Earth Rose vs. The People of The State of California
The time? 1968. The place? A courtroom in the County of Los Angeles. The subject? When does the use of the word "FUCK" exceed community standards of decency.
Kurt appeared as an expert witness to testify at the trial of Steven Allan Richmond (RIP 2009), publisher of Earth Rose, who, in 1968, had been charged with a violation of Section 311.2 of the California Penal Code - CRIMES AGAINST THE PERSON INVOLVING SEXUAL ASSAULT, AND CRIMES AGAINST PUBLIC DECENCY AND GOOD MORALS--namely publishing and distributing obscene material. Calling itself "a meat poetry tabloid" (a play on "beat poetry"?) Earth Rose was a one-sheet broadside; the interior page included two poems by Charles Bukowski (1920-1994), three poems by John Buckner and three poems by Steve Richmond. Richmond had been a student at UCLA, (probably a student of Kurt's) and perhaps the earliest Bukowski fan; Richmond and Bukowski maintained a friendship and mutual correspondence for many years. He also reportedly had a friendship with Jim Morrison of The Doors.
The determination of the case is currently being researched. The context for such decisions includes the arrest of Lenny Bruce on obscenity charges (he was not convicted) and the movement of the courts at that time towards a more liberal view of free speech.
Of course, every element of this legal adventure is fully documented in Kurt's archives. In advance of his testimony, Kurt prepared a written statement for submission to the court on behalf of the defendant, which appears below.
My name is Kurt von Meier. I am Assistant Professor in the Department of Art at the University of California, Los Angeles, where I currently teach two courses in the history of art: one survey course covering the period from 1400 to the present, and the other devoted to modern art from 1850 to the present. Last year, and in other academic quarters this year, my teaching schedule also includes graduate seminars in the history of modern art. Before coming to UCLA in September 1965, I taught at Princeton University in the fields of American art and the history of modern architecture. My previous teaching experience also includes three years at the University of Auckland, New Zealand and lecturing at the University of Sydney, Australia, the University of Massachusetts, and other academic institutions. I am the author of several critical and historical articles on the arts, which have appeared in publications such as Artforum, Art and Australia, the Princeton Alumni Weekly, Art International, and others. I am a regular correspondent for Art International, and am a member of the Advisory Board for Art and Australia. I have lectured widely on art for various civic and student groups in the Los Angeles area. My BA degree is from the University of California, Berkeley; my M.F.A. and Ph.D. degrees are from Princeton University. I also conducted a year of research at the University of Madrid, and studied Japanese at Stanford University.
The publication "Earth Rose" first came to my attention when I was presented with a copy by a student on the UCLA campus. Subsequently I have found occasion to incorporate the publication into my lectures on the history of modern art, including both quotations from the "Earth Rose" text and commentaries on the text, on the publication as a whole, and on events surrounding its varied reception by society. These were not merely personal reflections, but involve also, I feel, some issues significantly affecting the nature and function of the artist in our time. In order to develop some of these interpretations, I have discussed "Earth Rose" with other members of the UCLA faculty, both within the Department of Art and from other parts of the University. Of course I have also continued discussion of the publication with students outside of class, or lecture situations. There is no question in my mind but that "Earth Rose" does indeed merit serious consideration and discussion on several levels.
I consider "Earth Rose" to be a valid work of art in its own right. As such, it fits into a long history of works of art that have utilized the medium of the single printed page, or handbill. Examples come readily to mind from such diverse points of origin as fifteenth century Germany, sixteenth century Italy, Japanese wood-block prints of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, or the manifestos, woodcuts, and single-sheet publications of the twentieth century, including the German Expressionists, Dadaists, Futurists, Surrealists, Bauhaus artists, and others. "Earth Rose" belongs solidly within this tradition, incorporating verbal or poetic statements, typographical design, and pictorial images within a unified artistic conception. Moreover, "Earth Rose" shares many other characteristics with these related works of art produced in other historical contexts. An intensive analysis and comparison would have no trouble in establishing formal and theoretical connections in addition to providing several parallels in content, interpretation, intent and effect.
For example, the German woodcuts of the fifteenth century, or "incunabula," are not only historically significant as documentation for the rise of printing, and as works of art in themselves—they also provide an important instance of "popular" art that was ignored or despised by the more aesthetically pretentious of the time, but that have since come to be regarded almost universally as works of great power, boldness, directness and vigor. They possessed many of the qualities significantly absent in the "official" art of the time fortunately, they were not all suppressed or destroyed--otherwise not only would the works of art have been lost forever, but our historical understanding of the period (cultural,, political, religious, social, military, and economic, as well as art historically) would be seriously, perhaps irreparably damaged. Some of these broadsheets functioned as personal statements of faith, such as, I believe, would be one valid reading of "Earth Rose." In the fifteenth century these printed broadsheets were collected and read by the common man; for those who could not read, and even for many who could, they often served as Andachsbilder, or devotional images--a function which, mutatis mutandis, "Earth Rose" may very well fulfill today, as I believe it does in fact. As the conceptual content of "Earth Rose" penetrates rather dramatically to some of the fundamental issues of our existence, I am obliged as an art historian to consider it principally as an example of religious art. Thus, questions of the aesthetic qualities or merits of "Earth Rose" can never be entirely divorced from consideration of its essentially religious content, intent and effect.
