The Failure and Future of Art
ART INTERNATIONAL MAGAZINE
LOS ANGELES LETTER - KURT VON MEIER
It doesn't really matter that we are now two thirds of the way from the 19th to the 21st century. Ideas such as "centuries", "ages", and "periods" are just intellectualizations of humanity's collective narcissism, along with most of history. But sometimes a great notion develops from such artifice—Marshall McLuhan has even provided a new functional definition of the artist as a creator of anti-environments. Critically and historically then, maybe it does help us define where we are, and where we are going: to utilize points of reference such as the year 2000, and to recognize elements in an orientation that point backward to the 19th century.
The relevant critic describes what is happening—what is really happening, not the reflections and sophistications of what has already happened long ago. Criticism attempts to provide the opportunity for confronting and grappling with the new, "now" environment; it does this by supplying both the stimulus and at least some of the means that might help an individual in this confrontation. Criticism functions basically much as does experimental art (and all great art or good history, for that matter) by liberating new ways of thinking. Although he may be one and the same person, a, critic qua critic picks out those statements (written, spoken performed, or displayed) created by artists which manifest new ways of thinking, of looking at the world, of confronting reality—new modes of being.
So where are we ? Is it still the high romance of the Atomic Age ? Or did we renege on that title when its optimistic appeal was compromised by atomic power that first of all meant contamination and radioactivity, human suffering, instant death, and the possibility (very real) of total destruction? Or is this really the Electric/Electronic Age ? However much sense it may make to regard it as such, especially for the technological determinists, there remain similarly viable alternatives. From the ethical and moral points of view maybe this is the Age of Consistency and Expedience. Certainly for anyone who is concerned with the arts it is a period of radical reevaluation of all values. We are not unique children of history; it has happened before: with the Amarna style in Egypt, with the fall of Rome, with the secular Italian Renaissance, and with the end of mimesis in the early 20th century. But now "Art" itself is uinder attack by vast and powerful consolidating forces-- and it just may not survive. And this might be all right, too.
Every day Los Angeles, LA, appears to be more and more a harbinger of that 21st century just one generation or so (33 years) away. It may indeed turn out that the faltering, perhaps the demise, of Art in LA provides us with an object lesson for what to expect elsewhere in due course. Not that the LA scene is without activity in the arts—on the contrary, there is turbulent, even violent activity. But is it "Art" ? The answer to this disarming, inane and recurrent question is not really as simplistic as " No", as all the financially and philosophically vested interests of the Art Establishment would have it.
There are at least four major areas in which the conventional notions of Art (originally magic, priestly, Pharasaic, noble and exclusivist—more recently bourgeois, but seldom if ever really democratic) are being confronted. These are overlapping areas, or neutral ground, or no-man's-land between Art and Politics, the Psychedelic Revolution, Science and Technology. These frontiers, or battlegrounds, are not strictly limited to LA, although they all exist there, as they must to some extent in other centers such as New York, Paris and London. In many other parts of the "global village" significant encounters in one or more of these areas can be documented. Very soon, if not already, what is happening in Amsterdam, Warsaw, or San Francisco may easily come to be regarded as more important than what still passes for contemporary Art in New York. In fact, there is plenty of action in New York, with individuals like Ralph Ortiz, Benn Morea and the Black Mass group, or Emmett Grogan and the East Coast Provo activity. But no one in the Art bag is buying this jazz. Actually, no one in San Francisco or LA is buying it either. It isn't for sale. In itself this fact may be enough for those people hung-up on Art, money, and the idea of a scarcity economy where beauty or intensity of expression is a commodity with a price-tag, to discount utterly the relationship between the activities of the Diggers, or the LA Provo, and Art. The connection is there, but once again with Marcel Duchamp we must drop the capital letter—we have to begin to think of "Art" as "art" before these radical confrontations make sense.
There are some good reasons why this process—fascinating, but not always easy—can be observed more clearly in LA than in any other major Art capital. Paradoxically, it is because the very idea of Art has had such a hard time here. The history goes far back—but not too far back, because LA didn't figure prominently as a center for the arts until after the Second World War. LA didn't even figure prominently as a city until Hollywood put it into focus early in the century. In fact, San Francisco is the only city relevant today on the West Coast that had a 19th century; and up until now San Francisco's main problem has been just in living down that colorful, seductive historical past. This is most recently reflected in the gigantic catastrophe of rebuilding the Palace of the Legion of Honor there (completely misunderstanding original architect Bernard Maybeck's acceptance of and appreciation for transient whimsy) and painstakingly reduplicating in permanent concrete all of the structural and decorative elements created as exhibition architecture out of plaster and lath. In such a climate San Francisco has never developed an Art scene as has LA. Artists have to get out, or at least to show their work elsewhere if they want to make a sale, let alone to really make it. Still the Bay Area has a well-entrenched Art Establishment, and its apologists who shore up the moralistic pretensions of Fine Art.
