West of Center – Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965–1977, University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
THE COUNTERCULTURE EXPERIMENT: CONSCIOUSNESS AND ENCOUNTERS AT THE EDGE OF ART
By Elissa Auther and Adam LernerThe unfortunate fate of the counterculture is that its story doesn’t blend well with either the narrative of the New York avant-garde or the political histories of the 1960s. While its commitment to social transformation divorced it from the histories of the avant-garde, its emphasis on culture and lifestyle alienated it from political histories of 1960s radicalism.
Elissa Auther was Keynote Speaker at the Norwegian Art Yearbooks's launch seminar at Kunstnernes Hus 10 November. The following text is her and her co-editor Adsam Lerners introduction to the anthology West of Center - Art and the counterculture experiment in America, 1965-1977 from 2012. Published with kind permission of the authors and The University of Minnesota Press.
In the summer of 1968, the young East Coast architect Chip Lord traveled to the San Francisco Bay Area to participate in a two-week workshop called «Experiments in Environment,» organized by Anna and Lawrence Halprin. He was so transformed by the experience, he wrote a letter to the Halprins telling them that «the workshop was a catalyst, was an education, was a trip into my future, was an art form, was a lifestyle, was a freestylelife race, was groove.»
«Experiments in Environment» involved a series of experiences situated in Marin County, California, and the city of San Francisco, including blindfolded nature walks, kinesthetic movement instructions, and light installations. Alongside Lord, architects, dancers, educators, therapists, and sociologists partook in these exercises, aimed to cultivate their sense of self-awareness and creativity through the exploration of space, movement, and collaborative action. The final, communal project, held on the coast of Sea Ranch, involved building «a city out of driftwood, with structures you could live in, all related to each other». Anna, a modern dancer, and Lawrence, a landscape architect, worked together to produce the hybrid program that combined her radical, task-oriented approach to modern dance and his interest in sensitizing designers to natural and human-made environments. Lord traveled to the Bay Area for the two-week workshop but he stayed there indefinitely, cofounding the artist’s collective Ant Farm, which set in motion its own chain reactions of creative investigations.
The story of Chip Lord’s participation in «Experiments in Environment» perfectly encapsulates the scene that West of Center aims to recover. It is a story that glorifies collaboration, disallowing any one individual to determine the outcomes. It is about active participation, requiring participants to immerse their entire bodies into the art rather than remain spectators. It is about indeterminate processes, not static objects. It is about hybridity and the evisceration of professional genres like art, architecture, dance, education, and psychology. It tells about personal transformation and freedom as ideals of creative endeavor. It is about finding that freedom in the West. It is utopian. As Lord describes it, it is about mixing art and life into something called «lifestyle,» and about discovering something new, something that inspired new terms to describe it, like freestylelife race. It is groove. It is about interrelated networks of people who all bought in to more or less these same ideas and possibilities for the future. It is a panorama of cultural radicalism that expanded the idea of art into a much larger effort to enact alternative social, political, and ecological systems. These are the attributes of the countercultural experiment of the 1960s and 1970s that the essays in this volume attempt to recount.
The story of «Experiments in Environment» not only paints a picture of the counterculture’s utopian endeavor but also suggests how the countercultural enterprise related to the ambitions of the avant-garde art world centered in New York. With an emphasis on spontaneity, process, and genre crossing, the Halprins’ workshops bear a similarity to the avant-garde’s Happenings and Fluxus performances. Lawrence Halprin even used the musical term score to describe their workshop exercises, emphasizing a connection to avant-garde forms, which utilized the same language. The Halprins had ongoing interactions with the central players of the New York avant-garde, including John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Allan Kaprow, and La Monte Young, which reinforced this creative dialogue between the Bay Area experiments and the center of the art world. However, the Halprins went much further than their New York counterparts in seeking to impact the lives of their participants. While the New Yorkers were primarily focused on transforming art, with the hope that art might ultimately transform society, the Bay Area couple sought to transform lifestyle directly. This distinction between «Experiments in Environment» and the Happenings and Fluxus performances reveals the contrast between the broad project of the counterculture and the narrower aspirations of the avant-garde. Not to deny the utopian threads running through the New York avant-garde, the Halprins’ workshops speak to the distinct countercultural objective of direct, personal, and social transformation.
The unfortunate fate of the counterculture is that its story doesn’t blend well with either the narrative of the New York avant-garde or the political histories of the 1960s. While its commitment to social transformation divorced it from the histories of the avant-garde, its emphasis on culture and lifestyle alienated it from political histories of 1960s radicalism. The New Left was blind to the political potential of projects such as «Experiments in Environment,» seeing cultural radicalism as nothing more than a form artistic lunacy. Meanwhile, projects like «Experiments» were largely ignored in histories of art because, among other factors addressed below, the Halprins prioritized society at large over the art world. The obscurity of the Halprins’ workshops within both histories of art and histories of 1960s radicalism is generally representative of the treatment of the visual and performative practices of the counterculture. The dismissal of «Experiments» reveals the double whammy suffered by countercultural enterprises: to the art world, they were viewed as nonart, and to scholars of the sixties, they were considered apolitical. Both factions were unable to see the importance of the counterculture as the source for new forms of art, political expression, and the intertwining of the two, a formation with significant legacies in contemporary art and culture.
