(I) “We are born into a pre-invented existence within a tribal nation of zombies and in that illusion of a one-tribe nation there are real tribes,” New York artist and writer David Wojnarowicz stated in 1991, the year before his AIDS-related death. Fighting the homogenizing forces of state power and nationalist ideology had been a central task Wojnarowicz had set for himself throughout his career. Time and again he directed attention toward the million tribes within the phantasmic “one-tribe nation,” perhaps most prominently in the now legendary essay he contributed to the catalogue of “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing,” the 1989-90 AIDS exhibition curated by Nan Goldin at New York’s Artists Space. Wojnarowicz’s text about the deathly negation of multifaceted tribalism by Reagan’s America earned the enmity of National Endowment for the Arts chairman John Frohnmayer, who tried to defund the exhibition, accusing it of being “too political.” Thus the denial of the inherent tribalism of society (by the agents of cultural and political nationalism) led to a critical poetics of post-familial communities.
Goldin remembers long conversations she had with Wojnarowicz around the time of the show. A pluralistic notion of “tribe” surfaced at times during intense narrations of his fringe life as a prolific, multidisciplinary outcast artist who operated almost as a one-man tribe of his own. In this, he matched the more-than-human envisioned by Arthur Rimbaud, Wojnarowicz’s main role model, this “figure for the perfected community, for associative or collective life,” as Kristin Ross has written in The Emergence of Social Space, her 1988 book on the French poet. The interest in alternative, anti-normative ways of designing communal life was something Goldin shared. She had experienced collectivities of various sorts from childhood on. After leaving home following the death of her sister, she joined all kinds of surrogate families, from hippie communes to Boston’s drag scene, eventually starting her own “family” in the late 1970s on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. A 1987 Art in America article on Goldin by Max Kozloff bore the title “The Family of Nan,” and as silly as the pun might be, it appropriately addressed Goldin’s weaving together of social, psychological, aesthetic, and political concerns via a practice of living through and of the “tribe” of friends and lovers who gathered in the apartments of Goldin or Cookie Mueller or in spaces where Goldin presented her slideshows featuring pictures of herself and her “family.”
Goldin has repeatedly emphasized that these photographs were a means of “survival.” But they also were (and still are) an aesthetic instrument of negotiation between the visible structures of the family and the family as fantasy structure, the latter to be understood as an internalized set of relations and operations on which R.D. Laing (whose poetry Goldin continues to read) based his “politics of the family.”
Goldin’s practice of connecting the production of images as closely as possible with the production of communal life was prefigured by Andy Warhol’s systematic exposure of the social and psychological processes in the Factory as well as by filmmakers like Rainer Werner Fassbinder and John Cassavetes, “who always used their own people in their work,” as Goldin puts it. In the art world of the time, however, such aesthetics and politics of the family were more the exception than the rule. If anything, in the “1980s,” which for many stands as the decade of ruthless individualism and single-minded careerism, “family” was seen as a downright exotic idea and image. Reflecting on the “nature and possibility of unity,” the narrating female voice in the text Martha Rosler contributed to the Documenta 7 catalogue in 1982 bemoaned the fictitious nature of notions like collaboration and solidarity and asserted that throughout the ‘70s the “fashion of cooperation” had “faded.” And as early as 1978, even Keith Haring, on his way to becoming the “tribal” visual artist of the ‘80s, confided in his diary that “we have reached a point where there can be no more group mentality, no more movements, no more shared ideals.” This reflection was followed by a memo-style entry: “It is a time for self-realization.”
(II) On the other hand, although “The Family of Nan” and other group efforts might have been exceptional, the practice (and theory) of collectivity was probably of much greater importance for the history of art in the ‘80s than most accounts of the era have acknowledged. A point of entry here could be the semantics of the very word “tribe,” a word nor exclusive to Wojnarowicz or Goldin. For many commentators, the decade was marked by a mushrooming of “tribes.” In his 1992 essay “Notes on the New Tribalism,” communitarian philosopher Michael Walzer discussed the return of the tribes on a global scale and the problems of the intellectual and political left in comprehending the logic of “tribes” rather than “classes.” Tribalism, in this perspective, concerned the integration of individuals through shared tradition and culture, a guarding against the “fragmentation” of Western liberal society and the promise afforded by a community of values that countered the self-centered modes of individualism.