Similarities and differences between San Francisco and Los Angeles were explored in a previous article (Art International, vol. 10, no. 7, September 1966). Such considerations, developed with reference largely to the world of Fine Art, require serious modifications in the light of the new radical developments in the arts. Still, the different historical contexts help characterize and understand contemporary activity. Individual artists ("conventional" artists, in a sense—without pejorative connotations) and the Art Establishment in general seem to be much closer to the new directions of Intermedia and experimental art in LA than do their counterparts in San Francisco. Now this may be partly explained by the relative lack of historical hang-up with Fine Art in LA. For example, the city's public library, described as the last major work of the important American architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, is scheduled to be razed, despite the building's recent designation as a historical-cultural monument. The lack of relevance accorded decisions of the Cultural Heritage Board of the Municipal Art Commission is in startling contrast to the strong revivalist sentiments that prevail in San Francisco.
As a necessary background for considering some of these new directions within the structure of the LA scene, perhaps we need only review the major events of the last few years. A strong case can be sustained that LA emerged as a center for the arts of national and international significance only within this period. In retrospect, a scene began to coalesce around individuals such as Walter Hopps, Irving Blum, Billy Al Bengston and the Ferus Gallery. Phil Leider, John Coplans and Artforum moved in from San Francisco, adding their influence and substance to the efforts of many other individuals. The crucial point was focused on the LA County Museum which, as with most such large institutions, had the promising opportunity to provide a true center for activities in the Fine Arts. The most important single decision, affecting the entire character and spirit of everything that has happened since at the museum, was the selection of William Pereira as architect—a compromise that now appears to have been largely conditioned by a cop-out to the short-range vision of provincial values and vested interest.
It is easy to cite examples of combined niggling and apathy that have steered important collections away from LA rather than attracting them: the Arensberg and Hirschhorn collections are but two, and two fine ones. On the other hand, San Francisco has committed itself to the Avery Brundage collection which contains among its orientalia more than one white elephant, all in all a pompous and inefficient employment of resources by the Art Establishment. There is considerable misdirection toward both extremes.
The complementary enthusiasms in LA betray a parallel entrenchment of respectable " taste" controlling and dispensing the resources of the Art Establishment. The Art involved is usually good—LA is, after all, not a Joplin, Missouri—but it is safe, safe, safe. Henri Matisse, Picasso graphics, the Art of India and Nepal carefully censored so as not to contain any sexy poses. As important as some of these exhibitions may be for certain reasons, in no way can they be thought of as adventuresome statements themselves. Even the occasional attempts to come to grips with Art that has relevance to what is alive and going on today are severely compromised. One of the most important implications of the art of Man Ray, for example, is in the medium of the cinema. Man Ray's films were shown as a part of the retrospective held at the LA County Museum (Art International, vol.11, no. 2, February 1967), but the communications breakdown between the Museum and the larger arts community was almost complete: no one knew about them, and an important lecture on the films went virtually unattended because of a simple failure to announce and publicize it, or because of the discouraging tariff. At least the community of practising artists should have been more efficiently informed; preferably they would have been invited free. Incidents like this are not only silly. More profoundly, they are symptomatic of the breakdown between the people in LA who are really doing things, and those parasitical culture mountebanks. There is a sadly flagrant scarcity of respectful, lively amateurs and enlightened patrons. But of course where is there not ? And the problem would not seem to be why is there just one skimpy handful of patrons committed to contemporary art in a city as large as Los Angeles. The real problem is more one of where we must turn when it becomes abundantly clear that we must turn away from the Art Establishment and its hangers-on.
