Ward Shelley's introduction and disclaimer to the Downtown Body project link to Downtown Body      


Downtown Body is a portrait of New York's avant garde cultural landscape. I choose to use the word portrait because I think it conveys a kind of subjective selectivity that my work brings to any subject I work with.

I entered into this project with a raucous enthusiasm, but I am exiting the room on tip toes. Downtown-ness touches on the lives of nearly everyone I know and care about. Everyone's sense of who they are is wrapped up in what Downtown means.

And what should Downtown mean?

Downtown is the success story of New York's art world, both critical and commercial. It's valuable, so it's hyped. It's Downtown Story: the Movie. It's a nostalgic myth, but it is a self-fulfilling prophesy. It's a default artistic strategy, it's a lifestyle cliche'. It's an epic, it's a cycle, it's a narcissistic revery, it's just more exploitation. It's fun and there's profit to be made.

Since art is without real intrinsic value, its value is created by cultural consensus, which has a certain stasis within an ongoing debate. Artists and art historians (not to mention dealers, institutions and collectors) vie for authority within this debate. And there are prizes: the welfare, livelihood, and legacy of all concerned is at stake. This is certainly ongoing vis-a-vis Downtown - even though - dare I say it? Downtown is dead. Jump cut.

There is no objective lens to turn on history. This is my mantra.

On the other hand, it is important to me that my images, and the views they represent, are attached to and guided by facts; that facts are a prime determinant. The images are also guided by dearly held world views constructed over a lifetime. Because I want the world to make sense. And I want my life to make sense.

This, I would argue, is the primary function that history and art have in common: to make sense of - and perhaps justify - the teller's point of view. And often art and history make the same vehement claim to being truth. In the case of history, documented facts and sited sources are wheeled out to support the point of view. For art, it is often enough that the artist is passionate and compelling. Yet art and history are two points on a continuum of a single species: cognitive constructs with an inferred relationship to what they purport to describe.

There is not a Downtown Story; there are 100,000 unique stories that we want to attach to a grand narrative because it is comfortable and useful. We prefer a simple truth with a message to a confusing multiplicity of contradictions. This is how we make dubious histories, but this is also how we make insightful portraits.

So I ask to be considered a portrait artist rather than an historian. I have points of view, and I love to argue about them. I like to reduce the confusion of dense facts to a compelling and interesting story. I don't claim that my point of view should be considered definitive. I don't want to be responsible for a canonical alignment of personalities and movements in 20th century art. This is not likely in any case - but just so you know.

I try hard to get it right, but it is the overall picture that is important to me, not the multitude of particular truths which often contradict easy readings of the past. When history does what I do, it is not good history.

And still I have not given you one good reason your name is not in this drawing. I'm sorry. You really belong there too. Chances are you've spilled the blood of your soul on downtown sidewalks, that you have fought the philistines, that you have made crucial contributions. This is a valid criticism and a shortcoming of this work and I hope someday to overcome it. I'd like to get both our names up there.