ART THAT KILLS
A controversial text artist plays the ultimate long game.
🔪“THEY’LL NEVER BELIEVE YOU!”🔪
PHOTOS from Ardor showing: Marcus Maddox
(EDITOR’S NOTE: In the months following the publication of this piece, Mike Crumplar was revealed to be a serial plagiarist, among other things. Learn more here.)
Somewhere in the top-floor loft of a dilapidated structure bordering the East River, a flustered theater director grunts, with agony, “God, I fucking hate myself.” To his right, an icy man is stationed at a chessboard, glowering at the ground. “Why is that?” he deadpans; “Because of my addiction to the opinions of others!” the theater director retorts, both immediately and somewhat sheepishly. The two are actors in Ardor, a sprawling young-adult drama conceived by the writer Matthew Gasda in 2016, but subjected to heavy revision since then. Both the play and tonight’s showing ooze a cozy D-I-Y sensibility, vaguely reminiscent of college’s trepidatious ambition, or the awkward uncertainties of graduating from it. In the loft’s cramped hallway moments before showtime, well-dressed 20-somethings poured each other drinks through small-talk about having graduated from NYU this past May, having known each other through mutual friends, having been on the guest list. The theater-space, seated behind an unsuspecting wooden door, was furnished with a modest array of metal fold-up chairs, folk vinyls softly droning from a record player somewhere off in a corner. As the 20-somethings packed into the seating area—a feat made trickier by the fact that tonight’s showing was sold-out—Gasda, dressed in backyard attire and toting a flip phone, eased into a chair close to a makeshift media booth, whispering instructions to a sound-man and chuckling through the play’s awkward beginnings.
Around this time last year, Gasda was the subject of a hit-piece by the controversial writer Mike Crumplar, who had taken issue with his breakthrough underground play Dimes Square. Crumplar, a DC native who moved to Brooklyn in 2021, runs a popular Substack channel affectionately known as the “Crumpstack,” where his near-weekly accounts of strange downtown parties and goings-on seek to uncover a darker underbelly of New York City’s oft-cited “Dimes Square” artistic milieu. He’d been a writer long before he moved to New York, having curried a niche online reputation for think-pieces on lofty concepts like incel culture and new-age leftism. But the Dimes Square review marked both a literal beginning of his “New York Era,” and a symbolic beginning of the drawn-out war he now finds himself waging against its titular scene. “The art itself is basically an afterthought,” Crumplar concluded of the play in his review’s closing paragraph. “I guess I gotta just go to parties around town and offer people coke and listen to their ranting if I want to get a real committed answer about what’s coming next in the world of art and letters. I personally don’t have a problem with that, but it would be nice to have some art that does more than tickle the enjoyment of seeing oneself in the cocaine mirror.”
The piece sparked the first of several “beefs”—varying in intensity—Crumplar would go on to garner among New York City’s artists, writers, musicians, Web3 people, side-characters, up-and-comers, has-beens, and Twitter microcelebrities within a one-year span. Unlike most of his rivals, Gasda made the rare gesture of offering him an olive-branch: when both figured that trading jabs on Twitter wasn’t worth it, he invited Crumplar to have drinks sometime. The pair have remained on good terms since. “I think Crumps and I are both good at understanding people’s insecurities,” Gasda said after the play, picking away at dumplings on a rooftop solely lit by Manhattan’s distant skyline. “He’s good at spotting weaknesses in my own work. He’s a psychologist—you know, writers are psychologists. He takes gambles, like I do, and I sometimes don’t find it comfortable, seeing my name like that.
“I don’t think it was a piece of theater criticism,” he continued, pivoting to the review after a brief chat with an actress saying goodbye for the night. “I would have to re-read it. I think he was right about it being reflexive, that it was buoyed by people from the scene and literary world who were kind of in on the joke. The whole stuff about us being fascists… no (laughs). But I also think a lot has changed, and if there’s something true about it, it’s that we were playing with something dangerous—and in retrospect, there was, or is, something fascistic about the whole scene. It’s something he and I talk about: it’s actually more true now than it was when he wrote that.”
