Love Ya, Walt Whitman, But Does “Leaves of Grass” Belong on an AIDS Memorial?
Artist Jenny Holzer is putting “Song of Myself” on the New York City AIDS Memorial. Is that something to celebrate?
I should be ecstatic about this design, right?
But initially I felt unsure about the choice. In a press release from the AIDS Memorial, Holzer says, “Whitman’s message of hope, of dignity in the face of death, of the glories of an embodied life, and of transcendence in the face of oppressiveness and tragedy, spoke to the requirements of the memorial and universalized them. Whitman was also a proud New Yorker, a poet of the people threaded through his city, a man whose work includes paeans to the metropolis that he thought represented the greatest realization of human diversity.”
I can’t disagree with that, but I do wonder: Isn’t there AIDS-specific writing that also offers universal messages of hope and transcendence? When the text of an AIDS memorial doesn’t refer to the epidemic, will anyone actually know what it is memorializing?
PROPOSED DESIGN GALLERY:
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+Commentary/Critique: The above article (excerpt), plus the accompanying photographs come from a POZ magazine article about the new AIDS Memorial that will open today in New York City. The writer carefully articulates what he finds to be problematic about the usage of the text from Walt Whitman’s seminal work, ‘Leaves of Grass’ as the inscribed and chiseled paean to those we’ve lost.
While admitting a reluctance, overcome with age, to the works of Walt Whitman — which is mirrored, slightly in the fact that he seems, if begrudgingly to accept them in Ms Holzer’s contribution by the end of this article. Mr. Trenton Straube makes some very good points, and it is worth giving due consideration, and even sparse diligence to his thoughts. As an editorial or opinion piece on the memorial, it is fair to passing, for what is considered infotainment in our Social Media Age. Its inclusion in the print magazine, elevates it to the type of thing you’d read on your commute, air travel, or waiting for your doctor in his office’s waiting room
As a critique of Jenny Holzer’s art, or even her motives (which he seems wont to interrogate), it is entirely too facile to be of any use. Again, as a writer, I’ll gladly concede that there was probably more, that neither space or consumerist trends would allow for him to explore a full range of possibilities. The editor surely shortened this, or didn’t require anything beyond the 600-plus words, because modern reading habits have declined so. That target, the supposed great length for blog posts and social media shares clearly didn’t allow Mr. Straube the breadth to cover such a great topic with anything approaching seasoned or circumspect considerations.
So the article is fine, the memorial is fine, and Walt Whitman is foine. Was quite simply not expecting much based on the headline alone (very first text on this post), and seeing WW referred to as the original #HotDudesReading, and little bon mots like Pretty Cool! It just wasn’t in me to feel a necessity for much from an article about three subjects intersecting and landing square on my chest, on top of my heart. Overlap that intersection, the one where this memorial will be, as one that I’ve stood on hundreds (if not thousands) of times over the years, all the people and talent lost to AIDS, the continuing and ongoing struggle of many marginalized, often erased and certainly neglected throughout this entire span of time the memorial is supposed to commemorate.
TL;DR At this point dear reader, you may be deciding to not commit to the rest. It will be a longish-screed by your standards probably, but by mine will be but a blip. The total piece will be around three thousand words and dissect AIDS, Art, Jenny Holzer’s career & art, New York Fucking City, Queers of Color, HIV+, memorials and their function in today’s society, architecture, a brief history of St Vincents & the West Village, Bohemians, ACTup, Queer Nation, Big Pharma, Gay Culture in NYC from 1890-present, Patient Zero, Assoto Saint, Tongues Untied, David Jankowiz, Marlon Riggs, Essex Hemphill…among others. You see, it has to be long, because so much of this would be overwritten and erased by centering GWM in a memorial to AIDS in the most diverse city in America, epicenter of awareness and activism.
In short: I HAD TIME TODAY. I have the range, which I fear the other writer did not, and further more the talent and space to present a cogent defense, or rebuttal of such vapid and vaguely tertiary opinions about many subjects so close to my heart. I’m hoping that you have or take the time to read it. Thanks!
As a self-professed “book nerd and an LGBT history geek” it was appalling how terribly white his entire 600 word piece was. At once instantly centering a GWM as the face of and the voice of the disease, which as we all know has disproportionately impacted queers of color. That they continue to suffer, even here in NYC. That while I’m sure this book nerd would have gotten around to Essex Hemphill or Assotto Saint as writing lucidly about facing the stigma of AIDS, instead he probably had someone lily-white in mind. Who was as easy on the eyes or palette as Walt Whitman.
Towards the end of the 1980s, AIDS became the leading cause of death in New York City for men between the ages of 25 to 44 and black women between the ages of 15 to 44 years
That would be tantamount to erasure. Just as Marsha P. Johnson launched what we consider to be the defining symbolic moment that would propel our Gay Rights Movement into what it is today, that and Sylvia Rivera would probably not get nary a mention. Even as this memorial sits just blocks away, and are a very short walk to what is now a Nationally Landmarked and protected site.