In what follows, we address this dense constellation of issues with the aim of bringing countercultural artistic practice into critical focus, examining the obstacles that have led to the marginalization of the counterculture in the history of art, and initiating scholarly debate on the subject of alternative visual and performative practices of the 1960s and ‘70s.
While the projects enacted under the rubric of the counterculture have suffered from neglect, the word itself has suffered from abuse. In the mid-1990s, the historian Theodore Roszak lamented the reduction of the term counterculture by neoconservatives to an «all purpose pejorative» that stood for «little more than an adolescent outburst.» Roszak helped popularize the term with his 1969 study The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition. Later, he listened to far right political leaders turn his positive label into the name for a malady in American society, as when Representative Newt Gingrich described the counterculture as the opposite of «American civilization.» To Gingrich and other conservatives, «the long pattern of counterculture belief ... had contributed to a thirty-year pattern of social and moral decay» in the United States. Gingrich - like many others in the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond - used the term to evoke a lifestyle of drugs, sexual promiscuity, and certain kinds of clothing and music that painted a picture of self-indulgent hippies. While this image served his political purpose, it also contributed to the current confusion about the historical meaning of the term and its legacy. The inheritance of the counterculture is certainly a set of beliefs that Gingrich rejects, including «environmentalism, feminism, the rights of gays, American Indians and ethnic minorities.» However, Gingrich’s use of the term as a catchall category for the enemy suggests that the specificity of countercultural forms of activity of the 1960s and 1970s has been lost.
The origins of the term counterculture reside in a scholarly essay published in 1960 by the sociologist J. Milton Yinger. The broader context of Yinger’s research was juvenile delinquency and social deviance. He coined the term contraculture to describe group behavior in which conflict is central and many of the group’s values are «specifically contradictions of the values of the dominant culture.» He distinguished this from «subculture,» a form of group behavior with its own internal norms that, however unique, are neutral with respect to dominant society’s values. As opposed to a subculture, a mere subset of dominant society, such as a religious or professional affiliation, a contraculture was an oppositional movement with distinct norms and values generated out of its conflictual interaction with dominant society. Significantly, a contraculture sought to transform the norms and values of the dominant society and, if successful, replace its host as the dominant culture. Yinger derived the term contraculture from the sociologist Talcott Parsons’s passing use of the term counterculture in his 1951 study of subcultures, The Social System. Roszak returned to Parsons’s use of the term in The Making of a Counter Culture, which became a best-selling book.
Roszak also defined the counterculture as «radically disaffiliated» from the mainstream norms and values of society, and he recognized its aspiration to «alter the total cultural context within which our daily politics take place.» The enemy of the counterculture was, in Roszak’s view, the authoritarianism operating overtly or covertly at every level of life in the name of technical expertise – from the rationalizations proffered in support of the Vietnam war and nuclear armament, to the reorganization of the workplace around the goals of efficiency and modern management, to the paternalism of the state that infiltrated the bedroom. As opposed to the class- and labor-oriented political objectives of the historical American Left, Roszak characterized the counterculture as more than «merely a political movement.» It was also a «cultural movement,» for it «strikes beyond ideology to the level of consciousness seeking to transform our deepest sense of the self, the other, the environment.» Roszak’s characterization of the counterculture, as both cultural and political, organized around a «personalist style» and directed toward liberation from the alienating forces of technocratic domination, highlighted it as a form of cultural radicalism wherein personal transformation was embraced as the key to revolution.
While Roszak made a case for defining the countercultural project as both cultural and political, it was more common for critics and observers of the 1960s to distinguish between a «political» or activist movement - the New Left - and an «apolitical» formation - the counterculture. The former focused on the structural transformation of the nation’s political system, while the latter embraced cultural radicalism as the path toward social and political change. The different orientations of the New Left and the counterculture toward social and political change are neatly encapsulated in the oft-repeated description of Merry Prankster Ken Kesey’s appearance at an October 1965 antiwar protest in Berkeley. Todd Gitlin’s rendition of the event is representative:
The organizers of Vietnam Day, the round-the-clock antiwar teach-in on the Berkeley campus, invited no less a guru than Ken Kesey, who showed up in Day-Glo regalia, sized up the crowd and the bombastic speakers as some kind of ego-clamoring fascist rally ... whereupon he honked a chorus of «Home on the Range» with his harmonica ... and told the fifteen thousand antiwarriors the only thing that would do any good was to «look at the war, and turn your backs and say ... Fuck it.» This was not what the organizers wanted to hear on the verge of a march into fearsome Oakland to confront the army base.
Many accounts from the period and after register Kesey’s speech with disapproval, and this condemnation is based on a failure to understand the new terms of discussion presented by the counterculture. Kesey’s performance is more than often criticized as a mere «stunt,» but it was actually a critique of the political form adopted by leaders of the New Left. Instead of representing a division between political activism and an apolitical lifestyle, it stands for the division between leftists and hippies over how to best foment social change. The conflict between politicos and freaks, to use the parlance of the day, was over different forms of politics. Leftists dismissed cultural radicalism because the leftist understanding of radical change was restricted to conventional forms of political protest. Therefore, Kesey’s behavior was not so much misguided but incomprehensible to the protest organizers (although evidently, not to those in the audience who followed his order and proceeded to turn their backs to the stage). The organizers of the rally dismissed Kesey’s appearance as a diversion of attention from the political project of the New Left to undermine the power of the military.
