PRINT May 1990


American Myths

RETRACT OUR NUCLEAR UMBRELLA and the U.S.A. stands revealed as a gadget-addicted, debt-ridden purveyor of guns, movies, and cigarettes—the stuff that dreams ore mode of, or stardom. Nobody wants U.S. steel, but a billion people watch the Oscar telecast. Our icons still emblazon the world’s T-shirts: Marilyn, Elvis, Rambo . . . New York?

Cultural capital shifts at the end of a war, and in the aftermath of the big cold one, one might well wonder whether New York is still that undisputed “world city” Le Corbusier detected in the late 1930s. Certainly the mysterious boom that followed the economic collapse of 1975 (a boom during which even the infinitely recalcitrant Lower East Side was scarred by gentrification) is long since over, having ended with the 1987 stock market crash. That this one-dimensional revival had lost the capacity to merchandize itself was reinforced by the abject failure of last year’s Slaves of New York, a film whose eager ancillary tie-ins included a gallery show of “featured” paintings and a special Bloomingdale’s boutique.

The most powerful thing about Slaves was its utterly dispirited look. It’s as if a decade of post-punk New York indies had drained the life out of SoHo streets and Loisaida lots just as surely as a decode of killer rents destroyed bohemian nabes, the working poor, and all manner of oddball businesses. New York grows increasingly less picturesque, but there’s another mood shift in which AIDS fatigue and the approaching fin de siécle are mixed up with nostalgia for the ’39 World’s Fair. As belligerent wiseguy Ed Koch gives way to modest-empathic David Dinkins, we may note the sentimental canonization of “the New York intellectuals,” the fond recollection of the immediate postwar glow, the current interest in periodicizing the era that saw the inexorable world-historic march from Abstract Expressionism through Pop to Minimalism. Rizzoli’s boldly titled New York: Culture Capital of the World, 1940-1965 (ed. Leonard Wallach, 1988) provides the definitive coffee-table celebration of the city between the fairs, or between the outbreak of World War II and the escalation in Vietnam (that faraway spot mentioned once in the entire book).

The New York Times reports that New York is losing popularity as a tourist attraction for foreigners; while working on this column, I got a phone call from a Munich journalist seeking information for his story on “the decline of New York.” Still, if New York is no longer number one, the other contenders do not inspire confidence. Tokyo, for all its spacey, decentralized splendor, is overly insular, not exactly emigré-friendly. Berlin—the potential magnet for a million Poles, Russians, Serbs, Hungarians, and Romanians—is still a decade away. There’s always Los Angeles (particularly the Asian-Latin-android terrarium imagined in Blade Runner, 1982), but that involves a redefinition of just what a city is. If some new cosmopolis must replace New York as cultural capital of the world, let it be a dazzling, new techno-futuristic, disco-mad Havana with movie studios run by Francis Ford Copola and Pedro Almodóvar. (Talk about bargains: subtract Fidel, and U.S.-Cuban reunification will happen faster than you can say “rum and Coca-Cola.”)

Anyway, unlike L.A., New York really is less a workshop than a soundstage. Our last municipal election was a riot of theatrical performances, with Jackie Mason’s compulsive Koch imitation and Spike Lee’s celluloid exhortation to Do the Right Thing the most decisive interventions. New York defines the term “media circus.” Our wealth of beggars suggests a rehearsal for a third-world city. Bridges rust, arteries collapse, Staten Island threatens to secede: the city makes a sodden spectacle of its own disintegration. You can sense this in the mega-hit Batman. Gotham City is New York through a gloss darkly—an anguished realm of unbridled authority and eternal night, citadel of overdesigned power pads and glass-furnace skyscrapers where City Hall is a lysergic version of the Tombs and even the heart of midtown has been put through the trash compactor. Everything seems built in the iron shadow of the El: the skyline is a frenzied jumble, the avenues narrow into alleys. The film’s brutal class structure is reproduced in the off-screen world as New York school kids and proles become unpaid human advertisements for Warner Bros.’ supreme triumph. Yes, New York is still mondo-syntagma—a symbolic landscape where monuments, streets, and entire neighborhoods can function as abstractions, famous worldwide. A meandering tour from the Battery to Harlem yields the signifiers (some long since obsolete) of Freedom, Capital, Kicky Weirdness, Gay Sex, Public Dereliction, Political Agitation, Fashion, Sleaze, Absolute Show Biz, Advertising, Elegant Retail Sales, Snooty Society Belles, and Black America. (Out in the boroughs, you’ll find Fun and Urban Decay.)

Given this imaginary geography—as awesome in its way as Manhattan’s skyscraper canyons—it’s small wonder that New York’s leading citizens are now landlords, speculators, and publicity hounds of all breeds. The most notorious, Donald Trump, is one more third-rate Warhol wannabee who extols the art of the deal and, relentless as any purveyor of designer jeans, attempts to put his brand on our butts. From the perspective of Trump Tower, Manhattan is no longer a majestic fact of nature. Instead, the city seems a mysterious ruin populated, like those of Greece or the Yucatan, by the descendants of the people who built it.

J. Hoberman contributes this column regularly to Artforum. The recipient of a Guggenheim grant, he is on leave as film columnist for The Village Voice, New York.