Commentary Magazine


Sensibility in the 60's

Each decade—we think now of decades or generations as the units of social time—has its hallmarks. That of the 1960’s was a political and cultural radicalism. The politics is, for the moment, spent, but cultural radicalism follows a more complicated course. I propose to examine here the cultural radicalism of the 60’s through the prism of its sensibility, in order to cast light on changes in the society itself.

In defining the sensibility of the 60’s, one can see it in two ways: as a reaction to the sensibility of the 50’s; and as a reversion to, and yet also an extension of, an earlier sensibility which reached its apogee in the modernism of the years before World War I.

The sensibility of the 50’s was largely a literary one. In the writings of such representative critics of the period as Lionel Trilling, Yvor Winters, and John Crowe Ransom, the emphasis was on complexity, irony, ambiguity, and paradox. These are properties peculiar to the mind. They foster a critical attitude, a detachment and distance which guard one against any overwhelming involvement, absorption, immolation in a creed or an experience. At worst a form of quietism, at best a mode of self-consciousness, this attitude is essentially moderate in tone. The sensibility of the 60’s rejected that mood in savage, even mindless fashion. In its fury with the times, the new sensibility was loud, imprecatory, prone to obscenity, and given to posing every issue, political or otherwise, in disjunctive correlatives.

The more enduring mood, however, derives from the earlier impulses. The modernist innovations that flared so effulgently between 1895 and 1914 wrought two extraordinary changes in the culture. First there was a set of formal revolutions in the arts—the breakup of poetic syntax, the stream-of-consciousness in fiction, the multiplicity of the picture plane on the canvas, the rise of atonality in music, the loss of sequence in temporal representation and of foreground and background in spatial pictorialization. And second there was a new presentation of the self which Roger Shattuck (in The Banquet Years) has characterized in terms of four traits—the cult of childhood; the delight in the absurd; the reversal of values so as to celebrate the baser rather than the higher impulses; and a concern with hallucination.

That earlier sensibility—at least judging from these four traits—was still very much with us in the 60’s, albeit in a shriller and harsher form. The stress on the pain of childhood was replaced, in the “confessional” poetry of Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath, by the revelation of the most private experiences—even psychotic seizures—of the poet, though the sense of innocence remained intact in the work of poets like Allen Ginsberg, with its visionary emphasis derived from Whitman, Blake, and the Indian Vedas. The sense of absurdity was extended so that—as in the plays of Ionesco—objects began to take on a life of their own. The reversal of values became virtually complete, though all joy and prankishness were drained out of the celebration of the base. Hallucination, of course, was enthroned in the drug and psychedelic experience.

Yet to all this the sensibility of the 60’s also added something distinctly its own; a concern with violence and cruelty; a preoccupation with the sexually perverse; a desire to make noise; an anti-cognitive and anti-intellectual mood; an effort once and for all to erase the boundary between “art” and “life”; and a fusion of art and politics. To take each of these traits briefly, in turn:

The violence and cruelty that one saw splashed on film was not meant to effect catharsis, but sought instead to shock, to maul, to sicken. Films, Happenings, paintings vied with each other in presenting gory detail. One was told that such violence and cruelty simply reflected the world around us, but the 1940’s, a gorier and far more brutal decade, did not produce the lingering on sanguinary detail one found in films of the 60’s like Bonnie and Clyde and M*A*S*H.

The sexually perverse is as old as Sodom and Gomorrah, at least in recorded time, but rarely has it ever been flaunted as openly and directly as in the 60’s. In such films as Andy Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls, in the Swedish / Am Curious (Yellow), in such plays as Futz and Ché, one found an obsessive preoccupation with homosexuality, transvestism, buggery, and, most pervasive of all, publicly displayed oral-genital intercourse. What this obsession seemed to represent was a flight from heterosexual life, perhaps in response to the release of aggressive female sexuality which was becoming evident at the end of the decade.

