“I feel a vague nausea stroking and tapping the lining of my stomach,” writes David Wojnarowicz in his essay “In the Shadow of the American Dream: Soon All This Will Be Picturesque Ruins.” I don’t think I ever quite understood the feeling of David’s nausea until this past week. It took everything in me not to unhinge my jaw and expel all the bile in my body. And I’ve never been that much of a puker.
What had me retching in dismay? A glimpse of two man-spreading mannequins wearing sweaters featuring Wojnarowicz’s stenciled Untitled (Burning House) with the pointed roof shaved down into a flat top (What happened? Did the flames already cut it off at the tip?). Even worse, someone slapped on these mannequins’ blank white faces Wojnarowicz’s eponymous Rimbaud mask. Yes, the one the artist culled from Ray Johnson’s cover of the poet-turned-arms dealer’s iconic Illuminations to be worn by his friends and colleagues such as Brian Butterick and John Hall in his first photographic series Arthur Rimbaud in New York. Next to these two uncanny physical incarnations of cannibalistic creative cooptation stood a dazed-looking model, draped in a beige blanket repurposed as a shawl, carrying an enormous tote that is also emblazoned with Wojnarowicz’s flaming house (this time with the point intact). My only thought was: what in the fucking late capitalist hellscape is THIS?!
This imagery–this queasy, gasp-inducing horror show–came courtesy of an Instagram post made by PPOW Gallery, which holds Wojnarowicz’s Estate. The caption boasted: “First look at @jw_anderson’s pre-fall 2020 line featuring #DavidWojnarowicz’s iconic Burning House. Thank you to #JWAnderson’s Creative Director @jonathan.anderson for your ongoing support of The Estate of David Wojanrowicz (sic) and @visual_aids.” After I regained consciousness, I did some digging past the hashtags, learning that British fashion label JW Anderson, named after the Northern Irish designer at its helm, collaborated with the Estate of David Wojnarowicz on the Wojnarowicz-inspired merch for their Autumn/Winter 2020 menswear collection. In particular, an undisclosed amount of proceeds from the clipped and snipped Burning House jumpers, being sold for a staggering $975, is going to nonprofit Visual AIDS (with whom, in the spirit of full disclosure, I worked with for the exhibition Party Out Of Bounds: Nightlife As Activism Since 1980).
Look, I won’t dismiss anyone for being so enamored with Wojnarowicz that they want to promote or even, attempt to posthumously collaborate with the artist, particularly as a means to raise funds for a longtime HIV/AIDS-related organization that supports artists. And JW Anderson does seem quite sincere in his adoration and admiration for Wojnarowicz’s work, stating recently, “I’ve always been very inspired by his work… It could be very dark but I think there was still some optimism there. He had a political voice but not just for the sake of it. It was about creativity coming through a political voice.” Anderson even previously created a series of $99 T-shirts for Loewe featuring images of Wojnarowicz’s artwork that also benefitted Visual AIDS in 2018, as well as staged a concurrent exhibition of the artist’s work at Loewe’s Madrid gallery space.
However, T-shirts of Untitled (One Day This Kid) are not exactly the same thing as an altered, unfaithful rendition of Untitled (Burning House) or even worse, strapping Rimbaud masks on mannequins. It made me feel physically ill, not to mention uncomfortable and upset. I even got a little teary after I realized I wasn’t, in fact, going to have a stroke. Can I sue an image for emotional and psychological damages? Or release some cock-a-bunnies? Cow’s blood?
Why did I have such a visceral response? Because Wojnarowicz left behind enough of his strongly held and always forcefully argued opinions and views in his art and writing to know with unwavering certainty that he would have absolutely, unquestionably hated it. Loathed, detested, raged against the appalling use of his work made in order for some vapid Fashion Week denizen to purchase for nearly a thousand dollars to feel as if they support the arts.
This was a man who had a tendency to fly off the handle as well-documented in Cynthia Carr’s biography Fire in the Belly whenever he felt his work was being mismanaged, misunderstood and misrepresented. A man who lived his life in poverty, hustling, roaming the piers, drinking burnt coffee in the Silver Dollar Café, being (or attempted to be) evicted. Yet, he saw art not as a money-making, branding opportunity, but a means to connect with others who, like him, were “born with the cross hairs of a rifle scope printed on our backs or skull. Sometimes it’s a matter of thought, sometimes activity, and most times it’s color.” I mean, this is the same man who once penned: “The rich have interchangeable heads and their interpretations of law and religion are just as manufactured, false, interchangeable and disposable as the fake moral screen…” I suspect he wouldn’t have been exactly thrilled and tickled by Paris Fashion Week.
But it didn’t just stop at the jumpers. Days before the Paris menswear fashion show, JW Anderson began promoting the collection on Instagram with posts and stories that included recreated images of the Arthur Rimbaud in New York series, except the poet now–or David and his friends–were posed in front of Parisian tourist traps. Here’s Rimbaud in front of the Eiffel Tower in a Burning House sweater; there’s Rimbaud in front of the Louvre. Completed in black and white like Wojnarowicz’s originals, they managed to transform Wojnarowicz’s early work into a sleek fashion editorial.
