The Atlantic City Moth

Everything dies baby, that’s a fact
but maybe everything that dies, someday comes back. . .
Put your make-up on, fix your hair up pretty
and meet me tonight in Atlantic City. –Bruce Springsteen, Atlantic City

The Atlantic City Moth by Tony Fitzpatrick

There is a huge set piece in the Green Point neighborhood in Brooklyn.  It’s right on the water, and from a distance it looks a bit like a palace of some kind, or an urban mirage.  It is the set for Boardwalk Empire, the hugely entertaining tale of Prohibition-era Atlantic City on HBO.

It stars Steve Buscemi as Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, who is based on the real-life politico and racketeer of the ’20s, Enoch “Nucky” Johnson.  It is thinly-veiled fiction and is filled with a lot of very good actors doing some of the best work of their careers, most notably, Dabney Coleman and William Forsythe, playing a couple of homicidally despicable motherfuckers, and the great Chicago actor, Michael Shannon, as a Prohibition agent with a bad case of Jesus.

Its plot line is dense and rewarding and historically somewhat accurate, even though it claims to be fictional.  If only the real Atlantic City were still somewhat like this.

The first time I ever went to Atlantic City, I was struck by the sheer polarities of its landscape.  Donald Trump had just built a huge, glittering obscenely fucking-ugly casino there (the Taj Mahal, I think) and directly across the street was the most austere ghetto I’d ever seen in America.  The people of New Jersey had been sold that “casino gambling” cultural band-aid. You can damn near forgive them.  It was 1978 and Atlantic City had to do something.  Like the saying goes, “A drowning man will grab a snake,”
which is precisely what Atlantic City and the state of New Jersey did.

Casino gambling was supposed to be the cure-all for schools, jobs and housing for the Jersey shore.  What it did was provide a lot of shitty service-industry jobs or make-work jobs and opened the door for organized crime to come in and loot the profitable elements; slots, dealers, food concessions, linen services, and garbage collection to name a few.  Atlantic City was a shithole with casinos.

Everyday the buses full of the geriatric trade would pull in from New York, Philly, and North Jersey and wheelchair-bound old, blue-haired ladies would pile off of them with their jars of nickels and play the slots for a few hours.  It wasn’t sexy like Vegas and, unlike Vegas, nobody in Jersey knew how to smile.  It was a city of gray, desultory old age limping through the sequential lights, or young men in SUVs, packing ‘nines’ in their waistbands, plying the crack trade on and around the Boardwalk, speeding down Ventnor and Atlantic Avenues being chased by squad cars and blaring rap music.

But boy, what it had once been!  Like Coney Island, it was one of those places wherethe playful American imagination took hold; a P.T. Barnum-type of place, complete with spectacle and architectural curiosities like “Lucy,” the six-story elephant ensconced on the 9200 block of Atlantic Avenue–kind of a knockoff of the one on Coney Island except, ’til this day, through a lot of local boosterism and fundraising, it still stands. . .like a  Looney Tunes Trojan horse for the American promise.

The spoils of the new gambling fortunes in Atlantic City were bitterly fought over by the Jersey, Philly, and New York mobs.  The “Chicken Man” in Bruce Springsteen’s sad, beautiful and elegiac song that bears the city’s name was Dominick Testa, a Philly gangster who tried to muscle in, along with the Bracco family on the Jersey and New York outfit’s turf.  They blew his house up–with him in it.

Casino gambling breathed new life into the organized crime of the East coast, including the nascent Russian mob who quickly took over the “street trades of drugs, guns and prostitution.  The Italians still had gambling, garbage and labor, still after all of these years, the best things to have.

Boardwalk Empire has also generated new interest in this place.  A lot of the Boardwalk is being renovated to old-timey, amusement-theme places and no doubt they will fuck it up.

My favorite images of Atlantic City come from the elegant Louis Malle film from the early ’80s that starred Burt Lancaster, in the best role of his life, and a ripe Susan Sarandon who, at one point, squeezes lemons all over her delightfully naked upper body to rid herself of the scent of seafood, while Lancaster surreptitiously  watches.  The look on his face is one of sadness, regret and animal longing.

A few scenes later, Lancaster is trying to explain this place to a young, idiot wannabe coke dealer. As they are walking down the boardwalk, Lancaster, resplendent in a wintery white overcoat and fedora, suddenly stops and looks the punk in the face and tells him, “See that ocean, kid?  Now 30 years ago, that was something, that was an ocean.”

