As of last Sunday’s Girls finale, Hannah Horvath is no more. She is an ex-Hannah. She has gone poof. She is kaput. We’ll probably miss her every once in a while, but we know who’s going to miss her most of all: The New York Times.
If you’re into symbolism, it’s almost too perfect that the show ended with Hannah not only abandoning her shambolic youth, but ditching the Big Apple itself. Now that the NYT can’t rely anymore on Lena Dunham and her Zeitgeist-yeasty HBO series for regular infusions of millennial chic, sustaining the pretense that New York is still a cutting-edge cultural mecca where artsy young people flock from all over to make their mark has suddenly become a fairly desperate business.
This self-image has been mostly imaginary since sometime in the 1980s, when first-generation punk rock (the last avant-garde art movement ever spawned in lower Manhattan) flamed out and hip-hop broke free of its NYC-centric roots to go nationwide. But Dunham, pretty much single-handed, gave it invaluable artificial resuscitation. Her only competition is Hamilton, the first Broadway show in forever to be a hit with non-Broadwayites who only have access to its soundtrack. In happier days, when it really was America’s ultimate nexus of showbiz, art, scruffy bohemia, and shimmering social status, New York used to reliably generate half a dozen Lena Dunhams (and one or two Hamiltons) pretty much every year.
Dunham is practically the only New York-associated culture beacon in the public eye who isn’t eligible to join AARP.
No more. Back in 2014, American Prospect writer Jaime Fuller noted that the NYT had printed more than 300 articles at least mentioning Dunham, even when allusions to her and/or Girls had to be shoehorned in for that vital hipster effect. Three years later, the number has more than doubled, and it’s not hard to see why the Times, along with every other media outlet that caters to the city’s self-regard, has needed to harp on Dunham so relentlessly, even though her show only pulled in some 600,000 viewers every week. With the exception (again) of Lin-Manuel Miranda, she’s practically the only New York-associated culture beacon in the public eye who isn’t eligible to join AARP.
Considering how much Gotham cherishes its increasingly illusory rep as the nation’s arts capital, the shortage of innovative new artists who either call it home or want to has gotten downright embarrassing. The city still has no equals when it comes to institutionalized art, from its museums to Lincoln Center. But it hasn’t really produced any superstar painters since Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died in 1988, and Keith Haring, who died in 1990.
Forty-odd years after Annie Hall and Taxi Driver, New York’s marquee-name filmmakers are still Woody Allen, who’s now 81, and Martin Scorsese, who’s 74. (Even Spike Lee, who’s a spring chicken by comparison, is 60.) So far as music goes, the punk era’s surviving relics are almost as grizzled, and practically nobody has come along to replace them. The most celebrated punk goddess of them all, Patti Smith, told Elle magazine a couple of years ago that she didn’t think New York still attracted struggling young artists, and the reason was simple as can be: they can’t afford to live there anymore.
They also don’t need to. Even Indianapolis now has its own “arts district,” and pretty much every major city can offer some sort of local approximation of the cultural energy that used to be unique to New York. The kind of Midwestern or Southern kid who used to dream of lighting out for the East Village in search of kindred spirits and creative excitement can now stay put at home, and is also more likely to light out for L.A. than Manhattan if he or she is restless. It’s not that much cheaper, but it’s far more welcoming.
Dunham herself, of course, is a child of privilege, and it would be awfully stupid to hold that against her. The point is that relative affluence is virtually a precondition for artistic ambition in New York now, and that’s why she’s got so few creative peers. No doubt, the poor old Times and everybody else will manufacture other ways to keep New Yorkers reassured they’re still the acme of trendiness, but they’ve just lost their MVP.
Thank God for Lin-Manuel Miranda, right? But even though Hamilton will go on making a bundle for years, it’s gone from feeling spectacularly in synch with its times to being weirdly at odds with them, and so much for trendiness. What it and Girls have in common is that they both managed to distract us, for a while, from noticing that Miranda’s and Dunham’s home city ain’t what it used to be when it comes to defining cultural pizzazz.