The suspicion with which Kesey’s gesture of refusal (or any other countercultural gesture for that matter) was received by leftists in the 1960s and 19705 obscured not only its challenge to conventional politics and forms of protest but also its unique synthesis of politics and culture. On both points, there are special consequences for the Visual and performative expressions of the counterculture, which were also regularly written off at the time and in retrospective histories of the 1960s as irrelevant to politics, and within art histories of the postwar period, if considered art at all, as a minor development outside the dominant story of modernism. In the studies of both art and politics, a narrative about «the death of the sixties,» recounting the rise and decline of the counterculture, continues to devalue its projects and achievements.
ANTI-DISCIPLINARY POLITICS AND CULTURAL RADICALISM
The death-of-the-sixties narrative is an all-too-often repeated story about the period. It goes from optimism and youthful exuberance to self-indulgent excess, violence, and mayhem, ending in regret and embarrassment. This story is detailed by Peter Braunstein and Michael William Doyle in their introduction to their important reassessment of sixties cultural radicalism, Imagine Nation: The American Counterculture of the 1960s and ‘70s. They describe it as an «Iliad-like narrative,» wherein the counterculture is reduced to a series of «big moments» that typically include, among others, Albert Hofmann’s discovery of LSD and Allen Ginsberg’s performance of Howl:
Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters tripping on acid rediscovering America, this time from west to east, aboard their "magic bus" [named Further] ... Leary chanting «Turn on, tune in, drop out," sampled onto the Beatles’ «Day in the Life"; [and] the flowers, the music, the vision that was (but in actuality, wasn’t) the Summer of Love in San Francisco, 1967. This stroboscopic light show will then draw to an abrupt close with the mandatory montage of the counterculture's "dark side» - someone shooting up speed or having a bad trip, the Manson Family murders, and finally the Altamont concert-debacle - all ritualistically invoked as mutually-reinforcing tombstones.
One might append to this scenario the commodification of countercultural values and lifestyles by major corporations in the 1980s. The story of self-indulgent excess finds its rightful end when large corporations master the ability to market to those interests. Nike’s advertising slogan «Just Do It» is a prime example of a company transforming the spontaneity and directness of the counterculture into a call for individual consumption. The ease with which corporate America appropriated the counterculture for its own purposes also contributed to its dismissal by the New Left and scholars of the 1960s. By this account, the legacy of the 1960s is consumerism.
In her expert theoretical study of the counterculture, Anti-Disciplinary Protest: Sixties Radicalism and Postmodernism, Julie Stephens examines the obsession with the apparent failure of sixties cultural radicalism. For her, this narrative of failure buries the legacy of countercultural artistic practice or aesthetic radicalism. She argues that the dismissal of the activity of the Merry Pranksters, the Diggers, and other countercultural groups engaged in the creative reimagining of society serves the purpose of privileging the conventional forms of sixties radicalism: «Only those actions which were extensions of a traditional revolutionary perspective and aimed to convulsively overthrow State power come into view.» By contrast, the impact of the «psychedelic wing» of the movement, the people that Jerry Rubin called «Marxist acidheads,» is either «marginalized, ignored altogether or relegated to the status of an amusing curiosity.»
In reassessing the political contribution of the badly maligned cultural segment, Stephens describes their activities as a form of «anti-disciplinary politics.» In contrast to commentators and scholars who dismissed Kesey’s engagement with the crowd at the Vietnam Day event as apolitical, Stephens views his appearance and speech as a critique of the conventional, «disciplinary politics» that structured the activity of the New Left. For her, the politics of the counterculture resided in its «language of protest which rejected hierarchy and leadership, strategy and planning, bureaucratic organization and political parties and was distinguished from the New Left by its ridiculing of political commitment, sacrifice, seriousness and coherence.» Disabling the «political/anti-poitical» dualism that subordinated the creative ferment of the counterculture to the activism of the New Left, her adoption of the term anti-disciplinary also disallows the mutual exclusivity of culture and politics, since the activist and the hippie were both engaged in forms of cultural-political activity. In her analysis, the counterculturalists were participating in new forms of cultural-political address that involved embracing utopianism, rejecting the hierarchy within collectives and between artist and audience, and promoting the illegibility or irrationality of public spectacles, performances, and other organized communal encounters. By eliminating long-held distinctions, Stephens opens up a space for a critical analysis of the distinctive styles, rhetoric, and aesthetic conventions of countercultural practice examined in West of Center.
