Art in The Cultural Revolution
"Ad hoc, ad hoc
And quid pro quo.
So little time
So much to know." (Jeremy Hilary Boob Phud, P.H.D.)
"Re's a nobody." (John)
"He's a real nowhere man." (George) '"He's a (daffy old creep." (Paul)
"Show him our motor," suggested Ringo.
...Zip, zap--he touched something. The motor began to putt, putt, putt-ka-putt-mop, mop'.
"Go, motor, go"
He handed it back to Paul. "I think he's fixed it!"
(Yellow Submarine, c. 1968 by King Features Syndicate)
In the last fifteen years there has risen, rolling through the Sea of Time, a huge wave of cultural revolution. Some of us ride clean, fast and free on the break, or scuba dive with scholarship. Some bob, tumbling in the instant foam. Some sink silently, time-logged, recaptured by the past or swamped by the future and our own histories or plans. The current of change affects all of us as it courses simultaneously but with different intensities through the varied deeps of our cultural life; and it flows through all of the arts, "fine" and otherwise--folk, industrial, commercial, arcane or popular. For those whose lives are involved with art in this cultural revolution--whether as bountiful psychedelic surf-riders or as Po' boys descending into a maelstrom, it might be difficult to understand why some seeker after knowledge should want to spend any of his so little time with comparisons and analyses, trying to touch on something rather than just grooving along with everyone else. But sometimes in crisis situations it is good to have a Boob on board. After all, he did fix the motor.
The best approach to instant history may well be that of the enlightened archaeologist or hip art historian. For the cultural critic and analyst a key axiom, even in our present "post-historical" time, is that shifts in thought and action in all areas of human endeavor--politics and economics, communications,and social psychology, philosophy and religion--are exemplified, documented, illuminated and frequently prefigured by changes in the arts. And within this realm of esthetic activity, the last decade and a half is revolutionary because its crucial transformations inescapably involve genuinely radical issues: what art is, who makes it and why, how it functions, and what it means.
Let us consider the conventional approach to the arts by the average guy, the almost mythical man-in-thestreet: someone like Nelson Rockefeller. True, he is Governor of the State of New York and belongs to one of the super-rich established families--that is to the 1.6% of the population which controls over 30% of our nation's wealth. This enables him to draw upon considerably greater financial resources for enjoying art than you or I might command. And the esthetic fancies he indulges are sometimes correspondingly exquisite. But the attitude toward art his acquisitive taste manifests is ultimately as common as taste for drive-in-movies as entertainment, life insurance as security or schlock food as cuisine. In treating art as another consumer commodity good for decoration and whatever second-hand joys it might provide in the bargain, Nelson Rockefeller betrays the basic responses of fragmented Western civilization as clearly epitomized by its leading public figures from Roman Caesars and despotic Italian princes to phenomenon of the U.S.: Success.
This last summer Rockefeller had parts of his vast collection of fine art objects displayed in three different New York museums. Over ten percent of his 1500-odd modern paintings and sculptures were shown at the Museum of Modern Art. Yet it is certainly not, as an awed Time Magazine (May 16, 1969) writer opined, "almost impossible to assess such an exhibition." The lack of a Pollock, for example, says more about Rockefeller's stubborn individuality of taste than for his intimate sympathy with crucial historical developments in modern painting. The recent acquisitions of sculptures by David Smith, Louise Nevelson and Clement Meadmore--characterized by the New York Times Magazine (May 18, 1969) "as attempts to put an up-to-the-minute face on the collection in time for its Modern showing"--are really about faces. Artists Judd, Flavin, Morris, Oldenburg and Stella are hardly "the young Turks of the movement." They are old masters. And there is no "movement" anyway.
There has not been any movement in modern or "contemporary" painting (whatever the hell those terms stand for--I mean in the most important sense if it's available, no matter when it was executed, isn't a painting contemporary?) since Abstract Expressionism of the early 1950s. Maybe they represent what was the last movement in art history--at least in so far as that the term has been applied by cliché-structured accounts to the history of art in the first half of our present century. Abstract Expressionism, like German Expressionism, Cubism, Dadaism or Surrealism before it, at least initially, was strongly focused in terms of time and place. It is Friday night in New York. The scene is the Waldorf Cafeteria or the Cedar St. Tavern. Later you go to the Club. The medium is booze. Everyone is there and you all know each other, and usually each other's wives. You talk about your art... seriously (seriously!). That is a movement. And it shows in the work of any one artist in relation to that of another. It is more than the art, it is an artist's world--there is a book about the AE scene with this title by Fred W. McDarrah. But now we have rediscovered that the whole world is art and everyone is an artist, so how can there by any more movements?
