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Pat Moynihan - neo-conservative but liberal in his appreciation of the arts

By Jane Rankin-Reid - posted Thursday, 10 April 2003

Those familiar with New York's vibrant underground arts scene from the early 1970s until the late 1980s will remember the stooped frame of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Pat was a regular visitor to downtown galley openings, happenings, installations and new music performances among a wide menu of events going on below Manhattan's 14th street.

In those early years of the city's cultural renaissance, real estate prices hadn't yet soared and it would be years before the ancient "Free Nelson Mandela" graffiti would be painted over on Canal Street. Tribeca, in the footprint of the World Trade Center was empty most nights and weekends except for a few secretive bars hosting seasonal softball tournaments on the flat acres of empty landfill, now home to the spectacularly ugly Battery Park City residential complex. In those days, downtown bars had microscopic dance floors, enlightened juke boxes and cold beer for a discerning group of artists, stevedores, poets, meat packers, film makers and bike messengers among other itinerants keeping the city's inspirational time warp alive long into the night.

Moynihan showed up for just about every opening we had in the Gallozzi LaPlaca Gallery on Tribeca's Greenwich Street. It was tucked away where rents were cheaper than in Soho or the burgeoning new East Village scene. The gallery exhibited canvases by Afro-American and Latino graffiti artists whose work had first penetrated the New York horizon on the sides of Bronx and Queens subway trains racing across the Manhattan skyline. Artists Rammellzee, Phase2, Delta, Part and Ero among others were targets for ex-Socialist Democrat Mayor Koch's vote-winning and New York Post headline-pulling pledge to put our artists in jail.


Taxicabs would not drive a black artist dude home to Flatbush no matter which European museum had bought out his opening night show or how fat the roll of dollars in his pockets. Indeed there were only a very few enlightened US souls who could see these artists' codified spray-painted signatory messages represented a truly original form of artistic expression straight from the heart of the 20th century American ghetto.

Moynihan was among those who, in the urban parlance of the international Warholian underground, were a part of the "wallpaper" of just about every arts event happening below 14th Street. But Tribeca was further downtown and a hell of a lot darker than most arts locations in those days.

Pat's astonishing range of intellectual and political interests combined powerful insight into welfare issues, progressive artistic tastes as well as prescient urban conservation. He was an intellectual, a delicious mimic and stylish performer of the old Tamany Hall school of political hyperbole. Most importantly, he was philosophically opposed to using concepts like "reform" for America's many unstable and rarely substantiated social welfare policies.

In his March 28th obituary, The Boston Globe's Martin Nolan notes that Moyihan is remembered for opening the first bottle of whiskey in Nixon's relatively abstemious White House. He also told the President that poor people needed money, not advice, among other civil rights, environmental, housing and labour policies he shaped - leaving that administration with one of the strongest post-war liberal domestic records. Moynihan was also an architect of the National Endowment of the Arts and an active campaigner for the preservation of a number of classic New York City buildings.

Prior to being elected to the US Senate, Moynihan was appointed Ambassador to India, where he charmed guests with screenings of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies at the Embassy in New Delhi. He often drank there with his neighbour, Kennedy's Envoy, John Kenneth Galbraith.

When the patrician silver-haired liberal Democrat and professor of government died a couple of weeks ago, I remembered what Moynihan's presence had once meant in rooms full of freaks, fruits, friends, foes and farm animals of the New York contemporary art scene. Once upon a time, no US State or Federal politician would have been seen dead in a downtown NY art gallery and once upon a time, no US politician would bother sitting through a La Monta Young performance of a conceptual soundscape in an open-doored garage on a freezing winter's night in Chelsea.


Ironically, Moynihan's four-term NY State seat was won by Hillary Clinton, who's engagement with the cutting edges of contemporary American culture is about as interesting as Annie Liebowiz's portraits of her as First Lady for Vanity Fair.

The tribalism of downtown New Yorkers' self-reflective intellectual and artistic conceit is usually of little appeal to most US politicians, so Moynihan's early interest and support for the new and emerging art forms born of these protective vanities was especially noteworthy. His ease with this particularly narcissistic and often critically oblique period of contemporary culture was at least superficially at odds with his legislative endeavours at the time.

Yet although Daniel Patrick Moynihan will be remembered as one Washington's foremost post-war liberal neo-conservatives, his legacy in the human scale of Manhattan's emerging art scene is just as profound. Lending his patronage widely and without apparent favouritism, although always discerning, Daniel Patrick Moynihan's magnetism and powerful individualism gave young arts entrepreneurs like me an unexpected blessing in the persuasive social purpose of dynamic creative vision.

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About the Author

Jane Rankin-Reid is a former Mercury Sunday Tasmanian columnist, now a Principal Correspondent at Tehelka, India. Her most recent public appearance was with the Hobart Shouting Choir roaring the Australian national anthem at the Hobart Comedy Festival's gala evening at the Theatre Royal.

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