MODERNIST ART HISTORY AND THE COUNTERCULTURE
Just as the counterculture altered the terms of politics, making it unrecognizable to conventional activists, so too did it alter the essential conditions of art, making it unidentifiable to traditional art practitioners and art historians. What was «Experiments in Environment»? What category does it belong to? Art, architecture, anti-disciplinary politics? For Chip Lord, it was all of the above and more. He was demonstrating more than appreciation when in his letter to the Halprins he created such a long list of terms to describe the workshop. He was attempting to depict the multiplicity and hybridity of a new cultural invention: «The workshop was a catalyst, was an education, was a trip into my future, was an art form, was a lifestyle, was a freestylelife race, was groove.» It was this and that and that - everything all at once without hierarchy. His exhilaration is about the possibility of a new hybrid form of activity that cannot be categorized.
Lord’s open-ended description of a new type of practice is what we in this book are - less colorfully - referring to as the visual and performative expressions of the counterculture. Of the practices discussed in this volume, the majority openly flouted disciplinary boundaries, stressed participation and process over the production of discrete objects, blurred distinctions between artist and audience, rejected ideology and conventional political behavior, and embraced irreverence, contradiction, parody, and play. In many instances, it is difficult or impossible to distinguish between the practice of art and the conduct of lifestyle. The essential characteristics of the workshops of Anna and Lawrence Halprin suffuse other countercultural projects ranging from the «life acting» of the Diggers to the spectacle of the Trips Festival to the design and construction of geodesic domes at the southern Colorado commune Drop City. These practices - along with the counterculture’s psychedelic and spiritual wings, from the expanded cinema light shows of the Single Wing Turquoise Bird collective to Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s philosophy of dharma art - demonstrate both the aesthetics of cultural radicalism and the priorities and characteristics of anti-disciplinary politics.
Just as Julie Stephens’s study questions the entrenched theoretical frameworks that devalue cultural radicalism, West of Center addresses the narratives, boundaries, and assumptions that have led to the marginalization of countercultural practices in the history of art and visual culture. A strange fact about the counterculture is that it occupies such a large part of the public imagination of the 1960s and 1970s but such a small part of the corpus of scholarly research into the period. This volume builds on the few existing art historical investigations of the counterculture. The subject is otherwise largely ignored because its activities have not been viewed as relevant to the history of art. Readers cannot find countercultural practices discussed in the major surveys of art of the postwar period. They also, curiously, cannot find them in studies that address the art world’s relationship to the volatile political context of the 1960s, including Thomas Crow’s The Rise of the Sixties: American and European Art in the Era of Dissent, 1955–69 and Francis Frascina’s Art, Politics and Dissent: Aspects of the Art Left in Sixties America.
Crow’s book The Rise of the 1960s is instructive in explaining how the counterculture is addressed in the field of art history. The book stands out from other treatments of the period for its nuanced interest in the international political context surrounding art in the 1960s. In fact, the point of the book is that art of the period did not stem from a few exceptionally creative minds but grew out of various geographically specific political and social struggles. Crow’s interest in the specific geographies of these struggles leads him to include many artists typically omitted from the history of art, and he does credit Anna Halprin for her foundational influence on the dance-based performance art of the New York avant-garde. The problem is that the struggles always remain context, never the text itself. Crow demonstrates remarkable historical sensitivity noting connections between, say, the civil rights movement and Happenings. However, he doesn’t acknowledge that the civil rights movement might have spawned its own art. He makes politics visible within the history of art, but he doesn’t have eyes to see the work of Black Panther artist Emory Douglas or Chicana rights artist Yolanda Lôpez. Crow decenters and contextualizes art history but maintains a traditional sense of What counts as art, which doesn’t include the art of the counterculture.
Crow’s treatment of countercultural artistic practices suggests that the counterculture is not considered unimportant but that it is simply not seen as part of art history. Curator and art historian Anne Rorimer’s analysis of the period provides insight into the reason that the field ignores the subject of the counterculture. Her book New Art in the 60s and 70s: Redefining Reality provides a sophisticated study of a wide range of artists who redefine art by disavowing the notion that a work of art is a selfcontained object. For Rorimer, the counterculture figures so prominently in the history of the period that she mentions it in the very first sentence of the book. She says that a «defiant counterculture» is generally how «the period of innovation examined in this book is remembered outside the history of art.» This approach seems to be typical of arthistorians who do not dismiss the counterculture but simply consider it outside the history of art. There is no prejudice. It is simply defined a priori as a subject external to the purview of discussion. The countercultural scene that Rorimer conjures is the backdrop for innovations in the field of art history. It never enters the realm of possibility that the communards of Drop City were engaged in such a radical rethinking of the art object that they imagined the entire society they were building as a form of art.
The counterculture was defined as beyond the history of art because there was never a category within the narrative of contemporary art history that could contain it. It is not surprising that when the counterculture is discussed in art history, it is considered as an element of other histories, such as protest art, identity politics, or video art. In their essay «Facture for Change: US Activist Art since 1950,»Jennifer Gonzalez and Adrienne Posner consider the postwar history of activist art, exploring a range of artists who are largely ignored within the history of art. They discuss Harry Gomboa Jr., for example, a student protestor who became a radical artist, staging agitprop theater at US. draft offices in the early ‘70s with his collaborators in the group Asco. Gonzalez and Posner trace an important legacy of more or less informal practices that used the language of art to achieve social ends. A particular strain of countercultural art is unearthed by the history of activist art, which was largely untold until a generation of scholars like Gonzalez and Posner came along.