The other two public exhibitions of the Rockefeller art largesse--apart from the Modern--precisely and ironically demonstrated this rediscovery by articulating the relatively recent exploding of our European-grounded, strait-jacketed and self-satisfied esthetic preconceptions. At the Museum of Primitive Art were Rocky's holdings of Mexican toys and folk art. But as Alfred Frankenstein suggested in the San Francisco Chronicle perhaps wryly and with a twist of wistfulness, one could hardly imagine the Governor wandering through a Mexican market place finding himself drawn to a brightly-colored humble work made out of wood and love. He buys art at an abstract remove, in lots, by checks in the margins of catalogs. "I just check what I want," Rockefeller explained candidly. And just what is it the archetypal American wants? In Key Largo, Edward G. Robinson as Johnny Rocco gave the classic one word answer, "More!"
Like TV gobbles talent, like napalm demolishes rice, our cancerous Western so-called civilization has just about stamped out all those other cultures which created the exhilarating Rockefeller-checked art and artifacts displayed throughout vast areas of the Metropolitan Museum. A few of these primitive cultures still survive--in marginal areas and in naive or desperate postures of self-preservation. Art helps to document certain fundamental achievements by these non-Western peoples which our own science and technology, and all our highly literate, super-structured institutions have so catastrophically failed to provide; a total social fabric that really works for human beings. If there is one message here it is that perhaps we might have something to learn from the art and life of such cultures before we inexorably destroy both them and ourselves.
Not that we can ever quite go back to being Noble Savages. But we are still human beings. Biologically we are perhaps identical to human beings of 50,000 years ago; one of the cave artists from Altamira could be an astronaut as easily as the other way around. Culturally we are not all that far removed from those values shared by most people throughout the world for thousands of years before the invention of writing and the idea of history, before the rise of the modern religious/political state with its fragmentation of the sense that all the earth is sacred, and that mankind is one and belongs together with the earth. The question now is simply whether or not we can utilize the amazing resources and efficiencies developed by some 5,000 years of art, science, technology and social organization in order to, first, avoid global suicide, and then to make life freer and more beautiful.
This is certainly a radical, and quite possibly a revolutionary task. Yet it is one toward which particularly the young and enlightened people have been turning in exponentially growing numbers and with accelerating intensity. Some of the new cultural heroes like Tim Leary or Jerry Rubin (above) might see the revolution as already won--either because we are having more fun than anyone in the repressive reactionary establishment, or for the very reason that none of them even knows what the revolution is about. Others like Norman O. Brown anticipate the Apocalypse, the revolution notwithstanding. At issue is the life or death of the planet. The results are up for grabs; and the odds most of us would offer probably depend less upon philosophies than upon whether we happen to be getting stoned or reading the morning newspaper. Whatever the outcome toward which we may incline, it should be clear that both key ideas--a confrontation with the real possibilities for the total destruction of the earth, and the post-historical mentality which envisages a global retribalization of mankind with a reaffirmation of ancient, persistent human values--have contributed to a new and radical cultural orientation of our own. As in the study of primitive societies, here again with our own time it is the arts that provide the most accurate and expressive source of data for our understanding of these revolutionary phenomena and their implications for our future.
Not only is there an entirely new pantheon of master artists; the ideas of both artist and master have lost much of their previous meaning. All masters are old masters. For too long the idea of master has been associated with realities of conquest and slavery. The newly prevailing theme accompanying our expanded conception of esthetic freedom is "anyone can do it." This minimizes all the artificial values placed upon the master of technique in itself--and it overthrows the notion that a work of art might possess quality simply because it was difficult or tricky to execute. Even more threatening to arty conservatists is the challenge that "anyone can do it" throws up against the precious ego-trips of the past. The artist is a special person--sure, everyone is a special person. Making a work of art is not necessarily painful or arduous--it can also be free, joyful and easy. Everyone is an artist. The question of esthetic validity is here divorced from that of esthetic quality: anything is possible, i.e. anything can be thought of as art. The key to artistic creativity is choice--but one's choice alone, just because it is his choice, can never make it good, powerful or popular as art.
