The New York art world of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s has become, like the nightclub scene of 1920s and 1930s Berlin, an era legendary for its youthful exuberance, artistic innovation, libertine behavior, and unrestrained weirdness and decadence.
This was when starving artists could still afford to live in Soho and the Village, and devote their lives to creating strange, conceptual work. The hip downtown art world in New York came to prominence via the influential work of Andy Warhol. He became a God to all those aspiring artists rushing to NYC back in the day, and his "Factory" studio nurtured the talents of many of these artists. Of course, when they weren't making weird art, they were doing lots of drugs and having all sorts of exotic sex. Their lives became, in some cases, more interesting than their art.
By the 1980s, the downtown art world had become more popular and wild than ever but it was really the end of this era. Warhol died in 1987 and the gentrification of the 1990s made downtown Manhattan way too expensive for starving artists. By the year 2000, Soho and the Village were playgrounds for the rich, and aspiring artists were exiled to Brooklyn and Queens -- or out of the city altogether.
This world still exists today, however, in the movies. If you're interested, not only in the New York art scene of Andy Warhol and his protegees, but also in kind of New York that doesn't exist anymore, you should check out the following films:
I Shot Andy Warhol: Valerie Solanos was an aspiring writer who became obsessed with Andy Warhol and hoped she'd produce a play she wrote. When he and his Factory cohorts ostracized her, Solanos actually shot him (as the title suggests) and ended up in an asylum. This 1996 movie stars Lilly Taylor as Valerie Solanos and really takes you into the heart of the New York art scene at its zenith.
Factory Girl: this 2006 movie stars Sienna Miller and Hayden Christensen (he of Star Wars) about Edie Sedgwick, who was a hanger-on in Andy Warhol's Factory and who met a tragic end.
Basquiat: this 1996 movie stars Jeffrey Wright as the artist Jean Michel Basquiat who became The Artist in 1980s Manhattan but then OD'd in 1988 at the age of 27.
Slaves of New York: Based on the stories of Tama Janowitz, this 1989 movie stars Bernadette Peters as Eleanor who lives with her miserable superstar artist boyfriend Stash in the East Village. Eleanor is Stash's "slave", meaning she can't afford NOT to live with him and thus he can treat her however he wants. Eleanor is an aspiring artist herself (she makes weird hats) and, through her art, is trying to find her happiness and freedom from Stash. Slaves of New York is, believe it or not, a Merchant-Ivory movie that was a big departure from their English costume dramas. As the clip above shows, its a long way from the likes E.M Forster.