Building on this research, it is now necessary to develop an art historical category for the broader counterculture. What story connects Asco’s street theater to the ecological art project known as Crossroads Community (The Farm)? They both integrated theater into larger public spheres. They were both interested in direct social change. They both believed in acting in the realm of society at large. The reason that the story of the counterculture as an entity has not been told in the history of art is that there is no history of hybridity. There is no category for the uncategorizable, no history of art on the border of nonart. If there were such a category, it would undoubtedly tell an interesting story, which would help explain a great deal of what is taking place in contemporary culture.
The first generation of scholars and curators to give art historical attention to the counterculture has largely seen it through the lens of psychedelia. Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era, a major exhibition organized by the Tate Liverpool in 2005, which traveled to the Whitney Museum of American Art and elsewhere, presented the psychedelic aesthetic in art, music, film, architecture, graphic design, and fashion.» This exhibition demonstrated the wide diffusion of an aesthetic sensibility both in and out of the art world. David Rubin’s recent book Psychedelic: Optical and Visionary Art since the 1960s traces the legacy of the psychedelic aesthetic from the 1960s to the present, part of a revival of interest in the period. These studies demonstrate how the psychedelic aesthetic came to represent a certain drug-related fusion of the world and the imagination, and the power of that aesthetic as a unifying flag of countercultural identity. These important books and exhibitions create the impression that the subject of the counterculture is receiving its overdue consideration.
Paradoxically, the attention given to the subject of psychedelia is consistent with the need for further study of the multiple, hybrid practices of the counterculture. The psychedelic style, though more than a surface effect, was only one dimension of the larger, artistically oriented, socially based countercultural movement. Los Angeles-based Single Wing Turquoise Bird created psychedelic light shows, but they also lived communally and performed for mass public gatherings and a Black Panther’s event. Which is the artwork? The gender-queer performance troupe the Cockettes embraced an outrageously decorative sartorial style, when they wore clothes at all, but costuming was only one element of their art and lifestyle that, in total, amounted to a complete explosion of sexual, gender, family, and economic norms. The art of the Cockettes was the total picture of their performances, relationships, living arrangements, and sexuality - their «freestylelife race.»
Understanding the psychedelic aesthetic is an important part of grasping the counterculture and its legacy. The psychedelic lens makes the counterculture Visible to art historians because it places it alongside other broad stylistic movements. It is raised to the level of art nouveau. The next step is to study what else there was of the counterculture beside its style. The psychedelic aesthetic is a visible signifier of a lifestyle. What art was embedded in the set of living practices as a whole? With psychedelia as a starting point, it is now necessary to examine the art of the counterculture as coterminous with the holistic, revolutionary aspects of the movement.
The psychedelic perspective opens the way to examining other important practices of the period. Studies of the psychedelic aesthetic include certain kinds of homespun practices, but the scholars in this volume extend this investigation to examine the general importance of craft in the period, which didn’t always partake of the psychedelic style. Light shows were attractive to counterculturalists but so were Paolo Soleri’s earth-cast ceramic and bronze bells. Some handbuilt architecture may be explored through the lens of psychedelia, but the impulses motivating that architecture connect it to a wider range of practices that are not as easily visible through such a lens. Psychedelia is not the best viewpoint for understanding the importance to the counterculture of making things by hand. It is also not well suited to seeing how art functioned as a catalyst or an education, to borrow again the language of Chip Lord. It misses the workshops of Anna and Lawrence Halprin, for instance. It might also not see that the Drop City commune, with its Buckminster Fuller-inspired dome architecture, involved a cosmology that was the hard-edge equivalent to psychedelic amorphism. The lens of psychedelia is well suited to see the groove but not so much the freestylelife race and all the rest.
What is most interesting about countercultural practices is precisely the way that they burst through existing paradigms of art and design. This is the reason that it is ultimately the fault of the counterculture that it was not included in art history surveys. This was never their intention. The art of the counterculture is the process, product, and remainder of endeavors to reimagine something no less than modern society at large. It is a series of attempts to recast current understandings of the relationship between art and life, work and leisure, individual and society, material and spirit. The art of the counterculture is often invisible to art historians, not because art was only a minor part of the counterculture movement but because the entire movement can be seen as a kind of art.
Because the art of the counterculture and the movement of the counterculture were virtually the same, the central features of the genre are in conflict with traditional methodologies of Visual analysis. The emphasis on participation, duration, encounter, and the submergence of the aesthetic into the everyday that characterizes the Visual and performative expressions of the counterculture runs counter to the methodologies of modernist art history predicated on the formal analysis of discrete objects. Relevant here is Grant Kester’s examination of this conflict in regard to contemporary artists and artists’ collectives whose work embraces a dialogic practice in which form is determined through direct action. Such work shares with the practices discussed in this book several priorities, including the desire to challenge conventional systems of knowledge and politics and positively transform participants through «the creative facilitation of dialogue and encounter.» The consequences he observes for contemporary artists and artist collectives can be extended to counter- cultural artists of the 1960s and ‘70s whose practice is also generally regarded as aesthetically immaterial:
When contemporary critics confront dialogic projects, they often apply a formal ... methodology that cannot value, or even recognize, the communicative interactions that these artists find so important. The results are not surprising: dialogical works are criticized for being unaesthetic or are attacked for needlessly suppressing visual gratification. Because the critic gains no sensory stimulation or fails to find the work visually engaging, it is dismissed as failed art.
