Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Wildfire of the Vanities

The passing of Tom Wolfe is yet one more fallen leaf from the tree of my New York City.  Like Quentin Crisp, Truman Capote, Andy Warhol-- he walked among the ubiquitous social landmarks of the version of our eccentric and rich urban culture I inherited in the 1970's.  He'd occasionally show up at the gallery where I worked; you could find him daily lunching at his favorite table in the Isle of Capri on Third Avenue and 61st Street-- right in the windowed perimeter area as though he was willingly on display, in his signature white suit, impeccably groomed and accessorized.  His hair was perfect.  Like so many writers of the 20th century who lambasted and loved the city, there will be no one to fill the vacuum he leaves.

A year or so ago, I saw him on the street, looking frail and aged maybe beyond his years, and it occurred to me that his generational tide was receding in a sad way; my own peers have grown old, whether they fight this or not.  We prepare ourselves for these clockwork ravages of time-- the natural purges of decades... but unlike the seasonal rhythms of nature-- the human race is not deciduous.  We die off, and the replacements are quite unlike their parent foliage.  If our annual cherry trees lost their color we would notice; not as much with the changing of the cultural guard.

The Bonfire of the Vanities seems innocent now, compared with the widened gap in our economic architecture; the millionaires have ballooned into billionaires, crime is criming, institutional corruption is rampant and pungent-- Wall Street, politics-- the music business-- just about everything is tainted with the stench of greed and the manipulations of power brokers.  Our daily news brings us one falling man after another-- the ones who grab, who touch, who lie, cheat, hoard and dissemble.  We are a diseased culture all dressed up like queens and princesses-- like strippers and whores-- we are enhanced, coiffed, made-up, pumped up like nothing else.

Coming uptown last Monday I was re-routed by the massive security barricades surrounding the Met Gala.  The police presence rivaled the Pope's visit.  Pedestrians and traffic were forced to bypass a wide radius around the temporary palatial-scale tenting surrounding the museum like a Christo installation-- for what?  So that the rain or elements did not alter the finery of the attendees who are not the New York social stars, but the usual nouveau celebrities-- the Kardashians, Beyonce, Rihanna--- on and on...  my museum-- selling itself to Hollywood for money-- so that the crowd-drawers-- the Costume Institute-- the rock and roll culture-- can continue to put on show-stoppers that bring audience but dwarf the art for which the museum was built to house?

I grew up at the cultural knees of this place.  I wandered its vast rooms and explored everything from Greek amphora to Chinese porcelain.  I prayed to the virgins, wept over the Dead Christ images, held my breath at the exquisite painted life of these dedicated artists of the past-- dreamed their dreams,  absorbed their images of history and mythology like my own bloodline.  A library card was all it took to gain access to these halls...  even as a young girl I let my princess fantasies loose when I ascended the Grand staircases.  I often did my homework in the Temple of Dendur and walked my dog at night outside the windows so I could imagine myself alone by the great silent pool.  

I've been experiencing for years the pop-wash of the museums-- the DJ's and soundtracks in the auction houses, the clublike atmosphere they create to pull in the younger crowd-- to make art 'relevant'... but somehow the paparazzi and celebrity-pomp seemed misplaced at the Metropolitan Museum.

Of course, that is the point now.  The celebrity culture owns everything; even the British House of Windsor, come this Saturday.  I used to get my fashion sense through art-- studying the great costumes and creations of the past via these paintings.  Now art is fashion, fashion is art...  the museums take their inspiration from the culture rather than lifting us to some artistic epiphany.  My first Graduate School 'talk' at the museum was the Giovanni Bellini Madonna-- most of these artists worked on Church commissions-- religious subjects and altarpieces; the spiritual informed their work and they innovated as they observed life:  humanized saints and Christ himself-- fleshy angels and suffering martyrs.  So the themed Gala-- with Catholicism nothing more than a fashion statement-- seemed like true trashy irony.

Not that I'm a religious prude-- but for Christ's sake, the pretentious uber-spending on religious grounds was Vatican-esque.  And Katy Perry literally stopping traffic in her angel wings which seemed more Victoria's Secret than Catholic... Rihanna with her Papal helmet and Sara Jessica Parker-- from the side of a bus to a Nativity on her head--- it was a little ridiculous. And yes, offensive, especially in light of the events of the world, the religious suffering, the poverty and devastation elsewhere, where religion maybe has a different meaning.

Downtown the Rockefeller sale reminded that wealth used to go hand in hand with some reverence for culture.  The collection was staggering and amazing.  That 1905 Picasso was haunting and deep.  Who among the Gala attendees will leave behind anything of this stature-- something museum-worthy in the old sense?  I don't know.  Tom Wolfe was in the hospital with an infection.  I wonder if he'd even had an invitation; whatever, I'm sure the display of vanities on 82nd and Fifth Avenue did not escape him.

Among the objects in the upstairs rooms of Christie's were small furnishings and things which seemed personal and precious.  A huge sort of greenhouse was constructed, with birdsong piped via speakers, and real hedgerow foliage around the display, like real gardens.  Scads of young employees waltzed around with their catalogues, eagerly waiting to show and open things-- unable to answer 99% pf the questions because they haven't a clue about the subject matter-- the meaning.  A young Hispanic woman circled the large greenhouse perimeter sweeping stray leaves into one of those old-fashioned movie-theatre dustpans...  this was her job.  Sweep, sweep... around and around.  She wore a black maid's uniform with an apron, and her eyes were red as though she'd been crying.  I imagined this was her second job and she was glad to have it-- and then perhaps regretted having to lap around while all these gapers got a glimpse of the formerly treasured objects maybe lovingly selected by an American royal family.  She was looking down-- engrossed in her task.  Around her neck was a simple cross, which touched me-- so like a young saint she was-- pious and simple, bowed and lost in the crush of the pursuit of something like money, less like art...

RIP Tom Wolfe-- whatever you represented, you will be missed.


2 comments:

shelley slavin said...

I really enjoyed this ... really, the pomp and circumstance, for who... a bunch of mental midgets!

Swati Srivastava said...

So well written as always, Amy. "Unlike the seasonal rhythms of nature-- the human race is not deciduous. We die off, and the replacements are quite unlike their parent foliage'".. well said. These are troubling times indeed.