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sarah nicole prickett

Before Girls, before Gallery Girls, there was Lena Dunham's 2009 YouTube series Delusional Downtown Divas. Dunham and two friends played a ne'er-do-anything trio of art star wannabes, skewering the manners to which they, the daughters of Manhattan's creative upper class, had been born. "Do you want to be famous for your art?" asks Artforum's Linda Yablonsky in one episode, playing along. "Or famous for the sake of fame?"

How many real-life New York artists could answer?

There are numberless ways of making art, but two opposing ones stand out. In real-estate terms, there's "upstate art," made by artists who skip the swell to dwell-work in peace – like van Gogh leaving Montmartre, like Gauguin on Marquesas, like the Group of Seven.

And there's downtown art, made by city brats who never leave or grow up, and whose long, bright nights in filthy live-work lofts fuel the twin drives of art and life, or in the really famous cases, art and death. This is the art history now on at the New Museum in Come Closer: Art Around the Bowery, 1969-1989. The New Museum show is not at all timeless. It's a precisely dated, fascinating capsule. And that might be the value of downtown art, where upstate art has virtue.

Take the best living upstate artist, Jasper Johns, and the most famous dead downtown artist, Andy Warhol. Johns is the less hated, more credible artist. Warhol's the one everybody wanted to know, and still knows. A Johns piece teaches you about art. A Warhol tells you how people dreamed of living. That's downtown art, and if it has a bad name now it's because Warhol sold us the good life, and those poor-looking rich kids still buy in.

But concurrent with the Factory era was an outsider's art scene. After the war, European emigrés moved to Manhattan. By the time Abstract Expression took hold, many had settled on the Bowery. A few became famous (Rothko, Cy Twombly), but many – untrained, unrich – did not. Come Closer represents them.

"The [downtown] art world was so small then that everybody knew each other, worked together, lived together, partied together and supported each other," says curator Ethan Swan, who acknowledges the complicated role of the New Museum as both agent of gentrification, having moved from Broadway to the Bowery in 2005, and arbiter of preservation. "They invited the street into the studio, or extended the studio onto the street."

There's a shaky line between this era's pop art and the show's "punk art," by which I mean unschooled work with a DIY ethos. Take Haring's basement door, the show's centrepiece. On the front, there's his "radiant baby," and on the back, a moving palimpsest of marks made by him, his friends and the tenants that came after. As over time the tags become less illicit, they're also less interesting. The last dated scrawl says '09, which – it happens – is the year Dash Snow died.

Snow was the rat king of New York's art scene, a piss-and-paint-spraying Pied Piper for the Bowery revival. He spawned louche, millennial and usually also white-male imitators from Toronto to Berlin. In 2007, Ariel Levy wrote: "Dash Snow is becoming a kind of sensation. Young people poured out onto Joey Ramone Place waiting to get into his last show at Rivington Arms gallery. ... Because the art world loves infamy. Downtown New York City loves infamy – needs it, in fact, to exist." Levy's profile, infamous in its own right, served later as obit. Not only for Snow, but also – perhaps – for "downtown art."

"Everybody asks me that," says Kathy Grayson, owner of contemporary art gallery The Hole. "The scene is still here. Well, the word scene is derogatory. There's a community. It's just, from my point of view, five notches less fun."

We're talking on the bench outside, and in 15 minutes she says hi to five people. She is telling me the myth of Snow, who didn't have a cellphone or a computer or like having his photo taken, who was unafraid and free. What she is not telling me is that he might have been free because he was born so rich. Still, he fled his art-elite family and resisted, or luxuriously rejected, what today's downtowners want, to flaunt what yesterday's down-and-outers had.

"There are no artists like that now," says Grayson, "and there are a lot of artists who go to gallery dinners to make sure they're seen. But you can't blame them for playing the game."

The last show I saw at The Hole was called Portrait of a Generation, in which 100 artists contributed likenesses of their friends. It was incestuous and interdisciplinary and very downtown: downtown New York, downtown Paris, downtown London. Now downtowns everywhere are more alike than not. Certain kinds of artists can afford, as well as want, to live in downtowns anywhere.

"Most young artists live in Bushwick, and then get more successful and move to Williamsburg, but then downtown is still where they want to be," Grayson says. "Downtown art isn't the establishment, it isn't all grad-schooled, all artists making art about art. It's art about life."

I want to believe her, but as I walk back down Bowery, past the state-sanctioned murals and the hard-to-get-into speakeasies, I wonder if it isn't rather art about a lifestyle.

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