The 50’s, one could almost say of its sensibility, had been a period of silence. The plays of Samuel Beckett tried to achieve a sense of silence, and the music of John Cage even attempted an aesthetic of silence. But the 60’s was preeminently a period of noise. Beginning with the “new sound” of the Beatles in 1964, rock reached such soaring crescendos that it was impossible to hear oneself think: and that may indeed have been its intention.

The anti-cognitive, anti-intellectual mood was summed up in the attack on “content” and interpretation, in the emphasis on form and style, in the turn to “cooler” media like film and dance—a sensibility, in Susan Sontag’s words, “based on indiscriminateness, without ideas [and] beyond negation.”

Erasing the boundary between art and life was a further aspect of the breakup of genre, the conversion of a painting into a Happening, the taking of art out of the museum into the environment, the turning of all experience into art, whether it had form or not. By celebrating life, this process tended to destroy art.

Art and politics were probably more intensely fused in the 60’s than at any time in modern history. During the 1930’s, art had served politics, but in a heavyhanded ideological way. In the 60’s the emphasis was not on ideological content, but on temper and mood. Guerrilla theater and demonstration art had little content except anger. One would have to go back to the anarchism of the 1890’s, when art was also flushed with politics, to find a comparable tone, but what was most evident in the 1960’s was the scale and intensity of feeling that was not only anti-government, but almost entirely anti-institution and ultimately antinomian as well.

And yet what is striking about the 60’s is that with all the turbulence, there was not one noteworthy revolution in aesthetic form. The preoccupation with machines and technology only served to recall the Bauhaus and Moholy-Nagy; the theater echoed the practices of Alfred Jarry and the theories of Antonin Artaud; the japes in art repeated Dada or drew rhetorically from surrealism. Only in the novel, perhaps, in the linguistic brilliance of Nabokov, the spatial dislocations of Burroughs, and in some elements of the nouveau roman in France, did any interesting innovations appear. It was a decade, despite all the talk of form and style, empty of originality in both. But in sensibility, there was an exacerbation of tone and temper, the fruits of an anger, political in origin, which spilled over into art as well. What remains of importance for cultural history was the mood, which turned against art, and the effort by large masses to adopt and act out the life style which hitherto had been the property of a small and talented elite.

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II

The Dissolution of “Art

The arbiters of culture in the 1950’s prided themselves on holding out against the indiscriminate, the meretricious, and the trashy which were pouring from the mass media, and the pretentious and the arty which were the stamp of what was then universally known as “middlebrowism.” They sought to do this by insisting on a classic conception of culture and by setting forth a trans-historical and transcendental criterion for the judgment of art.

Perhaps the most incisive formulation of this point of view was Hannah Arendt’s. “Works of art,” she wrote, “are made for the sole purpose of appearance. The proper criterion by which to judge appearance is beauty . . . in order to become aware of appearances we must first be free to establish a certain distance between ourselves and the object. . . .”

We have here a Greek view of art in which culture is essentially contemplative. Art is not life, but in a sense something contrary to life, since life is transient and changing while art is permanent. To this Miss Arendt adds the Hegelian concept of objectification. A work of art is the projection by the creative person of an idea or an emotion into an object outside himself: “. . . What is at stake here,” Miss Arendt wrote, “is much more than the psychological state of the artist; it is the objective status of the cultural world which insofar as it contains tangible things—books and paintings, statues, buildings, and music—comprehends, and gives testimony to, the entire recorded past of countries, nations, and ultimately of mankind. As such the only nonsocial and authentic criterion for judging these specifically cultural things is their relative permanence and even eventual immortality. Only what will last through the centuries can ultimately claim to be a cultural object.”

The paradox is that this view—which in the 1960’s came to seem so archaic—was undercut not by the lowbrows or middlebrows but by the highbrows—the very prelectors of modern culture themselves. For in seeking to define what was distinctive about the new sensibility, they denied precisely the terms set forth by Miss Arendt. The locus of art and culture, they argued, had moved from the independent work to the personality of the artist, from the permanent object to the transient process. It was Harold Rosenberg, explicating the work of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and other “action painters,” as he called them, who first stated the concept forcefully:

“At a certain moment,” Rosenberg wrote, “the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze, or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event. . . . In this gesturing with materials the aesthetic, too, has been subordinated. Form, color, composition, drawing . . . can be dispensed with. What matters always is the revelation contained in the act.”