At the same time, looking back on the 1980s and forward into the 1990s, another philosopher, Zygmunt Bauman, claimed that postmodernity, as the age of “contingency,” is also the era of neotribalism and community, since contingency needs friendship as an alternative to madness. The “neo” here points to the difference between traditional practices of community (as corporations with strict regulations of inclusion and exclusion, where membership is seldom a question of individual choice) and the whole of individual acts of self-identification that result in the “tribes” of the present-tribes that tend to be “concepts” rather than “integrated social bodies.” The existence of these new tribes and communities is considered temporary and fragile, indeed much too fragile to survive the transfer from promise to practice. For Bauman, the search for community thus constantly transforms itself into the main obstacle to the community’s coming into being. Discourse about communities in this vein was popular in the ‘80s, and Bauman acknowledged various sources and kindred concepts, from design theorist Michel Maffesoli’s very coinage of “neotribalism” to Eric Hobsbawm’s “invention of tradition” and Benedict Anderson’s “imagined community” back to (via Lyotard) Immanuel Kant’s “aesthetic community.”
Bauman also mentioned Dick Hebdige’s writings on subcultures as an innovative case of conceiving the constitution of communities along the lines of fashion, music, drugs, and so on. The discoveries of popular-culture studies since the late ‘60s surely belong to the crucial inspirations of a conceptualization of social entities in terms of more or less temporary, autonomous, and (in)visible “tribes,” at the same moment revealing their hidden identities and communicating their forbidden meanings, as Hebdige commented in his 1979 classic Subculture: The Meaning of Style.
Hebdige, as well as others in cultural studies turned to structural anthropology to obtain categories fit to describe processes of identification found to be lacking the cohesion of more traditional subcultural groups. Talking about the punks, who celebrated “in mock-heroic terms the death of the community,” Hebdige famously deployed Claude Levi-Strauss’s concept of bricolage, relating the subcultural protagonists to primitive cultures.
To an apocalyptic structuralist like Jean Baudrillard, however, such primitivism figured as the symptom of the “end of the social,” the end of any “normal” sort of relationship. In the New York of 1984 the French po-mo flaneur saw “only tribes, gangs, mafia families, secret societies, and perverse communities.” Only such neoprimitivist, post-social entities had any chance of surviving “the whirl of the city”; traditional communal models (like the heterosexual couple) were on their way into the dustbin of history. Coincidentally, 1984 was also the year of MOMA’s controversial “Primitivism” show, which attempted to weigh a purported “affinity of the tribal and the modern” (as it was formulated in the subtitle of the exhibition), while contemporary, “postmodern” New York set the stage for all sorts of real and fictional neotribalisms.
One of the most influential of these tribalisms, less “primitive” than hypermodern “primitivist,” was hip-hop, the multimedia, multicultural world of tap, graffiti, and break dancing that originated in the 1970s and became, throughout the ‘80s, the prime model of subcultural communality. In 1992, theorist Paul Gilroy considered the “familialization of politics” in relation to black popular culture and proposed an “ethics of antiphony.” The trope of the heterosexual blood family was confronted with the “fragile image of nonfamilial community” in the performer-audience relation, and hence with the idea of community as something to be enacted and experienced as performance.
Such contention against the blood family through constructed group identity and experience could and can be found in other cultures too, particularly where sexual orientations and identities make the traditional family unfeasible. To fight, extend, or replace this very continuation of the state by other means is always part of the “politics of the family,” usually a politics against the repression exerted by the institution of the family proper. Consequently, surrogate families and nonfamilial communities become the “tribal” escape from the blood family—sometimes as a true line of flight leading away from familial constraints, frequently enough as a road back into new, “para-oedipal” struggle and dependency.
(III) Before delving deeper into the matter and concentrating on the two proverbial “art capitals” of the 1980s, New York and Cologne, it might be appropriate to identify some of the pitfalls to be avoided in pondering the decade with an emphasis on the role of groups, tribes, extended families, and other modes and forms of art-world collectivity. “Sociologism” hangs over the endeavor, as does the threat of self-indulgent generalizing. Avoiding the sociologist’s gaze requires a heightened cautiousness vis-a-vis the interpretation of art produced under this or that condition of community or tribality. The collective substance of works of art, Adorno writes in Aesthetic Theory, speaks through its character as an image itself—not in what it “says” in direct regard to collectivity. Thus the paradigmatic, autonomous modernist art object stands in the most oblique relation to the social reality engendering it.
On the other hand, not every aesthetic practice that actively tries to integrate “the social” —reflecting on it, working with it, problematizing it, representing it—is conceived as something to be enjoyed as a social work of art, as some Beuysian “social sculpture.” In other words, it might be crucial to prevent the analysis from any seeing-in of collectivity in the artwork, but also, at the same moment, to avoid any aestheticizing of practices that otherwise have to be considered as foremost social and political. The search for an art that would “represent” or “illustrate” the group efforts involved in its making is necessarily redundant, at any rate, as there is consensus (a typical “1980s” kind of consensus, by the way) regarding the fundamental collectiveness of art, both in terms of the social agents it engages, from critics to curators, producers to spectators, as well as in the sociocultural histories and values it represents. Of course this should not occlude the sometimes vital functions of artists in visualizing a community or picturing a coalition, since, as AIDS activist Gregg Bordowitz put it in 1987, a movement “creates itself as it attempts to represent itself.” The process of representing the communal, with all the struggle and negotiation this entails, is often crucial to the existence of collectivity. Thus images showing a group can become instrumental without automatically serving as documents of the collective experience as such. The ‘80s have seen different kinds of images of established and emerging collectivities, from Berlin neoexpressionist clusters of naked men in paintings by Rainer Fetting or Salome to the communities evoked and constructed in the work of New York AIDS video activists. But, in general, the forces of collectivity (or individualism for that matter) rarely surfaced in such an overt, direct fashion and rather remained subcutaneous.
(IV) In 1990, in a travesty of bohemian bookkeeping sociology a la Bourdieu, critic Diedrich Diederichsen measured the “costs” in the social economics of the art world. Pitting the creative “stimulation” derived from “personal relationships, hierarchies, sects, so-called romantic relationships, cliques” against the victimization of the excluded or dominated other, he concluded, “At the present, there is no important artist who wouldn’t also be a power artist.”
Relationships and hierarchies, Diederichsen further stated, are part of the very “social question” that keeps artistic creativity from becoming entirely functional and technical. In particular, the social frictions of “the underground,” defined as “a world in which social relations determine artistic practice and vice versa” (as well as a stage in the life of artists in which they are often connected with a group as well as with bohemia as a whole), were considered essential to prevent art from being drained by economic and social agencies interested only in smooth, frictionless operations.
Diederichsen’s essay on the threats to the art world’s gritty and—by necessity—hierarchical sociality was published in Nachschub (Supply), the catalogue of “The Koln Show” (1990), an end-of-the-decade attempt by established and up-and-coming Cologne galleries to unite forces in the face of the art-market crisis (which came to a head with the Gulf War and its aftermath). The city’s art scene had witnessed a great deal of coming and going during the ‘80s, but at this point it had also reached a phase of consolidation mixed with change, marked by many new actors (and agendas) and a certain refusal of business as usual (without, however, touching the fundaments of art dealing and career building).
Of the nine gallerists who participated in The Köln Show, six were women—a significant fact, given the prevailing sexism and machismo of the Cologne art world at the time. A dealer like Monika Spruth, who had started her gallery in the Sudstadt in February 1983 (showing Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Andreas Schulze, and Rosemarie Trockel), decided early on to challenge the established structures controlled by male artists and dealers. Most famously, she had organized in 1985 Eau de Cologne, the first (of three) feminist exhibition-plus-journal events, which included contributions by Trockel and Jutta Koether as well as by Cindy Sherman and Jenny Holzer (helping establish one of the many links between the art worlds of Cologne and New York, and particularly with the Metro Pictures “group” of appropriation artists).
Nachschub was edited by critic Isabelle Graw, who at the time was preparing to launch Texte zur Kunst, an important new journal that would exploit the decade’s end as the appropriate moment to reassess the 1980s. When Graw began publishing Texte zur Kunst with the late Stefan Germer in autumn 1990, she took issue specifically with the power structures of the old-boy networks as well as with lingering connoisseurial ideas of the artwork’s self-sufficiency and the attendant mythology of the solitary artist.