“There’s a lot of people watching that are interested in it, and they’re watching for the antagonism. No one gives a shit about people just gassing their idiot friends up.”
As true as it may possibly be, it’s (1) a provocative, damning accusation to those involved, and (2) perhaps too crazy-sounding to be said confidently by many on the outskirts. “Dimes Square” gained ground in the freshly post (or, depending on who you ask, mid)-pandemic New York City of two-ish years ago, centering around a hub of moneyed downtown characters eager to return to normal life. Like any other scene, it has its relics—it gets its name from Dimes, a young restaurant on the corner of Canal and Essex; a signature hangout spot is the bar Clandestino, also bordering Canal and Essex—but also its murky undertones. Then and now, its artistic bread-and-butter has consisted mainly of edgy podcasts, events, and Substack channels, usually with a familiar “anti-woke” aesthetic constantly bordering—and sometimes crossing into—dangerous territory. The fascist quality Crumplar references seems, in less abrasive terms, like an outgrowth of both physical and cultural boxed-inness: freshly removed from pandemic-era confines, the scene’s eager pundits took liberties to not only push lockdown-borne boundaries, but the political ones that came alongside them, too.
Somewhere in the mix, pinballing from party to party, reading to reading, politically-charged interaction to politically-charged interaction, is Crumplar, a quiet presence in reality, and a larger-than-life villain on the New York internet he presides over. His work feels uncannily in the vein of Hunter S. Thompson’s: mean-spirited, semi-fictitious, ultra-longform, et cetera, but also infatuated with deep-seated political undertones, prone to making myth out of life, rallied around by a world of readers for whom the universe it documents is somewhat out-of-reach. (Reading Crumplar is something of a universal hyper-online New York experience: “mom glaring at me in disapproval as I read the the crumpstack on the subway,” a recent tweet read.) One Thursday evening in early July, he was standing in a shady spot by the Church Avenue Subway station in Brooklyn, texting locational details to a journalist who had been there to see him. Donning a weather-appropriate outfit for what had been the hottest day in recorded history—white tee, shorts—with a camouflage “redneck” baseball cap for ironic effect, he puffed on a joint en route to a modest pizza haunt, holding court over a leaky water bottle whilst walking the journalist through his project’s odd mythos. “The way I imagine the ‘scene,’ or what’s interesting about it, is that it’s kind of this field on which this class antagonism plays out,” he said, as if he’d rehearsed. “It wouldn’t be interesting if it wasn’t for the chaos. There’s a lot of people watching that are interested in it, and they’re watching for the antagonism. No one gives a shit about people just gassing their idiot friends up.”
More or less, and especially as of late, documenting the antagonism has come with the price tag of being an antagonist. In a lengthy recent Crumpstack essay, Crumplar recounted a sitcom-ready series of events that spawned from the dilemma of wanting to attend (and write about) a production he was very specifically not invited to. Ultimately, he was only allowed entry when he permitted the actress Dasha Nekrasova—among his most bitter enemies—to slap him across the face in public. For all the humiliation it cost him (the video also found its way to Twitter), it was only through the ritual that he was able to report on an unsettling “reading” that featured, among other things, thinly-veiled racism and anti-trans rhetoric, for a world of curious readers who hadn’t been invited either because they weren’t in on the joke, or they were bound to be just as critical as he was.
The slap is something that confuses Crumplar to this day. For one, it could very literally have been the work of someone so angry at him that she could only gain closure via physical vengeance. But on the other hand, it could also have been as tactical and light-hearted as it seemed on video: many times, when Crumplar is expressly discouraged from attending or writing about something, there exists the implicit suggestion that he should. (In an early post, after being explicitly warned not to write one of his “gay little stories” about an event hosted by the podcaster Walter Pearce, he was approached by Honor Levy, who informed him that Pearce’s camp “actually wanted me to write something after all.”) “They definitely have an opinion, and they’re definitely trying to play along,” Crumplar said. “They know that the audience of people that they want to come to these readings, and hang out at their functions, reads this stuff, and that I’m taken seriously by them. Which is not going to change if they kick me out.