Actually, the various factions of the world of so-called Art have been committing suicide over the last few years, without needing much encouragement from the avant-garde. The most notorious example of political pressures on and within the Establishment was provided by the Edward Kienholz retrospective exhibition at the LA County Museum. Connected with this was the scandalously venal antagonisms that led to the resignation of Richard Brown as Director of the Museum. Despite the efforts of some dedicated staff members, it is highly unlikely that this institution will ever fulfill the promising role it might have at one time. Anyway, the critical time for this function has probably already passed. So eyes began to turn to other institutions for leadership. But then Walter Hopps, the brilliant director of Pasadena's Art Gallery was pressured out of his post by frightened conservative forces, and the future immediately dimmed there. Challenging possibilities at the UCLA Art Galleries were hedged on, flaunted, and sold out, finally, to a hierarchy of interests that have little to do with either students or artists. The ranks of the first-rate commercial galleries have recently been thinned by the closing of both Rolf Nelson and Ferus-Pace in Los Angeles. That leaves fewer than half a dozen major galleries, probably led by Dwan and Nicholas Wilder—not nearly adequate for showing the quantity of high-caliber work being created on the West Coast in even the more conventional media of painting and sculpture. But with a very small number of exceptions, the galleries have not developed the new, younger generation of talent—and they have been all but blind to the explosion of activity in multimedia, intermedia and the more unconventional directions. Apart from the encouragement of particular individuals, there is virtually no support from the Art Establishment for the radical and demanding (but historically most noteworthy) movements in the arts.
Of the four new frontier areas mentioned above, however, two (those of science and technology) can be related to art that does fall within the realm of more conventional media. The sculpture of Kenneth Snelson and its intimate relationship to scientific thought and speculation has been discussed in connection with an exhibition at the Dwan Gallery (Art International, vol. 11, no. 4, April 1967). Snelson's structures are of course more related to engineering and technology, although his concepts of art proceed into the distant, speculative realms of the physics and mathematics of atomic theory. A little different kind of conceptual relationship between the exact sciences and art can be found in the work of Sam Francis, who lives in Santa Monica, California, but whose recent exhibition of "Bright Ring Drawings" was held at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York. Some of these works, like the monochromes with " blue balls", date from about five years ago. Intense and joyful polychromy appears in 1964; and from 1964 to 1965 the images loosen from concentrated ball-like forms, dispersing toward the edges of the composition. His most recent work Francis did not include in this show because it doesn't fit into the cycle, or "ring"—a term which is used as an analogue to mathematical set theory.
The cross-overs between art and technology are most profoundly and consistently explored by a young Canadian artist, Iain Baxter, who has exhibited some of his "extensions" and "bagged" sculpture at the Rolf Nelson Gallery. Baxter teaches at the new Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia—significantly, perhaps, not in an Art Department, but rather in the field of Communications, located within the Faculty of Education. He is one of the key members of a small but stimulating Intermedia group in Vancouver, which includes not only artists and academics, but businessmen, technicians, engineers and musicians as well. Attempting to develop creatively our new means of communication such as TV, and to extend a basic "publishing" function into a wide range of media, including but not limited to the printed page and the conventional media of the Fine Arts, this Intermedia group has begun to develop some of the implications contained in the essential contemporary texts of Marshall McLuhan. By understanding and controlling the new media of communication they can be most positively and humanistically turned to aid the cause of art and civilization generally. The nascent Vancouver scene is, by such means, destined to be closely related to LA and to other centers in the US. Now the primary medium of communication is the jet plane, which still embodies the basic principle of the horse and buggy (the transportation of actual human bodies) although it is somewhat faster and more convenient. But almost instantaneous means of communication have existed for some time; yet artists and other creative mentalities in society have been pretty well prevented up until now from using them efficiently—prevented by artificially high and totally unnecessary charges for their use. Plans are now underway and sponsors being sought for establishing the first stage of a communications network, connecting major centers of creative activity—eventually throughout the world. This is not daydreaming—it was already easily possible ten years ago, had any of the governments or large private corporations manifested real intelligence, imagination or concern for the arts. An initial, primitive step will be setting up a tie-line between LA and Vancouver, between two communication centers, in order to provide instantaneous contact at least through speech, without the onus of exorbitant private phone bills. A hookup with other centers would cost the telephone companies almost nothing, while providing a structure for a later TV network. Not only would this instantaneous means of communication be of the greatest significance for the arts—its possibilities for creative ventures in education are exhilarating.