If painting is an action, there is no difference between the preliminary sketch and the finished object. The second cannot be “better” or more complete than the first. There are no preliminaries or hierarchies in art, and each act is an event by itself. In effect, the work qua work is dissolved in the act, and so is the critic. “The new painting,” Mr. Rosenberg concluded, “has broken down every distinction between art and life. It follows that anything is relevant to it. Anything that has to do with action—psychology, philosophy, history, mythology, hero-worship. Anything but art criticism. The painter gets away from art through his act of painting; the critic can’t get away from it. The critic who goes on judging in terms of schools, styles, form—as if the painter was still concerned with producing a certain kind of object (the work of art) instead of living on the canvas—is bound to seem a stranger.”

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Mr. Rosenberg proved a formidably accurate prophet. The entire movement of art in the 60’s sought to dissolve the work of art as a “cultural object,” and erase the distinction between subject and object and between art and life. Nowhere was this more apparent than in sculpture, or in the fusion of sculpture and painting, and the dissolution of both into spaces, environments, motions, media-mixes, Happenings, and the creation of “man-machine” interaction systems.

Sculpture classically dealt preeminently with objects. It concerned itself with mass as solid form, and was anchored in three-dimensional space. It was placed on a base or plinth that removed it spatially from the mundane ground or wall. In the 60’s all this went. The base was removed so that the sculpture fused with its surroundings. Mass dissolved into space and space turned into motion.

Thus the “minimal sculpture” (of Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Dan Flavin) abandoned imagery altogether. It sought to be nothing other than what it set forth: boxes, shapes, relations which were neither organic nor figurative nor emblematic nor anthropomorphic. They were literally Dinge an sich. Similarly in the case of a show organized by the Whitney Museum in the summer of 1968, which was labeled “Anti-Illusion: Procedures and Materials.” The materials were hay, grease, dirt, dog food, etc. The catalogue notes by James Monte opened with the observation: “The radical nature of many works in this exhibition depends less on the fact that new materials are being used by the artists than on the fact that the acts of conceiving and placing the pieces take precedence over the object quality of the works.” The sculptures “each exist in either a deobjectified or scattered or dislocated state and in some instances the three conditions simultaneously.”

Lynda Benglis’s works of latex were poured onto the floor and allowed to develop their own form. Barry La Va used combinations of bulk chalk and mineral oil in conjunction with paper or cloth; when mixed, different forms emerged, depending on the degree of dryness or dampness, absorption or saturation. “La Va is able to use time as a substantial element in the recent pieces; he can project the sequential development of the work in a way analogous to that in which a biologist estimates the growth of micro-organisms developed in a laboratory.” The air sculpture of Michael Asher was literally a curtain of air defining the height, width, and depth of a transit area from one gallery to the next. One felt the “space” by pressure on the body when passing through. “The disembodied literalism of the piece neatly alludes to a slab form without carpentry. Feeling and therefore knowing replaces the cycle of seeing and hence knowing the sculptural presence.”

In 1968, too, Robert Morris declared before a notary public that he was “withdraw[ing]” from a construction he had made “all aesthetic quality and content.” Commenting on this extreme development of the “anti-form” movement, Harold Rosenberg wrote: “Aesthetic withdrawal . . . legitimizes ‘process’ art—in which chemical, biological, physical or seasonal forces affect the original materials and either change their form or destroy them, as in works incorporating growing grass and bacteria or inviting rust—and random art, whose form and content are divided by chance. Ultimately, the repudiation of the aesthetic suggests the total elimination of the art object and its replacement by an idea for a work or by the rumor that one has been consummated—as in conceptual art. Despite the stress on the actuality of the materials used, the principle common to all classes of de-aestheticized art is that the finished product, if any, is of less significance than the procedures that brought the work into being and of which it is the trace.”

