Archives for the day of: March 27, 2012

A friend of mine was New England bureau chief of a newspaper far away for a million years. No one in New England believed that they worked, which they did, about 14 hours a day, and would be slightly insulted when it was impossible to meet during their extensive business hours. No one in the city which published the newspaper for which they worked believed that they existed. For those of us who write, seeing the byline on an actual newspaper is evidence that we and our obsessions exist.

Such is my life online, I think, as I keep it very separated from the real life people I complain about, and regularly go about erasing online evidence that my LJ user name is connected to a “real” person name. To exist in the world, with a hyper real self online, is basically to have two identities, real and realer. You also can’t gossip with real people about what your imaginary friends online are up to.

Reading Hilton Kramer’s obituary today, in which his many combative campaigns on behalf of high modernism and mandarin aesthetics were detailed — I got pissed off at him for sneering at Vermeer simply because millions came out to view him — got me thinking about this dissociative state. Turns out a lot of things he took exception to I agree with. He was a staunch defender of Milton Avery, who I’ve loved since I first saw his stuff in the 60s. He came to prominence in an attack on Harold Rosenberg’s epochal essay defining Abstract Expressionism, and with it New York City, as the epicenter of modernism. Kramer said, “By defining Abstract Expressionist painting as a psychological event, it denied the aesthetic efficacy of painting itself and attempted to remove art from the only sphere in which it can be truly experienced, which is the aesthetic sphere. It reduced the art object itself to the status of a psychological datum.”

Of post-modernism, and the idea that irony imbues and permits all kinds of immoral behavior, Kramer thought little. The obituary recalls

A resolute high modernist, he was out of sympathy with many of the aesthetic waves that came after the great achievements of the New York School, notably Pop (“a very great disaster”), conceptual art (“scrapbook art”) and postmodernism (“modernism with a sneer, a giggle, modernism without any animating faith in the nobility and pertinence of its cultural mandate”).

What’s interesting about Kramer is how often he is right for what seem to me the wrong reasons, ie., sticking to the canons of Western culture. I am for the canons of Western culture as well as those of all other cultures, including the counter-. Nothing is more soul-murdering, as I have recently been discovering in my tour of hippie memoir, than having to re-invent the wheel every day and have it collectivized by a guru on the make. Canons are good, exactly what’s missing in hippie existence, with feral masculinist values rushing in to take their place.

But this life of the mind — although it could and did have a financial effect, for example, on the sale of Milton Avery’s paintings and the reputations of all those jazz-hands museum exhibitions and tap-dancing curators — was one from which Kramer seemed detached. He fell into life as a critic and arts editor as a grad student of philosophy who’d made friends with the editor Philip Rahv. I sense that his mandarin or conservative view, while upholding clear standards, also appealed to the grey lady aesthetic of the New York Times who with Kramer, I submit, were to be cautious in admitting that the art forms of the 1960s were anything more than charlatanism — the mid-20th century equivalent of the outrage with which Manet in his day and Picasso in his were greeted. Unusually, I think, for the NYT, Kramer’s education was far from the Ivies or New York city’s socialist or bohemian purlieus like NYU or Cooper Union. A New Englander, and not of the Brahmin kind, Kramer’s attack on Rosenberg, published in Art News in 1952, was launched from a graduate school seminar on Dante and Shakespeare in Indiana. I’d add that I agree with him and think he was right in believing that psychoanalytic values in painting — as well as in the Stanislavsky acting method which has permitted so much horrific professional behavior by actors in Hollywood — are just as bullshit in aesthetics as they were in psychiatry.

At the end of his life, Kramer was surprised by his reputation as a dragon. “I’m really not very angry at all,” he told New York magazine in 1984. “I am appalled at times; astonished, disappointed, anxious, worried. I think of myself as judicious.”

And that detachment, being very different from who you are in the city far away where your byline is published in the daily newspaper, online, or as an art critic, is what I’m thinking about today. I know my friend and I, and Hilton Kramer, literally exist as our best selves in what you could call cyberspace. Is it true matter does not exist? And only the soul does?

I am coming down the home stretch in the magisterial and exceedingly well-written huge new biography of William James. It identifies as the keystone of his life one of the pages I have quoted over and over in my genocide work, James’ thought on the saintly virtue of poverty. James wrote:

Over and above the mystery of self-surrender, there are in the cult of poverty other religious mysteries. There is the mystery of veracity: “Naked came I into the world,” etc. — whoever first said that, possessed this mystery. My own bare entity must fight the battle — shams cannot save me. There is also the mystery of democracy, or sentiment of the equality before God of all his creatures. This sentiment (which seems in general to have been more widespread in Mohammedan than in Christian lands) tends to nullify man’s usual acquisitiveness. Those who have it spurn dignities and honors, privileges and advantages, preferring, as I said in a former lecture, to grovel on the common level before the face of God. It is not exactly the sentiment of humility, though it comes so close to it in practice. It is humanity, rather, refusing to enjoy anything that others do not share.

Along these lines I am thinking the life of the mind, the cyber existence, the daily byline in a city far away, is more real.

Milton Avery, Gaspe Pink Sky, 1940

(c) Jeannette Smyth, all rights reserved.

