The shuttering of the Village Voice in August was met with solemn tributes, honorifics like storied and iconic universally conferred on the name of the deceased. Of course, the writing had been on the wall. Peter Barbey had purchased the alternative weekly in 2015 and then ceased publication of the print edition, firing a swathe of staff, while a line of editors-in-chief departed his new property in quick succession. When it came, the inevitable announcement seemed, inevitably, to say that even he — a billionaire — couldn’t get the old gramophone to sing again. Among the lamentations occasioned by the paper’s demise — for alternative media, for print — the fiercest concerned the decline of local journalism: now we are so preoccupied by the national spectacle that we miss the enormities next door. There also came a few promises to keep the spirit of the Voice alive, or at least some piece of it. From an editorial at 4Columns: “We will continue to strive to be worthy inheritors of the Voice’s greatest traditions by adhering to its ineradicable ethos: arts writing, at its most exalted, is an unmistakably personal conversation with the world. Or, as Oscar Wilde once said, ‘It is Criticism … that, by concentration, makes culture possible.’”
Memorialization says a lot about the living. No surprise that a “website of arts criticism” would choose to commemorate that selfsame sliver of the Voice. Still, it is worth pausing to consider discrepancies between heir and ancestor. If the Voice was felled by that familiar affliction of the internet age, dwindling ad revenue, one doubts that private endowments like the one that funds 4Columns represent a viable business model, least of all for local journalism. (While those who live in the art world are all too familiar with a reliance on private wealth and noblesse oblige, one also wonders what the editors of 4Columns make of Wilde’s contempt for philanthropy.) Another contrast that leaps out at us from the tribute offered by the new digital platform for the departed rag concerns precisely that changing relationship between local journalism and arts writing, namely, that 4Columns speaks with the voice of a global village.
Until recently it could be said that art critics (I use the term strictly in the grubby, professionalized sense), even more than artists, were creatures of locality. It was the critic who was subject to the array of her precinct, working a beat, seeing in context, narrating a city as much as a painting. Even as we now call quaint the notion of a truly local art scene — in the sense of producing something in isolation from the images we all consume from elsewhere — and even as some critics do seem to subsist on the complementary breakfasts of an endless summer of press trips, a hint of the old Baudelairean type remains. Most of us ply our trade in one place, and sometimes that place seeps in to the writing. But it is just a hint: for that writing, when written in English at any rate, is by and large written for an international audience, and if Los Angeles, for example, is invoked, it is typically to say only that the city glints across the surface of the Murakami with subtle and ineffable effects seen only here.
Whether or not the editors of 4Columns had Gary Indiana in mind when writing of those great traditions, Vile Days, Indiana’s collected columns for the Village Voice, where he served as art critic from 1985 to 1989, arrives like a funeral guest full of snide asides about what the deceased was really like. In an afterword, Bruce Hainley, editor of the volume, relates the author’s utter indifference to its publication. Apparently Indiana was not troubled enough to object to the reissuing of material he described in his memoir as “a bunch of yellowing newspaper columns I… haven’t cared about for a second since writing them a quarter century ago.” The narrator of Horse Crazy, Indiana’s first novel, published a year after his tenure at the Voice, similarly takes a job “writing cultural items” for a New York weekly. “I had, in fact, always detested most of what appeared in this particular magazine.” If that’s just fiction, well, even while on staff Indiana could be less than deferential to his employer: “If the Village Voice wants to become the New Yorker, it should pay us New Yorker wages. As things stand, the Village Voice is half a parody of the Village Voice, and it isn’t our half.” Still, the collection has much to offer those looking to memorialize the critic as witness or the city as it was.
We’re set up to read it that way. Introducing the volume is Indiana’s “One Brief Scuzzy Moment,” an account of his passages through the old East Village written for New York magazine on the occasion of the New Museum’s 2005 exhibition “East Village USA.” We turn a few pages, and there he is with sculptor Bill Woodrow rummaging through the rubble of a vacant lot next to Pat Hearn Gallery. Indiana’s time at the Voice coincided with the second wave of East Village galleries (the first roughly corresponding to the lifespan of Patti Astor’s Fun Gallery, remembered for showing Basquiat and Haring, and recently relaunched in Hermosa Beach; I haven’t made it down there yet, but I’ll let you know if I do). He visits Nature Morte, Cash/Newhouse, and other standouts among the new crop. He writes about Peter Halley’s first solo show, at International With Monument in April 1985, and Jeff Koons’s debut there in June. But for the most part, when the East Village is named as such it is to invoke the ravaging of the neighborhood as marked by the arrival of these galleries: “Many an East Village gallery overcompensates for the missing bodega, the vanished bookshop, or the evicted antique store it has supplanted by stuffing itself chockfull with fun-colored knickknacks and smile-covered gewgaws that make you think Gee! What a happy planet the little asshole who made this stuff lives on.” Another: “Now that the East Village has successfully been raped by the happy gang of art and corporate money, white folks are headin’ up to Harlem again.” Or else it is to skewer the anachronistic allure of the neighborhood as a funky Bohemia and the rage for something deemed East Village art, a sanitized and polished grime displayed and sold as urban fantasy. Reviewing the Gordon Matta-Clark retrospective at the MCA Chicago, he notes (with a note of nostalgia): “One can truthfully claim that Matta-Clark anticipated the aesthetic exploitation of subway graffiti and the derelict riverside piers of New York City, approaching these phenomena with greater conceptual ambition than those who stumbled upon them in the 1980s… What makes the recent surge of interest in the city’s detritus different from Matta-Clark’s is the baldly mercantile direction of the later effort.”
