What is a city for? I know some people have devoted their lives to this kind of question — Rem Koolhaas writes about cities with the swiftness of a person shuffling cards — but I’ve been answering them for myself lately, as I haul myself up the hills of San Francisco, hand over hand like a sailor.
Oscar Wilde famously wrote that “all art is quite useless.” Wilde’s paradoxes are tricky multitools done up in filigree. They’re miniscule, requiring the longest and thinnest of fingernails to open, so that you’re always stabbing yourself on your own keratin. They also have about sixteen little attachments, all of which — a hoof pick, a coach wrench — made more sense in 1890 than they do today. I don’t mean that Wilde isn’t accessible or excellent. He is, however, often read without context, as an icon outside of time, space, and flesh. The apogee of this is Velvet Goldmine, where he’s a literal alien baby delivered to his parents via UFO, and grows up into a child who “wants to be a pop idol.”
All of this is a terribly glittery mortar and pestle with which to compound something cute out of Wilde, an actual human man who was arrogant and talented and painfully hung up on a manipulative playboy; who reused his material ad nauseum, fucked teenagers, and died of an excruciating ear infection. Making someone a saint does no one any good. I don’t know if we can somehow blame Morrissey for the dramatic 1990s ramping-up in Wilde hagiography, but I’d be willing to give it a try. More likely, though, it’s just that the 1990s were a time when mainstream film was just about able to tell dignified stories about queer people — white, cis gay men, anyway — so long as they ended in self-destruction, or at least in suicide-by-state. Wilde’s story fits that bill in a way Alan Turing’s does not.
Anyway, I don’t know how I would have read “all art is quite useless” in 1890, in the context of the movements around Wilde, as well as his Gilded Age socialism and the late Industrial Revolution. I am only a casual reader of late Victorian history. But I know it used to mean more to me than it does now, strictly as a writer and a person. Thinking of art as that which has no use no longer moves me. I’d rather think of art as something that has an opaque or multivalent use. Not a multitool. More like a knife or a rope, which can both be instruments of torture or pleasure or liberation, depending on whose hands they’re in.
There’s a maxim in the archival field: archives are objects whose original function has ceased to have meaning, and which now have a new function. It’s often an informative or educational one, but sometimes an emotive or memorializing one. Archives, then, are not useless; they are just differently useful.
And this means the city is an archives. Fragments of cities swiftly pass from use to use. A place for cruising can become a place for mourning. With a quick switch of the lights, a park becomes a site of protest. A war memorial decays into art. As I walk around a city that has “reopened” in limited and artificial ways — diners sit between garden-store partitions, boutiques admit one shopper at a time, and everyone stands on a sticker — this is obvious in a way that I’ve never seen before.
Buildings, because I don’t go in them, have become sculptures. Empty cafés generate a thin, bright steam of artificial optimism. Restaurants all look like Nighthawks. The performance of capitalism is quick and mechanized, denaturalized, stage business. Plotless, no narrative drive. The city is a machine for mood; the city is a machine for pretending; the city thrills me from a distance, and often alarms me in close-up. I thought I was familiar with how made-up it all was, but now I really see.
It’s not a bad feeling, all this pleasure and all this alarm. This might be a display of people trying to make things work, to try to appear cheerful and chipper when they’re frightened to death, which they’ve always done and are now doing more openly — but nobody in it seems like an automaton, not the dog walker and not the women talking at widely spaced tables in Union Square. I worry for everybody and I’m overwhelmingly fond of everybody. The city is a machine for affection. I’ve never cruised per se, but I imagine that’s part of the thrill of it.
I walk around the city and my phone tells me facts:
- That is the German consulate!
- That is Alcatraz!
- That is made of poured concrete!
- That is a stained-glass window incorporating samples of gravel and soil from all 58 California counties!
- That is lemon balm!
It feels like the phone is a shovel, and I’m using it to dig under surfaces to retrieve cores of rock and soil. A lot of the information inside of it is dubious, presented self-servingly or without enough context. Loss of context is another way that things become archives, and sometimes a way that things become art. That’s how it happens with the war memorials — once the living memory of the war is over, the emotion it evokes isn’t the same; it is airier and more distant, and evokes a different kind of tears. When you read a Victorian writer ahistorically, their work does become more art, because the parts you don’t understand simply feel like surrealism. That’s why I laughed at comedies, as a kid. It was because I didn’t get the references at all.
But using this flawed device, which is watching me watch the city, is still valuable. I can tell because it is alarming, like archives. You find terrible things in archives — memories of atrocities, painful secrets, little bones and teeth. San Francisco’s Financial District is built on landfill. From this morass, we can dredge out knowledge.
The city is full of encoded information. As with an archives, you bring your own prejudices to it, and you’ll never read it “right” — there is no “right.” But you can learn to read it, and to notice when it leaves a gap, or protests too much. You can find a way in.