Where are the “avant gardes” of yesteryear? Not since the eighties I have heard of any group of young artists, writers, painters, performers exploring and creating new forms of understanding and expressing the human condition and, consequently, its collateral political constructions. In Manhattan is what is mean, of course. Where else?
The village of the fifties - Greenwich Village is its full name, my home in the sixties - had lost the beats, and by the seventies became the play ground of the bridge and tunnel crowd; rentals became exclusive coops and millionaire brownstones, pushing out those who could not afford them or were not willing to live surrounded by those suburban yuppies pretending to be progressive enough to live downtown. The geographical spaces where the Manhattan avant gardes used to live and create and support gay liberation ideals were suddenly replaced by the trendy wannabes. Avant garde artists and places cannot be completely detached from gay liberation movements. The avant gardes participate in the reformulation of human social orders including cultural liberation processes. Art not only imitates life, it helps reshape it.
This redefinition of the social order becomes more complicated if you are both gay and a member of an ethnic or racial group that lives on the margins of the power structures. And when your life is defined by both a marginal sexual orientation and membership in one so called peoples of color in the USA, there is a greater need for the avant gardes. As artists and its collateral social reorganization transform society and geographical spaces new specimens join the trend, and in consequence the forces that originally shaped the place are displaced;. and when these original transformative forces do not look like the new trends they are questioned and further displaced.
When SoHo also became chic, liberal chic, it also became too expensive to promote a living community that by its very nature needs to be poor and diverse: in color, language and sex. The East Village for some, Loisaida for the Ricans, became the artist enclave in the eighties; and like SoHo in the seventies, the new enclave was killed in the nineties to become ghetto chic. Once more, as Montparnasse in Paris, Parnassus was overridden by neo con or laissez faire economic forces – who am I to know the name of the corpus that shape and displace human groups in search of redefining and portraying who we are at a given moment?
Musculocas replaced act up, the artist could not pay the rents and brown skinned accented peoples now had to explain themselves to the new chickeria populating downtown. At that specific moment when the new doorman in my once rent controlled building asked one of my brown skinned guests to show a set of second hand books my friend was carrying (in order to make sure that a Puerto Rican was not stealing from the exclusive coop), I decided to leave. Go west young man was replaced with uptown, where my color and accent and friends were not suspicious as they were to the new guardians supervising downtown.
My new neighbor, the hipster with tattoos everywhere, explained to me very clear that there was an avant garde everywhere and anywhere with no specific geographical place. Virtual space had replaced Loisaida and The Village, and SoHo. Oh, dear I said. They all chat with each other in electronic linguistic codes; and screens serve as both the face and mouth once held so dear in downtown cafes. How can you react to RuPaul at the Pyramid or Pietri at the Niuyorican or La Mama at La Mama? Ru Paul is a star and both La Mama and Pietri are dead.
My neighbor, the hipster, mentioned different names in Chinese, Spanish, French, Arabic and Yoruba all performing everywhere and checking each other’s work, exchanging ideas thru the internet café. And some daring enough are challenging repressive governments once these ideas get transported thru virtual space, and then deciding to see each other’s faces in Squares all over the world. Good to know that at some point the need to hug and touch and see faces and complain and create as a group is not all lost. In Manhattan, of course.