The application of a formal methodology to artistic projects whose express purpose is to avoid the production of discrete objects is akin to treatment of cultural radicalism in histories of the New Left, wherein countercultural activity is measured against and held accountable to an orthodox definition of political activism Wholly absent from the intentions of say, the Diggers or the Yippies. In response to one scholar’s dismissal of Abbie Hoffman’s activism as an incomprehensible gag, Julie Stephens points out, «It implies that the Yippies would have been more fully ?¢‚Ç¨Àúpolitical’ if they had embraced more conventional definitions of politics - precisely the thing they were resisting in the first place?»
Kester isolates a number of additional norms and assumptions that contribute to the resistance against dialogic practices and that also play a factor in the meager reception of the counterculture. One issue that plays a prominent role is the avant-garde’s commitment to forms of irrational communication designed to shock the viewer out of «perceptual complacency?» an orientation that functions as the gold standard in the valuing of an artist’s critical or oppositional stance toward mainstream culture. We are all familiar with the names applied to such forms of shock - Kester’s list includes the sublime to l’amour fou to disidentification - which result in «a kind of epiphany that lifts viewers outside the familiar boundaries of a common language, existing modes of representation, and even their own sense of self.» The artists and artist collectives Kester examines, however, are committed to forms of rational communication whether through group discussion, debate, or one-on-one dialogue. Although such encounters «unfold through a process of performative interaction,» they are not designed to create immediate, startling revelations in the participant.
Likewise, the artists of the counterculture jettisoned the practice of creating discrete objects in favor of practices that were durational, performative, experiential, and built on communal encounter, practices that also appear in the work of the artists and artist collectives examined by Kester. However, a central feature distinguishing the art of the counterculture from the contemporary forms Kester examines is its rejection of rational communication, a rejection that connects the visual and performative expressions of the counterculture to an avant-garde tradition that relishes the irrational, the nonlinear, paradox, and frivolity. These elements manifested themselves in several ways, including the rejection of the hierarchical distinction between leaders and followers or artist and audience; the circulation of images and texts that appear indiscernible, seemingly flippant yet unsettling theatrical actions; and other communal encounters - especially those involving hallucinogenic drugs - as beyond rational explanation. The theatrical display that surrounded Abbie Hoffman’s proposal to «levitate» the Pentagon as part of the October 1967 antiwar march embodies several of these elements. Gathered in a parking lot near the Pentagon, the group was composed of hippies in full regalia, many dressed as witches, wizards, or jesters. The psychedelic band the Fugs, who dressed as Hindu gurus, provided music. Ecstatic dancing and chanting to the sounds of finger bells and cries of «Out, demons, out!,» «Money made the Pentagon - melt it for love,» and «Burn the money... burn it, burn it» also permeated the sound space. Circulating among the crowd and the many onlookers was a flyer that declared in the name of every god, from Isis to Buddha, the reclaiming of the «pentacle of power» for humankind. A public exorcism of the Pentagon ensued. The bizarre energy and visual spectacle of the event and the discomfort it reportedly created in the military police assigned to patrolling its borders aptly illustrate the countercultural preference for public street actions that upended the convention of issuing a simple, easily identifiable message.
The Diggers, an anarchist collective established in 1966 made up of former members of the guerrilla theater the San Francisco Mime Troupe, offer another excellent example of the counterculture’s critique of rationality. The Diggers practiced what they called «life acting,» a form of prefigurative politics in which one lived the revolution by acting it out, thereby experiencing it as reality. In December 1966, the Diggers orchestrated the action called «The Death of Money and the Birth of the Free» on Haight Street in San Francisco. They described their street actions as a form of consciousness-raising «social acid,» and «The Death of Money» funeral procession went as follows:
The burial procession. Three black shrouded messengers holding staffs topped with reflective dollar signs. A runner swinging a red lantern. Four pallbearers wearing animal heads carry a black casket filled with blowups of silver dollars. A chorus singing "Get Out of My Life Why Don't You Babe" to Chopin's Death March. Members of the procession give out silver dollars and candles.. .. Street events are rituals of release. Re-claiming of territory (sundown, traffic, public joy) through spirit. Public NewSense.
The Diggers would go on to distribute free food in the panhandle of Golden Gate Park (a performance-like ritual that involved passing through a wooden portal, the Free Frame of Reference, to receive a meal), free clothing, furniture, appliances, tools, and so forth through the Free Store; publish flyers, newsletters, proclamations, and posters through the Free Press; and establish the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic. But free, as the passage above suggests, meant more than just free of charge or the opposite of money. It was extended in all Digger actions to encompass freedom, liberation, spontaneity, and release from disciplinary constraint and rationality, and thus the basis of a new form of political rebellion.