“It’s really funny, because at first, people were like, ‘you’re going to get iced out of this whole club, and you’re not going to get the story anymore,’” he continued. “‘If they hate you so much, then why are you allowed in?’ Well: it’s kind of because my individual project is bigger than any of these single events.”
When he met the journalist that Thursday, the most recent addition to Crumplar’s Substack had been a play-by-play retelling of his semi-transactional relationship with the actress Caroline Calloway, who took a liking to his work after reading his Dimes Square review last year, and asked to become friends via an Instagram DM. Much of Crumplar’s New York City lore hinges on being co-signed, or otherwise publicized, by the very types of people he scathingly criticizes: it-girls, podcasters, blogosphere rivals, actors (literal and figurative). Interestingly enough, as much as his work often seems to be a slapstick denunciation of corny “characters” and art that’s primarily interesting for its shock value, his existence in downtown’s universe relies, in some sense, on silhouettes of these very linchpins. One of the first few things to pop up when you Google him is a Know Your Meme page; in his writing, much like his “gonzo” journalism predecessors, he often lets off lengthy, nihilistic spiels that feel half-Gawker-nightlife-column and half-American-Psycho. “We end up talking about how sick it would be if someone actually did blow up Beckett’s, even if we were both to die in the blast,” he wrote in a controversial semi-fictional essay published this past spring. “We imagine the West Village bourgeoisie clucking away as they gobble up their exquisite dinners outside at the fancy restaurant next door, and having the debris rain down on them: Beckett’s severed wrist with his Rolex watch, Christian Lorentzen’s cirrhotic liver, assorted limbs to be identified by their stick-and-poke tattoos, dozens of shriveled useless penises, Hestia cigarettes, issues of The Mars Review of Books…” (“Mike Crumplar @mcrumps high key has school shooter vibes,” a concerned tweeter wrote shortly thereafter. “Mf hangs out w these ppl every week then writes — this? Dude goes to parties acts normal doesn’t say much listens to people talk says ‘haha idk yeah’ then writes long ass posts fantasizing about killing them.” “That’s why it rules,” Crumplar responded in a quote-tweet.)
As Calloway would go on to tell Crumplar in a lengthy text exchange, the Dimes Square review had been among few things to make her feel like she was back in New York, despite a lengthy mental and physical absence. His writing’s ability to produce similar effects, especially in his earliest engagements with downtown, quickly catapulted him into a strange air of old-school critic notoriety: people began inviting him to their events in hopes that he’d write about them, beefed with him when he proved to be critical (as they likely suspected would be the case), brought him more clout in doing so, and thus kick-started the cycle anew. When Crumplar wrote the 2022 essay that earned him a hefty chunk of his audience, he was fresh off a scathing review of the independent film Actors. Conceived by the actress Betsey Brown, and her brother, the director Peter Vack, it’s a controversial project, strung along a familiar tightrope between perceivably good intentions and glaringly ill-advised execution. The movie centers around a pair of show-business siblings, portrayed by Brown and Vack, who undergo drastic physical transformations in hopes of remaining relevant: Vack’s character transitioning from male to female, and Brown’s character rushing into a hasty pregnancy with her boyfriend. While Brown quickly grows uninterested in her child, Vack’s transition results in newfound celebrity and an influx of acting roles—that is, until fans begin to catch on to the strategy at hand, and force Vack to take hormones on-camera for proof of authenticity. A resolution to the characters’ film-long feud comes by way of a violent attack.
“Not only was I an ideological enemy, but I was the actual person responsible for undermining their enjoyment of this strange ‘art,’ the real human embodiment of cancel culture.”
