NEW YORK — In the early 1980s, the East Village in New York wasn't just a neighborhood; it defined an aesthetic. It was a hot mess. You felt your heart beating a bit faster as you walked there, as the numbered avenues dwindled from Third to Second to First, and finally you arrived in Alphabet City, with its small shops, even smaller apartments and easy access to drugs. Like its streets and squares and underground clubs that attracted outsiders, the East Village stood for an approach to art, and life, that was transgressive, sexy and unassimilable.
But of course, it was assimilated. The neighborhood is now thoroughly gentrified and unaffordable to ordinary people, and the aesthetic, which was fundamentally countercultural, has become entirely domesticated in the professional art world. Two exhibitions on view in New York seem to bookend not just the heyday of the East Village and its ultimate dissolution into the luxury real estate economy, but the transmigration of the aesthetic itself, its birth, death and reincarnation in a zombified, academic form.
At the Museum of Modern Art, "Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978-1983" looks at a five-year period when a fluid group of young artists used a church basement space for performances, exhibitions and evenings of film. Much of what happened there emerged from a cleavage in the growing LGBT community, between older and established gay men and lesbians invested in fashioning stable lives within the larger New York social world, and a flood of new arrivals, disaffected refugees from small towns and suburbia, who favored freedom over bourgeois comfort. Events at Club 57 reveled in what outsiders would consider bad taste, eviscerating commercialized American culture. They were often decidedly sexy: "Needle Jones + Perry Homo's Sleaze Review" and "An Evening of Bondage Comedy" were typical events, along with exhibitions including the "1st Annual Erotic and Pornographic Art Exhibition" curated by Keith Haring.
Several of the artists central to Club 57, including Haring, made their way into the world of galleries, museums, the mainstream art market; others had successful professional performance careers. By the mid-1980s, commercialization, professionalization and the AIDS crisis effectively put an end to the anarchic spirit of the club. But the visual language of that time, the artistic techniques, the generalized sense of cultural alienation and the effort to connect ideas about sexuality and gender to larger themes of cultural oppression still remain vital to much of what happens in the contemporary art world.
That's clear the moment you enter another exhibition, "Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon," at the New Museum. At times, the work on view in "Trigger" feels as if no time at all has passed since the days of Club 57. Some of the performance pieces channel the same homemade, unrehearsed, improvisational aesthetic; other works collage images from pornography into new and artsy contexts; installation pieces are concatenated from found objects and the detritus of life. A familiar parody of American culture — the oppressive and hostile "out there" that reassures New Yorkers they have made the right decision to live in the country's cultural capital — runs through much of the more politically inclined art. The body and its fluids are a recurring theme.
But there is little of the pure fun, the indulgence of silliness, which one finds in the documents of Club 57 (posters, fliers, films) seen at MoMA. Gender, as the title suggests, has become deadly serious. In one of the homemade films from the Club 57 exhibition, a group of young people clamber one by one into a bed, mixing up the genders and gender identities in an evolving game of sexual possibilities. Like other films in the exhibition, this feels like a product of a particular place — a network of small, cramped apartments that seemed little bigger than the beds they contained, beds that weren't just for sleeping, but a source of community and exploration and experimentation.
By contrast, "Trigger" isn't particularly about sex. It focuses on gender, which has become an increasingly elaborate construct as artists and critics create connections between gender and other social distinctions. An older paradigm of gender "bending" has given way to a contemporary effort to map gender in relation to race, colonialism, capitalism and environmental degradation. The concept of "intersectionality" — that identity is often plural and people experience oppression or privilege in multiple ways depending on how they relate to different power structures — is the dominant thread connecting most of the work on view.
These ideas have been enormously important conceptual tools, especially for articulating personal experience. But they have also had what seems to be a secondary, unwanted and stultifying effect on the communities that embrace them. Intersectionality is, fundamentally, a tool for making us more self-conscious, more aware of our own unique composites of privilege and exclusion. But self-consciousness has unpredictable effects on self-expression: It can make us more nuanced and subtle, but it can also make us embarrassed and unable to say anything at all.
The work on view in "Trigger" runs the range between those two poles of self-consciousness. Troy Michie, for example, creates striking visual analogues for ideas about intersectionality and gender by cropping together images of different bodies, and men of different races, without letting these composite figures directly encounter the viewer's gaze. Much of Patrick Staff's video, "Weed Killer," focuses on a poetic and powerful monologue by the queer theorist Catherine Lord, in which she talks about breast cancer and how she managed the estrangement that sickness creates within our body and sense of self.
But other works revel in a confusion born of some silly philosophical thinking directly connected to gender. In the years since the gender games of Club 57, a more trenchant view has formed: If the basic, binary distinction between male and female was oppressive (and it was), then all binary distinctions must be oppressive. It is an odd and almost comical development, inspiring some people to think that perhaps all distinctions are pernicious, all categories exclusive, all oppositions a form of oppression. One wishes Jonathan Swift were alive to satirize it.
The aesthetic that emerges from this curious philosophical non sequitur is a basic wariness about any kind of direct expression. Even when representing the self, many of these artists tend to the sibylline. Indeed, the entire exhibition seems nervous, as if the artists are also wary of one another. Some of them may dream of a yet-to-be-born world that isn't divided into oppositional categories of any sort, but others simply retreat into atomization, isolation and self-imposed confusion.
With at least one notable exception. The videos made by an artists' collective known as the House of Ladosha connect directly with the best of the transgressive art from the old Club 57 days. They are raucous and funny and sometimes angry and in your face. But always, in the background, is a powerful sense of joie de vivre. Here we find young people actually living out their lives beyond old gender ideas, without falling into the philosophical sinkhole of parsing identity so finely that there is no possibility of connection to others.
It makes no sense to romanticize the community based around Club 57, or the other creative and club communities that thrived in the East Village at the time. They had their dark sides, too, including cliquishness and exclusion and a far-too-uncritical acceptance of a lot of mediocre artistic expression. But there was this thing called sex, which was fun, and which connected people to other people, and helped forge communities in which gender could be expressed in myriad ways. It's not clear if gender theory, as expressed in the language of exhibitions like "Trigger," is a force for that kind of community building.
Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978–1983 is at the Museum of Modern Art through April 1. moma.org. Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon is at the New Museum through Jan. 21. newmuseum.org.