From 1837 to 1841, Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed shared a bedroom.
Famously—or infamously—they also shared the bed.
Historians say they know why: necessity. Springfield, Illinois, was a frontier town. There were fewer beds, and the two young men just didn’t have other options.
Does this explanation make sense? Joshua Speed was the scion of a wealthy plantation family: no shortage of beds there. And Lincoln was offered a private bedroom of his own in the home of a wealthy lawyer and his wife a few blocks away—but turned it down in favor of sharing the bed with Speed.
If it was necessity that drove them to share the bed, it surely wasn’t the necessity that the historians are referring to.
That’s not the end of the story. Lincoln continues sharing beds with men, even in the White House. He invites the young captain of the guard to share the Presidential bed when Mary Todd is out of town on shopping trips, a fact noted by contemporaries, who found it queer.
Am I arguing that Lincoln was homosexual? I’ll give the answer away right now: that question is probably unanswerable. In the end, Lincoln’s same-sex bed sharing may mean less than its proponents want, but more than its opponents allow. The truth may lie somewhere in between, in a third category: messy.
In the meantime, there are plenty of other interesting questions. Why was the Speed store demolished, while the house that Lincoln set up with Mary Todd, a few blocks away, was preserved as a museum?
When General Sherman needed 10,000 rifles for the Union Army, and couldn’t get them through the chain of command, why did he call Joshua Speed, who was able to get them for him?
Why didn’t Kentucky join the Confederacy, and how important were the Speeds in keeping Kentucky a so-called border state?
Did a gay relationship save the Union?
That is the third rail of the Lincoln story, and it is my strange destiny to touch it with both hands.
Skylar Fein, New Orleans, October 2013
Skylar Fein: The Lincoln Bedroom opens Nov. 1, 2013 at C24 Gallery in New York City. Pictured: the Speed store during construction.
Black Flag for the Gulf of Mexico, 2010
Acrylic on plaster and wood, 33.5 in x 60 in (85 cm x 152 cm)
"Pollution is in fashion: it takes hold of the entire life of society. It reveals itself everywhere as ideology made real, and it gains on the ground as a real process. These two antagonistic movements—the supreme stage of production and the project of its total negation—grow together. They are the two sides through which a single historical moment manifests itself: the impossibility of the continuation of the current order. Science now only discusses the expiration date and the palliatives that, if one applies them diligently, can slightly delay it. But we are forced to apply them with open eyes. Revolution or death: this slogan is no longer the lyrical expression of the consciousness that revolts; it is the last word of the scientific thought of our century." — Guy Debord, 1971 (paraphrased and condensed)
Skylar Fein: Why We Write
“The only reason one fights is for what one loves.” — Saint-Just
It is wartime. Eric Blair is crouching in the ruins, listening to a police patrol move slowly by. He knows they are hunting him. Spain is in the grip of a military coup and Blair is part a Marxist group that’s taken up arms against the new regime. Despite the gravity of his situation, at every opportunity he uses the only weapon he has left, a marker, to write “Visca POUM!,” Go POUM—the rallying cry of the revolutionaries—on every surface, shattering the image of unanimous submission that is the natural product of repression.
In Barcelona in 1937, revolutionary thought turned into graffiti. And graffiti now needs only the slightest push to turn back into revolutionary thought.
Defenders of graffiti love stories like the one about Eric Blair—stories about good graffiti—and they have filled books with them. But the obsession with good graffiti harms the cause it aims to advance. All graffiti is good.
Many tedious volumes have been filled with arguments that graffiti is fine art (as if association with consumer goods sold for the purpose of decor would lend it a trenchant cultural relevance); with boasts that graffiti is now the subject of lofty academic study (so is beetle dung); or with pride that graffiti is now included in museum collections (surely its interment in the columbariums of expired culture will cement its place in your heart). Anyone who has seen a permitted exhibition of graffiti knows that the art world brings graffiti to life the way a corpse is brought to life by an embalmer.
Those who try to explain graffiti end up explaining it away, usually as a harmless outlet for minor social tensions on the part of misunderstood youth, something even your grandmother would love, if only she understood it! In fact, if your grandmother understood graffiti it would fill her with rage and fright.
Graffiti isn’t harmless, and no one understands this better than our opponents.
Anti-graffiti campaigner Fred Radtke recently called a press conference to unveil the dark world of New Orleans graffiti in all its shocking malevolence. The big reveal—the result of a decade of work—was a list of the top themes for local graffiti, a list that included anarchism, satanism, gang signs and the marking of businesses to be burglarized later.