Of course, some are better at the game than others. Replacing the concept of the "master," who possessed his talents and techniques as scarcity commodities, is the new ideal of the guru/teacher-leader and culture hero. There is no ownership of ideas and no secrecy surrounding method.
Andy Warhol blew the mind of the mass man in the early 1960s when he subterfuged the art of oil painting and its required technical finesse by almost singlehandedly resurrecting the medium of the silk screen. Moreover, he used photographs as sources of visual images--he didn't even do the drawing! Anyone could do it. And they did. Instead of the secret, isolated artist's garret studio, Warhol worked in the Silver Dream Factory like a spaced-out Grand Central Station. Signatures on the silk-screened editions of paintings all said Andy, but they could be from the hand of anyone who walked in. This constituted a frontal attack on the formerly sacrosanct Romantic assumptions of artistic uniqueness, originality and personality. None of this has anything yet to do with Warhol's use of pop imagery, nor with his widespread publicity/notoriety, nor with his contributions to other media such as the cinema, sculpture, rock music and the total environment. Through the 1960s Warhol's stature has grown to where he must now be acknowledged unquestionably as one of the major figures of contemporary art--master, guru, put—on, shaman or what you will.
The problem with attempting to assemble even a cursory list of, say, the top fifteen painters of the last fifteen years is that so many of the first-rate artists work in so many different media. Some insight into this development is provided by the straight-on comments of students at colleges and art schools across the country. Many of those whose counterparts might have been painters, ten or twelve years ago today talk about making movies. And with relatively high quality and inexpensive super-8 equipment now they can. Another even more central and current ideal is that of the rock singer. One staff psychiatrist at UCLA has compared the fantasy roles envisaged by students who belong to an eerie group known as border-line psychotics; whereas several years ago many of them would have been on the verge of writing that eternally-promised Great American Novel, now they see themselves as Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix or James Brown. Some even get to the point of writing down notes for that Great Potential Smash Hit--by groups that never quite get together--and their guitars are the crosses they bear.
Yet the truth remains that the popular music industry does offer kids the most promising and realistic opportunities for making it big--if that is what he wants. Elvis Presley was nineteen years old when he signed with RCA Victor toward the end of 1955. The first tune he recorded for them in Nashville was "Heartbreak Hotel," which, had he stopped right there might have provided a good enough model of success for a lot of perfectly sane kids. Presley followed up with hit after hit: "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You," "Don't Be Cruel," "Hound Dog," "Tutti Frutti," "Blue Suede Shoes" plus "Love Me Tender," also the title of Presley's first movie. Curiously though, his ambition was to be the movie star--a carry-over cultural aspiration from the 1940s. And of course he made it there too.
The emergence of rock and roll in the mid-1950s marks the inception of the current cultural revolution. It was at once the first truly global art form and the first fully-integrated medium (some earlier jazz excepted). Rock and roll, if it didn't create teenage culture, was in any case its first concrete, widespread historical manifestation. It brought together three basic musical traditions in America: rhythm and blues and the blues heritage, country and western, and the broad pop mainstream. Then it zapped the whole world. Rock, and popular music generally, is the most powerful artistic medium since the end of the Second World War, in America and world-wide. There just aren't very many painters, sculptors, movie makers or what‑ever whose work has had the impact of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, the late Otis Redding, the Rolling Stones or the Beatles--in terms of both historical significance and intrinsic esthetic quality.