The social-political-aesthetic-economic actions of the Diggers, like other endeavors of the counterculture, differentiate them from the historical avant-garde. Despite the shared aesthetic of irrationality or shock, the Diggers were too much a part of life to ever be considered part of the avant-garde. Certainly, the avant-garde embraced the art-into-life credo. However, this project was not meant to be realized. The art-into-life credo amounts to the avant-garde’s conceptual paradigm that never intends to result in the actual disappearance of the category of art into life. The Diggers, like other projects of the counterculture, are unabsorbable into the avant-garde precisely because on some level they fulfilled the dream of the avant-garde. This is partly why the counterculture has suffered from a lack of critical attention and why this collection of essays is needed at this time.
In addition to the long list of reasons why the mainstream of art history has not incorporated the aesthetics of the counterculture, one needs to add the fact that the counterculture was largely a regional movement. Thomas Crow’s emphasis on regional centers of art and politics is meant to correct the bias of a field that tends to ignore regional differences. Contemporary art history is dominated by the avant-garde, and, for most scholars, if the avant-garde is one thing, it is international. Its locus in New York City serves only to reinforce this connection with other world cities. By contrast, the counterculture was a movement centered largely in the American West, as much as it attempted to reenvision society at large. San Francisco became its hub, serving as an alternative to New York as a site of creative activity. But the phenomenon was also rural and nomadic, and the broad open West was an important character in the story of the counterculture. When leftist intellectuals Gene and JoAnn Bernofsky departed New York in 1965 to help form the commune Drop City in southern Colorado, they were giving up on the possibility of changing society by working within historical institutions. The West, as it has always been seen in American fantasies, was a place open to new possibilities and freedom. For the Bernofskys, it was a place where it would be possible to «build a civilization from scratch.»
The Bernofskys’ interest in the West as a place to start a civilization should not be interpreted to mean that the West was a tabula rasa. Instead, it suggests that the West was a place with a history of believing that it is possible to build a civilization from scratch. Historian Andrew G. Kirk argues that in selecting northern California as the home for the influential publication the Whole Earth Catalog countercultural guru Stewart Brand «joined a long line of real and fictional western visionaries who chose the West as the stage for their utopian plays.» In the 1960s and 1970s, California was not just the West Coast, as it is today. It was the West, a place saturated with a history of utopian dreams. Kirk aligns Brand with the characters in Ernest Callenback’s 1975 popular science fiction book Ecotopia, which portrayed hippie environmentalists enacting an «old fashioned western dressed in counterculture clothes.» In other words, the gun-toting-cowboy fantasy of the West was not so different from the fantasy of the West that attracted so many counterculturalists. Hippies and cowboys were part of the same self-perpetuating mythos of the West as a platform for freedom, mobility, self-determination, and antiauthority.
The anti-institutionalism of the counterculture thrived in an environment free from a dense network of established institutions, a condition characteristic of the West at the time. This open environment nurtured the independent sensibility of the counterculture. This combination of a nonfiltering environment and a free-floating experimentation explains both the originality and relative obscurity of countercultural practices. Kirk points out that Brand was sometimes criticized for his western bias, and, rather than denying his prejudice, he defended a particularly western way of thinking: «We’re an idea magazine and ideas are loose on the West Coast. No one complains that the New Yorker is overly regional in outlook.» The looseness of the West opened the possibility for ideas to take shape that didn’t fall within received categories of politics and art. The counterculturalists were not opposed to the categories, but they moved in and out of them with relative ease. When the Diggers created performances in the streets, they moved loosely through the categories of theater, Happenings, protest, and life. This explains why their actions are not easily codified as any of these. The indefinite nature of their practice, fed by a specific environment that cultivated ambiguity, explains why they were never defined within any particular tradition, including a tradition of avant-garde art. Established institutions and disciplines have a natural bias against incorporating ambiguous practices.
Even though elements of the counterculture can be seen throughout the country, its essential nexus was western. This is not so much because of the student protests at Stanford and Berkeley or even because of iconic events like the Summer of Love in San Francisco. Rather, the counterculture is fundamentally western in part because the entire complex of activities that comes to define the counterculture has its center of gravity there. Mapping out the communes, festivals, collectives, light shows, spiritual centers, and ecological art projects, the density is clearly in California, Colorado, New Mexico, and their neighboring states. The Woodstock Festival was in New York, but the Trips Festival, the Human Be-In, the Monterey Pop Festival, and all of Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests, to name only the most recognized events, were in the West.
Beyond the numbers, the counterculture is a western phenomenon in a more essential sense. That is where it found its home, where it blossomed. This is literally visible in the case of one participant, George Edgerly Harris III. He was the young, blond pacifist gently placing flowers in the rifle barrels of National Guardsmen at an antiwar protest in Washington, DC, in one of the most iconic photographs of the 1960s. Born in Bronxville, N.Y., Harris is pictured in a turtleneck sweater, looking like a college student, who might just go sculling in the Potomac after the protest. That was East Coast Harris, where the norms and codes of civil society are still in place. But he was on his way to San Francisco, where he would join Irving Rosenthal’s famed Kaliflower commune, drop acid, change his name to Hibiscus, and lead the Cockettes. There, he himself became the flower, donning satin and sequins, a floral headpiece, and glitter in his long beard - even when he wasn’t performing bawdy, show tunes - inspired acts for packed audiences at the Palace Theater. His communal home with the Cockettes was encrusted with glittering fabrics, costumes, and knickknacks. In San Francisco, Hibiscus’s life would become his art and politics and vice versa. The counterculture had its spiritual home in the West. Its emergence is symbolized by Hibiscus’s move across the country. It was a move from boundaries to near boundlessness recalling Stewart Brand’s suggestion that things are looser in the West.