In interviews and online, Vack and Brown have maintained that Actors is primarily about acting and sibling rivalry. But to Crumplar, and to a larger community of people who saw it more critically, the film is glaringly anti-trans—in a way that overshadows any commentary on siblings, rivalries, or cinema. Crumplar’s review was complicated by a number of factors. On one hand, he was under a certain level of pressure to assess the movie on its own terms: invited to a screening by the Ion Pack, a pair of scene-adjacent podcasters who had strong connections in New York City’s underground film circuit, it represented his first taste of being a guest to Dimes Square’s artistic enclaves, rather than an infiltrator. After the screening ended, he was approached by a friendly Vack and Brown, who seemed intent on swaying him towards the interpretation they’d intended. It was a standoffish encounter that spilled into the piece Crumplar wound up publishing—prolonged by a confusing writing process, and stuck, somewhat, between giving the movie credit, and calling it out for its transgressions. “At least I don’t have to keep straining my eyes to see it as an innocent commentary on bourgeois careerist striving, which I spent many hours and thousands of words trying to do,” he wrote in a closing paragraph that felt more like he was throwing up his hands. “Either way, it all comes to the same result: the audience that was at the Roxy Cinema that night and however many future nights will eat this shit up no matter what clever rationalizations anyone offers. And no matter what I say, it’ll still be wildly offensive to trans people.”
A few months after the review was published, Crumplar was invited by Vack to play a role in his next film, advertised on Instagram as a “TWO-DAY FILMED PARTY” starring “THE ION PACK, BETSEY BROWN, CHLOE CHERRY, DASHA NEKRASOVA, YOU.” The new movie’s function, more or less, centered on what was meant to be an IRL manifestation of hyperactive online message boards: “special guests” (including Crumplar) were packed into the audience section of Manhattan’s Daryl Roth Theatre to play the collective role of “Elite Trolls,” chipping away at an unhinged discussion that blurred URL-IRL boundary lines. In a prompt he received prior to his call time, Crumplar was told that for his role in particular, he’d have to “explain what you mean when you call things, particularly art, fascist in 60 seconds or less—in a way that would make sense to a person who doesn’t have an MFA.” Upon entry, he was told that the film would be starting with him.
And start with him, it did. Seated by directors at the very center of the audience, Crumplar was immediately asked by Vack—who stood on a well-lit stage below, Brown and their parents looking on from a few feet behind him—to explain to the audience what fascism was. He gave the lengthy, half-memorized spiel he’d prepared; it was met with expected responses from the message-board-qua-crowd: “edgelord vulgarities (…), slurs, proclamations about how circumcision is worse than abortion, Holocaust jokes.” But hours later, long after this scene had ended, intermission came and went, and Crumplar was under the impression that his acting work was done, Vack took another moment to address him directly. “Peter demanded that I explain to the whole crowd the review I wrote of Actors,” Crumplar wrote in a sweeping, nearly 8,000-word Substack debrief of the night’s events. “He asked why I wrote such a negative review after saying that I ‘liked’ the movie when they first cornered me at the Roxy, and why I described his part as a ‘Sam Hydean minstrel show caricature.’ I was amused by the idea of that line echoing in his head for months. He asked why I said that the movie is transphobic when it really wasn’t. His tone took on a condescension that was far more personal than before.”
(Very) long story short, after Vack invited Brown to tell Crumplar and the audience how she’d felt—betrayed, offended, upset that the Substack review had allegedly caused the Roxy Theater to cancel the film’s screenings—the production festered into a sort of curated melee, audience members and actors alike heaping frenetic insults and criticisms onto the confused critic at the (literal) center of it all. “Not only was I an ideological enemy,” he wrote, “but I was the actual person responsible for undermining their enjoyment of this strange ‘art,’ the real human embodiment of cancel culture.” Intent on denying his enemies the satisfaction of watching him storm out early, he stayed put until the very end, by which point the filming had taken a radical shift in tone. At some juncture, Honor Levy, a scene-adjacent writer, admitted through tears that Crumplar’s pride in his work made her realize that she didn’t feel the same way about her own—fueling a complete 180 from humiliation ritual to kumbaya session, buoyed by discourse about “speaking our true feelings” and “healing.”