A decade after his initial—and, at the time, approving—explication of “gestural” or “process” art, Rosenberg was now clearly a shade unhappy at the strident stage which this tendency had reached. He was now at pains to remind the younger artists that “aesthetic qualities inhere in things whether or not they are works of art. The aesthetic is not an element that exists separately, to be banished at the will of the artist. Morris could no more withdraw aesthetic content from his construction than he could inject it where it was missing.”

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Painting has followed a similar trajectory. From its origins in the distant past, painting always based itself on two elements: a symmetrical, geometric field and a flat surface. The first cave painter who put a line around the image he drew on the wall separated the picture from the environment; painting then became a symbol, rather than a magical manipulation, of reality.

Over the last hundred years, there have been many revolutions in painting. Pictorial space was broken up in many different ways: after Post-Impressionism, the shutters were closed on the interior distance, as Maurice Denis has put it, and painters became concerned primarily with surface, with color, with catching a sense of simultaneity, as in Cubism, by placing several planes on one plane, or, as in the paintings of Hofmann and de Kooning, with pigment itself.

In the last decades, we have witnessed the final break with field and surface, the traditional arena of painting. Pasted matter, as in collage, breaks up the surface; shaped canvases break up the geometrical field. Assemblages come off the wall. Environments surround the individual. In these two milieus, as Allan Kaprow, a leader of the new movement, points out, the illusion of space in the painting becomes the literal distance between all the solids in the work.

In 1969, the Museum of Modern Art gave its imprimatur to the new movement with the show “Spaces,” organized by Jennifer Licht. Here the eclipse of distance was complete: the picture was reversed and the spectator stood within rather than without. Miss Licht wrote: “In the past, space was merely an attribute of a work of art, rendered by illusionistic conventions in painting or by displacement of volume in sculpture, and the space that separated viewer and object was ignored as just distance. This invisible dimension is now being considered as an active ingredient, not simply to be represented but to be shaped and characterized by the artist, and capable of involving and merging viewer and art in a situation of greater scope and scale. In effect, one now enters the interior space of the work of art—an area formerly experienced only visually from without, approached, but not encroached upon—and is presented with a set of conditions rather than a finite object.”

The show consisted of six rooms, or spaces, one of which was filled with large constructions of yellow and green fluorescent light tubes. Another room had white acoustical panels. A third, of vacuum-coated glass, was almost entirely black. In a fourth, a gymnasium-like room, one could lie on mats or be wrapped in canvas shrouds and the like. In the garden a light, sound, and heat environment was organized by the Pulse group to provide a mixed-media response.

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Environmental art erases the boundary between the space and the person. Happenings erase the distance between the situation, or event, and the spectator. In Happenings, not just color and space but also heat, smell, taste, and motion become aspects of the work. As Allan Kaprow puts it: “Fundamentally, Environments and Happenings are similar. They are passive and active sides of a single coin whose principle is extension.”

A Happening is a pastiche that combines an environment as art-setting with a theatrical performance. It was originally a painters’ theater in which one saw the manipulation of objects and materials that made up the field of painting taken down from the wall, and put into the open. It brings the spectator into the process of “creation” itself.

In a Happening, as Jan Kott has observed, “all the signs are literal: a pyramid of chairs is only a pile of chairs placed one on top of the other; a stream of water which drenches the audience is merely a stream of water which drenches the viewers. In reality, there is not even a partition between the viewer and actors. . . .”

In this, the mimetic and symbolic functions of theater, to use Kott’s language, are eliminated. The expressive content becomes dissolved in the literal, and meanings as metaphor or emblems disappear. Even the idea of the evocative loses meaning because the event does not represent or picture something—it is. The emphasis on the literal is part of the attack on metaphysical expression. In Zen, for example, a philosophy which during the 60’s attracted many painters and poets, one does not use words like hard or soft, for these are attributes or qualities of a substance; and qualities and substance are metaphysical terms. One has to be exactly literal, and if comparisons are made they must refer to specific tactile experiences denoted by stone, wood, water, etc.