This weeping biddie was already locally regarded as a pitiable crank, but this list confirms that his mental decline has been steeper than realized. For further evidence, you may visit his website, where the Gray Ghost (as he is known) can be seen discussing his anti-graffiti strikes and sorties, a tinpot lawman apoplectically blinking onto a dolefully empty parade ground.
His list is alarmingly unmoored in its specifics—marking businesses to be robbed later would be counterproductive, to say the least—but it hints at something true in general: that graffiti is an offensive campaign against deeply held values. This campaign resembles clandestine warfare, and the two have occasionally overlapped, as Eric Blair’s story shows. Graffiti is a sniper’s bullet aimed at the ruling ideology, and if it doesn’t always hit the target dead center, it at least gets a piece of it.
The same week that Radtke stood in a shabby hotel room to deliver his warning about satanic gangbanging burglars, an international research consortium said that by conservative estimate, the oceans would be empty of fish in four decades, a major oil exploration firm said the majority of petroleum reserves had likely been used, the nation’s most venerated newspaper said climate change would soon subject large areas of farmland to unprecedented drought, the government admitted that half the nation’s tap water was contaminated with rocket fuel, and a nonpartisan accounting firm announced the share of the nation’s debt owed by each U.S. citizen, when honestly calculated: $184,000 and rising geometrically. In a delicately worded warning, the credit rating agency Moody’s cautioned that these interrelated crises would “test social cohesion,” a phrase we will one day savor for its understatement.
It’s worth remembering that Marx’s concept of the accumulation of misery was not meant as a purely economic idea. It meant that the entire quality of human life, as long as capitalism persisted, would grow more and more miserable. One of the functions of the dominant ideology is to conceal this fact, to make misery look like its opposite, and to conjure a hypnotic image of unanimous submission to a deteriorating state of affairs.
The immiseration of the next generation goes forward, gaining speed as it gains inevitability. This betrayal of trust by the political and economic leadership has no historical equal. The veneer of humanity that disguises it is itself inhuman. It represents the frank negation of human life, with the worst blows aimed at those who—living outside the political system, outside the economic system—lack the standing to do anything about it. Surprisingly, protests on the part of the young are rare, and even the most militant factions are capable of no more than petty vandalism. Current youth movements are remarkable for their small grievances, their small demands, the satisfaction of which would cost the state a pittance. Nevertheless, the state responds with vehemence, suggesting that those who own the present see the future far more clearly than their critics at either end of the political spectrum.
We are witnessing the beginning of a monstrous collapse of the central fiction of the contemporary world: that infinite growth is possible on a finite planet with finite resources. This is neither possible nor desirable; in practice it takes the form of a death urge. The word for this death: growth.
Capitalism created these problems and it will not fix them. It marshals all of its forces to insure that these conditions persist, worsening and compounding. It mandates the creation of a hell on earth. And it accomplishes this legally, complete with legislative oversight, judicial review, police escort and air cover, and those who are honest about its end must realize that it will not come from within. No order can be expected to permit its own subversion. For anyone who wishes to weaken it, the issue is the struggle and by no means the law.
In the meantime the political parties debate the minor adjustments and small concessions that might slightly delay the inevitable. But these battles are sham battles between entities that have all been formed to administer the same economic system. There is no opposition party.
Our opponents have nothing to say about capitalism’s creation of a hell on earth, since they are too busy desperately shoring up its foundation: private property with perpetual tenure, sacred and eternal. Yet on this continent it was not that long ago—a mere 400 years—that the land was withdrawn from common use without compensation: it was stolen. Every piece of private property can be thought of as evidence of this original theft, one which must be constantly defended from those who would put it right. And that defense is essential, because to own property is to exclude others from using it—without nonowners, an owner is nothing. Your survival hinges on your ability to work within this framework, reinforcing a property right from which you are excluded, while it is you who gives the property value through your exclusion.
Graffiti is the spontaneous negative product of a society based on stolen property. In the cathedral of commerce, it is an obscenity shouted from the cheap seats at the most solemn moment of an unbearable service. Those who produce it are an affront to the economic system: their work, though prized, cannot be bought, and their labor, though expert, cannot be hired. Their thievery reveals the theft at the heart of the current order. We should be thanking them for their generosity in stealing it back only temporarily.
The people cannot get enough. They demand more graffiti. And if anything enrages our opponents it must be the dark allure that attaches to its creators, the seduction of the resistance fighter who commits devastating sabotage, then slips back into the crowds, helped by comrades and friendly strangers, eluding capture again and again. It is the continuous realization of a great game, one that turns the scenery of your power into our playground. For a time, we occupy the enemy’s territory and dream of turning it into a spectacular ruin.