Outside, debriefing the event alongside Nekrasova, Levy and friends, Crumplar said, to laughter, that the review he was set to write would be bigger than the film itself. “I have the most absolutely next level insane story to tell about filming this peter vack movie lol,” he wrote in a vague tweet. “They’ll never believe you,” Nekrasova replied.
“But then, you have these fascists who are controlling the narrative and not really doing a good job of it. And you can meet them on their grounds, and completely dominate them.”
The people did wind up believing him—his lengthy recap, titled “My Own Dimes Square Fascist Humiliation Ritual,” somewhat catapulted him from niche New York City blogger to trusted, semi-renowned cultural critic—but in the grander scope of his work, there remains a stringent population of New Yorkers intent on not drinking the Kool-Aid. The entire premise of Crumplar’s “New York era,” from two years ago to present day, has been a search for art as transgressive as it claims to be. It’s what led him to Gasda’s theater in the first place: eager to probe a scene with artistic merits he’d been skeptical of, he pounced on the first thing he could find, kick-starting a head-first nosedive into the strange rabbit-hole he’s been plummeting into for what will soon be three years. “I didn’t know anything about what he wrote,” Gasda said of the Dimes Square review and its aftermath. “But as he wrote other things, I started to realize (A) that he was really good at taking bullets, clever, naive, and (B) that his work was part of a broader creative arc.” That arc, for Crumplar, is insistent on using downtown’s art in all its forms—movies, podcasts, parties, readings, offhand conversations, tweets—to leverage a living exposé on the various things that make it somewhat dystopian. But as the project’s long game trudges along, and doubters abound, it feels more and more like the clock is ticking.
“They do have a kind of grip over things,” Tai Lee, a frequent collaborator and close friend of Crumplar’s, said of Dimes Square’s creative vanguard one Tuesday evening in the outdoor seating section of a Brooklyn bar. “But it’s not set in stone, and they’re not good enough artists to actually have total control of the narrative. There’s such mediocrity. With all this cultural visibility, and all these eyes on it—so there’s a lot of cultural currency in it—anyone who is attracted to that scene is attracted for those reasons. Sure: it’s downtown New York, and finally people are talking about it again, which was not the case for a long time. But then, you have these fascists who are controlling the narrative and not really doing a good job of it. And you can meet them on their grounds, and completely dominate them.”
“They’re obscuring the real social antagonisms that are part of this American culture right now—which is this right-wing fascism. They’re advancing that ideologically, but they’re also mystifying it constantly.”
Perhaps it’s what makes Crumplar so maddening, and so frustrating, to the circle of downtown New Yorkers he studies. For one, he very much shouldn’t be a threat on paper—if anything, it makes far more sense for him to be one of them. He’s a white man from Virginia whose parents have a military background; like many Dimes Square pundits, he just moved here less than five years ago; ever the familiar trope, he’s another guy with a Substack channel, perusing his new surroundings for an audience that pales in comparison to those of the national magazines forever willing to grant the scene flattering press. In many of the encounters mythologized in the Crumpstack, including Vack’s movie filming, it seems like the characters he confronts are intent on making him believe that he’s on their side. Directly following the “humiliation ritual,” for instance, was an approach by Vack: “Peter came up to me and said I did a good job,” Crumplar wrote, “as if everything that had happened was perfectly normal.” In a larger sense, there’s also the complicated gesture of his continually being summoned to the events, screenings, readings, and parties he publicly condemns. Crumplar is a critic, and his stance is widely known. But inviting him in the first place hinges, ostensibly, on a two-pronged game: there’s the impulse to be mythologized in his writing, but also the implicit hope to demonstrate that one is in on the joke, that the Substack, the accusations of fascism, the critiques, the reviews, are all part of one long-running gag that everyone gets, and everyone is collectively not taking seriously. “They’re trying to constantly obscure themselves,” Lee said. “They’re obscuring the real social antagonisms that are part of this American culture right now—which is this right-wing fascism. They’re advancing that ideologically, but they’re also mystifying it constantly.”
