Tag Archives: It Gets Worse

Tea With Chris: Metaphors, Butchered Ruthlessly

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:

Carl: Thanks to my Slate Music Club chat-partner Ann Powers, this week I was introduced to the impressive Lana Turner Journal and Lana Turner Blog, where the essays about Kesha and Katy Perry (really, it’s great) or Machete sit contentedly cheek by jowl with those about Godard and Afghanistan. Like n+1 but with a better sense of humour, it just got on my “essentials” list.

Speaking of the Music Club, after I’d finally finished up my best-of-2010 lists there, I discovered the 50 best albums and, especially, the 50 best hip-hop songs lists on Passion of the Weiss, and feel a little like I missed three-quarters of the year. Download the hip-hop mix now.

I’m sure this must do the Internet rounds with some regularity, but I got my first look this week at photos of the Wat Rong Khun Buddhist temple under construction in Thailand, a structure that looks like it’s spun from confectioners’ sugar and hypnagogic fever dreams. The superhero and science-fiction illustrations in the interior kind of make me doubt its earnestness of purpose outside of luring tourists into its sweet-petalled maw and devouring them, though maybe there’s a sound Buddhist-theological explanation?

One person who might know is the spiritually inclined Hamid Drake, one of the best living percussionists in jazz-improv, and I’d feel remiss if I didn’t tell Toronto readers that he’s playing two nights here this weekend, in an Interface with local musicians from AIMToronto. Here’s the Facebook event page and here’s the regular-type web page.

Chris: Back when I was cranking out regular CD reviews for a Toronto alt-weekly, I particularly enjoyed writing a one-star capsule on Katy Perry’s debut album, which lurched between gay-playing and gay-baiting with no more grace than her bellow of a voice. Perry’s 2010 single “Firework” topped the U.S. charts in December. It’s a putative “gay anthem,” with one of those music videos that show two young men kissing for half a second before the cut back to Katy, having just missed her clenched-fist salute. Rich Juzwiak’s year-end essay for the annual Pazz & Jop survey critiques this and other examples of post-“It Gets Better” pandering: “To court us so visibly, explicitly, and successfully…is to take the connoisseurship out of gay taste, to sap the queer from queerness.” If that makes you angry rather than sad, you might prefer the kicking meted out by the good people at the Singles Jukebox. Katherine St Asaph: “Do you ever feel like a metaphor, butchered ruthlessly? A sentient plastic bag?”

This doesn’t feel like that. Bonus K-pop content!

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

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.


Filed under guest post, TV/video, visual art