I am reading Voices From the Farm, reminiscences of the founding and early years of the major persisting hippie commune. Founded in about 1970 by Stephen Gaskin and a couple hundred fellow refugees, and followers, of Haight Ashbury, the Farm persists to this day mainly because they made everybody get an outside job and tithe a serious proportion of their income to the Farm in the early 1980s. One refugee of what they call The Change Over was the Stanford graduate who returned penniless to San Francisco, and was appointed the first director of the WELL by Stewart Brand himself. The hippie toolie aspects of Hashbury, the Internet, Burning Man, are the important things to keep in mind — how important, I was recently reminded by the influence of the San Francisco Zen Center on the restaurant business, locavoreism and slow food, a topic to which I shall return when I’ve completed note taking.

Meanwhile, hundreds of hippies who literally turned all their worldly goods over to the Farm made a go of it in Tennessee.

It is very interesting and puzzling to think of — well, they’d have to be millenarians, I think — Americans voluntarily giving up running water, electricity, heat, sewers, and food other than soybeans and tortillas to live under Third World conditions in backwoods Tennessee. At least in the Third World there’s pineapples and stuff to eat growing wild.

They were regularly wracked with diseases of shit-contamination, including hepatitis. No one ever checked the oil on the communal vehicles, with the result that they frequently blew up when the one lawyer, for example, on the premises was due in Tennessee state supreme court to argue that their guru should not be cut from the eligible voter list on account of his serving time for growing marijuana. Whenever they got the chance to leave the farm in one of the vehicles, on farm business, the hippies would skim from the top of the petty cash they had been given for their business and binge on Coca Cola and candy bars. The vehicles would be returned to the motor pool with wrappers and cans ankle deep on the floor.

The Farm was a magnet for prisoners on parole, mental patients, runaways, and girls attracted by the anti-abortion midwives’ invitation to come have your baby free on the farm and leave it here with the hippies. Until you want it back. No provision was made for the care of these fragile and dangerous people, including the foster children whose merry-go-round lives, as their junkie slut mothers collected them and dropped them off at the farm, prevented their being sufficiently educated to work or to stay clean.

Mental patients regularly went off their medication — I can’t determine whether or not this was a policy of the Farm, which, as I understand it, grew marijuana but forbade alcohol and cigarettes — and were contained, barely, at the gate house with companion hippies called “trippers”. At least one was restrained by trippers and relieved, raving, of his large sharp knife. At what point, if any, these people graduated the gate house and penetrated to the visitors’ tent, where they were put to work and sheltered and fed, badly, but for free, is never quite made clear. Mental patients, male violence with impunity, “starry-eyed Germans”, and jobless, gigolo PhD. rockstars, if not parolees, also feature heavily in Roberta Price’s well-written and unflattering memoir, Huerfano. You can see in these memoirs how Manson was not an aberration, only a matter of degree.

Loners were taken in, people who could only get by in group homes or co-housing. When their caretakers left, the married couples they’d bonded with, or the dorm mates, the loners disintegrated. One sensitive and spacey man turned his inheritance over to the Farm, and when the couple which had taken him into their family departed, he departed too, without prospects. A blind woman committed suicide during the Change Over. Her mother told the hippies she’d always been depressed, washing her own hands and the hippies’, too, of the suicide.

Henry Goodman said they killed themselves taking care of the mentally ill, the prisoners, the hundreds of unwed mothers, without ever having their own infrastructure of decent living in place. For example, the one and only outhouse cleaner would take days off to be a tripper with the mentally ill at the gate house. One can hardly blame him.

Many of the Farm residents had come from San Francisco in the Whole Earth Catalogue, Stewart Brand, hippie toolie tradition to build sustainable infrastructures. Far from this vision, Goodman and his housemates needed linoleum for the kitchen floors so the kids wouldn’t get sewage-borne giardia from crawling around on uncleanable raw plywood. The men of that particular household undertook an outside job and worked overtime, outside the Farm, nearly two months of Saturdays to earn the money to get new linoleum and correct the fly-breeding swamp outside caused by their hippie ass plumbing. They got a “nice check”. Gaskin announced that it would be collectivized, explicitly from the anti-Marxist capitalists who had worked so hard to earn it  — for some such project of his as sending the band in which he played to tour Europe, or to install cable TV, the major production of which was Gaskin’s own Sunday sermons. Meanwhile, the children’s bill at the hospital mounted up and went unpaid.

In short, every medieval demon from cholera to schizophrenia bedevilled the Farm, in addition to the persisting belief that a completely unsuccessful, virtually gigless, rock and roll band was required, and privileged to financial support, to spread the message of the Farm.

Mind control on a slender thread of credentials — Gaskin was a kind of Buddhist, and (I have to check this) there is an ominous sentence quickly passed over about a financial connection to the San Francisco Zen Center of scandalous repute — was the ethos. Hints of how it turned into persecution are permitted in the memoir; and how it left the many very vulnerable people under its edict to fend for themselves. At the end of the book Cynthia Holzapfel says, “We had formerly preached a philosophy of self-reliance, pulling yourself up by your boot straps. What we learned is that there are people who have no boot straps.”

It sounds pretty ruthless, actually. With nothing to eat — no fruit or real vegetables, they write about how delicious were condiments to their soy bean diets — the bean sprouts, the kosher pickles, processed by somebody’s great uncle, an ancient deli counterman they’d sprung from a nursing home (for his money, I suspect).

What’s haunting is the squalor and the power hierarchies: mounds and mountains of shit, the parolees, the unmedicated mental patients, the privileged men who went touring with the band, and Gaskin’s sucking up to the local sheriff like the former Marine he was. The hippies thought it was genius.

(c) Jeannette Smyth, all rights reserved.

%d bloggers like this: