One of the most powerful protest photographs taken during Ronald Reagan’s corrupt and nationally senile 1980s is not documentary in nature, makes no explicit reference to politics, and doesn’t have a title. It was taken by a man who was dying of AIDS, who was terribly abused as a child, and who had worked as a teenage prostitute in New York’s Times Square.
By 1988 or 1989, David Wojnarowicz was already rich and famous as an artist and writer. An unlikely art world star if there ever was one, Wojnarowicz stumbled across a diorama on the Old West in the National History Museum in Washington D.C. part of which showed buffalo driven off the side of a cliff. Seeing more in that small symbol than museum designers had ever intended, the artist selectively snapped a black and white photograph of part of the scene and defined, with the powerful poetry of America itself, not just the brutal decade in which he was living (and dying), but the evil that had led up to it.
Prediction is a dangerous business in the art criticism game but it seems safe to say that in a century when photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s flaunty self-portrait with a bullwhip in his ass has been forgotten, students of art history will look to this deceptively simple photograph to understand the sentiment of perhaps a quarter of our nation during a time of ferocious, cultural division and self destruction. In any case, it is a better, more complex photograph that does not rely on shock value to make its point.
The buffalo is an animal so sacred to Americana that it once graced the tails side of the nickel, and it was going off a Southwestern, Spaghetti Western cliff like a lemming, presumably driven on by hunters who nearly pushed the animal to extinction. The photograph goes far beyond representing the death of the American dream. In a simple image, it captures the forced, borderline-psycho disillusionment felt by anyone left of center during an age in which Right was right and homosexual men died because God himself had descended from the heavens to exact His revenge. This is not Death of a Salesman. This is the photographic equivalent of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, an indictment of a sick nation reeling in riches and hubris even as it feasted on the weakest, cast the mentally ill out into the streets, and blamed death on the dying.
For those younger than 30, it’s worth recalling that it was a decade in which Reagan and brother-in-drag Margaret Thatcher were convincing the world that society did not exist, and social responsibility didn’t either. We were, as they said over and over again, a world of individuals, each and every one responsible for his or her fate. Behind this pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps masquerade, things were uglier than most people even imagined.
As Reagan took a meat ax to the national budget, tens of thousands of mentally ill criminals were put out on the street as high-security hospitals were shuttered and shelters were denied funding. Left without care and or medicine, they gathered in shanty towns under highway overpasses in cities like Miami, contributing to a vast, national crime wave.
Things were just as bad on the foreign policy front.
Reagan and his appointed gangsters, apparently with the knowledge of Vice President George Bush Sr., were selling arms to Iran, an enemy nation, to secretly fund a covert war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Congress never knew a thing and neither did the American people. Top-level Reagan administration members were convicted of corruption and deceiving the nation, and then granted pardons before they could be hauled off to prison.
“[The buffalo photograph] is a parable of a nation-turned-nightmare.”
Reagan compared the CIA backed counter-revolutionaries to America’s founding fathers and defended government support for the so-called Contras.
It was in this political climate that Wojnarowicz learned that he had AIDS, a mysterious, recently discovered virus.
When the disease first hit the national radar, some Evangelical Christians and Republicans blamed homosexuals, who made up the largest number of victims. That the spread of the disease could be drastically limited through safe sex was well known early on. But little was done to spread that information. From the point of view of Wojnarowicz, thousands, maybe tens of thousands, died because of government negligence.
AIDS meant a slow and agonizing death sentence, and Wojnarowicz, a homosexual, watched several of his friends die horrific deaths. He would later die the same way (in 1992 at the age of 37) but not before lashing out ferociously at what Reagan and his guerillas of intolerance, Jesse Helms and others, would do to America over eight years. The buffalo photograph shows that the artist’s concerns went beyond the mistreatment of AIDS victims. It is a parable of a nation-turned-nightmare.
Wojnarowicz was an inconsistent artist. Untrained and wildly experimental, the body of work he left behind is difficult to pin down. Like Keith Haring, he spray-painted abandoned buildings. He photographed himself masturbating while wearing an Arthur Rimbaud mask and made 8mm film stills of fire-breathers on the streets of Mexico City. Two of his books, Memories that Smell Like Gasoline, and his autobiography, Close to the Knives, for which the buffalo picture serves as the cover art, are angry, touching, sensitive confessionals that read like a cross between French writers Jean Genet and Jean Rousseau. The texts lay out the painful details of Wojnarowicz’ life of abuse at the hands of family members, and of his male clients when he was working Manhattan’s pre-gentrification streets and alleys. But the buffalo piece is Wojnarowicz’s great contribution to non-documentary, culturally aware photography.
It would be very easy to brush it off as the simple, cynical reflection of a man doomed to die, and on one level, that’s what it is. But it is also a brilliant example of what changing the external context of an image does to alter its message, and of the precision use of centuries-old iconography to express 20th Century rage. An innocuous museum diorama about American history becomes, in Wojnarowicz’s hands, something else. It remains didactic but is no longer objective, but it is hardly lacking in strength. Given its general critique of America past and present, Wojnarowicz’ sexual orientation hardly seems to matter when examining the piece, despite the artist’s high position on the altar of queer studies. It is a work of entirely American art, made for a culture that millions of people believed was being driven over a cliff by its president.
Read John Sevigny’s “On John Divola’s Dogs Chasing My Car in the Desert,” another deep exploration into one photograph.
John Sevigny is a photographer and writer who was born in Miami and lives and works in Mexico. He is a former correspondent for the Associated Press, and for EFE News, the official information agency of the Spanish government. He has published photographs and articles in the Houston Chronicle, the San Antonio Express-News, the Dallas Morning News, and many other newspapers and magazines. As a fine art photographer, he has participated in solo and group exhibitions in Florida, California, Louisiana, New York, Minnesota and Illinois in the United States, and in Monterrey, Saltillo, and Zacatecas in Mexico. He has a blog called Gone City.
Copyright 2009 John Sevigny