The predominance of a musical sensibility suggests an all-around esthetic space. Marshall McLuhan has argued in mosaic detail that the former claims for primacy of the visual arts (especially typography and the medium of the printed word) are now giving way to an instant, total, integrated frame of reference--in art, in communication and in life. This process is certainly substantiated by the development of major visual artists of the 1950s and 1960s. Not that they have become musicians: but Warhol for example did work closely with the Velvet Underground and Nico. The Velvets' recording of "Heroin" from their first album, written by lead guitarist Lew Reed, is one of the all-time heavy turned-on rock tunes of the mid-1960s. Hearing and seeing and feeling the Velvet Underground perform it in the Andy Warhol-produced total environment known as the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, which played in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco in the early part of 1966, was possibly the single most important influence from the so-called fine arts on the evolution of the tribal rock ritual theater/dance. The fine artist who formerly produced "works of art" as object-commodities (whether paintings, pieces of sculpture, tea pots or homes) began to puncture the old paradigm of what constituted "fine art." Historically this shift in the parameters of "Art's" definition was signalled by the non-movement of Pop Art, of which Andy Warhol is widely regarded as either prophet, high priest or prince. The pop art that really began to flower around 1960 means much the same thing for the history of the visual arts as did the rise of rock and roll for the field of popular music. The pattern of their arrivals was quite similar: they swept the popular imagination free of conventional understandings about art and music--and what was acceptable, in good taste or what even qualified as "Art." Almost instantly the mass communications media picked up on these new arts, rock and pop, partially absorbing their content while thoroughly capitalizing upon their newsworthiness. Pop art was international, or supra-national from its inception, just like rock music.
The interesting difference between rock music and pop art is that the revolution in sound preceded the corresponding development in the visual arts by about five years. This might suggest that music is, or was, about five years "ahead of" painting and sculpture. A fairer comparison, however, is between the visual fine arts and contemporary "classical" music, as for example the work of John Cage, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff, Morton Feldman or Lucas Foss. They were all actively composing significant and influential music during the initial years of our revolutionary last decade and a half. Also, they were closely paralleled in time and direction by European composers such as Oliver Messaien, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono or Luciano Berio. Comparable figures in painting perhaps would be Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Both of these artists dramatically broke away from the ego-loaded domain of Abstract Expressionism in the mid-1950s: Johns in his proto-pop art concern with common object imagery (flags, targets, Ballantine Ale cans or flashlights) and Rauschenberg in his "Combines" (mixed media paintings that extended out from the wall and the frame into sculptural dimensions, and then into architectural space, later incorporating other-dimensional levels of experience including rock music from transistor radios). However, these "fine art" media redefinitions revealed themselves only to a limited audience: those who had traditionally represented, or pretended to represent, the culture establishment--the academics and art students, collectors, critics, and cognoscenti, the dealers, the patrons and the hangers-on. The general public did not know nor apparently care to know about this new understanding of what the visual arts could mean until pop reintegrated the studio with the street. And until rock musicians and record producers began to dig the work of electronic composers in the later 1960s there was still only a sparse interest-elite turned on to "classical" music--even though some of the younger figures such as La Monte Young, Terry Riley or Steve Reich issued LPs much further out than any rock album--with a very few exceptions.
Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention supply an excellent example of how the former gap between the fine and the popular fields of musical composition began to be bridged. Zappa, for instance, claims credit for turning on the kids to Stockhausen. As a record producer/creator his genius is matched only by people like the doyen of teenage millionaires, Phil Spector. The Mothers play some of the best current hard-rock (and some of the best jazz!) Also they have incorporated as intrinsic elements of their esthetic mentality many ideas and attitudes of the best "serious" music. Another more obvious example of this same process is the early 1969 double album by the Beatles, with its polymorphous nostalgia. Consider the patchwork quilt of musical references: calypso, Western, '30s show tunes, country-hillbilly, samba, down-home blues, Elizabethan English songs, rhythm and blues, and both hard and soft rock, among others, plus the psychedelic tango of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" or the electronics of "Revolution 9." And after that came the separate electronic music album by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, "Two Virgins."
The heaviest artists of the 1960s--ones for whom comparison with the Beatles or the Mothers (or with a few other top groups) in terms of quality and stature is convincing and fair--tend to be those investigating quite non-traditional kinds of content. Very good painting, even great painting is still of course possible. This can be confirmed by a close look at the exquisite surfaces of Jasper Johns' recent work, (Again, as with Pollack, it is the total work and not necessarily a single "master‑piece" that counts.) Rauschenberg too, is an extraordinarily beautiful painter--and we are reminded of this with frequent surprize as when lovely brushwork appears in the disarming context of his "Carnal Clock" faces. Painting it is, but a long way from the oll-on-canvas-surrounded-by-a-gold-frame-hung-from-an-oatmeel-monkscloth-covered-wall-above-a-marble-floor type that was used to define the boundaries of the medium. That kind of painting no longer interests very many artists of stature who are still creating major work. Rauschenberg's "Carnal Clocks" are something else again: $20,000 finely-engineered working clocks having, instead of moving hands, a system of lights that advance two and a half minute intervals behind the full four foot square plexiglass face on which are silk screen painted close up photographs of assorted genitalia and other fragments of symbolic erotica!