A similar group, still anonymous, is in the process of forming in LA. One of its primary functions might be to function as a nerve center, coordinating such a communications network, while at the same time recording and documenting ideas, projects and works as an entirely new dimension of art history. There is no reason why this could not also tie in with the current, rather limited (but at that long overdue) concept of an information retrieval bank being bruited by American and Canadian museums, institutions and art galleries. The idea is being broached in other cities too, including New York, Toronto, San Francisco, Chicago and Houston. The direction of the LA group seems to be not so much toward the quasi-Romantic notion of an Art club or another institution within the Establishment, as toward a healthy, loosely structured and functionally defined center. Whatever services or amenities it might provide, such a center would work as a super booking agent, as a clearing house for ideas and resources, enabling people to get in touch who should be in touch, by acting as a publishing house in the largest sense of the publishing function.
Closely related to ideas of Intermedia are the new art activities which extend into the realm of politics, and hence into Life. Yves Klein might be cited as a direct and conscious prototype for this evolution, and before him some of the directions of Dada. San Francisco has become the new American capital on one of these levels of creative thought; yet in dramatic contradistinction to the usual Bay Area tendency to toot its own horn a trifle too loud and too often, the Diggers and most of the rest of the Haight-Ashbury " hippie" community seem to be free of such defensive, apologetic ego hang-ups. Nor is the psychedelic revolution of expanded consciousness in inner space the exclusive property of any city, group or individual. There are psychedelic shops springing up all over : on Fairfax Ave. in LA, 4th St. in Vancouver, and soon probably on some street in Joplin. New attention is directed by this movement to the media of clothing and adornment of the body, from hair to jewelry; the human body as a sanctuary means a deep and healthy acceptance of physical love, and also the powerful reality of a fundamentally altered attitude toward love on a larger, loftier scale, involving all of humanity. The Romantic elements are there, to be certain; yet the movement's hardest, most cynical bourgeois critics cannot obscure the fact of growing Flower Power.
The most sensitive indices of the hippie/psychedelic revolution (they are not identical, which may be a fine point to some, but one worth making) are perhaps the popular arts. Many truths are suggested by the recent rise of Acid-Rock in music, with a sort of sweet, " high", groovy, trippy sound, as exemplified by Country Joe and the Fish, the Grateful Dead, and other products of The Family Dog in San Francisco. There is a wide stylistic range, from the gutsy blues bands like Canned Heat to the freaky musical innovations of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, or Andy Warhol's Velvet Underground with their wiggy, far-out but technically brilliant sound. The lyrics of current rock and roll music (to use the generic, if obsolescent term) are primary sources for documenting what's happening. Hence Donovan's "Mellow Yellow" can be closely associated with the mellow, short-term " high" achieved by smoking bananadine. This has become the theme song of an instant, vast, and perfectly legal cult of banana heads, who have adopted Chiquita as their patron saint. Sociologists will someday document the spread of amphetamines by citing the Beatles "Yellow Submarine", or the great pot culture (marijuana has grown to be far more than a mere cult) by such songs as the Rainy Daze's "Acapulco Gold". Eventually, if there is any interest left in maintaining them, the English Departments will have to turn to the work of one of the world's great contemporary popular poets, Bob Dylan. From these sources we can derive several key characteristics of this new frontier in the arts. There is the strong element of joy, with an emphasis on youth, but combined with a real conspiratorial aspect. As we might have anticipated from McLuhan, there is a definite turning away from the literate, logical, print-oriented culture of the pre-electric age. Like TV, popular music, clothing, and the psychedelic freak-outs, these art forms tend toward the instantaneous total environment. Thus it is not surprising that youth accept a fact that so-called mature political thought has yet to approach: that geography is a science that belongs principally to the 16th century. As one of the San Francisco musicians, playing at a recent "gathering of the tribes" in Los Angeles, commented about the music, "There is no San Francisco sound, it is the sound of the music of love, and the revolution of love is spreading all over the world."
Nevertheless, the Mecca mystique hovering over San Francisco is as thick as the fog like the smoke of burning grass. There may be 250,000 people in the Haight-Ashbury community next summer—which makes it a little different than the weekend gathering of teeny-boppers on Sunset Strip (then again, there may be another 20,000 or so there, even without a community). One of the key factors in uniting this movement was the formation of the Underground Press Syndicate —a primitive, but essential communications network for the non-Establishment world. Even this brand of journalism has its counterparts to Beaverbrook and Hearst, but the world's most beautiful newspaper, the San Francisco Oracle, is an extraordinary statement as a publication and also as a work of art.