If you search the land for months, could you find one child who wants to grow up to be the Gray Ghost? In an hour I could deliver a hundred to you who want to grow up to be Harsh, Meek or Read, characters with the local status of folk heroes. Meanwhile graffiti’s opponents sit alone at their cafeteria table, grumbling about their pariah status. They can blame themselves. Fascists—indeed all opponents of free expression—have always had an air of chilly asexuality about them, not the generation of life, but its erasure. If their ranks are thin, it is because the face of a Gray Ghost is always the face of repression.
Most graffiti artists don’t address politics directly. But their actions are revolutionary even if their consciousness is not. They lack theory, they lack a revolutionary alphabet, and this lack is almost their entire platform. But they at least direct their rage where it belongs: at those in power.
The people love graffiti because it points the way to a more intense life. It offers a whiff of freedom so explosive that, if left unchecked, would lead to the denial of every kind of restraint and limitation, and to unspeakable conditions incompatible with social order.
Graffiti is so vibrant it draws even its opponents to it. It alone offers them the possibility of being stirred. We actually agree with them on many points. They call it destructive, antisocial, negative. We agree. They complain that it subverts property rights. We hope it does. We invoke the doctrine of illegalism, but so do they; Radtke has been arrested for painting over graffiti. The question then is not who is right—the question is who will win.
In Spain the bad side won, and the generals established a military dictatorship that would last 40 years. But Eric Blair, though shot in the neck, escaped alive and lived to write a war diary that remains one of the great pieces of battlefield reporting. He had come to Spain as a reporter, but was immediately drawn to fight: “When I see a worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.” After the war he made his way back to England and published these thoughts under his pen name, George Orwell. No one found them interesting at the time and the book, Homage to Catalonia, was a commercial failure.
Some will say that this is only an apologia for an immature antisocial element, a threadbare g-string of authority given to a nihilistic attack on the forces of order, and they would be right. That is exactly what it is.
Here in the ruins of New Orleans, and just offshore, at the Macondo wellhead, two incompatible forces meet for their final elimination match: the ultimate stage of capitalism versus its equally modernized negation. Time is up for the contemporary world. In the spirit of Breton, we should never for a moment worry that this violence could take us by surprise or get out of hand. As far as we are concerned, it could never be enough.
Your system is racing to its own destruction, and we have the advantage: we expect nothing from it. As the reigning order disintegrates, we have no interest in helping you pick up the pieces. We’re going to finish smashing them. It’s on.
ALL IS FOR THE BEST IN THIS BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS
Skylar Fein: Youth Front
The Sept. 2010 issue of AdBusters has an excerpt from the essay “Youth Front.” Here is the full text. Click the photo to download a PDF.
When I was 19 and full of socialist fervor, I went to the Soviet Union to see the workers’ paradise. I spent most of the year on bread lines. And flour lines. And butter lines. My disillusionment was total. The Russian army was withdrawing from a ruinous war in Afghanistan. The economy was nearing collapse. The core beliefs that had served as a foundation for the society were daily being exposed as transparent lies. Drug addiction was rampant, something I couldn’t miss, living as I did across from the city drunk tank; screams filled the Krasnodar night. Bad as it was, no one dared recognize how bad it actually was: the country would shortly cease to exist. It was 1988.
Parallels to the U.S. of 2010 are hard to miss. Our economic system has been revealed as a teetering house of cards. We are deepening our commitment to permanent war in the same region, one known as the graveyard of empires. The nation’s debt is now so large it can never be repaid, and a sovereign default, while not imminent, is nevertheless inevitable. The obviousness of this fact panics everyone, forcing the power holders to send spooky numerologists to utter magical numbers—to the delighted gasps of an audience that thrills at the setting aside of its own rational experience. More ominous, the beliefs that for sixty years have formed the ideological basis for the society are failing to cohere. The new reality—the reality of failure—cannot be integrated into the old symbolic order. Just as the nation’s new program reveals itself as an unmythical, unmagical struggle for brute survival, its past doctrine sharpens in the rear-view mirror: expropriation of natural resources. That has been our real program. It is a game we will never win again, and in fact must lose if we are to survive.
In a Ponzi scheme, early investors reap rewards while later investors are shafted. Western economies, fueled by debt and unlimited consumption of limited resources, are Ponzi economies and will sooner or later collapse under their own weight. The victims of this scheme are the young. That this is perfectly foreseeable has not made it preventable. The collapse of the system is far outpacing the thought or work of any of the interested parties. We acknowledge on the one hand the inevitability of the fall of the current economic model, and on the other hand the apparent impossibility of collective revolutionary action. As a result of this contradiction, the main characteristic at all levels of society is confusion and an acutely felt need for unconsciousness.
