By the time I got around to reading David Wojnarowicz he was already dead. I picked up Close to the Knives as a teenager in the mid-’90s. He had died a few years earlier at the age of 37. Reading him was like touching a live wire, and whether or not he was still on the planet, it felt like there was a connection there.
Wojnarowicz wrote extensively about his decline in health and the virus that would eventually take him. The AIDS crisis loomed large in his work, and he confronted the failures of society, the church, the government, in their response, or absence of, to the disease. He commented, "When I was told that I'd contracted this virus it didn't take me long to realize that I'd contracted a diseased society, as well.” His work was political and fierce, and he became a controversial figure during the culture wars of the ’90s, recently renewed with the protests over the inclusion of his work at a Smithsonian exhibition.
Wojnarowicz was a writer, an artist, a filmmaker and a complicated human being. Cynthia Carr, was a journalist working in the art scene (the Village Voice, among other publications) at the time and came to know Wojnarowicz, spending time with him near the end. Here, she lovingly tells the story of his life and work in Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz.
Read the last Bookslut on Eddie Campbell's 'The Lovely Horrible Stuff.'
I spoke with Carr about why Wojnarowicz’s work still provokes, and the lies we all tell about our lives.
When I read Wojnarowicz's name being tossed around again in protest not too long ago, it all sounded so depressingly familiar. He was a target in the culture wars in the early ’90s, and he became so again when a film of his was being shown at the Smithsonian. You write that Wojnarowicz never meant for his work to be a provocation, but obviously things are being provoked. Perhaps I'm just quibbling over a word choice?
Think of an artist like Dread Scott who placed an American flag on the floor—where people had to stand in order to respond in a ledger to his question, “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag? ’” He knew this would not just provoke but infuriate at least part of his audience. It did.
On the other hand, I don’t think David ever sat down to make something, thinking, “This’ll get a rise out of the Cardinal,” or “This will irk Jesse Helms.” His political statements were always rooted in emotion. OK, usually rage. But I think he assumed an audience that would “hear” him when he ranted, for example, about government officials responding so callously to the horror of AIDS. He couldn’t have anticipated that those government officials would become his audience, too, and of course they were provoked. But I’m talking about intention.
As for the film you mention, A Fire in My Belly, David included ants crawling over a crucifix, and on coins, toy soldiers, watch faces, etc. As he explained it, this was “a metaphor for social structure.’’ To him, ants represented humans, and we see them rushing along, indifferent to the structures that surround them. This was not sacrilege [and not about AIDS] but as happened so often during the culture war, people on the right were able to target what seemed a transgressive symbol, something impossible to explain in a soundbite.
It's very moving, the way you write about the destruction of a generation of artists by AIDS, and the power of this part of New York City. Those artists were tremendously powerful. I'm curious, do you think the American art scene today holds as much power as the writers and artists you write about in your book?
I don’t think any of those artists thought they were powerful. It’s a power conferred now, by hindsight. Just so, ACT UP changed the course of the epidemic, but no one knew that at the time.
The biggest change is that there’s no single artists’ community in New York City anymore, with people spread from Red Hook [Brooklyn] to the Bronx. People meet on the internet instead of in a club. Protests against what happened to David at the Smithsonian were organized so quickly that way, all over the country, and I found that heartening.
At the same time, yes, I miss those days when I could walk down Avenue A or into an East Village restaurant and see 10 people I knew. I miss the everyday possibility that some unexpected and astonishing art event could happen right down the street. Then I have to stop myself and remember how dangerous the neighborhood was back then, and how much death we were coping with, between the heavy drug scene and the epidemic.
Like a lot of artists and writers, Wojnarowicz attempted to mythologize his own life, flub some of the details for various reasons. Some of the fibs seemed calculated to make his life seem harder, tougher, despite the fact that his life was pretty tough as it is. Were there things you were personally surprised to discover had been made up? And do you have any insight into why this was the way he chose to portray himself and his life?
What most surprised me was the material in a chapter I call “The Secret Life.” He hid the fact that he’d been a poet and edited a literary magazine back in the ’70s. What a thing to hide! This led to one of the “fibs,” as he tried to account for those years and implied that he’d spent a couple of years rail-riding instead of going to poetry readings.
The biggest misstatement he made was that he started hustling at age 9. That one is hard to explain because he even said it under oath when he testified in his case against Rev. Wildmon. So maybe he actually believed it? You may recall from the book that no one in David’s family could remember when the father dumped his kids in Manhattan with their mother. Also, David was so bad at dates, he even misdated some of his own work.
I never quite realized how secretive he had been, but here’s ultimately how I explained it: I think he didn’t want to talk about living family members. It was too complicated and too painful. So he more or less erased them. He created a persona that simplified and romanticized his life story.
He’d discuss the brutal father, now conveniently dead, and go directly to Times Square and hustling. I don’t think David understood the pathos in his own story. He emphasized the hardship, and the hardship was there. But the central struggle in his life was about how much of himself to reveal. Who was safe? What could he tell? There was a deep longing to connect and a fear of actually doing it.
In a way, he put out a version of his life story to keep people at bay. Up until he went into therapy, he believed he was a kind of alien, that if people knew who he really was, they wouldn’t like him. He revealed different parts of himself to different people. He really needed to compartmentalize. I’m sure this had to do with his childhood, with finding a way to feel in control.
On a more personal note, when I read Close to the Knives as a teenager, that book kind of changed the world for me. What is your own connection to his work? And is it his writing, or his visual art, or his films (he had tremendous range when it came to mediums) that first moved you?
I knew him first as a visual artist. I loved the pieces he painted at the Wardline Pier, all done before his first show at Civilian Warfare. Then what really knocked me out was his writing, especially the piece about the death of Peter Hujar. When I saw his last show, I felt he was putting it all together, that from then on he’d be doing pieces that combined his words and his images, like the skeleton piece, “When I put my hands on your body.” But of course, he never got to do that work.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.