The dope doesn’t understand, but at this point, we sure do.  At one time, this was a place of dreams; and Lancaster remembers because he now knows he is this dream’s last, faithful inhabitant.

Published in: on November 29, 2011 at 6:17 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Atomic Hobo

The Atomic Hobo etchingA funny thing happened at Sotheby’s the other night.  The consumers in this rarified marketplace, met Occupy Wall Street.  I wasn’t there, but from what I’ve gleaned from those who were, the OWS crowd showed up in support of Sotheby’s striking art handlers, Teamsters Local 814.

The august auction giant beefed up the security and escorted the bigwigs in under guard and, as Dennis Miller once said, “It was the sharpest bit of choreography since the Oswald prison transfer.”  The auction-folk were shocked, shocked I say, to realize that the art market too, is considered a valve in the malignant heart of the 1%.  If you notice, I didn’t say “art world,” though one can make a fairly decent case that many of its inhabitants are also the dreaded one per-centers.

And you know what? The OWS folks are right.  In that atmosphere, for that activity, the goosing, cajoling and casual brutality of the market mentality, i.e. rich imbeciles measuring dick-size.

The OWS people, as well as Local 814, the Teamsters striking at Sotheby’s for a living wage, or a living in New York wage I should say, the OWS contingent could not have picked a better target.  And the art world should get its head out of its ass and ask themselves just how the fuck they got there.

I think 50 years ago the artists would have been right out there in the streets with the myriad other folks,  carrying signs and fighting back.  Somewhere along the line we just got too damned complacent.  The work of an artist became about “career” and “career path” and we forgot that the creative world was part of the larger world.   Art people turned from scholarship to the market place.  A good curator was no longer who knew the most but who could raise the most money.  Museums started seeking out CEOs rather than scholars.  To their credit, the Art Institute of Chicago just reversed this idiotic trend by selecting a solid art man in its appointment of Douglas Druick, rather than a human cash register.

Mr. Druick is a long-time curator at the museum, with decades of impeccable scholarship under his belt.  Let’s hope other museums take the hint.

By all accounts, the Sotheby’s honchos were terrified at the prospect of some Adam Lindemann or Dakis Joanu-type encountering some unpleasantness with the great unwashed out in the street. So Sotheby’s did what the 1 % always does to protect its interests–they sent men with guns.  AFTER, they twittered themselves silly boasting of the most profitable number ever fetched for a Clyfford Still painting, did they think the striking art handlers weren’t going to see that?

Somehow saying they called the police doesn’t quite define it in this discourse.  When big business is pushed back (and make NO mistake, Sotheby’s IS big business), they send men with guns.  Just like Halliburton.  Just like the railroads and their Pinkertons a century ago.

Thirty years ago there were exhibits like Artist’s Call to protest the U.S. incursions into Nicaragua and El Salvador.
The artist as an agent of social change seemed alive and well.  And then the 1980s happened.  The culture of celebrity artists began in earnest.  Young artists as rock stars.  Instead of being reviled by wealthy assholes, they (and curators–their cultural caddies) sought proximity to the power-tit.  Dollar bills became more important than bain cells.  More important than content.  More important than beauty.

The Marketplace became a beast unto itself and artists worked assiduously to assure themselves a place in it.  Last Thursday at Sotheby’s was the morning-after moment; the place the market and fashion creeps have led us to. We have the art world we deserve.

A few nights ago, I watched Vik Muniz’ towering and humane Wasteland on cable wherein Mr. Muniz helps people working in a mountain of garbage, cull beauty and meaning from that which surrounds them–helping them gently realize the transcendent moments in their own lives.  When it ended, I was near tears and moved beyond words.  Right at a time that I’d felt artists had forgotten how to engage and include the world  in their work, Mr. Muniz’ film restored my faith a bit.  In a mountain of garbage, he elevated dirt poor people out of furious loss and despair.

It can be done.

Three years ago, I participated in the first New Orleans Biennial, Prospect 1, wherein curator Dan Cameron did much the same thing–lifting that beleaguered city’s art community into celebration and renewal against formidable odds, namely the city of New Orleans’ political structure, which barely lifted a finger in it’s own best interests.  Prospect 1 changed the way I thought about what artists can do for a community and what,
regrettably , we’ve not done.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is a wake-up call.  We can play tag-ass in the art world, or be part of the larger conversation which wants badly for the participation of artists; our communities. Who knows, we might learn something. . .besides what the Clyfford Still painting sold for.

Published in: on November 17, 2011 at 12:21 pm  Comments (2)  
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