After seeing Midnight in Paris a few weeks ago—about a guy who romanticizes Paris in the 1920s—AK, Meehan and I tried to figure out what our own overly idealized Golden Ages would be. “There aren’t many eras when it would be good to be brown and queer,” AK pointed out. “Time traveling doesn’t work out well for me.” I remembered how, during my Little House on the Prairie phase, I wanted to travel back to pioneer times and buy a couple dozen acres of land for $5, like Pa did. I could do that with my allowance! But now I’m pretty sure washing one load of bonnets by hand in the river would cure me of any prairie lust.
Saturday AK and I went to see Art In the Streets at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, the first national exhibition of graffiti art, and I landed on my Golden Age: New York in the ‘80s. Wandering through the nooks and crannies of a huge multi-artist work that recreated not just graffiti art but the streets themselves—a sort of impressionistic playground of rundown shops and funky signage—I was swept away to a time that was as cynical as the current one but bursting with new kinds of art that would define the decades to come. I also dug the more traditional historical retrospective upstairs, from the depiction of Senor Suerte, a logo claimed by my own neighborhood’s Avenues gang in the late ‘60s, to the video of Deborah Harry rapping about Fab Five Freddy in a little shorts outfit that any present-day hipster would lust after.
If I lived in New York in the 1980s, I would live out my Rent fantasy, hanging out with Basquiat and Keith Haring and of course Jonathan Larson. I’d live in a brick squat with all my best friends and we’d be outraged and make art together. When I was in grad school, I read an essay by a performance artist recalling this time of Reagan, AIDS and art called “Our Golden Age in Hell.”
Now I know better than to take the hell part lightly. If I lived in New York in the 1980s, I would see every freckle as a KS lesion, and Basquiat would totally ignore me. (But I do think Jonathan Larson would hang out with me. He’s dorky enough.) Washing one load of legwarmers in the rusty water trickling from the sink in my loft would cure me of any Bohemia lust.
There’s a part of me that can’t help but mourn the renegade aspect of street art that is inescapably destroyed by the exhibit, despite MOCA’s incredibly innovative efforts. But there’s another part of me that is transported to some old train yard full of cars waiting to be canvas for my can of RustOleum. And I am grateful for that flight and for the opportunity to romanticize, however problematic of an act it is. Nostalgia is sort of a new thing for me. Having a tough year makes you look back at better ones, and at ones that were much worse, ones you never lived in—but knowing that other people lived through them and filled the world with their angry beauty means more now than ever.