In the Crumpstack essay that features the famed slap from Nekrasova, it feels, at certain points, like the fascism Crumplar and Lee each reference is playing out in real time. Upon being admitted entry, Crumplar finds himself among giddy revelers who laugh at poetry and prose—delivered by headliners including Nekrasova’s boyfriend, Matthew Davis, and the popular-albeit-mysterious writer Delicious Tacos—that come off as hilariously edgy to the vast majority present, but wildly offensive to a minority sect that he himself is part of. Interestingly enough, it appears that every time someone in the audience speaks out against something they feel is unacceptable, they are forcibly either silenced or removed. Midway through Davis’s segment, Alice and JM, a leftist duo Crumplar and Lee meet prior to showtime, work in tandem to loft an ambitious protest: “Alice throws her drink cup at Matthew and starts shouting about how this whole thing is fascist, racist, sexist, antisemitic, whatever, it’s a fucking joke and fuck all you here supporting this fascist shit, and so on, it’s this pure unhinged spontaneous outburst,” Crumplar recounted. After a “who the fuck let you people in” from Nekrasova, the offenders are promptly handled: “Alice and JM are forcefully dragged out of the place as Dasha and some others shout classist and ableist things at them, stuff about how they’re disgusting smelly schizo homeless sex worker freaks, and so on, maybe with some more slurs that I can’t remember now.” There’s also a pair of visitors from Montreal, who are confused about (1) why the New York City poetry reading they were invited to has instead become a hotbed of thinly-veiled hatred, and (2) how people are able to sit there, smiling and laughing. Fully on-brand, Crumplar explains to them that, at least for himself and Lee, tolerating it is part of a longer critical mission. You get the sense that the visitors are too taken aback to believe it.
“But the thing is, everybody, all these people—they’re all clout-chasing all the time. Why even think about it? I don’t give a shit. That’s not actually the problem. It’s the least of the problems.”
Somewhere in that piece, when Nekrasova offers a tongue-in-cheek apology for slapping him, Crumplar mentions that he and Lee like violence, too: “we’re all trying to make art that kills.” It’s a small-albeit-central motif to Crumplar’s work—in an operation that thrives on distinguishing art that means something from art that doesn’t, the violent undertones of “killing” are central to both his dramatic literary approach, and the dark downtown underbelly that demands it. The long-term battle is one rife with play-it-safe proxy meanings and the murderous ones that lay beneath them—like the sibling-rivalry cover-up for anti-transness in Actors, or the all-in-good-fun positionality of downtown figures who hope, perhaps, that Crumplar may one day believe himself to be among their own, that his work may be a friendly running joke after all. “I feel like a lot of people expect all this shame about clout-chasing,” he told the journalist outside the pizza shop, running down another surface-level crime often cited in avoidance of deeper analysis. “But the thing is, everybody, all these people—they’re all clout-chasing all the time. Why even think about it? I don’t give a shit. That’s not actually the problem. It’s the least of the problems. It’s the most banal part of it. A lot of people think of the clout-chasing as such a damning thing. No, it’s not that. It’s more the other hateful, stupid things that are products of the fucked-up world we’re living in.”
And in that fucked-up world, it seems increasingly necessary to either accept things for what they are, or stand up for what one believes they should be. A large part of why Crumplar’s work is so disliked within the scene is that, as was apparent in the Vack filming, he had been a living embodiment of “cancel culture”: a professional pessimist, or perhaps a troll, who found that he couldn’t be one of the cool kids, and thus opted to shit on everything the cool kids were doing. But much like the thing people call cancel culture in real life, a lot of his work appears less concerned with putting a certain group down, and more concerned with pulling certain groups up—especially when their identities are being exploited by people with far more of a share in the spotlight. “I am going to take you at your word for what you’re doing,” Lee said outside the bar, squinting behind a set of fashionable sunglasses. “That’s the funny thing about Actors. I was at a party the other night, talking to people who were more sympathetic to the film. It’s a film made by cis people about transitioning. That’s obviously a bold thing to do. That’s like if a white person were to say I’m going to make a film about black politics. That’s fucking bold, and it has to be taken on those grounds. You can’t try to separate it, because obviously this artist is trying to say something about this thing that they’re not a part of.