The publication "Earth Rose," as the product of a creative act, represents to me a philosophical position prima facie opposed to destruction and war. This interpretation is further substantiated by the text of the poetry. In so far as it deals with these topics then, "Earth Rose" is not only religious, but also political in content. By the dramatic juxtaposition of the words "FUCK" and "HATE" I understand a statement, expressed in a typographical conception, opposing creativity to destruction. The formal use of space, the relationship of black areas to white areas, the position of the words and the letters on the page, and even the size of the letters themselves are all important aesthetic elements in the total statement of the work of art. Beauty and ugliness are opposed in the context of this work of art with an expressive intent and effect I find closely parallel to that of the great German artist Grunewald in his Isenheim Altarpiece. There Jesus Christ is represented as a syphilitic with running sores, described by the French writer J.K. Huysmans as follows: "The body looks pale and shiny, dotted with spots of blood, and bristling like a chestnut-burr with splinters that the rods have left in the wounds; at the end of the unnaturally long arms the hands twist convulsively and claw the air; the knees are turned in so that the bulbous knee-caps almost touch; while the feet, nailed one on top of the other, are just a jumbled heap of muscles underneath rotting, discoloured flesh and blue toenails; as for the head, it lolls on the bulging, sack-like chest patterned with strips by the cage of the ribs. ...Jesus no longer wears the fearful rictus of tetanus; the jaw is no longer contracted, but hangs loosely, with open mouth and slavering lips." In contrast to the Crucifixion painting at Karlsruhe, also painted by Grunewald, Huysmans observes: "Christ is less frightening here, but more humanly vulgar, more obviously dead. In the Karlsruhe panel the terrifying effect of the trismus, of the strident laugh, served to conceal the brutishness of the features, now accentuated by this imbecile slackness of the mouth. The Man-God of Colmar (the Isenheim Altarpiece) is nothing but a common thief who has met his and on the gallows." If, in the early sixteenth century, an artist can so conceive and portray a figure whom all evidence leads us to believe he regarded as Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and yet have this conception and portrayal accepted as thoroughly devout in nature, how then can we, aware of this long and rich tradition in Western European civilization, seriously question the aesthetic legitimacy of those "humanly vulgar," "brutish" and "common" parallel images and concepts as they appear in "Earth Rose" over four hundred years later.
Relationships between "Earth Rose" and other individual works or creative approaches in the history of art, I believe, would not only tend to support these conclusions—they would offer an extended basis for understanding the publication in the context of its current and widespread social importance. For example, the deliberate concern with graphic design as manifested throughout "Earth Rose" calls to mind close parallels with the history of Japanese calligraphy. There, the abstract values of design as related to the whole format, the balancing of black and white areas, the shape of the characters (or letters) themselves, as design elements, all demonstrate the same concerns of the artist that are realized by "Earth Rose." It may also be pertinent to note that Japanese artists utilizing the medium of wood-block prints, as distinct from the calligraphers who used ink and brush on paper, were primarily concerned with subject matter that was socially sub-rosa, and more often than not explicitly sexual in nature. Those gracious prints that adorn the walls of so many public and private collections today almost invariably depict prostitutes and their patrons in the colorful setting of Japan's red light districts, where the prints were originally created and distributed. But the ostensibly sexual subject matter of these prints did not effectively conceal some of their real content, which carried messages of social and political protest, cries against the iniquities of class or caste oppression, and affronts to the contemporary Establishment. Beneath the superficial differences in subject matter, I detect in "Earth Rose" very similar intentions and sentiments. It is precisely to these social and political issues that the publication directs itself, thus establishing for it a social significance of great potential. I detect in "Earth Rose" no appeal to prurience, nor encouragement of lascivious thoughts. I find no evidence of morbidity or obsessiveness in any references to nudity or sex, nor is there any appeal to matters of fecophiliac.
Quite opposed to such an involuted reading of the publication "Earth Rose" rather, is the expressly outward-directed intent and effect, involving these political and social questions referred to above. But this in no way contradicts the validity of "Earth Rose" as a graphic manifestation of a deeply held commitment, or a philosophical and personal commitment, or a functionally religious motivation. Indeed, the most brilliant and historically commanding political and social documents of history have also possessed these multi-directional characteristics--at least for their framers--as with the Declaration of Independence, or the Bill of Rights. The "Earth Rose" broadsheet, or tabloid, even arbitrarily stripped of these necessary and inevitable associations, remains a valid aesthetic expression or work of art in itself. As such, there is no doubt that it is well within our customary limits of candor in expressing, describing or representing matters relating to sex, nudity or excretion.
