Utopia and Dissent: Art, Poetry, and Politics in California.
By Richard Candida Smith. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. Photographs. Illustrations. Notes. Index. xxvi + 536 pages. $35.00 cloth.
Reviewed by Clare Colquitt, Associate Professor of English, San Diego State University. Co-editor of the forthcoming A Forward Glance: New Essays on Edith Wharton (University of Delaware).
“You never want to dream something so small that it will be satisfied by reality” (p. 305). This pronouncement by countercultural Los Angeles painter Connor Everts might serve as the epigraph to Candida Smith’s thought-provoking study of California’s avant-garde. Like the artists and writers he surveys, Candida Smith departs from traditional forms to create a hybrid genre: conceptual collage. His cast of characters is large, and his aim ambitious: to trace the influence of avant- garde aesthetics on American society through California’s example. Early in the century, California presented a “blank slate” for serious modern artists. Isolated from major art capitals and without an audience for their work, the avant-garde came to privilege the irrational and subversive. In The Phoenix and the Tortoise (1942), for example, poet Kenneth Rexroth depicts marriage as a utopian alternative to America’s “permanent war state” (p. 63). Drawn to communist thought but suspicious of party politics, Rexroth dissented from US militarism while receiving government money as a Federal Writers Project employee.
Of the 11,000 artists and writers who participated in New Deal programs, several figure prominently in Candida Smith’s collage, notably, San Francisco trickster artist Clay Spohn and abstract expressionist Hassel Smith. The government — federal, state, and local — is in fact a major “character” in Candida Smith’s study, which skillfully documents the uneasy relationship between politicians and artists extending from the New Deal to today’s rancorous congressional debates concerning the NEA. Then as now, many politicians thought the federal government had no business supporting the arts. Yet even as New Deal programs were abolished, the government continued to subsidize the arts with the passage of the GI Bill of Rights in 1944, “one of the most important pieces of legislation ever affecting the arts” (p. 79). Free to select their field of study, veterans frequently majored in the humanities. As a result, creative writing and art programs thrived; artistic communities were formed; and an audience for the avant-garde emerged.
In the late 1940s, the most vibrant artistic community on the West coast radiated from San Francisco’s California School of Fine Arts. Under the directorship of Douglas MacAgy, “the fourth oldest art school in the United States” (p. 90) shed its beaux- arts curriculum and transformed itself into a capital of abstract expressionism. MacAgy favored art that was “strictly contemporary in spirit” (p. 92) and attracted to his faculty Clyfford Still and Richard Dieberkorn as well as now lesser-known artists like Spohn and Smith. Though MacAgy’s tenure as director was brief, he nonetheless made his mark: by mid century California had acquired a taste for avant-garde art.
The appeal of the beats similarly testifies to California’s growing acceptance of the counterculture. Candida Smith travels familiar territory while analyzing Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” Dean Moriarty, the protagonist of Kerouac’s 1957 novel, represents the trickster “adolescent” male as perpetually in movement and obsessed with his “phallic sexuality.” Just as Kerouac violates gender conventions by associating the male with the irrational, so, too, does Ginsberg challenge the dominant heterosexist order by celebrating the (homo)sexual. At public readings of “Howl” (1957), the medium was the message: Ginsberg’s epic subject “was less important than the ritualistic, collective emotions released by scatological and sexually explicit language” (p. 163).
Not all Californians appreciated the poetics of the “obscene.” Candida Smith recounts numerous attempts in the 1950s and 1960s to censor what some judged “pornography” masquerading as art. Mid-sixties productions of Michael McClure’s play The Beard, which ends with an enactment of oral sex, led to arrests, protests, and a scuffle in which the playwright called then TV newsman Robert Dornan “a faggot and a creep!” (p. 347).
Predictably, party, not sexual, politics often provoked the censor’s ire. In 1964 an obscenity charge against lithograph artist Connor Everts was a veiled effort to muffle leftist critique. Political ambition also motivated Los Angeles County Supervisor Warren Dorn in 1966 to brand Edward Kienholz’s one-man show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art “smut and pornography” (p. 318). Dorn not only failed to halt the exhibit but also finished last in a three-person race for Republican gubernatorial nominee. In the same election free speech was upheld when voters trounced Proposition 16. Sponsored by a coalition called “Mothers United for a Clean Society,” this proposition sought to outlaw “any public presentation of sexuality or vulgarity,” even in “scientific, medical, or educational texts” (pp. 315-16).
Conservative resistance to “offensive” art may perhaps account for poet Gary Snyder’s withdrawal in 1971 to the Sierra foothills settlement he named after the Indian word for an indigenous shrub: Kitkitdizze. A popular antiwar activist, ecologist, and “father figure to the hippies,” Snyder posited that utopia begins at home (p. 379). Robert Duncan also affirmed the utopian possibilities of personal ties. However, in contrast to Snyder and other sixties poets (e.g., Denise Levertov), Duncan doubted the efficacy of protest art and regarded the antiwar community with skepticism. He cautioned that members of the counterculture must confront their inner demons else disaster, not enlightenment, would result from angry cries for revolution. In his conclusion, Candida Smith points to a limitation of his book when he argues that “the rise of women’s, ethnic, gay and lesbian arts movements” has upset the “largely white male” dominance of an older “aesthetics-defined avant-garde” (p. 450). Indeed, though Candida Smith readily acknowledges the misogyny of the beats and sympathetically maps the trajectories of Jay DeFeo’s and Joan Brown’s artistic careers, women and “minorities” remain decidedly peripheral figures in this collage. It would, for instance, have been helpful to know the percentage of women and persons of color (if any) who attended the California School of Fine Arts in the 1940s; or to learn more about Jermayne MacAgy’s contributions to the reputation she and her husband enjoyed as the “power couple” of San Francisco’s avant-garde. Inclusion of Diane di Prima and Anne Waldman might have offered some balance to Candida Smith’s coverage of the beats. And better editing would have made this sometimes unwieldy book more compact. These reservations aside, Candida Smith’s achievement is impressive. Especially acute is his assessment of the double- edged legacy we owe in part to the avant-garde: “greater frankness in public expression,” the “fracturing of a unified American identity” (p. 446), and a profound “crisis of confidence in the effectiveness of American institutions” (p. xxiv). As Robert Duncan presciently perceived, this crisis could lead at once to antithetical expressions of utopia and dissent: Kitkitdizze and Heaven’s Gate, the March on Washington and the Oklahoma City bombing.