June 5, 2008
The State of the World
Houston Street, north side, at the Bowery.
On Monday, after a month of relentless deadlines, I polished off my last assignment for a couple of weeks and have been devoting myself to the most cherished activity of the freelance writer: the movie matinee. Yesterday, it was Reprise, about sensitive young Norwegian novelists, at the Sunshine on Houston St.
Before the movie I ate lunch at Cafe Colonial at Houston and Elizabeth, gateway to Nolita. And there, staring at me across the ugly wannabe-boulevard was this double-decker aesthetic statement. The bottom half is, of course, a mural by Keith Haring, New York’s most famous and beloved graffiti artist, who died young, of AIDS, in 1990. The Keith Haring Foundation and the Deitch Gallery have recreated a mural that Haring painted in 1982 in honor of what would have been his 50th birthday, on May 4th of this year.
The top half is an ad for the latest edition of Grand Theft Auto IV, a computer game that is infamous for its violence (in a realistic urban setting instead of, say, in outer space or in some distant war zone). Now, I’ve played GTAIII a little and I’m not much good at stealing cars or head-bashing, but I loved the game’s meticulously detailed cityscape and spent all my time in the virtual environment doing what I do in real life, running up and down city streets. I was actually thinking about writing about the new edition when it came out, something about the pleasures of virtual jogging, but it so quickly became a mass culture phenomenon that I just didn’t bother. All this is a long way of saying that I don’t have any real objections to Grand Theft Auto itself. The billboard, however, is hideous.
So, we have a pop culture duplex with New York’s most successful bad boy of the 1980s on the bottom and the most successful bad boys of the current decade, whatever it’s called, on the top. And what’s overwhelmingly obvious is how innocent Haring’s work looks. Sure, he used to paint little copulating creatures (although I don’t see any of those in this particular mural), and he eventually opened a store, the Pop Shop, but his work is an expression of pure pleasure rather than calculated exploitation. The billboard up top is all about button-pushing (which, I guess, is the impulse that game creators understand best).
Actually, there’s a third thing going on in the picture. On the lower right hand side, mingled with the graffiti, one of those heroic looking Obama posters is wheat-pasted to the wall behind the Haring. I’d like to think that it’s a whisper of redemption, a reminder that there is something happening in 2008 that’s more compelling and more real than Grand Theft Auto IV.