Such immersion in experience is a disruption of aesthetic distance, for one has lost control over the experience if one cannot step back and conduct one’s own “dialogue” with the work of art. This eclipse of distance, as I have characterized it,1 represents the overturning of the rational cosmology—the orderly sequence of time, of beginning and middle and end, as well as the “internal” organization of divided space, of foreground and background, of figure and ground—which has shaped Western conceptions of aesthetic experience since Alberti in the 15th century. It is not only the dissolution of the cultural object, the work of art, into a process. It is the dissolution of the self into experience.

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III

The Democratization of Genius

The notion of a hierarchy in the arts and of a cultural division of the audience (e.g., highbrows, middlebrows, and lowbrows), which was the hallmark of such representative cultural interpreters of the 1950’s as Hannah Arendt and Dwight Macdonald, necessarily implied the idea of standards and a vocation which guarded and defined those standards; namely, criticism. The 1940’s and the 1950’s have in fact been called the age of the critic and of the critical schools: the New Criticism of John Crowe Ransom, the textual criticism of R. P. Blackmur, the moral criticism of Lionel Trilling, the socio-historical criticism of Edmund Wilson, the dramaturgical stance of Kenneth Burke, the linguistic analysis of I. A. Richards, the mythopoeic criticism of Northrop Frye.

The theme of the 60’s, in contrast, was a distrust of criticism. Susan Sontag, a leading theurgist of the new sensibility, declared: “Today . . . the project of interpretation is largely reactionary. Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. . . . Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world.”

It was not only criticism but literature, with its “heavy burden of ‘content,’” which drugged the senses. The “model arts of our time,” she wrote, “are actually those with much less content, and a much cooler mode of moral judgment—like music, films, dance, architecture, painting, sculpture.”

Inevitably, the distinction between “high” and “low” (or “mass” or “popular”) culture came in for special scorn. As Miss Sontag saw it, this was merely a distinction between “unique and mass-produced objects.” In an era of mass technological reproduction, the work of the serious artist was deemed to have a special value because it bore an individual, personal signature. “But in the light of contemporary practice in the arts, this distinction appears extremely shallow. Many of the serious works of art of recent decades have a decidedly impersonal character . . . rather than . . . ‘individual personal expression.’ ”

The new sensibility was a redemption of the senses from the mind. “Sensations, feelings, the abstract forms and styles of sensibility count. It is to these that contemporary art addresses itself . . . we are what we are able to see (hear, taste, smell, feel) even more powerfully and profoundly than we are what furniture of ideas we have stocked in our heads.”

Moreover, “if art is understood as . . . a programming of sensations, then the feeling (or sensation) given off by a Rauschenberg painting might be like that of a song by the Supremes.” Thus, further distinctions were erased and sophisticated painting and popular music became equally valid for the “reorganization of consciousness,” or of the “sensorium,” which was now proclaimed as the function of art. In all this there was a “democratization” of culture in which nothing could be considered “high” or “low,” a syncretism of styles in which all sensations mingled equally, and a world of sensibility which was accessible to all.

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If there was a democratization of culture in which a radical egalitarianism of feeling superseded the older hierarchy of mind, there was also, by the end of the 60’s, a democratization of “genius.” The idea of the artist as genius, as a being apart who (in the description of Edward Shils) “need not regard the laws of society and its authorities” and who “aimed only to be guided by the inner necessities of the expansion of the self—to embrace new experiences,” goes back to the early 19th century. The artist, it was thought, looked at the world from a special point of view. Whistler proclaimed that artists were a class apart whose standards and aspirations stood outside the comprehension of the vulgar. If there was “a conflict between a genius and his public,” Hegel declared in a sentence which (as Irving Howe has noted) thousands of critics, writers, and publicists have echoed through the years, “it must be the public that is to blame . . . the only obligation the artist can have is to follow truth and his genius.”

