Wednesday, October 28, 2009

David Wojnarowicz and Francis Bacon

This is my last post on this subject, I promise.

I went back and reread what I posted about Francis Bacon in June, and I was struck by the remarkable parallels in the lives of both Bacon and Wojnarowicz, and more struck by the different conclusions they reached from those experiences.

Both men were cast-aways from their families. Bacon was thrown out of the house by his tyrannical father when he was 16. Wojnarowicz ran away from his violent alcoholic father when he was 12. Both spent their youths wandering, scrounging, and hustling. Bacon wandered across Europe. Wojnarowicz hitched across the United States. Both lived much of their lives outside the law and respectable society. Both had very limited formal educations. Both were fans of anarchist gay writers like Genet and Rimbaud. Both were anarchists themselves, regarding all claims to legitimate authority as ultimately bogus. Both saw history as nothing more than a squalid competition among predators. Both were themselves repeatedly and violently victimized.

I think the big difference between them is one of generation.

Francis Bacon was from those generations of gay men who went through the Depression, World War II, and the post war witch hunts. For his generations, survival was accomplishment enough. The Nazis and the Fascists hunted down and murdered gays and lesbians on an industrial scale, but not before using them as favorite subjects, along with twins and Jewish and Gypsy children, for sadistic “medical” experiments. The Allies hunted out and imprisoned gays and lesbians, but not before taking advantage of their talents (see the case of Alan Turing). Bacon saw gay men as but rabbits between two rival wolf packs. Bacon in his later years (like a lot of gay men of his generation including WH Auden and Quentin Crisp) rejected the whole idea of Gay Liberation. He accepted, and even welcomed, the designation of “criminal” and “degenerate” by conventional society. He believed that genuine homosexual love was impossible (never mind Bacon’s own secret grief over George Dyer’s death behind his cold public persona).

David Wojnarowicz was from the generations of gay men who went through Stonewall and the AIDS epidemic. Their attitude toward their situation and their history was a lot less passive. Why should they accept arbitrary designations of their sexuality as “criminal” and “degenerate” from a society that countenanced everything from slavery to segregation to imperialism? Maybe the problem wasn’t them, but the context in which they lived. Why should gay folk accept that context and live always on the run like frightened rabbits? These generations grabbed history by the horns and wrestled with it, and ended up making history. Wojnarowicz did not share Bacon’s nihilism or the historical passivity of those earlier artists and writers. The tone in Wojnarowicz’s work is that of an outraged moralist, something we almost never see in Bacon’s art, or in the writings of authors such as Genet or Burroughs (although it does come up sometimes in Ginsberg’s poetry, see “Moloch” in Howl). Wojnarowicz was a radical and revolutionary. His anarchism was about kicking down the existing order so a new world could be born.

Bacon, in my opinion, was definitely the superior artist, though I don’t think Wojnarowicz deserves the oblivion into which his memory has recently fallen.

I am not an anarchist, though I have my anarchist moments. I believe there really is a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate authority. Laws and institutions may well be grim consequences of human fallibility, but they are necessary in order to make life bearable for all of us. Perhaps the truly revolutionary act is not to abolish them, but to take them over and transform them into something less self-serving and more serviceable.


Leonard said...

Well, you sturred me right up! I think I´ll go out and bite someones nose off...I´ve always considered the stupiditiy of it all (even as a kid quietly observing what really is as opposed to what seemed to be)! The world is jammed full of various silly/dangerous and/or plain greedy quacks on the prowl and they must NOT be allowed to run riot in my life (of course that doesn´t mean that I won´t try and out fox the fox sometimes).

June Butler said...

From my somewhat less than anarchistic view, I believe that authority is a necessary evil, as you say, for the sake of order. At the same time, I believe that power corrupts all who hold it, sometimes more and sometimes less, with the exception of the few saints amongst us.

And Jesus said the last shall be first.