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LIZA KIRWIN ON EV in the Press.

In the '80s, the popular press seized on the East Village scene as a "different bohemia." Magazines like People, Vogue, Life, GQ, Esquire, New York, and Newsweek, as well as American and European newspapers, celebrated that "neo-frontier" as a place where one could find the country's trendiest art and buy it at bargain-basement prices. Bemused journalists reported on the "phenomenon" - how a dangerous, drug-infested slum (which included an area nicknamed "the Toilet" by New York City police) had suddenly become "the chic spot" for Armaniclad collectors. The media were themselves part of the story. "Art-magazine writers and television crews are prowling everywhere," observed Douglas C. McGill for the New York Times (September 14, 1984), "and not a few artists are loitering on street corners hoping to be interviewed." Like a tornado, with the Fun Gallery at the bottom of the funnel, the press spun stories that were not simply about the scene, but to a certain extent constituted it.

Personalities loomed large, but none larger than dealer Gracie Mansion, whom On the Avenue crowned "the queen of East Village art." Her face graced the premier issue of New York Image magazine. She was celebrated in Us and in the Saturday Review, and the Swiss magazine Voila followed a day in her life. But she would only reach the pinnacle of her press popularity when People included her in its 1985 year-end issue, "The 25 Most Intriguing People of '85." Her profile, wedged between Rock Hudson's and Madonna's, explained how "a hip gallery owner brings world fame to the brassy, flashy, sometimes trashy art that grows in Manhattan's revitalized East Village."

In the New York Times there were occasional reviews by Michael Brenson, Vivian Raynor, and Grace Glueck, but more often the East Village figured into Glueck's "Gallery View" column or Douglas McGill's "Art People," with a human interest angle. By the time Maureen Dowd's cover story for the New York Times Magazine"Youth. Art. Hype: A Different Bohemia" (November 17, 1985) appeared, whatever energy the scene had was beginning to dissipate (indeed, one month earlier in the East Village Eye, Carlo McCormick had declared it dead).

In contrast to the enormously influential but detached Times, the Eye was the active voice of the underground. Written in a casual style that was irreverent, if not goofy, the Eye registered a sense of the moment, which was about inclusion and participation. Walter Robinson, who in the mid-'80s was an East Village artist, the art editor of the Eye, and an editorial staffer at Art in America, had an egalitarian vision: "I wanted the art section to reflect the social reality of the Village - including bad art by losers, which is edited out of the regular magazines," he told me. "They falsify history and we were

the honest ones." The Eye documented the anything-goes exhibitions, while its gossip columns nurtured an insider sensibility.

The Village Voice, operating in the middle ground between the insiders (the Eye) and the mainstream (the Times), was both timely and discriminating. Howard Smith of the Voice was the first on the scene to "discover" Gracie Mansion ("Canned Art," April 13, 1982), Kim Levin was the first to muse about the East Village as a media phenomenon ("Power: The East Village," October 18, 1983), and in 1985, when Gary Indiana joined the staff, his frequent writings about the Collins-and-Milazzo crowd supported a rigorous strain of East Village Conceptualism, shifting the discourse away from the social circus and toward a higher standard of artistic practice and aesthetic perception.

If mainstream journalists were enchanted with the gritty neighborhood and its creative entrepreneurs, they were less than enthusiastic about the art, which they dismissed as "junk," "blatantly derivative," "really bad," "weak," "adolescent," "forgettable," and "trendy," expressing "sincere emptiness" or "utter silliness." The popular press, while acknowledging that at least some serious work was being done, generally described art in the East Village as mired in the low-end, its scope ranging from "pure kitsch to solid substance," "nitwit realism to Minimalist abstraction," or "excellent art next to dreck." Such superficial assessments prompted Gary Indiana to write in the Voice (July 2, 1985) that the East Village has "gotten gallons of press, and about a thimbleful of legitimate criticism."

The major art magazines - Artforum, Art in America, Arts Magazine, ArtNews, and Flash Art - all weighed in, to a greater or lesser degree, with articles and reviews, their interest peaking in 1985. Arts Magazine - which got the presses rolling with Nicolas A. Moufarrege's "Another Wave, Still More Savagely Than the First" in September 1982 - cast the widest net, consistently providing the most extensive coverage and range of opinion. (Most notably, Dan Cameron's copious reports and Robert Pincus-Witten's diary entries not only addressed the issue of hype as part of their ongoing commentary, but their wide-ranging observations provided an astute chronicle of events that placed the East Villagers in the larger, occasionally legitimating, context of the New York art world), Artforum, in a prescient moment (November 1982), published Rene Ricard's "The Pledge of Allegiance," which captured the spirit of the East Village scene well before the mass media picked up the story. ArtNews (David Hershkovits, September 1983) gave a balanced report on the "energy" of the new market. Flash Art fed the European appetite for New World naivete (i.e., graffiti) while examining the American preoccupation with market issues (Michael Kohn's interviews with East Village dealers, Summer 1984). Finally Art in America (June 1984) presented the most pointed polemic, with its juxtaposition of Walter Robinson and Carlo McCormick's celebratory "Slouching Toward Avenue D" and Craig Owens's trenchant critique "The Problem with Puerilism." Robinson's and McCormick's firsthand account of assorted trends and business practices substantiated their claim that the East Village was a "'reinvention' of the art world in all its variety." For Owens the scene was a "simulacrum" of la vie boheme. Aligning himself with Stuart Hall, Thomas Crow, and the Frankfurt School, he criticized the East Village entrepreneurs for surrendering to the marketplace. What he found most egregious was the appropriation (and dilution) of subcultural forms like graffiti and cartooning. He decried a "general leveling" of "regional and cultural differences and their replacement with the culture industry's artificial, mass-produced generic signifiers for 'Difference.'"

By following the smorgasbord of "Slouching Toward Avenue D" with a stiff chaser like "The Problem with Puerilism," Art in America was able to have its cake and eat it too. The magazine promoted the East Village with great fanfare while criticizing the "enfant-garde" for its deleterious effects on culture. The friction between the two pieces sparked a lively debate between streetwise boosters and highbrow critics. Taking the middle ground, Roberta Smith, in "The East Village Art Wars" (Village Voice, July 17, 1984), chided Robinson and McCormick for their lack of criticality and Owens for his codification of subcultures that deny real-world dynamics, Instead she suggested that one "set higher standards" to discern the "serious" from the "unserious." Her mixed bag of best picks included David Wojnarowicz's collages, Alan McCollum and James Welling at the C.A.S.H. Gallery, shows at Nature Morte, Tracey Garet, and International With Monument, and the curatorial efforts of Tricia Collins and Richard Milazzo, Steven Pollock at Pat Hearn, and Colin Lee and Walter Robinson at Piezo Electric.

The press coverage that fostered the explosive growth of Manhattan's third an district also helped to arrest its development. Beginning in 1985, a second journalistic wave washed in to report the East Village's premature death, describing the scene as a corrupting influence on the neighborhood, in that the media blitz it brought on in turn promoted the rising rents and fierce competition that were now squeezing out all the fun.
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Publication:Artforum International
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 1999
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