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.