What is the relationship between the counterculture and recent contemporary art? To answer this question, it is necessary to tease out the connection between the counterculture in the West and the avant-garde art world centered in New York. Since the counterculturalists were mostly distinct from the avant-garde, we would expect to see little connection between the counterculture and contemporary art, which continues the avant-garde tradition. But signs of the counterculture seem to be everywhere visible in contemporary art practice. These signs point to ways that some countercultural practices were ultimately not very different from the avant-garde but were alternative ways of realizing similar sensibilities. They also suggest that there is a strong need to revise our understanding of the sources for contemporary art. Category ambiguity is a significant characteristic of art of the past ten years, and the avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s only goes so far in providing a historical foundation for those hybrid practices. The fluidity of recent contemporary art can be better understood if the legacy of the avant-garde is joined by the tradition of the counterculture.
Several countercultural practices discussed in this collection of essays do not reject the avant-garde but take it to a point beyond recognition. These counterculturalists were actually the most enthusiastic followers of the avant-garde’s call for the integration of art into life. This is the story of Drop City, whose founders began by practicing a kind of conceptual and performance art they called Drop Art. Inspired in part by Allan Kaprow’s Happenings and John Cage’s experiments in chance operations, they would drop objects off buildings and watch the effects on the street below. The commune they formed later was a work of Drop Art writ large, a total integration of art into life. Similarly, Bonnie Ora Sherk created a surreal, pastoral scene, complete with a cow, on the breakdownlane of the James Lick Freeway as part of a series of art projects she called Portable Parks. She then went on to cofound The Farm, an art and urban agriculture community, manifesting the connection between nature and culture as an ongoing social practice. She transformed the activity of making art into the work of perpetuating a lifestyle. Fayette Hauser was a painter, who integrated realistic and abstract elements into her canvases, before she herself became part of the tableaux vivant of the Cockettes.
Though some counterculturalists imagined themselves continuing the avant-garde tradition, others were drawing from alternative sources. Emory Douglas and Yolanda M. Lôpez were too interested in using art to communicate powerful messages to their constituencies to join the avant-garde in its exploration of the definition of art. Dharma art and goddess-inspired art were clearly drawing from nonwestern spiritual traditions and ancient practices. The Cockettes were responding to musical theater, while video art collectives were responding to television. The Diggers were an outgrowth of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which invoked a European tradition of art, but not the avant-garde tradition.
There are some art practices discussed in this book that preceded the counterculture but became affiliated with it - more and less willingly - as the counterculture swept through its environs. Paolo Soleri’s settlements in Arizona became a countercultural mecca, even though Soleri’s utopian vision derived from an older modernist foundation. Counterculturalists saw their own values mirrored in the communal living arrangement, the handmade craft work connecting them directly to the earth, and the vision of a new and better civilization. Similarly, Pond Farm was a residential craft workshop in northern California that can trace its roots to the Bauhaus. Though it was not born out of any hippie interest in emancipation or groove, it shared with the counterculture a belief in the authenticity of making by hand. Even Ansel Adams, who developed his aesthetic sensibility two generations before the youth of 1960s, finds his way into this collection. There is nothing loose about Adams’s photography, but there is more to the artist than the style of his pictures. One point of this volume is that the counterculture was not about a particular style. It was not about psychedelia. It was about an ethos that integrated art practices and life activities. It was about reforging modern civilization through individual actions and local practices.
That is the attitude that gathered together older and newer artistic endeavors. It is not surprising that so much contemporary art shows signs of the countercultural attitude. It can be seen as foundational for a certain kind of hybridity in today’s art. It is particularly evident in the growing number of artists who join together to operate as nonprofit entities, moving fluidly between the roles of artists, educators, researchers, designers, and community activists. This category ambiguity is especially found on the West Coast, in such creative entities as the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Future Farmers, Machine Project, and others. It is related to another trend sometimes referred to as a «pedagogic turn in contemporary art,» which was the subject of a 2009 conference at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York.» In this trend, artists and educators use the idiom of contemporary art to instigate social transformation. Signs of the counterculture are also visible in the embrace of craft and handmade production in contemporary art. A growing number of artists are drawn to traditional craft materials, from ceramics to fiber. However, it is significant that many of these artists did not inherit these methods through the tradition of avant-garde art. Rather, the counterculture had its impact in the arena of culture at large, with young artists picking up on a Do It Yourself, or DIY, style through youth and music culture in general. The DIY ethos visible in so much contemporary art worked its way from the counterculture to punk rock to the indie culture that pervades many art schools today.
<< Tilbake / Back