Aesthetic motivations underlie a great deal of the LA and San Francisco hippie activity. The idea for the Diggers, who help feed the community in Golden Gate Park, apparently started as a theater piece, inspired by some members of the San Francisco Mime Troupe led by Ron Davis. But this does little to mitigate the seditious implications of their work. Consider, for example, the recent "store" opened by Digger Peter Berg, and called "The Trip Without a Ticket". Nothing is sold. A "customer" can walk in and take whatever strikes his fancy—BUT he becomes a player in the theater piece immediately upon entering, along with all the others, conscious or not that they are playing out a Life-Drama, whether "customers", clerks (unpaid, of course), or store-owner. No money is taken—and one really can walk out with a full suit of clothes; but every act and word is fair game for other players before one gets out the door. Even direct barter is discouraged, as the depository is quite separate from the "store". The title does suggest the basic motivation: an aesthetic, dramatic trip; but in a highly structured commercial economy the word "free" becomes one of the most suspect and revolutionary threats to be given aesthetic statement. On a recent visit, the reaction of three LA Provos reflected sympathetic aesthetic responses. Joseph Byrd, a gifted composer and musical director, decided to take nothing, which of course was not easy. Michael Agnello, similarly a musician by education and training, conceived the idea of stealing something from the free store. Jose Que, a Mexican-American painter who is almost literally "underground" as a "wet-back", or illegal immigrant into the United States, responded by devising a scheme to take everything in the store.
The original idea for LA Provo developed last summer stimulated by, or possibly in reaction to a "happening" organized by Allan Kaprow at Pasadena. Agnello began to organize a "happening army" on a much different scale than Kaprow's concept, and without the Art-derived self-consciousness. The sense of conspiratorial provocation, and the title (borrowed from the Amsterdam group) came to be identified with the LA project toward the end of 1966, particularly in the first of Provo's monthly Christmas caroling demonstrations. Other extraordinary projects at that time included a huge "Bomb Box" (unperformed) which was to have been placed on the corner at a major intersection, containing a naked girl inside. For 1 a.m. New Year's morning Provo performed a sweep-in on Sunset Strip, following by a few hours some unspecified vandalism committed at the Los Angeles City Hall. Thus Provo established itself as neither benevolent nor blindly destructive, but capable of creating provocative aesthetic statements within the framework of acts that superficially fall into both categories. Two major Provo activities underscore the ambivalent apparent character which makes the movement so disarming and dangerous for the Establishment. One of these involves a wide-spread conspiracy to plant marijuana cigarettes ("joints") in the bookjackets of assorted titles throughout the LA Public Library system. So far over half a dozen branch libraries have been planted with 1000 joints spread through the Dewey Decimals in each. The legal implications of this project are fascinating, since marijuana is technically illegal in California, although like LSD it is not a narcotic. If six or eight thousand people can legitimately claim that joints discovered by officers simply fell out of library books, this might force reconsideration of unintelligent, repressive legislation far sooner than reasoned editorials and sidewalk protests. Each joint is stamped "Meadowlands", which is the name of the operation—although Provo really initiated it. But for obvious reasons, the identity of specific members is a matter of special consideration; for practical and prudential exigencies participants are often anonymous, but again there is the deliberate rejection of the old-fashioned ego hang-up of the Romantic artist. Anyone is Provo when they are doing Provo activity. The second, more anarchical and poetic project was Provo's collection of food, clothing and furniture in the Watts and Vernon areas of LA for free distribution in Beverly Hills and Brentwood. Such dramatic presentation of political and social realities, taking from the poor to give to the rich, provide the meat for Provo's gestures. This gives them the capacity to function as large-scale embodiments of paradox such as might be contained in Zen ko-an.
Several possible directions for extensions and other developments in the arts are raised by the Festival of the Experimental Arts at UCLA at the end of April, which featured Provo events and personalities (to be reviewed in a future article). What is already clear, however, is that the future of genuine creative activity in LA will probably progress most significantly in the four directions mentioned briefly here: Science, Technology, Psychedelics, or the realm of Life/Politics as indicated by the Diggers and Provo. The great promise of this future is just as clearly grounded upon what must be described as the failure of LA in the realm of the Fine Arts. Art is dead; long live art.
Kurt von Meier
This is the cover of the May, 1967 edition of Art International, in which this article appeared. Art International discontinued publication in 1984. Kurt was a regular contributor during the years 1966-67.