Words To Live By

Art requires a framework. The value of criticism when it is allied to a great social issue within a given constituency is that it records, discusses, and introduces audiences to art that was intended to transcend or bypass museums and markets and connect with multitudes. As such, it contextualizes creative acts in terms of human dignity as much as artistic process.

Darren Jones, “Wraith (Portrait as a Ghost) Midnight Midwinter Fire Island Pines Beach,” 2012. Digital C print. Variable dimensions

In 1995 I met the renowned potter, critic, gay rights campaigner, and broadcaster Emmanuel Cooper. His influential books, The Sexual Perspective: Homosexuality and Art in the Last 100 Years in the West and Fully Exposed: The Male Nude in Photography, proffered enlightening investigations into the history and contemporaneous state of art within gay sub-cultures. These were tributaries concurrently revealing themselves within my emerging socio-political self, and Emmanuel’s writing and our subsequent conversations provided authoritative ignition for the exigencies of my ideals.

Similarly affecting was the work of Simon Watney, the prolific art historian, writer, curator, and AIDS activist. In books such as Policing Desire: Pornography, AIDS and the Media; and Taking Liberties: AIDS and Cultural Politics, with Erica Carter, Watney’s position at the juncture of art, history, and advocacy lent compassionate zeal and an enigmatic voice to what I regarded as part of my cultural heritage. Emmanuel and his partner David Horbury hosted supper parties at which I was introduced to Simon and many other critics, artists, and literary figures. Among them were Robin Forster and James Barrett of Art2Go whose innovative artworks were resonant of the time. Treasured occasions, these dinners were also forums for vigorous conversations that expanded on issues outlined in print.

Within the pages of those and other books were accounts, critique, and theory on the arc of western gay life as well as responses to the impact of AIDS by the creative communities of urban centers in Britain and America. The political thrust of AIDS Demographics by Douglas Crimp and Adam Rolston demonstrated how brutally effective art and design can be in times of necessity. In 1996 the iconic work of ACT UP, Gran Fury, and related artists became the subject of a cultural exchange program that took me to New York for the first time. The art and lives of many New York artists underwent a profound, almost nuclear fusion at this time. For this writer, the drama of this decade was captured most poignantly in the work of David Wojnarowicz and Felix Gonzalez-Torres.

Being a Scot I have a propensity toward the echoes of history, and history was in the making in New York, across the Atlantic. Similarities existed within literary and visual languages in the United Kingdom and America, but that I was compelled to travel to New York may be a result of a primary difference between national conditions: namely, the sheer critical mass of the numbers affected by and responding to AIDS in the United States were vast. They constituted an expansive cultural plane, creating a sense of urgency that exerted an immense gravitational attraction.

In providing an archive on what went before, writing forms a blueprint for the generations of artists to come. We see what has been dealt with visually and why it was important. Twenty years ago I first read the words of the aforementioned writers. There is poeticism in the fact that this article is being written in Fire Island Pines, a place of near mythological status, and in many ways synonymous with the subjects discussed here. Fire Island functioned as a historical barometer for the challenging, glittering progression of a collective experience. It once seemed an American Brigadoon, barely conceived as truth. Twenty years on it begins to seem fully realized, due in no small part to the writers who agitated, analyzed, or documented the art and the artists of their time.

Contributor

Darren Jones