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Friday, June 24, 2005

Chronicles of Ozymandias

The End of New York

…You see, I was in a curious position in New York: it never occurred to me that I was living a real life there.
—Joan Didion

On May 7, as I wrote last month, I got on a plane at JFK bound for Athens. My wife and I had actually left New York almost a month earlier, to settle permanently in Europe, but I had come back one last time (see, “The End of an American Family,” May 28, 2004). Now, as I was easing into what I knew was going to be my final few minutes in the city—where I’d not only lived most of my life but, more to the point, where I’d wanted to live for most of my life—the flight attendant came by with newspapers. I asked for an FT. (It only dawned on me recently that I should have known my time in New York was up when I started looking forward to reading the Financial Times more—much more—than the New York Times.) Sitting there on the runway waiting for my plane to take off, I started going through the paper and came across an article by the British (but American-born) writer David Flusfeder. It was entitled, “The lost soul of New York” (Financial Times, May 7-8). It was all a bit too uncanny.

“I fell in love with New York City in 1966 at the age of five,” Flusfeder writes. “We lived in suburban New Jersey and my mother, who was a Londoner and loathed everything American, from Wrigley’s chewing gum to television, had brought me into the city for a day….The city made my mother nervous, which only increased its attractions for me.” I was ten years older than Flusfeder in 1966, and was living in Astoria with my parents. This was Astoria before the Greeks (truly, there was such a time) and our neighborhood was mostly Italian and Irish; most relevant for me, it was just two subway-stops from Manhattan, where I, as a 15-year old, was spending more and more of my weekends. “New York City not only felt like the capital of the world back then,” Flusfeder comments, “it was also the city of the future.” I had no idea. Still, when you’re 15 and living in a city like New York at a time like the Sixties, it does seem as if the future is now, and that there’s at least a 50-50 chance it’ll take you to wherever it’s going.

“The future would sound like John Coltrane,” Flusfeder continues, “it would look like a Rothko.” At this point in reading his piece, I had to pause, as I realized that there is such a thing as zeitgeist—not to mention history—after all.


At the age of 15, I was spending a lot of time at the Museum of Modern Art—and, yes, in those days, it was the Museum of Modern Art, not MOMA, MoMA, Móma, or Momma; simply, and austerely, the Museum of Modern Art. For many of us who came of age in the city after the Second World War, it was the place in which we developed our oppositions to traditional perspective, both esthetic and existential. Clearly, a 15-, 16-, or 17-year-old who spent his weekends in the Museum of Modern Art was already seriously disconnecting from the world as it is.

But that was New York, after all, the metropole of disconnection, and the refuge from a nation, and a world, whose Cold War bipolar disorder was more neurotic (and deadly, MAD indeed) than all the accumulated (and alleged) neuroses of the deliriously detached residents of a city who were, as far as they were concerned, hardly disengaged from “reality” but, in fact, implacably determined to redefine the terms of engagement. I’ll never be able to explain how much I learned, and how much I veered from another possible life, in those many quiet moments I spent in the early Sixties in that mysteriously intimate space, in which art was not spectacle but seduction, and intercourse with it not an act of commerce or boredom (or self-delusion), but of instruction and moral maturity. But I can see readers shaking their heads. Quiet moments? Intimate space? At the Museum of Modern Art?

Well, yes, once upon a time in New York. It’s a cliché, of course, but, not so long ago, the Museum of Modern Art was a haven. Actually, all of New York’s museums were until the institutional function of museums as a whole changed to accommodate and cater to the desperately “participatory,” and therefore essentially fractured, demands of a “cultural consumer” whose interest is never external, that is, in (any kind of willingness, let alone eagerness to engage) the world per se, but, always and irreducibly, in himself or, just as frequently nowadays, herself. Another of the (endless and endlessly sad) ironies of late-capitalist multiculturalism, of course, is that the more museums expand (on the intellectual model of the strip mall), and the more they indulge in omnidirectional “outreach” (on the intellectual model of the theme park), the more inaccessible they become, especially to those—the young, the unaffluent—for whom a visit to a museum is not a prelude to brunch. Yes, once upon a time in New York—once upon my lifetime—there was no such thing as brunch. Once upon a time in New York, there were only museums. Which was why, once upon a time in New York, one lived in New York.

“Baudelaire said the belief in progress was the ecstasy of fools; New York was built on that foolish ecstasy,” Flusfeder says. (Mais où sont les flâneurs d’antan? Why, scoping out the real estate, of course.) He continues:

But it’s impossible to believe in progress any longer, especially not in a city that has become so swollen with entitlement, as bloated as the new MoMA, which has now eaten up almost the entire block between 53rd and 54th streets and 5th and 6th avenues. The future didn’t end up sounding like John Coltrane, nor was Rothko the painter of modernity he seemed to be. New York’s visionary of the 1960s was Andy Warhol. He saw that the city’s future would be flat and silly and meaningless.

