Friday, May 25, 2007

Historical Chutzpah

This was the week that the San Francisco Chronicle looked back on the Summer of Love, primarily through a series of articles by Joel Selvin that ran on Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Selvin's theme, expressed in his first headline, was that this was the "stuff that myths are made of." Bearing in mind that this was very much a "local" story, I just have to wonder why the Whitney Museum could not have been as perceptive, at least on the basis of the New York Times report of their show, “Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era.” That report was enough for me to select the Whitney as the recipient of the Chutzpah of the Week award. However, before I build up my argument I should establish two points of context:

  1. I was not part of the Summer of Love.
  2. I have never been a great fan of the Whitney.

These points are actually related, so let me elaborate a bit on this context. I graduated MIT in the spring of 1967. I was part of the first graduating class to receive diplomas from a president who had previously been on the Business School Faculty (which I did not recognize at the time for the omen it was). I cannot remember if any previous graduating classes had worn black armbands in protest of our "adventure" (the same word I now use in reference to Iraq) in Vietnam; but quite a few graduates in my class did. (For the record, I did not; for better or worse, I was too involved in other matters, which I shall get to quickly.) The only other thing I remember is my parents telling me that Lorne Greene's son was in my graduating class (I never met him); so his dad was there signing autographs.

More important was that EUTERPE, my first serious venture into computer music, had been my senior thesis; so I was looking forward to spending the summer working at Marvin Minsky's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, continuing that work before starting in on my doctoral program. This was also the summer I started to build up my writing chops, particularly in writing about the performing arts with a primary focus on dance and a secondary focus on avant-garde music. This "beat" led me to many trips to New York, none of which involved the Whitney. My greatest "rebellion" was to take a down-and-dirty approach to my subject matter; and, for all the ferment in the art world, the Whitney always felt far too detached and posh for my personal tastes.

So the summer of 1967 was not particularly memorable for me. I had my "own things to look at," as Douglas Adams put it many years later; and I was of an age when that was all that mattered. My own personal revolution came in the summer of 1968, because that was when I got to know John Cage and most of the other members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Without that encounter my doctoral thesis could not have turned out the way it did. It was literally a life-altering experience (which began with mushroom hunts but never involved anything psychedelic) that kept me in touch with Cage on and off until I left for Singapore in 1991.

Cage died while I was in Singapore. Apparently, I was the only person Singapore Radio could find who had a personal experience with him; so I allowed myself to be interviewed by way of an obituary. As a "punch line," I concluded with the observation that Cage taught me to question everything my teachers told me. Today, with the wisdom of a talk that Jacques Derrida gave at Stanford, I would revise that slightly: I would say that Cage taught me to question all professions, taking the word, as Derrida did, to simultaneously denote an institution and the statement of an assertion. This is the basis for my argument about the Whitney show!

Now all I have to go on is the report that Holland Carter provided to The New York Times. I have no idea how old Carter is. My guess is that he is not older than I am, just because anyone of that age seems to have been "ejected" from the newspaper business as a casualty of rampant cost-cutting. However, regardless of whether he had any relevant life experiences in 1967, Carter follows the same rules I used to follow in my own performing-arts writing: Start by reporting on the experience, and save the opinions for whatever column space may then remain. He may have been a bit heavy on introductory context (but, given what I just wrote, how can I attack him on that?); but the text he writes to retraces his steps through the exhibit demonstrate that he has what it takes to be a good reporter. As I have previously written, I agree with Plato that good descriptive language is critical to knowledge; and Carter seems to be in my camp on this.

Having dealt with description, Carter has his grounds for moving on to opinion:

“Summer of Love” is stuck on the style, or rather stuck on the effort to make one style the whole ’60s story. It pushes hard, covering wall after Whitney wall with posters for concerts at rock emporiums like the Fillmore West and East, or British clubs like UFO and the Fifth Dimension. (The show has a substantial British section; it was organized by Christoph Grunenberg, director of the exhibition’s originating museum, the Tate Liverpool.)

Here is where the Whitney chutzpah begins. Lots of things were happening in the Sixties, particularly after 1965; but both the reality and the myth of the Summer of Love were anchored in a very localized San Francisco experience. Since the heart of that experience was Golden Gate Park, even the Fillmore (only someone on the "other coast" would call it "Fillmore West") was a side show for this particular event. Any attempt to link this experience to related experiences in New York or Britain (even with the Liverpool connection to the Beatles) misses the point of the concept; and any major misconception that is reinforced by the "professionalism" (Derrida-style) of the Whitney crosses the line from a blunder to an act of chutzpah. In other words it is not just that the Whitney has missed the point but that they have now institutionalized their misunderstanding!

Now Carter steers clear of saying anything about what did or did not happen in San Francisco in the summer of 1967 (which means he is also a good student of Jane Austen). He prefers to write about the broader context of political ferment, which was certainly equally strong on both coasts. He takes the Whitney to task for ignoring this aspect of the experience, building up to the following conclusion:

So, we discover in 40-year retrospect, love was never all you needed; in the 1960s, in fact, it was barely there. “Summer of Love” doesn’t feel like a particularly loving show, and the ’60s, as seen through its lens, isn’t a loving time, unless by love you mean sex, which was plentiful, as it tends to be in youth movements.

But altruism, selflessness? Young people are by definition narcissistic, all clammy ego. They want what they want. There is no past that matters; the future isn’t yet real. Some might say — I would say — that American culture in general is like this, though not all of it. And if the kids in “Summer of Love” are stoned on self-adoration, there were also an extraordinary number of young people during the Vietnam era who engaged in sustained acts of social generosity. And they made art.

I mention this in light of the Flower Power revivalism of the past few years, in contemporary art and elsewhere. Psychedelia and collectivity are back (and already on their way out again). But the revival is highly edited; a surface scraping; artificial, like a bottled fragrance. No one these days is thinking, “Turn on, drop out.” Everyone is thinking, “How can I get into the game?”

The Whitney show, maybe without intending to, suggests that this was always true, and makes such an attitude seem inevitable and comprehensible. So, let’s have another ’60s show, an incomprehensible one, messier, stylistically hybrid, filled with different countercultures, and with many kinds of music and art, a show that makes the “Summer of Love” what it really was: a brief interlude in a decade-long winter of creative discontent.

This was a good way for him to wrap up his perspective; but I think he missed one crucial point, which is that the kids "stoned on self-adoration" in 1967 probably constituted a good chunk of the public now coming to this Whitney exhibit! They are all grown up now; and (guess what?) most of them are probably still stoned on self-adoration! In other words I read this whole affair as a massive attempt to pander to an audience that probably has the affluence to keep the Whitney afloat but needs to be titillated with a nostalgia for a past they never really had. My guess is that this whole affair was basically a fund-raising strategy; and it will be interesting to see whether or not it succeeds. Whatever the case may be, there is definitely an element of chutzpah in passing an act of pandering off as a major artistic event; but I hope the Whitney will accept the award with pride!

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