“In order to actually respect the work, you have to deal with it honestly,” she continued, after a brief interruption by a loud motorcycle. “Hilariously, the artists themselves can’t even say it with their whole chests and be about what they made. They’re like, that’s actually not what it’s about. But it literally is. Whether you want to admit it or not. It actually just reveals your lack of integrity. And I’m going to call it out.”
As far as integrity goes, both in-person and in his work, Crumplar tends to err heavily on the side of self-criticism. Oftentimes in the Crumpstack, he ventures to interrupt lofty anti-scene accusations with rundowns of the ways he, too, may be complicit—bourgeoisie background, bourgeoisie ambitions, bourgeoisie privilege, bourgeoisie project. “Basically, the story is me telling my perspective as this one character,” he said at the pizza shop, “who also is kind of just a product of society, and a fucker in various ways… which is also how I navigate this world as ‘part’ of these people.” Crumplar’s self-awareness seems, in part, like a gesture towards credibility—a claim to perfection would make accusing people of fascism far more difficult than it already is—but also, perhaps, an attempt to lighten the critical blow. His accusations are sharp and scathing, but especially in comparison to his earlier New York writing, it feels now like he’s less of a gunslinger eager to shoot down all scenester-borne art, and more of a flawed narrator trying to get to the bottom of something larger than his wit. Though he’s still a villain, you get the sense that being a villain isn’t as important to him as sticking to his guns: whether they make him hated or loved by his subjects and readers.
“I know it’s going to piss some people off, but it’s not because I’m trying to troll. It’s because I think the shit sucks and people should know. That’s what being a ‘critic’ is. And I think a lot of critics are scared to do that.”
As of today, in an internet landscape replete with space for contention—not only in New York—Crumplar’s brand of stringent honesty, often at the cost of enemy-making, is something of a less-taken path. One recent Thursday night in Brooklyn, Lee was DJing in a chatty bar, surrounded by revelers who bopped their heads to bubbly alt-rock earworms and reggae staples. Among these revelers was Eli Schoop, a friend of both Lee and Crumplar, and someone notorious within the city’s art-critic Twittersphere for his pessimistic tendencies. Schoop, who runs a Substack channel called “Constantly Hating,” often draws controversy for less-favorable takes on popular artists; this past spring, he ruffled feathers with a scathing review of the rock supergroup Boygenius’ album The Record. “I know it’s going to piss some people off,” he said of his work in the bar’s dusky outdoor seating section. “But it’s not because I’m trying to troll. It’s because I think the shit sucks and people should know. That’s what being a ‘critic’ is. And I think a lot of critics are scared to do that.”
In the music-criticism world Schoop occupies, an oft-consulted (and perhaps overused) term for the trope he denigrates is “poptimism”: originally denoting the belief that pop music is worthy of criticism, but since going on to imply that pop music is primarily worthy of positive criticism—even when it may not necessarily deserve it. In some sense, the sentiment echoes ones wielded by the figures, and the larger scene, Crumplar’s work finds itself positioned against. “Poptimism,” in the war for downtown, exists in the belief that art should be anything—debated, understood, cheered, scathed, laughed at, taken seriously—but dismissed. Crumplar’s project insists on the notion that some art, especially when it dismisses certain people, is indeed worthy of dismissal. But in the grander scheme of things, even alongside the looming question of fascism, there seems to lie a more enduring question of what art is, who has the right to wield it, and for what purposes wielding it is justifiable.
For a long time, Crumplar’s Twitter bio-of-choice has been “text artist.” “I’m just trying to make art,” he said at the pizza shop. “Both in the sense that it’s literally the material of writing, but also in the sense that I’m trying to make a text that can be analyzed. What I’m producing is just another text within this waterfall of text.” An interesting facet of Crumplar’s mythos is that, both in speaking about himself and acting like himself, he’s hesitant to draw much attention. “I never argue with these people because it’s usually not as fun as just listening to them talk,” he admitted in an early Crumpstack essay, “and it typically means outing my own antagonistic literary intentions.” At Gasda’s play, an actress who caught wind of the interview stopped by to offer a hasty take: “I’ve met the man barely once. Everybody I know knows him… I know that he exists, and someone introduced me once after a play we did. Other than that, no fucking idea. But I like his writing.” As larger-than-life as his writing is—and as larger-than-life as appears in it—it’s consistent, oddly, in its impulse to prioritize art and the search for it over real-life self-mythologizing. Crumplar criticizes clout-chasers, and in some ways he’s guilty of their sins, but he seems mostly content with his project materially succeeding, even if he’s in no rush to make himself nearly as known.
Perhaps all of the characters comprising downtown’s death throes are bound to adhere to similar less-fame-more-action formulas. Overpopulated for as long as anyone can remember, and not growing any more real estate soon, the city is packed to capacity with people, Substacks, stories, and needs. High-up among these needs is community—and whether one sides with Crumplar’s camp, or the Dimes Square milieu it criticizes, seeking it out isn’t necessarily the most criminal thing. “It could be fundamentally conservative, but people are really just trying to hang out,” Schoop said of the downtown scene, with a shrug. “A lot of it is honestly pretty milquetoast.” In a New York City social history packed with wildly different “scenes” (of wildly different levels of notoriety), today’s Lower Manhattan, for all its disparities, is nothing unlike the generations of 20-somethings who found ways to hang out before it. The main difference, perhaps, is an internet upon which these social wars can play out; even with that, there exists a familiar need to bridge gaps—online-to-reality, person-to-person, idea-to-idea. If the strange discourse surrounding New York’s cross-cultural moment is proof of anything, it’s that much of this transition is still awkward. In one of the “Dimes Square Fascist Humiliation Ritual” essay’s most painfully modern moments, Crumplar makes mention of a heckler strongly committed to the bit. “Someone behind me derisively said, ‘it’s so easy to be a ‘keyboard warrior,’” he recounts. “…as if I hadn’t shown up willingly to this public shaming.”
“We decided to take the valid critique to heart. No: we’re not just going to be talking about New York… let’s see it all.”
For Crumplar and Lee, the next step in lugging their online praxis into real-life streets is an ambitious cross-country road trip, slated to begin two days after Lee’s DJ set. Nothing is really set in stone besides the vehicle they’re driving in (Crumplar’s car), and the fact that they intend to document as much as they can of the trip in writing. Still to be figured out is where they’re going to be sleeping every night. “You get criticisms from everywhere, and some of them are valuable and some of them are not,” Lee said of the decision. “A common criticism from the people I value has been, Well, you don’t want to be too chained to this reactionary group downtown. Mike and myself have always thought that yes, we’re critiquing these people, but we’re also talking about larger social antagonisms. But also, at the same time, that critique is still a good one. We decided to take the valid critique to heart. No: we’re not just going to be talking about New York… let’s see it all.”
The decision gestures towards the fact that, although New York happens to be the locational center of their project, the issues they’re engaging with extend far beyond its spotlit confines. A road trip may not even scratch the surface—and neither will self-hatred or an addiction to the opinions of others. Back at Gasda’s Ardor showing, the flustered theater director’s mini-spiel earns a knowing chuckle from the audience, who all seem to either understand where he’s coming from, pity him, or some combination of both. Like many of the Dimes Square pundits Crumplar mythologizes, this particular character is an underground up-and-comer so focused on “art,” and detached from reality, that as his work suffers, so does his ability to be a real person. A few feet away from him, his icy critic, seated at the chessboard, is functionally the same archetype on a different side of the dispute: he, too, is as disconnected, unreal, and boring as his work, but far too locked away to realize it, let alone admit it to himself. It’s funny to watch the two bicker with one another, because in a way, their lack of self-awareness is exactly what (1) fuels any of this in the first place, and (2) makes them resolute enough to keep talking in circles, unaware that they aren’t going anywhere. When all is said and done, they’re actors on a stage: addicted to their fellow-actors’ opinions, trapped in a scene, and barred from reality until that scene—like all scenes—ends.