Lynne Tillman on Brush Fires in the Social Landscape
For the new twentieth-anniversary edition of Brush Fires in the Social Landscape, Aperture invited writers and artists to examine the lasting effects of the work and life of David Wojnarowicz. In this excerpt, writer Lynne Tillman reflects on discovering his work, its contemporary interpretations, and his influence on future generations of artists and writers. This excerpt appeared in Issue 6 of the Aperture Photography App: click here to read more and download the app.
I’m almost certain Kiki Smith introduced me to David Wojnarowicz. I knew about him, his Rimbaud pictures were pasted on walls and stenciled on sidewalks in the East Village. In my mind’s eye, we’re on a sidewalk, maybe on Houston Street; it’s windy, late fall or early winter, and Wojnarowicz is standing behind Kiki. Consciousness superimposes scenes from the present onto the past, or mixes one distant moment with another; memory has forever been photo-shopped. The technology replicates a natural, involuntary default position in the brain, or a human inclination to fuse events. Photo-shopping can deliberately distort or corrupt historical events; human memory is distorted, first, by subjectivity or point of view, then by the passage of time. Was it a dream, a photograph, did I hear the story, did it actually happen? The clock marks seconds, minutes, hours; the calendar, days, months, and years—these human productions divide now from then, and from the future. The unconscious doesn’t obey time, which also confuses memory, and can make days feel endless or too short. Maybe that’s why people invented what Shakespeare, in Richard II, called time’s “numb’ring clock.” I picture Wojnarowicz with his head down; he was tall, I’m short, which would influence how I saw him, and he me. He might have been looking sideways, and appeared shy or elusive. He had a long face, uneven features, and a smoker’s raspy voice. Other adjectives pop up: gangly, rawboned, intense, weirdly funny, restless, sad, sensitive, vulnerable. But this isn’t a portrait of the artist as a young man. Wojnarowicz’s portrait was, in a profound sense, shot by his time.
Wojnarowicz knew he was homosexual before the word gay took its place; he came of age with Stonewall and the movement it incited—gay liberation. Then, an individual’s “coming out” was a revolution of great and intimate proportions, a public and private declaration of startling consequence. Wojnarowicz’s art and writing were born and nurtured before, but fomented in and exploded during, the AIDS crisis. Artists and writers are often very different from their work. They work with and against their education, fear, anxiety, hope, angst, values, to build characters, find words or concepts, build structures or images that defeat or deny these things their power, or sometimes to venerate them. The gap between person and artist can be inexplicable, but people, including artists, often conflate the two. Art historians and critics might merge them, judging the work by the person or the person by the work. But history judges what history also produces.
What is now called “history” was Wojnarowicz’s lifetime, his present, which insidiously produced what mattered to him. His best talents were made furious use of during the 1980s until his death in 1992. His impassioned writing became a powerful voice of the AIDS epidemic, his blunt-force-trauma art a singular and passionate face. Wojnarowicz’s work, I believe, even without the exigent circumstances, or influence, of AIDS, would have been knife-sharp and arresting. Without the consequences of AIDS, though, there would have been time for him to mature as a person and an artist, to have a future. Consequence and influence share territory. They can’t be predicted or entirely comprehended, since the two radiate from a myriad of sources and will settle without foreknowledge and, usually, without acknowledgment. Mostly, people don’t get to choose an influence, unless they’re conscious adults, and by then the wish to be influenced—to absorb—means that a person has been, in a sense, prepared. The preparation for influence develops independently of consciousness, while simultaneously creating it. In the 1980s, being infected by HIV and developing AIDS was an unchosen, horrific fate, fatal. People were very frightened, and felt hopeless. Not every artist or writer responded as Wojnarowicz did. His responses were unique, thoroughly felt, and driven by an urgent necessity. In his time, his work was extraordinarily moving—it stunned. It will never be experienced again as it was then, in that very dark moment. Contemporary artists sympathetic to Wojnarowicz’s work, who say his work influenced them, find meanings in it that have been profoundly useful to them. They are a diverse group, their work dissimilar in appearance from his, and from each other’s. Some of the artists might say: “His work gave me courage.” Or “Wojnarowicz was a courageous artist.” Courage in an artist or writer is different from the courage of firefighters, who rescue people and risk their own lives. Artistic courage might be conceptualized as an internal drama about overcoming rules or inhibitions, dicta of all kinds, the art a manifestation or result of a multitude of processes. Art won’t save people from burning buildings, but not all risks are the same or equal, and they shouldn’t be measured by one ruler. During his time, Wojnarowicz’s work might have sprung from rage, fear, and compassion or been inspired by them, his approach or sense of form enabled by and called to address them. An abiding necessity to save himself and others arose. A cruel disease had suddenly and quickly made helpless victims of an already stigmatized group. The tragic waste of the disease, and also the injustice of stigma, probably urged Wojnarowicz toward a kind of overcoming. To have his life be meaningful, he would keep living by doing his work. He would rage on.
Artists are not mythical beings or romantic heroes. In their chosen fields and in a certain time, they make aesthetic, intellectual, conceptual decisions; they may react variously to social and political questions and to concerns central to their mediums and practices. As artists, they evolve from and are influenced by not just other artists, but also their own psychology, religion, race, economic background, and more. Influence is everywhere, and they take chances, too. Everyone who lives sometimes does, everyone sometimes has to. That curious notion of character also comes into play: existentially, artists and writers become who they are, and make what they do, in the moment they act.
Sometimes an artist’s work opens up a space. I’ll call it a “mental space,” a space for themselves and others, where random thoughts, images, ideas germinate and occur—these might have consequence. When that happens, when an artist’s choices do that, an artist might be called courageous. Something that was broken got metaphorically fixed; something that was blocked breaks through. A solution arrives to a problem no one ever mentioned. Some will notice that in the work, and it helps them. Shannon Ebner, Wade Guyton, Henrik Olesen, Adam Putnam, Emily Roysdon, Zoe Strauss, and Wolfgang Tillmans, among many other artists who mention Wojnarowicz’s influence on them, probably recognized, reacted to, or internalized something they gleaned in his work; usually they mediate it so thoroughly, a viewer wouldn’t spy it. Or, because it was an idea for them, an idea, say, without materiality, it never materializes in their work. Harold Bloom theorized that influence produced anxiety and troubled poets who turned to writing poetry after reading other poets. Bloom studied the Romantics, but wrote The Anxiety of Influence (1973) under the sign of Modernism. Ezra Pound’s call was “make it new” (though Dante shaped his poetics). Influence from that purview was a staining or tainting, an inhibiting or retarding, of an artist’s originality. To rejig the concept of influence as an actor-agent in the work of artists and writers, to make influence newer, the computer must be restarted with another program. Influence occurs, in this register, because an artist perceives in another’s work a space, or opening. Maybe it’s whimsical, inchoate, wishful, a fragment of a fragment. Rarely a direct taking, more like the flow of information. Rarely “stealing,” as Picasso said great artists do rather than borrowing. Instead, something is shown, intimated or associated, noticed, and it feels true or right or necessary. A diffusion is transmitted and received. Influence reconceived would be a heuristic device, an emboldening or an encouragement.
One artist can and often does encourage another. One artist’s courage in making, or what another perceives as such, becomes another’s space to take up. Courage and encourage have a similar root: in Latin, cor means heart. To have a heart is to give heart. To give heart is to embrace and charge others with a kind of love.