Downtown Manhattan is swarming with groups of educated, creative people bound to tell you who you are. Last year, for example, when I tried to catch the thriller Basic Instinct near Union Square, a gay group refused to let anyone see the film. They shut it down, by heaving stink bombs into the theater. Some of the group’s female members shouted heterophobic slurs at women leaving the scene with men. (“Go home and fake some orgasms!”) One of the group’s male leaders asked me my sexual orientation. When I bristled at the idea of labeling myself, he stamped me a closet homosexual. Last October, Pennsylvania Governor Robert Casey made the mistake of going downtown to give a talk on his opposition to abortion. Casey got told who he was, and where he could go.
The downtown mentality is largely responsible for the fact that New York can no longer be taken seriously as a cultural center. Major cities traditionally attracted people who, fed up with imposed identities and labels, wanted to create themselves. Farm boys and girls sought to tear loose from the soil and the tyranny of the elements. Small-town kids broke away from religious authority and provincial pettiness. I can remember, growing up in a small town, the pecking order enforced with building blocks as early as kindergarten. In a town like mine, you were usually no more than the sum of your father’s assets.
In our increasingly ghettoized society, young people come to New York for reasons opposite to those of their forebears. They seek to escape the freedom of prosperous, tolerant youth in places like Connecticut and Ohio. In New York, they will join a “community” of equally intolerant middle- and upper-middleclass “artists,” “poets,” and “writers.” These creative young people can then embrace stultifying, one-dimensional identities and impose them on outsiders, with jackboots. There is much talk about the oppressed “other,” but it’s really about a tyrannical “self.”
The creative output of these anti-Bohemians comes always with a tag and a loyalty oath: the “gay” play (on AIDS and homophobia); the “feminist” poem (on those evil, straight, white males); the “black” short story (the 20th spinoff of Boyz N the Hood). The characters are made out of cardboard, the plots are boiler-plate work, the language a series of cliches and slogans.
Downtown, particularly the Little Berlin of the East Village, is an outgrowth of the 1960’s New Left politics and avant-garde. The former embraced certain groups based on their racial and sexual identity, while the other degenerated into a fight against all restraint. The result of such cultural slumming was that some groups received carte blanche to say or do anything they wished, including breaking the law, while oppressing the rest of the citizenry. The irony of today’s Greenwich Village is in its meeting of supposed opposites: it is patrolled by black-clad skinheads—gay-bashers and violent gays alike.
The psychological basis of the creative life is in transcending the tunnel vision of labels and identities, and in abstaining from the comforts of communal membership. A true artist seeks out people who are different: nothing human is alien. That cop guarding Tompkins Square Park during curfew hours is for the artist a possible subject or character—not through projecting hang-ups and prejudices on him (or slugging him), but in finding out what makes him tick.
Much of the affected rage of today’s “artists” does not have its source in what they claim to oppose: oppression, censorship, homophobia, and philistinism. Theirs is the anger of people who have fought against all constraint and won. Now they find themselves with only their shared mediocrity and the arrogance of power for company.
During a similar time of upheaval and romantic Schwärmerei in Weimar Germany, a writer attacked such narcissism at its roots. The writer saw himself locked in mortal struggle between two selves: a mediocre, constricted bourgeois and a murderous, spontaneous wolf. If the false dichotomy of the bourgeois and the wolf had prevailed, the writer as wolf would have slit his own throat, killing both antagonists. Instead, he came to see dozens, even thousands of alternative selves in the mirror.
The writer was Hermann Hesse; the book was Steppenwolf, published in 1927. The few contemporary New York artists who are going to amount to anything will be those who are able to see beyond the steppenwolf in the mirror.