This is the first time that I’ve read in print, by the way, an excoriation (long-overdue) of the Museum of Modern Art’s decision to follow in its own backyard the imperial agenda that George Bush has set out for the planet at large. As Flusfeder himself says, and as every New Yorker knows, the foundation of the island at the center of the world has always been the raucous accumulation of cash. Still, commerce is one thing—the very notion of a city is nonsense without it—and prostitution quite another. Even more pernicious, and this is really want Flusfeder is pointing to, is the internal colonization of the city by itself, the transformation, in other words, of what was once “the free city” (to echo Whitman) into a hacienda by a tiny, and self-selected, elite (i.e., the global plutocracy) that has now alighted on Mannahatta and decided to turn it into their own private Cuba (before a certain revolution). I return to Flusfeder:

…I…shared a meal with a group of successful young New Yorkers, who dressed like bohemians but talked only about food…the making of it, the presenting of it, the selling of it; one young chef pulled out a little pot of saltpetre and explained how he used it to preserve the pinkness of the meat in corned duck. New York food bohemians today may be no more commercial than the art bohemians in their drunken fervour 50 years ago, but after the restaurant transactions are concluded there’s nothing left behind, just the clacking sound that money makes when it travels in circles.

Rothko killed himself by slashing his arms at the elbows (the pool of blood in which the body of this greatest of all “color-field” painters was found was almost 50 square feet); John Coltrane died at the age of 40, a heroin addict. Both were at the height of their “success.” Somehow, I just can’t see that kind of relentless sense of purpose (or of terrible self-accusation), let alone tragic vision of life, from, say, Mario Batali or Wylie Dufresne. Indeed, Rothko’s life stands as a unique parable in opposition to today’s “New York food bohemians,” as Flusfeder calls them. It was Rothko, after all, who, in 1959, agreed to paint the murals for the Four Seasons when asked to do so by Philip Johnson, who had designed the Seagram Building in which the restaurant sits. Rothko had originally told an acquaintance that he had “hope[d] to ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room,” but, after the restaurant opened, he went there with his wife. It was immediately obvious that the world of a left-wing, immigrant Jewish painter had nothing to do with the circle of the famously fashionable (and crypto-Nazi) architect who had given him the commission. “Anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kinds of prices will never look at a painting of mine,” he told an assistant. The very evening he returned home from eating at the Four Seasons, he decided to send back the money and withdraw his paintings. He eventually donated nine of them to the Tate Modern, where they now hang as The Seagram Murals.

That was truly then, and this is painfully now, however. Flusfeder concludes:

New York used to be the place where “good” neighbourhood turned into “bad” in the space of one block. Restaurants shone their privileged windows on to the street because part of the point of being rich in New York was to show it off to the people who weren’t. Except the poor aren’t there any more. The underclass has been banished and New York has become a city only of the privileged….

I was recently talking to a rich New Yorker who, unselfconsciously, told me she was coming to live in London because New York was only full of rich people….

Since last year’s election, Manhattanites have taken to the habit of deluding themselves (but no one else) that they live on “an island off the coast of Europe.” They live, of course, on an island off the coast of New Jersey. In the event, their sense of geography has become as debased as their sense of themselves. If nothing else, anybody who’s been to Europe in the last few years can tell the difference. And while New York’s future ended up sounding nothing like Coltrane, my future here in Greece does so more and more, if for no other reason than my wife and I listen to him, or to Miles Davis, or Bill Evans, or Oscar Peterson, or McCoy Tyner, every evening, as the sun sets over the Aegean, in front of our house. Granted, we don’t have any acquaintances sophisticated enough to carry around their own saltpeter for their corned duck—but, if we ever do, we’ll leave here as surely as we left New York.


Postscript: As I was finishing writing this column, I read online in the New York Times that the island off the coast of Europe is preparing for a Billy Graham “crusade,” with the participation of more local churches (1,400) than ever seen before in the history of Mr. Graham’s salvational campaigns. Billy Graham. In New York. This mass bible-thumping and Jeezus-praising, and spontaneous banishment of all afflictions and debilities, will be held in Flushing Meadows, site of the two famous world’s fairs that were both designed to confirm New York’s status as capital of the future. Clearly, there’s been a shift of tectonic plates, and the island that was once within shouting distance of Biarritz now finds itself anchored off the coast of Biloxi.

Peter Pappas is co-founder of
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