Given the villagelike nature of Cologne (notwithstanding its population of nearly one million), the city’s art world in itself has the character of a tribe that moves on its own social and economic tracks. The “tribal” tendency appeared to be particularly strong in the early 1980s, when the anti-Conceptualist return to painting as a privileged medium and the relentless celebration of midcareer “Malerfursten” like Markus Lupertz, Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, and Jorg Immendorff (most of them represented by Cologne dealer Michael Werner) was favorable to the denial of nonmale, nonpainting, non-heterosexual, nonindividualistic practices and to gestures of closing off any extra-artistic cultures, such as those of music and popular culture. A history of those other practices remains to be written, especially since it is an invisible, secret one, a history of microstruggles behind, below, and beyond the dominant painterly narrative of the period. But the role of women artists like Koether, Astrid Klein, Anne Loch, Ulrike Rosenbach, and others in that era, or the social history of the gay art scene around figures like Michael Buthe, Dietmar Werle, Udo Kier, and Marcel Odenbach, with its links to music, video, film, and literature, has to be the subject of another article.
In the better-known areas of Cologne’s art history during the 1980s, however, efforts were made to address the aforementioned closing off of extra-artistic sources. Veering from the well-worn paths of artmaking, albeit not necessarily cutting off connections to its lifestyle and distributional systems, artists like Peter Bommels and Walter Dahn were interested in bridging the gap between art, popular culture, and punk and New Wave. Koether, a close acquaintance of these artists at the time, recalls how “pop-related tribes functioned as an alternative to the traditional art-academy structure.”
Regulars at bars like Blue Shell and Peppermint and concert venues like Stollwerk and Ratinger Hof (in Dusseldorf), Bommels and Dahn also became involved with the music magazine Spex (Bommels was editor in chief of its debut issue, published in September 1980, while Dahn contributed articles and illustrations, as did Koether, who soon became one of the publishers). Alongside Hans Peter Adamski, Jiri Georg Dokoupil, and Gerard Kever, Bommels and Dahn earned a reputation as the Cologne version of Neue Wilde painting in the first year of the new decade. Around 1980 the all-guy group shared a studio loft in Mulheim, a Cologne neighborhood on the right (that is, “wrong”) bank of the Rhine, where they spent days and nights painting and making plans, as the legend goes. “If we made something together, we really did it together, and if not, then we really didn’t,” Bommels told critic Stephan Schmidt-Wulffen, who wrote an early, detailed account of the group’s history for the catalogue of “Tiefe Blicke” (Deep looks), a 1985 Darmstadt survey on the “art of the 1980s.”
After a couple of years of collaborating in various combinations and media (drawing, photography, film, music, etc.) in the late 1970s, the loose group finally attracted national attention under the name “Mulheimer Freiheit” in November–December 1980, when Paul Maenz hosted a landmark exhibition of the group in his Schaafenstrasse gallery. The group’s life span was limited from the moment Maenz took over and pushed Mulheimer Freiheit into the art institutions and collector’s network, with Dokoupil as the most determined and success-oriented member of the bunch. When Wolfgang Max Faust, critic-herald of the Neue Wilde movement and coauthor (with Gerd de Vries, a partner of Maenz) of the 1982 instant monograph Hunger nach Bildern (Hunger for paintings), published his Artforum article “Du hast keine Chance. Nutze sie!” in September 1981, the group had already begun to disintegrate.
(V) “My impression was, they wanted to claim a school of painting,” Albert Oehlen, at the time based in Hamburg, recalls of Mulheimer Freiheit. He was somewhat familiar with the group, thanks to visits to Cologne and joint group shows like “Aktion Pibkrucke (Geheimdienst am Nachsten)” (Pissing crutches action [Intelligence for the ones next to you]), organized in Hamburg by Oehlen and Werner Buttner in April 1980. He also knew the temptation of founding a group or group like unit, having collaborated in duos with artist friends like Buttner, Georg Herold, and, most important, Martin Kippenberger. These collaborations were about producing ensemble works but even more about establishing a setting of reciprocal control and censorship as well as authority, not necessarily granted to young artists. “With a group you have a seriousness, a reason to feel strong and to find your own place in the hierarchy,” Oehlen says. “This sacrifice is legitimate, as long as it allows one to be the boss.” Collaboration can take away inhibitions; community makes possible things “which later on you dare to do on your own.”
In the early 1980s Oehlen, Kippenberger, Buttner, Herold, and others entered the stable of Max Hetzler, for many observers the quintessential German “1980s” dealer. In 1983 Hetzler moved from Stuttgart to Cologne and immediately became a focus of many an artist’s ambition to show his (much less frequently, “her”) work. Herzler proceeded in similar ways as Maenz, Michael Werner, and other dealers before and after—by looking for a “group” or something that could be represented and sold as a group like phenomenon, which, almost as if part of a master plan, resulted in the “Hetzler group.”