Marcel Duchamp was the prophet from the first half of the twentieth century who inspired the continuing Exodus from the realm of fine arts into the Promised Land (or sometimes Waterless Deserts) of Real Life. A latter-day host of younger artists rediscovered Duchamp and were deeply influenced by his art and his ideas, particularly after the was first major retrospective accorded him in America, organized by Walter Hopps at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1963. Duchamp's "Large Glass," left "definitively unfinished" in 1923, was his great (and what he let everyone believe was his final attempt at the creation or a masterpiece. He had ceased painting long before, in August, 1912. He continued to create replicas or reproductions of his own works (the "Green Box," 1934, shown below), to design posters and other graphics (the "Coeurs Volants" cover for the Cahiers d'Art, No. 1-2, 1936), to imaginatively articulate his own environment (the door which could be opened and shut at the same time for his apartment at 11 Rue Larrey, Paris, 1927), and to carry forward some earlier esthetic projects ("Rotoreliefs," 1935).
But the intriguing understanding was that Duchamp had retired from a life of art to devote himself to the game chess--or from the game of art to a life of chess. Indeed, an understanding of chess is essential to deciphering the artistic personality of Marcel Duchamp for whom everything was a gambit of one sort or another. And so it was with his "quitting" art. The first move of this gambit was Duchamp's resignation from painting--all the more dramatic because it followed (or was set up by) the scandalous success of his "Nude Descending the Staircase" at the famous New York Armory Show in 1913 at which America was artistically dashed in the face with a bucket of Cubist ice water. With Andre Breton's apotheosis of Duchamp's "Large Glass" in a famous article published in 1935 ("Mare de la Mariee," or "Lighthouse of the Bride") the second pitfall in the gambit was lusciously baited. And everyone fell for it. It took a few years, but in the later 1950s and particularly through the 1960s with the intensely revived interest in Duchamp's early and radical esthetic probes, almost all of the brighter, younger artists followed his lead away from doing "more of the same" objets d'art which their dealers demanded for stock because they know they could sell.
There were also more recent visionary innovators who explored various escape passages from the gilt cage of the fine arts, notably Yves Klein, Arman, Jean Tinguely and some of the others we mentioned earlier, especially Cage, Rauschenberg and Warhol. After Marcel Duchamp's death in 1968 he received more credit than ever for inspiring radical contemporary artistic statements. But now that his will has been read it is revealed that Duchamp again has the last laugh--that his rejection of the role of "artist" was merely a ruse. In his New York studio, for about the last twenty-five years of his life the sly French-American Gambit Master had been secretly constructing a complex art-environment piece. Entrusting it to the care of a friend, the artist Cply (William Copley), Duchamp even artily wished it to be shown at the Philadelphia Museum, which houses the Louise and Walter Arensberg collection of Duchampiana. With a typical stylistic twist he wanted it installed and opened without any fanfare whatsoever, so that the element of chance would determine who first became aware of the joke. But without the man, this stroke of subtle wit was reduced to a flat if precious gesture. Alive, Duchamp could hold his own; departed, not even his spirit could match the gossipy rapaciousness of the so-called world of art. The real irony, however, is that even if Duchamp did lie in 1923 (and why didn't he just say he was working on a private piece, if that is what he was doing?) that statement still had as powerful an effect and influence as if it had been true. As some suspected all along--perhaps first among them Duchamp himself--he was one of the world's biggest phonies; he remains nevertheless one of the most penetrating and persistent influences in the history of twentieth century art.