Additional Notes attached to Kurt's statement:
Specific examples of straightforward language and imagery can be found throughout the literature of Dadaism, which was usually intended for swift and widespread distribution, aimed at the mass of common people, and as a matter of philosophical choice deliberately intended to shock and to scandalize the general public.
Tristan Tzara, Zurich Chronicle (1915-1919) Reprinted and translated in: Robert Motherwell, Editor, The Dada Painters and Poets (The Documents of Modern Art, Vol. 8), George Wittenborn, New York, 1951 (then Wittenborn-Schulz, Inc.), pp. 235 ff.
"In the presence of a compact crowd Tzara demonstrates, we demand we demand the right to piss in different colors." 1916. October. Schalaben Schalomai Schalamezo Mai by Richard Huelsenbeck with seven woodcuts by Arp, Dada Collection. Incomparable for your baby's toilet! Illustrated.
p. 169 "As a finale some paintings were displayed, among them one by P icabia, that was exceedingly provocative from a plastic point of view, bearing, like several of his pictures and manifestoes of this epoch, the title 'LHOOQ" (She's got hot pants). After this...the demonstrations, tracts and peridocals multiplied, always in a direction more and more outrageous. It was necessary to teach bourgeois common sense a lesson."
PP. 159 ff. An account is given of the Dada exhibition held in Cologne, April 1920. In the center of the city, the place for the exhibition was picked deliberately: "Dada planned to insult, and to this end vented a little glassed-in court behind a cafe, which was reached through a public urinal... A young girl dressed for her first communion opened the exhibition... The public, expecting art, is treated to outrages against tradition. And suddenly the little girl dressed for her first communion begins to recite obscene poems. (A) picture represented a superposition of two postcards, "Saint Therese de l'Enfant Jesus' over a pin-up girl, "Petit Choc," with black stockings under her lace petticoat."
"Beside it (Baargeld's 'Fluidoskeptrik') stood an object by Ernst in very hard wood, to which a hatchet was chained; any visitor who felt inclined was allowed right to destroy the object, (which)...anticipates Arp's 'Planche a oeufs (Egg Board' with directions for use, in five movements: first chop several eggs; second, split some wood; third, ring the bells; fourth, masturbate; and last, throw the egg in the navel--movements of development and growth leading to a movement of precision."
"Naturally when a beer drinker, having downed the drop which causes the vessel to overflow, went to the urinal and saw what was going on, the exhibition received some rough treatment: the objects were broken and the aquarium smashed... the red water flowed over the floor to complete the triumph of Dada. A complaint against obscenity was lodged with the police. When the police arrived they discovered that what had aroused the most indignation was an etching by Albrecht Durer, and the exhibition was reopened." (p. 161).
p. 193. Illustrated is the cover for Litterature, new series, no.7, edited by Andre Breton. The cover was designed by Francis Picabia, Paris, 1922, and is the locus classicus for a whole series of recent cartoons developing the visual wit and general sexual theme. An extreme view is represented of a man and a woman presumably enjoying sexual congress while at least partially clothed (shoes). The title designed by Picabia is presented as "Lits et ratures" obviously a pun on Litterature and "lits et raptures" (beds and raptures).
p. 184-5 The "Barre's trial" of May 13, 1921, "the most subversive meeting from the moral point of view, in which Dada had ever been involved,"in which the counsel for the defense asks for the death of his client.
p. 109. Manifesto by Ribemont-Dessaignes:
TO THE PUBLIC:
Before going down among you to pull out your decaying teeth, your running ears, your tongues full of sores,/ Beforebreaking your putrid bones, / Before opening your cholera-infested belly and taking out for use as fertilizer your too fatted liver, your ignoble spleen and your diabetic kidneys, / Before taking out your ugly sexual organ, incontinent and slimy, / Before extinguishing your appetite for beauty, ecstasy, sugar, philosophy, mathematical and poetic metaphysical pepper and cucumbers, / Before disinfecting you with vitriol, cleansing you and Shellacking you with passion, / Before all that, / We shall take a big antiseptic bath, / And we warn you: / We are murderers.
P. 126. A handbill by Picabia, Funny Guy, Paris, 1921.
One of the several phrases intended as a manifestation of Dada philosophy: "Francis Picabia aime la morale des idiots le binocle de Asp est un testicule de Tristan."
p. 156. Cover of Merz, Vol. 2, no. 7, edited by Kurt Schwitters, Hanover, January 1924. This is an excellent example of the typography of Dada-Merz. "Merz" can be translated as cognate & with the French "merde," or "shit," but has the added anarchistic overtone of an etymology derived from the German word "kommerzial."