More than the members of the Mulheimer Freiheit, who at least briefly seemed to aim for the authenticity of the collective experience, Oehlen, Kippenberger, Buttner, et al. (years later labeled “The Boys in the Bande” in an Art in America article by Stephen Ellis) were highly ironic with regard to the idea of collectivity and the history of the avant-garde group. Manifestos and pamphlets were conceived in the spirit of parody. Everyone was convinced of the ultimately worn-out and ridiculous character of such gestures.
In his seminal essay “Modernism and Mass Culture in the Visual Arts,” published in 1983 (and translated into German for the debut issue of Texte zur Kunst, in 1990), Thomas Crow named as an essential trait in the history of the avant-garde “an intensification of collective cooperation and interchange, individual works of art figuring in a concentrated group dialogue over means and criteria.” This phase is more or less inevitably “followed by retreat—from specific description, from formal rigor, from group life, and from the fringes of commodity culture to its center.” The awareness of the clock of self-destruction ticking in every group endeavor, within and without the art world (albeit largely visible and mythic in the latter), had by the ‘80s long passed down through history and increasingly informed the sell-conceptions and -images of artists and others in the art world. It certainly led to the kind of ironic detachment displayed by the Hetzler artists, who were putting each collective effort in bold quotation marks.
Then again, every artist obviously depends on a support structure and a network of friends and collaborators to get things going. Kippenberger, probably the most important and controversial figure of the ‘80s Cologne art scene, may not have been the most gifted team player, but quite clearly he had a hand in engaging his social surrounding in all kinds of ways, from offers of friendship and employment to sometimes entertaining, sometimes menacing displays in public, at gallery openings and in bars and restaurants like Hammerstein’s, Cafe Central, Konigswasser, and Zur Grunen Eck.
Diederichsen’s 1990 equation of the “social question” in art circles with hierarchies, sacrifices, and a sociopsychological tension that at least keeps the social from vanishing is in part based on recollections of situations created and exploited by Kippenberger and his “tribe.” Another close reader of the social workings of the art scene, Michael Krebber—an artist admittedly as ambitious as he was intimidated and attracted by the power games around him—recalls the “soap opera” at Hammerstein’s, where “every table was occupied by a clique” and everyone carefully surveyed the quasi-natural order of things and people: “It was like war for me sometimes.”
Krebber, who was friends with many key protagonists of the Cologne art worlds of the late ‘60s and ‘70s, from Polke to Buthe, before he left to live for some time in Hamburg and Berlin, returned in the mid-eighties, when he began working as Kippenberger’s assistant. Recalling now that he felt constantly hurt and mistreated, he nonetheless neither expected nor was in search of the comfort of group solidarity or “family values” within this world. Still, he was systematically looking for father figures and was finally happy to find a gallery and a new group of artists that suited his interests and needs by the turn of the decade with dealer Christian Nagel, who arrived from Munich in 1990.
In the later 1980s, after the Hammerstein’s era had come to an end and with the “Peter” show at Max Hetzler in 1987 (which in many ways was a coproduction with Krebber), Kippenberger increasingly became a sort of “lone warrior,” as Krebber recounts. Kippenberger called one of his installations from 1991 Keiner hilft keinem (Nobody helps nobody)—an apt title perhaps but also a misleading one. Taken seriously, it fails to acknowledge the kind of help Kippenberger was afforded—and in turn extended to others—throughout his career. But as generous or exploitative as he might have been, his “tribe,” which at several occasions and in changing constellations even sat for commemorative “family” photographs, was a system held together by loyalties and dependencies, by die-hard male friendships and past or present love relations, by business and production.
The usual ingredients of the “social pasta” (Kippenberger), one might think; but even though it appeared regressive and reactionary in many respects, the social machinery Kippenberger continued to run for his whole life also led away from many of the established conventions and hierarchies in the West German art world. That is, it led away from the anachronistic Meisterklasse system in art school (paradigmatically exposed at the Dusseldorf academy with its regime of artist-professors like Lupertz) and, through Kippenberger’s insistence on explicitness and directness, away from a lot of the customary secrecy in the art sector.