The cultural revolution which is currently in the process of shaking up those still enthralled with the old exclusivist scarcity-commodity concepts of the fine arts has brought with it new values of honesty, openness and forthright concern for the deep and real values of a global' humanity. In this new perspective the self-conscious cleverness of Marcel and his epigone acquire a dimension of Romantic nicety. Like any real artist-shaman, Duchamp cannot (and need not) be put into some simple bag and dismissed. He did resolutely challenge the ego-hangup associated with art by signing almost anything anyone presented to him which resembled one of his works--thus with a certain sense of distilled duplicity devaluing the precious uniqueness of the art object. At the same time he remained entwined in the mesh of his own aristocratic, sometimes cynical esthetic stance. But even if Duchamp's end-game reveals subtle compromises with integrity in his role as artist, perhaps it does make him more believable --even more loveable--as a human being.
A new forthrightness in the thrust toward reintegrating the artist with the human being is clearly evidenced by the candor with which certain previously delicate areas of subject matter and content have become the flesh and soul of artistic expression all the while Duchamp was working in secrecy. Consider any of the more intriguing topics of concern today, whether far-out sex, cybernetics, psychedelics, psi-factor physics or radical politics. It will be seen that art has become much more genuinely popular in function than it was generally during the reign of Abstract Expressionism (with all its personal agonies, both real and showbiz varieties), and more available than it ever was in the private, disarming and highly esoteric world of Marcel Duchamp. The intensely internal experiences of the human imagination are, as they always have been, the essential stuff of the work of art. Yet within our own recent time there has been what amounts to a quantum jump in states of psychic awareness on a scale so vast that when spokesmen for the stasis-establishment persist in their refusal to recognize the phenomenon, it is they who become irrelevant, incredible and absurd to all people who share a revolutionary expanded state of awareness.
Another French-American artist like Duchamp, the sculptor Arman, provides specific illustrations of this in his recent work. Essentially these pieces are blocks of polyester resin in which are suspended various botanical and chemical psychedelic substances. It is not accurate to refer to psychedelics as "drugs," either medically or sociologically; and it still smacks of the boogey-man mentality to use the term "dope." Actually what is happening culturally is also reflected through these linguistic transformations: from dope fiend to drug addict to psychedelic freak to head to turned-on friend to the brotherhood and fellowship of all mankind. And this process is occurring right now, all over the globe. There is beginning to be, especially in America, a fuller and more conscious utilization in esthetic contexts of the end products of Western civilization, including data from some of the most advanced researches in biochemistry and brain research in addition to the scientific and technological developments in electronics, cybernetics, computers, lasers and other even more arcane apparatuses involving advanced psycho-social researches, such as in the areas of sensory deprivation or overload states. Arman's articulation of this process involves some of the more concrete and consumable wonders of modern science as subject matter for the work of art. The first part of the message/content is that art heightens our awareness of reality. One of the realities of our time with the most impact is the potential expanded awareness available through "dope"--the old fashioned hard stuff like cocaine or heroin and the newer non-drug psychedelics such as LSD-25, psilocybin and mescaline. Thus on two levels Arman is dealing with psychedelia--etymologically, the "expansion of mind"--both in the up-front way his art deals with its reality in the world today (the way relevant art always works), and in the nature of the subject matter itself: Better Living Through Modern Chemistry.
But there is another level on which the content of this process of expanding consciousness can be esthetically embodied. The piece of sculpture is a transparent plastic column, eight inches high, in which are embedded five capsules and one tablet of mescaline--the synthetic chemical corresponding to one of the most powerful hallucinogenic agents found naturally in peyote. A separate piece contains almost mystically-suspended peyote "buttons"--the fruit of the cactus Lophophora williamsii (above) used for thousands of years by Indians in America for personal psychedelic experiences as well as for tribal, ceremonial purposes (and still used legally today as a sacrament by a couple hundred thousand members of the Native American Church). But for those of us who won't join churches and can't become Indians there are other pathways open, within the burgeoning terms of our own syncretic traditions--and these paths lead ultimately to that global awareness of the brotherhood of all men. But no one can possibly ingest those capsules of mescaline sealed inside the block of polyester resin without literally destroying the work of art--and as a consequence also its particular power and something of its effective message. However, there is a Stranger in a Strange Land who has preserved five capsules and a tablet of mescaline corresponding cap for cap and tab for tab with the elements in Arman's piece--each of which, by the way, are different colors as they represent different batches or sources of supply. When this Stranger takes each of the caps and the tab on successive occasions, following the order esthetically determined by Armen in the piece of sculpture--perhaps by reading from the bottom upward, as in reading a hexagram from the I Ching--then he will experience a succession of internal states of altered consciousness, or states of non-ordinary reality; which are at the core of the content of the work of art. A little reflection on this example should suggest how obsolescent the conventional art-critical, art historical approaches are for the realm of radical esthetic experience. Take the ego problem, involving among other concepts the uniqueness, originality, self-consciousness of the artist. Who is the artist here? Arman, or the several chemists who synthesized the various batches of mescaline? Or is it the Stranger who alone actually experiences the content of the work--if indirectly through experiencing a psychic "model" of the physical work of art? But is the physical piece of sculpture really the work of art? Again, can that embedded, unavailable mescaline be in anything but an art-space, a purely esthetic state?
