drop). And in the strange vacuum created by the semblance of victory and a spent, mourning people, a new brand of activism emerged: so-called pink-dollar activism, the marshaling of influence based on leveraging the queer community’s power as a mostly wealthy niche market.

There are those who would defend this brand of activism as efficient, and they are right in certain senses. However, it has ultimately shifted the queer community’s relationship to mass culture and politics (if one can even make such generalizations now). The goal of ACT UP was to prompt a sea change, to force institutions to recognize queers as citizens under the law, regardless of our habits and proclivities. Pink-dollar activism, on the other hand, speaks the language of these same institutions.

Clement Greenberg once said that art should never attempt to meet its audience halfway. I’m not about to go to bat for Clement Greenberg’s snobbery, but to paraphrase him wildly for my own ends, the mainstream of queer activism has gone more than halfway in meeting its intended audience.

There is much that is valuable about the It Gets Better project; I am heartened by its sustained success. But at its core, it is an emanation of this particular brand of late-20th-century queer activism, and thus puts its emphasis in the wrong places. It makes an ultimately misguided argument: Get through this immediate trauma, so that one day, you’ll have the means to live a comfortable life, and those comforts will compensate for past suffering.

Material luxuries and promises of tomorrows are a poor weapon against the imminent threat of physical and emotional violence. To my mind, it’s a strange kind of hope to offer a teenager, and one of the more remarkable things about One Day This Kid… is that it offers no hope, and yet is not nihilistic.

It’s important to remember that it was made in the midst of the initial onslaught of the AIDS crisis, the heyday of ACT UP’s furious civil disobedience. Wojnarowicz can’t offer hope, because he knows that hope itself isn’t a guarantee and, more importantly, neither is it its own end. Wojnarowicz only offers hope tangentially, indirectly (certainly, we want This Kid to escape the text that surrounds and suffocates him). Crucially, the enumeration of harms to which This Kid will be subjected is meant to incite rage.

Finally, this is what I find missing from It Gets Better, and what I still find moving about One Day This Kid…: The former tries to soothe with the prospect of escape, and eventual isolation within domestic, urban comforts. The latter bears unflinching witness, and as such, is a challenge and a call to arms. Outrunning pain is only the first step; it’s what happens after that’s valuable.

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Filed under guest post, TV/video, visual art

Tea With Chris: Lincoln Smiled

Tea With Chris is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Friday. Here are a few of our favourite things from the Internet this week:

Chris: No tea from Margaux this week – it’s just C+C. I’ve long been fascinated by the American Civil War and Reconstruction, by their nascent industrialism, their centrality in the country’s racial agonies, the brutal drama of the conflict, but my interest didn’t begin so academically. As a kid I was briefly a member/sucker of the Science Fiction Book Club, and I once ordered a couple of novels from Southern Victory, Harry Turtledove’s inventively stupid alternate-history series. Here’s a representative passage from the first book:

Lincoln held up both hands. Slowly, slowly, quiet crawled back. Into it, he said, “I do not advocate revolution. I pray it shall not be necessary. But if the old order will not yield to justice, it shall be swept aside. I do not threaten, any more than a man who says he sees a tornado coming. Folks can take shelter from it, or they can run out and play in it. That is up to them. You, friends, you are a tornado. What happens next is up to the capitalists.” He stepped away from the podium.

Joe McMahan pumped his hand. “That was powerful stuff, Mr. Lincoln,” he said. “Powerful stuff, yes indeed.”

“For which I thank you,” Lincoln said, raising his voice to be heard through the storm of noise that went on and on.

“Ask you something, Mr. Lincoln?” McMahan said. Lincoln nodded. McMahan leaned closer, so only the former president would hear. “You ever come across the writings of a fellow named Marx, Mr. Lincoln? Karl Marx?”

Lincoln smiled. “As a matter of fact, I have.”

Thanks to the magic of Wikipedia, I just found out that Turtledove’s literary climax was a flipped-script World War II against Confederate Hitler. This is a very tangential way of saying you should check out Disunion, a series of New York Times blog posts revisiting the Civil War 150 years after it began. They’re focusing on the broader social context of the era rather than yet another summation of its battles, and my favourite entry so far is a sketch of early Japanese envoys who happened to be visiting. “Several kept diaries of their journey; it is clear from these that despite linguistic and cultural differences, they quickly grasped certain peculiarities of local politics. One diarist noted perplexedly that in the United States, ‘anyone of good character except a Negro may be elected president.’” How perplexed would they be by a country where Obama’s motorcade might travel down Jefferson Davis Highway?

Carl:

Of course, you’ve seen and debated all the “It Gets Better” videos. But you know what the original project to help outcast teens get by was? Rock’n’roll. Perhaps desiring to sidestep some of the controversy that arises when straight people bring their experiences into Dan Savage’s project to reach out to gay teens on video and help discourage suicides, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats hasn’t articulated any explicit link. But as a former psychiatric nurse in a home for troubled youth, and someone who’s sung and written in the past about his own history of childhood abuse and related issues, he knows the territory. And in this song, leaked with Darnielle’s tweeted blessing this week, he remembers an unappreciated kid in spiked heels clattering across concrete high-school floors, getting shit from everybody.

He wishes that he’d said then that he thought that kid was cool. He hopes he or she loves their life now, “the way I love mine” – with the unspoken undertow of hoping they’ve made it this far, because it doesn’t always get better as fast as it should. And he hopes the pain left behind by that time only gets overwhelming “a little of the time,” because you can’t expect traumas to go away completely. And more than most of the too-anodyne “It Gets Better” messages, he reserves the right to catharsis: “We held on to the hope of better days coming/ And when we did, we were right./ I hope the people who did you wrong/ Have trouble sleeping at night.” That might not be a nice thing to think. But it’s a pretty satisfying thing to sing, to let ring out in the air, echo and fade.

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Filed under carl wilson, chris randle, linkblogging, margaux williamson