Some look to electoral politics for a way forward, but there, too, the leadership is failing. Lost in imagery and the critique of imagery, we have failed to notice that no party has acknowledged the real threats to our security—rising seas, permanent war, depleted resources, and a bankrupt central government—let alone put forward any strategy for addressing them. Politics is pretend. A magazine depicts the President in a cape. But Superman is a fictional character. And if Barack Obama is Superman, then Barack Obama is also a fictional character, as will become clear. He ran on a platform of hope; the cheapest liniment in the medicine show is now part of our palliative care. It does work at one thing, however: keeping people pathetically waiting for help from above. Show me a fighter who went into the ring with hope, and I’ll show you the loser on that particular card. No winner takes hope into the ring.
We live in a state of permanent falsification, our starkest fear that we will collectively awaken to reality as it is. To speak the truth is to sound insane. George Orwell once imagined a government that would (ludicrously) claim that ignorance is strength, yet my friends and family now say this to my face.
The truth is that our leaders’ every action worsens these conditions in a mendacious, murderous betrayal of the next generation. They have suggested no end game, leaving it up to the people, specifically to the young, who have one.
When the next generation is handed the keys to a broken, bankrupt nation sinking into a fishless sea, when they realize they’ve been ripped off, when they take to the streets—and they will—they will flood society with a mass of desires that cannot be realized by the current system, and they will call for a revolution in every aspect of human life. No one has succeeded at superseding capitalism, but they may. They will have little choice but to try. Humanity’s future will depend on it.
What is the role of the artist at a moment like this? Should artists play the role of jester, preening in garish costumes and fright wigs, doing any dance, no matter how debased, that flatters the shrinking base of high-paying customers? Should we do new riffs on the triangle, on the color orange, make our brushstrokes go up instead of down? Stage mock sea battles between salt and pepper, making a mockery of real struggle (while of course coyly sneaking in ambiguous non-meanings as our “shocking” statements)? For examples of art’s irrelevance, you need only visit any art fair, gallery or museum chosen at random to see work that stands for nothing, made by people who stand for nothing. Art’s high value will not save it from being worthless.
It’s time for artists to reopen an old program: to see what is before us and to describe it pitilessly. Art must combat permanent falsification and seek to tell the truth of past, present and future events. And we must banish our false feelings of guilt for doing so. Art will become relevant only when it again becomes a threat to the established order. Art without threat is decor.
Ultimately this empty art will perish only with the society that created it. This day isn’t far off. Five years ago I watched my city sink into the sea. Here is what happened to the government: it disappeared. No police, no ambulances, no mail delivery. In its place came paramilitary units that operated under nebulous terms and killed civilians with impunity. Look to the future: look south. As coastal cities flood mid-century, governments everywhere will destabilize. Many will fall overnight. Most will experiment with authoritarian measures. All over the world, young people are gathering, talking, planning for this day. We are developing a politics without lies, without bribes and without false dreams. You see us on the news (our aims falsified, our beliefs trivialized). Generations Y and Z are preparing the ground for the greatest generation: Generation A. Let’s bury as much ammunition as we can, familiarize ourselves with the terrain, form columns—and live our lives with all the qualities of rage and disgust which we value.
This is my first, flawed attempt to describe a situation. Level your best arguments at it; if the ideas are bad, they should fall. But keep the vast drugstore of calmatives, along with the dusty tinsel and tattered flags of your broken world. This is not a phase but a new age. You can keep the past. We’ll take the future.
In the wasteland of a destroyed city, I and all my friends were handed our lives. And there remains a chance, however small, that in a potlatch of destruction we will discover the elusive national soul. While you hope and pray for a new world, we will be in the streets answering those prayers. And who answers prayers, but gods?
BECOME A GOD. FIGHT FOR THE YOUTH FRONT.
Skylar Fein: “Remember the UpStairs Lounge”
Ran April 28-May 30, 2010
in a pop-up space at 447 W. 16th St, New York, NY 10011
Curated by Dan Cameron and presented by No Longer Empty
Above: bartender Buddy Rasmussen at the UpStairs Lounge, Mardi Gras, 1973. Archival photograph collection Johnny Townsend.
Skylar Fein at Volta
Ran March 4-7, 2010
7 W. 34th St., between 5th and 6th Ave., New York
Above: The Last Words of Rosa Luxemburg, 2010