We will discover quite similar functional problems no matter what kind of subject matter or content we may encounter in the recant, radical, revolutionary art. It is simply a matter of our old paradigms being inadequate to interpret the data provided by new artistic statements. The conventional way in which those committed to old paradigms respond to such situations is to deny the validity of, or even the existence of, the new data, This has happened throughout history, in reaction to political or artistic as well as to scientific revolutions--the latter, for example, analyzed in the fascinating study by Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. New paradigms, being more closely related to changing realities and more flexible in dealing with them, have so far usually replaced static, cybernetically primitive systems, incapable or unwilling as they are to incorporate feedback from an increasing flow of new data. The transition from one paradigm to another is most frequently in the nature of a quantum jump, which is to say, revolutionary in character; and it usually occurs in crisis situations. That we have arrived culturally at such a stage is profoundly documented by a range of radical artistic expressions. Consider the History of Sex in the Cinema as brilliantly recounted by Arthur Knight: this involves sex in a truly historical context, as a subject which can be dealt with more or less adequately while retaining our conventional social, psychological and esthetic "set" with all its well-understood games and sublimations. But within the last few years there has been a shift regarded by some as threateningly revolutionary--usually by the most anxious of the old guard, that is to say, those most committed to the mechanisms of power and control-in an area that the average man has come to feel is in fact and should well be) his own concern, viz. that no governmental agency should be able to tell him what he can or can't look at, hear or think about. Hence we note the appearance everywhere of radical sexual content, as in Rauschenberg's "Carnal Clocks," in Zap (below) and Snatch and other famous comics of the underground press, in the bevy of split beaver films or in the slightly less graphic examples of Andy Warhol's instant classics of the silver screen, "Chelsea Girls" and "Lonesome Cowboys." Other media, such as novels, the theater and even painting and sculpture provide resounding evidence for this objective event: a significant shift in the candor with which the genitalia and sexual activity may be presented in the understood and accepted context of a work of art.
Similar developments could be sketched for other topics, such as the new ways in which radical art approaches topics like violence: the destruction theater of Ralph Ortiz, the Islip Speedway Destruction Derby over nationwide TV in color, or the Vietnam War as the greatest non-stop color TV series of all time. Consider the millions of Americans who tune in The War every eyeing at six o'clock in the comfort and privacy of their living rooms, with the whole family together; could any sane nation accept the reality of that violence with such equanimity--or must it not be regarded esthetically, like just more Gunsmoke and Mission Impossible?
Far-out as this might seem, radical art does not stop with a refocusing on new subject matter. The conventional separation of art into distinct media no longer has anything to do with the realities of contemporary esthetic expression. Thus the re-discovered media of clothing, food, dance, and--in a pervasively extended sense--theater are also providing new foci for young, dynamic, creative spirits. The unspoken working hypothesis of people who think of themselves as artists has come to be very close to that attitude expressed by the Balinese who say "We have no art--we do everything as beautifully as possible." For those disturbed by, or committed to, or with a vested interest in the old scarcity-commodity-economy-production-of-objects-by-specialist-minions-for-the-enjoyment-of-a-privileged-class concept of art, this alternate realm of possibilities must appear revolutionary indeed. But we are all artists, any Boob knows that. And art is free, just like love is free. Of course they are free--could they be anything else?
Kurt von Meier
Los Angeles, Calif.