David Wojnarowicz: Writing is the key to democracy

I attended a few sessions of the Language and Culture Circle of Manitoba and North Dakota today and Friday, including a session this morning about artist and writer David Wojnarowicz. I knew nothing of his work, except that he had done a controversial “ants crawling on Jesus” piece that was removed from a Smithsonian exhibition, and debates ensued.  Turns out he had been abused as a child, spent time homeless, a prostitute, but emerged as an important figure in the New York art scene during the 70s and 80s, was a gay rights activist, but died young (37) due to AIDS related complications.

A couple of items from the presentations resonated with this course, including “Writing is the key to democracy.” The presenter made the point that we usually identify education as the key to civic engagement, to a flourishing democracy, but Wojnarowicz’s formal education had been cut short.  I don’t know this for sure, but I am going to guess that he gave himself something of the “homemade education” Malcolm X acquired.  I can think of some other examples where education is not the key to social and political engagement; education might even be an inhibitor, for it often leads to comfortable white collar jobs, complacency, and / or a sense of business that prevents social engagement. But forgetting for a minute education’s role, “Writing is the key to democracy” is a theme worth trumpeting.

Another key element that emerged was that Wojnarowicz wrote every day, or something close to it.  His archives contain 31 journals; those journals include all sorts of inserts.  I’ve read some, and he often records just the mundane events of a day, but he also uses some entries to elaborate of emotions and ideas. The sheer commitment impressed me; anybody up for the challenge of writing everyday, the rest of the semester? That strikes me as writing that emerges from a powerful desire.

Finally, one of the presenters was making the argument for including Wojnarowicz in college courses, including a course like this one. She argued that his writing records the pain and struggle of coming of age in suburban American, a victim of family abuse, coming of age gay. She argued that some of our students need to know that others have suffered as they have; other students need to understand an America that is invisible to them. And Wojnarowicz writes bluntly, with anger, almost stream of consciousness.  An essay of his would be in sharp contrast to anything I have assigned; I’ll have to consider how wide I want to expand the range of essays next time around.

Anyone interested in his work might start with this review of Close to the Knives: A Memoir, then decide whether or not the book is one worth reading.

Oh, and I wondered how Wojnarowicz’s diaries would look alongside the diaries of Kurt Cobain. Maybe I should look into these as examples–a little more raw than the sort of things I / we are writing.


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