That he only briefly recalls that Walt’s connection to the Civil War, which is a great leaping off point for both the culture wars of the 80s and the current situation we find ourselves in now, post-election. These very same forces have been in play, in the swelling backlash since #LoveWins. You’d have to be blind, or live in a bubble not to realize it, even in the middle of NYC.
Intent < Impact
The glory and annoyance of Post-Modernist art is that it allows the viewer to participate and create their own meanings. Walt Whitman celebrated his city, native son, lover of words, people, and poetry. Not the effete, but the common man, the lifeblood. Is also universally recognized and appreciated, so accessible. However, lining the memorial with it, twisting and turning will perhaps reveal new overlapping paradigms. Whitman seems a good artistic choice.
A person working at a time when a country was literally tearing itself apart, brother set against brother, families torn apart. It was his spirit that poets and activists called upon as they came out of the closet, as they forced them to see us for who we are, that we were there and human. That very spirit illuminates the works of people like Assotto Saint.
“Most revolutions–be they political, social, spiritual or economic–are usually complemented by one in literature.” — Why I Write
This wasn’t or isn’t so much an AIDS memorial as a war memorial. For the many who died in an epidemic, fighting a war for their lives. The personal became political. On the frontlines of the deep cultural divide that ran through the very heart of what it means to be American. It is so easy today for people to view #BlackLivesMatter through a lens associated with the Civil Rights Movement, but it has much more in common with the AIDS fight. Which I’ve pointed out repeatedly here.
That a great swath of political and cultural activism has to be overlooked to harken back to Black Power / Black Panthers or the CRM is almost criminal. You have to ignore artistic and literary works, along side strident activism coupled with media-garnering attention that led to a tacit acceptance, and then increased visibility for Queers in this country (and around the world). This happened here in NYC, and San Francisco, and elsewhere.
It gave us things like the AIDS Quilt, and other resonant or profound memories. That seem but a brief shining moment in a long slog through the fog of war. The same fights today, on different battlefields. With different soldiers, and different voices. That they can ignore, overlook, and simply not be aware of this fight is something hopefully this memorial would counteract.
Past as Prologue
It doesn’t seem as if that was the scope. While falling into the rather tropish architectural abstraction followed by words and names. It still manages both through the artist’s aim and the execution to have created a space for reflection. In the middle of a busy intersection. Unlike the footprints of the Twin Towers of the September 11th Memorial & Museum, or the Mall which the Vietnam Memorial and Maya Lin’s now-classic if paradigm setting piece does. This one has to live in a very busy space, where everything around it has changed.
A site probably well-known by anyone who was visiting their dying loved one at St Vincent’s Hospital. Either as the spot they looked up from with great trepidation as they were about to enter, or as one they looked over their shoulder at the facade as they dashed to the subway. Hoping as they ran that this wouldn’t be the last time, or that they weren’t the next. Perfectly perched to take in all that makes New York City both maddening and intoxicating.
…but the gaggery and gilt of a million years will not prevail.
While St Vincent’s will now be luxury apartments with ground floor high-end retail shops or restaurants to reflect the utter corporatization of the once bohemian West Village that is our fair metropolis now. It will complete its Disneyfication like Times Square shortly, those bohemians are all hipsters with trust-funds now. There isn’t room for us here, the diseased faggoty memories of what once was, or the bloody battlefield it had been. That would drive down property values.
Yet, we get this token. This gleaming white, sharp-edged reminder, that sits pointing due south, or is about to take flight and soar. That not being pink still recalls semiotically the pink triangle we adopted to shout Silence=Death, Genocide, to reclaim from its brutal past and show that silence is violence. To capture the fierce immediacy of now, which having laid to long in the sun of an American imagination is now bleached like bones in a desert.
This can’t have one meaning, nor was it ever intended to. Sitting at this precipice of modern life, it can only calcify, honor, and remember.
Hopper and Nighthawks
For a brief shining moment, Mulry Square was thought to be the setting of the very memorable Edward Hopper painting Nighthawks. Which has been used to illustrate so many things over the years. When this theory emerged (and was quickly squashed) it made me view this painting as if it were a hospital cafeteria during the AIDS crisis. It gave a new life and depth to it. Something Hopper’s work always does, in proportion to your imaginings of the inner life he so valiantly managed to capture in his paintings.
That this picture, so many decades later, was able to, even after all the diners in New York City, which teemed with them, are rapidly shuttering to bring us Starbucks. Can still evoke something central today. The alienation of modern life. It could be a coffee spot just closing, those lost souls checking their phones or social media, and still as inconsolably alone.
That the fear of death gives life meaning, and in an epidemic can imbue almost anything with potency, make everything urgent. That 20 years later is quietly forgotten, even as it echoes all the same songs. Finding everything so potentially alienating, except in our love for each other, in our coalescing to ensure that until we are all free, none of us are.
That our Trans sisters started this fight, and we carry on, while simulating diversity without inclusion. A fight like #OscarsSoWhite, or that an AIDS movie could win only as it centered a straight white male who when the actor won didn’t even acknowledge the people who made his struggle so poignant in his acceptance speech. Typical. That straight men can get accolades for doing what should have been offered to out queers.
That is when we know we will have made it, when our own kind can proudly play with depth and conviction in our own stories, told our way. Strangely you’d have thought thirty years later we would have made it farther. Not with them fighting us every step of the way, or mounting an entire election campaign around denying us marriage, or access to bathrooms, or equal rights under the law.
Still Second Class
With our rampant singlism, it is no wonder that no one notices that Queer marriages, while law of the land (if temporarily), are still not as common as you might think. That to narrowly proscribe all the ways in which we can and are discriminated against into the single issue of heteronormative marriage is very absurd. Yet, our straight allies probably think we should just be grateful, not make too many waves, and my favorite: “we’ll get around to that…”
But if AIDS taught us nothing, it is that they might not be here when you get around to it. That we continue to be brutalized in the streets, and saying “well we survived Reagan and worse…” is not really approaching the reality on the ground. This memorial reminds us that many of us didn’t make it.
Yes, Black Lives Matter, especially the Trans ones that get forgotten, or worse discounted as deserved, by the bulk of Americans. That the ever-present danger, in the wake of, increased visibility is the very definition of backlash. The type that gives us this most recent election. That gives us increases in hate crimes, and says to those that would harm us, that they have a free pass now. The time for being Politically Correct is over.
Go to Mourn, Go to Forget
Passing over the border of history, into a memorial, is a strange concept these days. It includes an obligatory selfie, geo-tagging it, and some cute caption. It can or might have a selfie-stick, or other grotesque behaviors that take a person out of the actual experience of being on hallowed ground, and make them more likely to diminish meaning or substance. This one will reside in a very frenetic space, very quintessentially New York.
Is the memorial for the mourners or the unwitting public? Does it have to do both, and can it respectfully. As a life-long haunter of graveyards, funereal architecture, and its more noble pursuits. Reminded of Boulle’s Cenotaph for Newton, and other funerary pursuits as the height of humanity, like Egyptians honoring the dead. A long history of the many ways of doing that, with many variations. It isn’t casually that this topic comes to mind, or even pedestrian interest.
How long will it take, in a changing landscape to meld into its surroundings, become another tree in the forest. One you have to look to see, or that you wonder if it fell would anyone hear it? It won’t be a destination spot, will receive only occasional notice, and still largely function as a point of memory. An aid to remembering, to honoring, and to letting go or renewing the fight.
In another decade probably very little will remain as it once was, having completed this face-lift that our fair city is undergoing to look fresh and new, this will be like a little red ribbon on the lapel. A symbolic reminder that the war was waged, and many lost. The geometry beyond the triangular and the undulating text which encircles the human connection. Through language, not shapes, which as poetry is semiotically gyrating through a vortex of associations.
Watching an artist like Jenny Holzer evolve through blinking lights of a news ticker, one first glimpsed in Dupont Circle in DC. At the height of people dropping like flies, memorials every week, and grief so deep that the Marianas Trench couldn’t hold it all. Through to her elegant works meant to last the ages and be as enigmatic in marble inside the cold MoMa, was like seeing a friend age. From the day-glo outfits cavorting in the Pyramid through to the Upper East Side elegance that hasn’t dimmed her resolve. That each time the words arrest, probe, and titillate.
“I am to wait, I do not doubt I am to meet you again,
I am to see to it that I do not lose you.”
― Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
The art a cool and stark person you bump into in a crowded cocktail party. That leaves you wondering if they’ve just insulted or flattered you. This will be a permanent installation, public art project, and a lasting part of her legacy. She has wormed her way through my life, my writing, and her art has stayed with me. Even begging the question, am I sure? On so many occasions that it can hardly seem worth asking again. Yet, we do.
So she seems well suited to conquer the enigma that is AIDS in America, in the gleaming shiny metropolis. That this will not be on the level of the 9/11 memorial or the others, but something uniquely defined, while working within a modern structure. Linked through time by the reverent words of Walt Whitman. Giving it not so much gravitas as enormous accessibility to them. We could have chosen the words of a fallen soldier in the fight, but would they have had the volume of words to adorn it? Were they not cut down in their prime? Could they have given us one long reverie? It seems unlikely or a fool’s errand for an artist.
Without having seen it, only imagining what these still vibrant phrases can illicit in their newly found space on the sidewalks of a bustling city. You have only to think of but a famous line for it to all make sense.
If you want me again look for me under your boot soles.