"Would you like to go to the Bronx Zoo?" "Nah, man, I'm too 'beat,' I was up all night." (Allan Ginsberg, "Prologue" to the catalogue)
The opening was incredibly crowded. It was hard to get into the Whitney. But most of the crowd was old and seemed to have had a connection to the stuff in the show. I didn't really, but I liked it since all of this stuff seemed to be forgotten or surviving only in the "underdeveloped" parts of eastern Europe where there is no Flash Art on the table yet. Of course I couldn't see much of the show, so I bought the great looking catalog: there I can read in the prologue by Ginsberg about the origin of the word and the movement:
"They were discussing the nature of generations, recollecting the glamour of the Lost Generation, and Kerouac said, "Ah, this is nothing but a beat generation." They talked about whether it was a "found generation" (as Kerouac sometimes referred to it), an "angelic generation," or some other epithet. But Kerouac waved away the question and said beat generation - not meaning to name the generation, but to unname it."
The most interesting thing is to see how this generation, -- and people prefer the word "generation" over the word "movement" more, since its cultural achievements were absorbed by the growing middle class mass consumer culture at large in the beginning of the cold war -- was not so unlike all the following ones that also have made careers as losers and wannabe artists. And right now, aren't they trying to market one called "generation X" for whom Calvin Klein wants to deliver not just the underwear but also the images and myths to which they aspire?
Visually speaking, this "beat generation" is compelling since it has anticipated a lot of strategies of productions we find so proliferate in everything that follows. Since most of the activities were not at all gallery and museum oriented, but took place in coffee shops, bars, music halls (rock'n'roll, jazz, etc.) in books and 'on the road'. The most important things were cultural and political achievements: sexual liberations, women and gay liberations, black liberation, Gray Panther activism, drug liberations, oppositions to state and its military complex, to the destructions of nature etc....
There rests only one curious question: Why is it that in a time of openly reactionary
political tendencies - in Europe and in the USA - the "Beatniks" seem to be so
attractive in their life style, politics and activities for our own time? Is
it only cultural consumption of images and cliche histories or is it already
in anticipation of soon up coming new "liberation" movements, since all the
social, ethical, racial and political achievements since then and thanks to
their work are in front of our eyes disenfranchised, disavowed and reversed? And don't forget that this generation with its white and blacks, straight and
gays, was beaten up by the police and the state apparatus that not just ruined
careers but also lives. And this happened before and parallel to the co-option
of their counter-cultural activities to a markatable lifestyle fashion that is again becoming hip.
My boy, Beatitude is now being served up on a platter for mass consumption... yet another pose, another mask to wear... to imagine, in its day, it sought to liberate itself from masks, to pry the psyche loose from the gummy, weighty conformity of middle america with all its repressions and pieties... now look what they've done... turned it into a Style, it has been remarketed as the very thing it sought to reject! Now we will have the Beat Look...bongos anyone?
morgan, I am not so sure like you and the NY times are that it were these beatniks that turned towards a mass marketing of their postions. I just read the negative review by the NY times on this show and all they were concerned with was the purity of jackson pollock and some otheres they didn't want to have in the show... they also ignored the price most of these protagonists payed: and I just refer you to the catalog text by maurice berger who wonderfully describes the harrassements and consequences they had to go through. I think it is time to distinguish between a mass cultural product labeled style and the cultural, political and ideological activities by the people who later are turned into an icon for the style they seem to have promoted (in fact tehy didn't, theydidn't make money with it: most of them are still poor, and ginsberg only in these days could sell his archive and was lucky it hadn't burned down somewhere in the east village....)
what I meant to say was probably more in line with what you are saying here... the Beats had a "project", or so it seems, that had to do with establishing an identity that was contrary to acceptble identity constructs available at the time... the Beats were engaged in a process, the Beat condition was a process, and maybe a misguided, romantic, escapist process in certain ways, but in other ways a real attempt to find a truer center of selfhood than what the surrounding American Condition could offer.... american culture was at the height of a paranoia that would be difficult to understand today, and the pressure to conform, make no waves, talk the talk, was extreme. The personal cost could be measured in the distance one felt from one's personal emotional reality (the great overlooked Beat, in my humble opinion, is Stanley Kubrick)... O.K. whatever gets you through, so to speak... but, now we see the Spectacle of Beatnikness, something like Marx said about history repeating itself as farce...
Maybe you find an answer if look at show not only through the catalogue but at its visual manifestation at the Whitney. What was somehow frightening was the reduction of a cultural/political/social formation to "a bunch of paintings and photographs". There was nothing referring to the indeed eminent "black" influences, their function as style providers, women were mainly present as naked media images, McCarthy was not mentioned a single time within the show... I could go on for a while like that. ButI I think this already tells enough about what function this show is supposed to fulfill. Get a "cool" topic, collect a bunch on paintings from the period and pretend you are dealing with and addressing a social/cultural/historical formation. You don't have to establish a diverse approach not only to the topic but to "working with history" within an exhibition context. It will still make a nice opening. If you can't see what's on show, it functions even better.
have you checked the catalogue.. there is a very good article about all the topics you miss - by maurice berger.
I did not get the catalogue yet. I am sure M. Berger's article is good, he is a good writer. But what I am very sceptical about is this approach to dealing with history on a exhibtion level. To leave all the rather political and social background/context to the publicatation appears to me as a "foul" excuse, no matter how good a text is. Because the show is gonna be mainly percieved in terms of the objects on display which makes it look like "Beat" was about "having a good time" or "being on the road". Which is an aspect of it, but it constructs a notion of history which excludes the implicit conflicts, etc. And also to see something like that done in an institution like the Whitney (especially after this year's Biennial) has a political edge.
I fully agree with what you say. I couldn't see the show really; there were too many people at the opening. But there are some good texts in the catalog that take very much the african american situation into consideration. I encountered about 20 african american visual artists in the catalog as a name and counter checked it with works on show: guess what - none on view (at least, I couldn't find any). As I already pointed out and tried to stress earlier in my review such a show should radically question our contemporary approach to not just beat history (that in fact was a very tragic and brutal one, filled with abuse - and one does find lots of traces in there, and be it just in a picture of a toilet that gives you a sink for "white" and one for "colored" : a situation that the beates helped to change) but also to our own time, that is radically suffering from serious reactionary backlashes. And I suggest to not fully trash the efforts of such a show in toto, in spite of the fact that the visual presentation sucks and is compromised. Because in the catalog we can see that there are efforts done that are not just highly valuable but also about to be erased as well from the present political climate. And when you check, what I wrote about the NY times review and their concerns - pure formal and canonical concerns - we know that there are other forces out there as well...
Beautiful writing Rainer, very passionate and truthful to the core. We can't live somebody else's lives. We can prurchase a wistful imas image and wonder what it felt like.
It's about time this work was pulled together in a museum - hell, that's what museums are for. It's not the works fault that when you place it within those walls that it takes on a new vibe. There's things in the show I liked lots - the west coast portion of the show in particular. The opening was far to crowded to see the other materials (books, ephemera, timelines, music, video, etc.) - the one painful thing that was very lame was the new york portion of the show - come on Whitney - Jim Dine? Please!!