The Bowery as cultural cauldron

The New Museum of Contemporary Art is now presenting Come Closer: Around the Bowery, 1969-1989 This positions the Bowery as catalyst for cultural and artistic catharsis. I worked and lived around the Bowery at that time so it was strange to see this exacerbated area – plagued with decay and neglect – suddenly celebrated as a cauldron of creative energy in a museum setting. Not that is wasn’t teaming with rollicking abandon – it was.

1978 painting of Bettie Ringma and the Ramones by Curt Hoppe

1978 painting of Bettie Ringma and the Ramones by Curt Hoppe

All art has its roots in cultural transformation. Often, we don’t see the shift since the tumult of change can consume us. In retrospect, we look back at the Impressionists and say their work was beautiful – even though it was a departure from representational art. We can view the Dada manifesto and comprehend that its message of anarchy was a reaction to the carnage of World Wars and sociopolitical chaos.

Anthony Lister: Mural on Spring Street, NYC

Anthony Lister: Mural on Spring Street, NYC

In this era of 30-second elevator pitches, instant sound bites, and 140 character summations, we have been conditioned to dismiss the shifting cultural dimensions that impact our lives. While huge segments of the population become disenfranchised, technology galvanizes innovations in information and communication. Paradoxically, alienation becomes mainstream. As we pass through a culture in the process of cultural transformation, all subjective observations are rendered invisible. We are too preoccupied with survival and surviving the fall out to see the writing on the wall – or on the subway car, or on the pavement.

The Bowery’s legacy is clear, though the exhibit at the New Museum does not quite capture the original anarchy. There is a huge painting of the Ramones at CBGBs and videos of the Lower East Side when it looked like a bombed out war zone. Keith Haring’s front door from his Broome Street apartment is on display.

The exhibit made me recall a project I did for a photography class on the South Bronx – an area of equal and prolific devastation.

The 1970’s were still wedged in the miasma of the 1960s revolution of ideals. The counter-culture, the Vietnam War, racism, the sexual revolution, and disillusionment with institutions, all served to ignite widespread discontent.

The ephemeral nature of graffiti is co-opted from the Abstract Expressionists who laid the groundwork for expansive and gestural work. The precedent of art as rebellion was born with the Dada’s reaction to the brutality of World War I. Dada’s edict sought to annihilate the decadence of European society. In America, legions of youth reacted to displacement of their communities and descent into poverty within the South Bronx.

Youth-Web: Anthony Lister

Youth-Web: Anthony Lister

It is fascinating to consider how – within the most devastating of conditions – people are able to catapult themselves beyond an oppressive situation. The Cross-Bronx Expressway – dubbed the “Heartbreak Highway” – proved a social and political demon that slowly destroyed real estate baron Robert Moses. Though much of history paints Moses a prolific real estate developer, the reality was that his vision of a ubiquitous concrete highway effectively decimated thousands of lives in communities that were demolished to make way for sprawling urban expansion.

Two communities suffering through a revolution of ideals… and a lack of resources. Suddenly, we have art. Do we look back and learn anything? Or is it all simply fodder for the next contemporary museum exhibit?

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