(VI) What was absent from the Cologne art world and what made many alternative options of organizing this social entity less viable was an idea of a politics of communal life beyond the apodictic positioning of individuals in the ranks of a hierarchy based on personal auratics, idiosyncratic preference, and despotic judgment. In retrospect it seems as if almost none of the emancipatory politics and social projects of the ‘60s and ‘70s survived in this part of West German cultural life, and the art world seemed more than happy not having to deal with those issues any longer. At best such projects were referred to in negation and inversion, in an ironic reenactment (if at all) of the supposedly suppressed: sexism, egotism, fascism, etc.
Though the States definitely had its share in the revival of the male, heterosexual, individualist painter persona (Schnabel, Fischl, Salle, et al.), the situation there, particularly in New York, looked quite different from that in Cologne. “We advocate integrating esthetics with practice to yield a noncoercive, functional society,” Jenny Holzer and Peter Nadin wrote in Here to There, a statement-project for the February 1980 issue of Artforum. Both artists had a background in the artist-run, publicly funded alternative-space movement of the ‘70s. As general as their statement might have been, it was nevertheless completely incompatible with anything one could have read or heard around the same time in German art circles. One had to wait for many years, when toward the end of the ‘80s, Cologne experienced a period of change and politicization, when new galleries (Nagel), new alternative spaces (Friesenwall 120), new journals (Texte zur Kunst) , and new artist-leaders (Fareed Armaly) created a new situation ( which today has itself become fully canonized).
Hence, if it is true that New York’s East Village art scene of the ‘80s was partly a punk reaction against (and sometime continuation of) the alternative-space movement and nonprofit community art of the ‘70s, this did not lessen the sensibility for the difficult and often conflictual relations between the art community and the neighborhood community. Collectives like Fashion Moda, Cobb, ABC No Rio, and Group Material negotiated these relations in a practice marked by the ethics and politics of inclusion. Furthermore, in the early to mid-eighties the East Village as a whole acted as kind of a community, a neighborhood of tribes, a field of competition of groups and individuals--an entity that would also soon be dismissed by critical bystanders like Craig Owens as a concerted simulation of historical Bohemia, with all the commercial potential and gentrificatory effects this entailed.
Still, the tribal aspect was reflected in large group efforts. “The communal exhibitions of the last year and half or so, from the Times Square Show, the Mudd Club shows, the Monumental Show, to the New York/New Wave Show at P.S. I, have made us accustomed to looking at art in a group, so much so that an exhibit of an individual’s work seems almost antisocial.” But Rene Ricard, author of these lines in an article on jean-Michel Basquiat in December 1981, mobilized his observations on the normativity of the communal as a pretext for singing the gospel of the individual: Hence, whatever one might think about “group shows” or “collaborative enterprise,” Marx’s Kapital “was written by one man.”
Torn between the demands on behalf of communality and those in service of the individual struggle for artistic creation, the “social question” was always an issue in New York. In 1988, Tim Rollins, a founding member of Group Material in 1980, who later became the initiator of Tim Rollins & K.O.S.—Kids of Survival, voiced his (Emersonian) conviction “that real individualism can emerge only through collective action” (and the balance between the two). “Art with Community,” the subject and subtitle of a 1987 exhibition at P.S. I, did nor go away, not even during the egotistic-Reaganomic ‘80s. As Patricia C. Phillips put it nicely and optimistically in her review of the show, community is “also something artists can invent,” because the community “assists, in numerous ways, in the generation and revelation of often complex esthetic processes.”
The invented, imagined, and sometimes iconized community can take on different degrees of mutuality and competition between its inhabitants and plateaus. “On a social level, I liked to think of it as a community, a large group of people made up of smaller, overlapping circles, people who were friends and friendly acquaintances,” artist and writer Walter Robinson described the East Village of the early ‘80s in a 1987 interview with Jeanne Siegel. Elaborating on the question of the necessity and logic of the collective, Robinson added: “My theory, which came from my experience in [Colab], was that as a group we were much stronger, so we claim everything we can get our hands on and we all share the rewards. Needless to say, I was little naive on that score.”
The last sentence is telling: It seems as if the belief in the strength of the group is destined to end up as utter illusion. Here again, the cyclical image of growth and decline: At every beginning, confidence in the benefits of the “group” seems to prevail; at the end one just stares—whether in melancholy, anger, or indifference—at its remainders. Looking back, such ruins and recollections can become elements of legends about past heroic bondings and tribal glories. But this mythologizing cannot hide the fact that the differences in modality and organization, of perception from the inside and the outside, of agenda and purpose far surpass similarities among communities. The East Village experience, to the extent that it has been recalled and reassessed up until now, was distinctively heterogeneous; the grammars of collectivity simply were all but unifiable.
One important model of communality had been derived from the social patterns of the music scene. Peter Nagy, an artist and, with Alan Belcher, founder of the East Village gallery Nature Morte, remembers, “Those of us in the core group of Nature Morte were more like a rock band (this was the early ‘80s and the bright-and-shining future brought to us by punk and New Wave had not yet dimmed); we were linked by aesthetic choices and little else.” But, as Nagy says further, “there was always a sense of hierarchy (albeit subtle) and the structure of artist/dealer relationships which accompanied my friendships with these artists.”
David Robbins, an artist and writer who was also part of the Nature Morte group, enthuses about the small wonder of getting access to the right band: “The art world has all sorts of subgroups in it, and not all of those subgroups are going to be sympathetic to your sensibility. Some will be hostile to it, even after you’re established. You can still be isolated and alienated even within the context of the circus. So to find a group of people who are thinking along similar lines to your own take on things--well, this is sort of a rare event, actually.” This rare event was made possible by the friendships and dialogue among the participants in the Nature Morte project. As Robbins claims, “Much of the Nature Morte difference resides in this fact, then, that the artists associated with Nature Morte were into it not just as an ‘aesthetic’ or as professional ‘representation.’ They were into it, period. This, because being into Nature Morre felt just like being into art; Nature Morte was a gallery but it had the fle xibility and creativity and verve of an artwork.”
The attitude did not have much in common with the customary discourse and practice of “community,” which lingered in the East Village as a relic of the ‘7os “art neighborhood.” “Nature Morte never felt like ‘a community.’ It felt like a fun place to exchange ideas and display sensibility. With the right people, that can be far more radical and progressive than any of that self-righteous ‘community’ talk.” Obviously, Nature Morte, with its “core,” “driving,” or “peripheral sensibilities,” which Robbins recalls, is just one of many versions of communality in this particular period, at this particular place; it is not suitable as a model, although that’s not really the point. What is clear is that the very topic of tribalism and communality might be less subject to the sociological gaze as it is the object of an analysis of the discursive production of “the group,” “the family,” “the tribe,” “the band,” “the community,” “the gang,” “the cult,” “the clique,” “the team,” or “the social” itself.
The task implied is difficult and complex: to find a way, a methodology proper to describing the imaginary functions, symbolic values, and real effects of communities—as promise and as practice. Tribes may be pure fantasy, but as such they are incredibly powerful and fascinating, a structuring force in the creation of social worlds. In the ‘80s (and even more so in the ‘90s) tribes were increasingly turned into marketing machines, constantly bordering on “lifestyle enclaves” or “target groups.” Artists produced more and more images of a transcultural, nomadic, “wired” collectivity, of youth-culture tribes and extended electronic families. Involuntarily or not, the tribes and families in the pictures of Larry Clark, Nan Goldin, and Wolfgang Tillmans developed a huge potential of fascinated identification and a sociosexual consumer attraction that often contradicts the protective functions those families had in the first place.
“It cannot be stressed enough that a community, no matter how small, is unavoidably and importantly a political instrument, and a potentially aggressive one at that—finally perhaps the only one left to us,” the artist Ian Burn wrote in this magazine in 1975. More than a decade later, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the United States art community as a whole had to cope with a “political” strategy of accusation and marginalization when the National Endowment of the Arts came under attack during the “culture wars” on the occasion of shows like “Witnesses.” Artists, particularly those “cultural workers” in the nonprofit field (the art market proper was somewhat excepted), would be addressed as the “amoral elite” or as an “arrogant gang of parasites” by right-wingers searching for reasons to cut the funding of the leftist network of alternative artists spaces and arts-community initiatives, whose discursive power was intensely feared and loathed by conservatives. At the end of the decade, it was once again necessary to realize that the production of art is inseparable from considerations of where one belongs (or is thought of as belonging); every individual is a member of a plurality of families, biological and extended, so it becomes crucial to politicize the question of which are open, which closed. Not to mention what these questions might have to do with the way art is produced, displayed, communicated, received, and used.
Thanks to Alice Creischer, Diedrich Diederichsen, Nan Goldin, Isabelle Graw, Jutta Kocther, Michael Krebber, Peter Nagy, David Robbins, Walter Robinson, and Andreas Siekmann.
Tom Holert is a Cologne-based writer.