Beyond the promotional images, plus the social media stickers of Untitled (Burning House) and Rimbaud mask, the show itself was an exercise in comedy and tragedy in equal measure. In fact, if I didn’t know better, I would have thought it was a parody, as well as my own personal Joker supervillain origin story (Move over, Arthur Fleck). Set to a mix of music including Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” men wearing duvets as outerwear marched around the space, which was not only populated by fans of sartorial splendor, but those same wide-stanced Rimbaud mannequins were interspersed throughout the crowd. It seemed as if Anderson was holding Wojnarowicz, his collaborators and Rimbaud himself hostage together, forcing them to watch dead-eyed models strutting in loafers.
And in some ways, they were. The use of the Rimbaud mask as window-dressing for mannequins and promotional fashion show images completely dismantled the meaning of Wojnarowicz’s photographic series. While the insipid Rimbauds of JW Anderson paraded around popular Paris attractions, Wojnarowicz’s Rimbaud traversed the underbelly of late 1970s New York City just as the artist did: skulking around the abandoned piers, riding the graffiti-laden subway, wandering the blood and fat-soaked streets of the Meatpacking District, getting lost among the grime of Times Square sleaze, loitering in deserted Coney Island, shooting dope, masturbating.
The photographic series, as Wojnarowicz himself admits, was made out of desperation (juxtapose that with Anderson’s consumerist marketing impulse *gag*). As he told the New York Native in 1990: “I felt, at the time, that I wanted it to be the last thing I did before I ended up back on the streets or died or disappeared. Over the years, I’ve periodically found myself in situations that felt desperate and, in those moments, I’d feel that I needed to make certain things…I had Rimbaud come through a vague biographical outline of what my past had been–the places I had hung out in as a kind, the places I starved in or haunted on some level.”
In Wojnarowicz’s hands, Rimbaud becomes, as Fiona Anderson points out in her Cruising the Dead River: David Wojnarowicz and New York’s Ruined Waterfront, a ghost-like figure, haunting New York, a city he’d never been during his short life. For Wojnarowicz, bringing the 19th Century poet into the mid-20th Century was a way to collapse time and space, creating an intergenerational lineage of poetry, art, queerness and the precarious existence of an outsider. As Cynthia Carr writes in Fire in the Belly: “Rimbaud was a kind of lodestar for David at this point in his life. He identified with the poet. They’d been born a hundred years apart–Rimbaud in October 1854 and David in September 1954. Both were deserted by their fathers and unhappy with their mothers. Both ran away as teenagers. Both were impoverished and unwilling to live by the rules. Both were queer. Both tried to wring visionary work out of suffering. David just didn’t yet know the rest–that he would soon meet an older man and mentor who would change his life (as Paul Verlaine had changed Rimbaud’s), and that he too would die at the age of thirty-seven.”
The link with Rimbaud became a survival method for Wojnarowicz. Fiona Anderson explains, “Displacing him [Rimbaud] as well in space, to late 1970s New York, made life as a queer man seem possible and emotionally sustainable.” And now, that sustaining connection–the “touch across time,” as Carolyn Dinshaw describes–by differing generations of queer writers has been chewed up and spit out by a fashion house that merely understands an artist’s work as raw stock material for their own product placement or as corpse-like figures plopped next to wealthy fashion show attendees. In Carr’s biography, she recalls Wojnarowicz’s increasing unease with collectors who bought work without paying attention to its meaning: “He certainly would not consider making art just for money. But then, he wanted the purity of that intention to be matched by a purity of acquisition in collectors. They should care what the work meant!” One can only imagine what he’d think of the people sitting next to the Rimbauds in Paris.
Now, I should mention this is not the first time an estate represented by PPOW has seen its imagery employed bizarrely by a clothing line. Last year, the Martin Wong Estate collaborated by bro-approved label Supreme to create a series of T-shirts, skate decks, a beanie, a jacket and a hoodie. With Wong’s flaming eight-ball as one of the main images utilized in the collaboration, this collection managed to turn Wong’s Lower East Side aesthetic into some cringe hype-beast, Ed Hardy bullshit. Ick.
It’s not even the first time Wojnarowicz’s Untitled (Burning House) has been utilized strangely. Most recently, the stencil (which before now I always associated more with the band 3 Teens Kill 4, of which Wojnarowicz was a member) appeared on the playbill and other promotional materials for the Broadway production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, including as an animation on the play’s website and as its toolbar icon. While a domestic inferno does certainly seem in line with the theme of the production, there is little mention of Wojnarowicz as the creator of this image–only a barely perceptible, impossibly legible and easily missed signature at the very bottom of the website. That’s certainly not the stringent imaging attribution I’ve experienced with artists’ estates, including Wojnarowicz’s own.
This not to say I’m against any and all use of art on commercial products or even the use of Wojnarowicz’s imagery to raise money for Visual AIDS. I love tacky consumerism as much as the next Diet Coke-guzzling American and still want one of those hideous Jeff Koons x Louis Vuitton trash abominations, but even I have limits. And this is it. It’s one thing to allow an artist’s image to be used liberally if merchandising was part of their practice. Keith Haring is a prime example of an artist whose Pop Shop, established during his life, makes the use of his art on purchasable objects less horrifying (though I don’t think he needed a Barbie or diapers). David, however, wasn’t that. It’s as if…actually I can’t think of an artist whose work would be more inappropriate to drag into a high-end clothing line. For the problem lies not so much with the choice to commercialize art, but in exactly how it was done and to whom, particularly with an artist like Wojnarowicz whose work is blatantly dismissive of capitalism and the social hierarchies inherent in Fashion Week, let alone the commercial art world.
And if you say, Emily, how do we know what he would have wanted? Well, there’s certainly enough documentation of his ire at the moneymaking schemes of the commercial art world to hazard a guess. In an interview captured in his tape journals, reprinted in the volume Weight of the Earth: The Tape Journals of David Wojnarowicz, the artist answers a question about who he looks up to or considers his mentors: “Basically, people who remain very connected to themselves and what they do, and they’re not going to jump for the money–they’re not going to jump for this or jump for that. They’re going to constantly break things down, no matter where they’re at, at what point, how many years go by. It’s like they’re always going to break it down and make sure they’re going to maintain a personal connection to what they’re making. And it’s not, you know, they’ll never lift their skirts, it’s that sort of thing.”
In an earlier tape journal dated November/December 1988, Wojnarowicz describes his overwhelming desire to destroy all his work in the face of “the structure of the art world,” “the collectors,” and “the politicking.” “Suddenly,” he exclaims, “I got struck with a feeling that I wanted to start smashing things , and I wanted all the art in the apartment–all the painting and sculptures, the photographs, everything that I made, or all the things that came back from the last gallery I was in, lined up against the wall–I just wanted to grab things like this plaster head and start smashing it on the floor. Start smashing the paintings and breaking them up and breaking them in to pieces and taking a buzz saw and just cutting through the center of canvases and just ripping out every nail. I was standing there, and I had this vision of the amount of destruction I could do to this room and to all the things I’ve made.” His disgust with his perceived misrepresentation by the commercial art world was so forceful–so strongly felt–that he wanted to dismantle everything he created. What would he have done if he had to endure seeing his Rimbaud loitering around the Louvre?
He later wants to explain this destructive impulse to his friend and collaborator Marion Scemama: “Look, I just want to forget this. I don’t want to do any of this shit. I’m not going to make anything, I’m not going to show.” He continues, “And I thought, I’m going to turn the whole public thing private. And forget about the shows, forget about all that shit, forget about all these fucking people and forget about the anxiety and stupidity of that whole process.”
In many ways, Anderson’s late capitalist eyesore is exactly what happens when you have a commercial art world in 2020 that is so inundated and obsessed with selling at any cost that art has merely become a product, stripped of any meaning or worth whatsoever beyond its material value. Of course, the fashion industry would be a natural companion in the moving of images as consumer goods. Wojnarowicz has already, courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s History Keeps Me Awake At Night, been shoved into the institution, forced into the neat art historical box of the “Great White Male Artist.” It somehow makes sense that the next step would be to widely sanitize and rip his subversive and transgressive creations that have become a touchstone to a community of marginalized people from their context in order to placate an audience with the cash to purchase them.
And we know how Wojnarowicz felt about the wealthy, as written in an undated journal from San Francisco: “Rich people live there; they see the sights the rest of us don’t see. The news for them is and will continue to be good. They are very proud of their armies halfway around the world and the work they are doing. They are proud of themselves for how they have edited their view, their lives, their neighbors, us down below. They hear very little of our lives, they hear very little of our hollers our screams our hunger our choking. They usually avert their eyes from below, they can look at any hour of the day into my room, my single room in this cheap hotel.”
“Each painting, film, sculpture or page of writing I make represents to me a particular moment in the history of my body on this planet, in america. Therefore, each photograph, film, sculpture and page of writing I make has built into it a particular frame of mind that only I can be sure of knowing, given that I have always felt alienated in this country, and thus have lived with the sensation of being an observer of my own life as it occurs,” explains Wojnarowicz in “Do Not Doubt The Dangerousness of the 12-inch Tall Politician.” And this work–this history of his body on this planet–is now being coopted by a line that seems incapable of fully, faithfully and respectfully conveying the weight of its meaning. And saying proceeds are going to a worthy nonprofit is not enough to excuse its misuse. Even if it’s for good cause, care has to be taken.
When an artist of Wojnarowicz’s magnitude, of his strength, of his booming voice can no longer advocate for his own work, it’s dependent on his Estate to protect his vision, and act consciously and conscientiously with his legacy in mind–a legacy mind you that means a lot to people. And they failed, revealing not just the recklessness to which JW Anderson was able to use Wojnarowicz’s imagery but the utter carelessness of the Estate in managing the sanctity of an artist’s vision, as well as emphasizing just what we’ve lost in the intervening years since Wojnarowicz’s death. It makes the absence of Wojnarowicz himself feel that much more apparent, that much more silent, that much more tragic.
As Wojnarowicz said in a tape journal from November/December 1988, referring to his disgust with the power-play in the art world, “People always give power to the biggest fucking assholes.”