It is all of a piece, of course: the wealth polarization of the Reagan era was remaking the city and feeding Jolt Cola to a hyperactive art market. With sharp wit and irreverence, Indiana reads the convictions and social mores of the art world — and often the art itself — as symptoms of this political economy. Under the title “New York Commonplaces,” he presents an ideological taxonomy — Ambition, Ideas, Value — each introduced with a cynical axiom of the postmodern condition, “Everything has been done.” “This is the decade of perfect artists: perfectly docile, perfectly domesticated, perfectly comfortable on the wheel of Society… The great artist becomes a landlord… Overproduction equals optimism, as when one of the infinite monkeys at one of the infinite typewriters tosses off King Lear… Everything being highly questionable, it’s not a good moment to question things.” He tours some of the city’s banks, ostensibly to discuss the art displayed in swankier branches, but really to observe the interaction of “business humanism,” policies of cruelty, built environment, and consumer behavior. He tells us that “Someone suggested that the purpose of Mike Bidlo,” who made copies of famous works of art, “is really to start a class war between old money dopes who own real Picassos and parvenus who own Bidlos, since buying either one is like pulling out your cock along with an enormous bankroll at a cocktail party and screaming, ‘LOOK HOW MUCH MONEY I’VE GOT!!!’” He returns a few times to the controversy over Tilted Arc — Richard Serra’s 120-foot long COR-TEN steel wall that, from 1981–89, bisected Foley Federal Plaza, much to the annoyance of those who worked in the surrounding buildings — mocking the Randian hubris of the artist and the obeisance of experts testifying to the public sculpture’s significance. The apparent conflict between aesthetic and social value might be resolved, he speculates, by all those benighted New Yorkers uplifted through their daily encounter with Serra’s barricade: “If its intention is to raise public consciousness of the surrounding architecture’s inhumanity, a future public intent on overcoming its oppression would start by removing Tilted Arc. This enlightened public would then proceed to demolish the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building, the disgusting turquoise fountain in the plaza, and stop going to work.” (A bit of public art Indiana does approve of reads, “NYU WE DON’T WANT YOU HERE,” garnishing a construction site for a dorm complex at Third Avenue and Eleventh Street, which would later be my first residence in New York.
Which is not to say that Indiana, as people I think still say, was just a hater. He expresses admiration for plenty of artists, thinks through their work with generosity and clarity. Barbara Kruger, for example, is someone he returns to, drawn in by her “determined amusement at the ongoing circus of inanity and bad faith we call our national life.” And though he has an interest in several now-canonical New York artists of the 1980s — Sherrie Levine, Robert Gober, inter alia — you’d be hard-pressed to identify an overarching Indiana aesthetic. (A different reader of this collection found that “he focused largely on exhibitions by artists who happened to be women… dropping nuggets of wisdom and saving his scathing bits for white male artists,” which would be absolutely true if only Koons, Halley, Allan McCollum, Richard Prince, Robert Hawkins, Komar & Melamid, and who knows how many more weren’t white males.) In fact, hate does play a vital role here; it sustains us through these pages: hate for a brutal American government, foreign policy, and inequality, for politesse, for the inanities and pomposities around art. And many of the artists Indiana is drawn to bristle, in one way or another, against the tangle of culture and barbarism. Not least among his hatreds is criticism itself, as he constantly thrashes against its forms and conventions. Well, I too dislike it.
My own associations with the Village Voice are rooted in the moment of my arrival in New York in the late nineties to attend NYU. I’d grab a fresh copy every Wednesday afternoon at Astor Place, turning first to the listings to see if John Zorn would be playing in the coming week. With its coverage of vanguardish culture mixed with left-leaning local journalism and political analysis, the Voice was a handy guide to finding your moorings, but also the embodiment of what no longer was, a routine reminder of the sterilization of the city and the institutionalization of once-radical music, art, and literature. The Downtown of lore lay enough out of reach that you couldn’t even convincingly rehearse the old line about having arrived late to the party — nostalgia for nostalgia was a bridge too far. Oh, ’85–’89 seems like a particularly fecund moment for it, but there is so much to hate in our time.
I’ll let Wilde have the last word again. Same one: “The Critic as Artist.” Gilbert, he’s the cleverer of the two dandies, the one who articulates Wilde’s aestheticism and gets all the best lines, including the one quoted in the 4Columns editorial. He says:
We are sometimes apt to think that the voices that sounded at the dawn of poetry were simpler, fresher, and more natural than ours, and that the world which the early poets looked at, and through which they walked, had a kind of poetical quality of its own, and almost without changing could pass into song…. But in this we are merely lending to other ages what we desire, or think we desire, for our own. Our historical sense is at fault. Every century that produces poetry is, so far, an artificial century.