In France, where the “man of letters,” as Tocqueville observed, had long taken the lead in “shaping the national temperament and the outlook on life,” this tradition took particularly deep hold. Not only were artists different, by virtue of their genius, from other mortals, they were also intended to be, as Victor Hugo put it, the “sacred leaders” of the nation. Indeed, with the decline of religion, the writer was more and more invested with the prerogatives of the priest, for he was seen as a man endowed with supernatural vision. In a stultifying world, the writer alone was the unadaptable man, the wanderer—like Rimbaud—in perpetual flight from the mundane. Joyce in Trieste, Pound in London, Hemingway in Paris, Lawrence in Taos, Allen Ginsberg in India, are the very prototypes of this artist-hero type in the 20th century. The pilgrimage to places far from the bourgeois home had become a necessary step in attaining independence of vision.

Underlying all of this is the belief that art tells a truth which is higher than that perceived via the ordinary cognitive mode, that the “language” of art, in the words of Herbert Marcuse, “must communicate a truth, an objectivity which is not accessible to ordinary language and ordinary experience.”

But what if, as Lionel Trilling has wryly observed (in a view which even “rather surprises” himself), “. . . art does not always tell the truth or the best kind of truth and does not always point out the right way”? What if art “can even generate falsehood and habituate us to it, and . . . on frequent occasions . . . might well be subject, in the interests of autonomy, to the scrutiny of the rational intellect”? This question is perhaps too large to be gone into here. But the exaltation of the artistic vision above all others also raises another, more pressing question: If the language of art is not accessible to ordinary language and ordinary experience, how can it be accessible to ordinary people?

One solution of the 60’s was to make each man his own artist-hero. In May 1968, the students at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris called for a development of consciousness which would guide the “creative activity immanent in every individual” so that the “work of art” and “the artist” become “mere moments in this activity.” And a 1969 catalogue of revolutionary art at the Moderna Muséet in Stockholm carried this injunction further by declaring that “Revolution is Poetry. There is poetry in all those acts which break the system of organization.” But such activist pronouncements—and the 60’s were not lacking in them—do not solve the problem of modernism, they only evade it.

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At the heart of the problem is the relationship of culture to tradition. When one speaks of a classical culture, or a Catholic culture, for example, one thinks of a long-linked set of beliefs, traditions, and rituals which over the course of history have achieved a distinctive style. The style results not only from an internally cohesive set of commonsense perceptions or formal conventions, but also from some notion of an ordered universe and of man’s place in it. By its very nature, modernity breaks with the past, as past, and erases it in favor of the present or the future. Men are enjoined to make themselves anew rather than to extend the great chain of being. Aristocracy, Tocqueville once said, links all members of the community from king to peasant, while democracy breaks the chain, severing each of its links. As a result, democracy “makes every man forget his ancestors.” Such an idea was of course attractive to an archetypal American artist like Walt Whitman, for whom culture was the enemy, evoking a literature “smelling of prince’s favors . . . and built entirely [upon] the idea of caste.”

Where culture is related to the past, accessibility to culture is shaped by tradition and expressed in ritual. Personal experiences and feelings are seen as idiosyncracies, irrelevant to the great chain of continuity. But when culture is concerned with the individual personality of the artist, rather than with institutions and laws, then singularity of experience becomes the chief test of what is desirable, and novelty of sensation becomes the main engine of change. Where culture is bound up with tradition, the individual strives to become cultivated. Where culture is concerned with the self, the striving is for “fulfillment” defined, as often as not, as the experiencing of sensations derived from exploring hitherto restricted areas of experience.

Modernist culture is a culture of the self par excellence. Its center is the “I” and its boundaries are defined by identity. The cult of singularity begins, as so much in modernity does, with Rousseau, who declares in the opening lines of his Confessions: “I am commencing an undertaking, hitherto without precedent. . . . Myself alone! I know the feelings of my heart.” And indeed, this pronouncement is completely without precedent in literature in its assertion of absolute singularity (“I am not made like any of those in existence”) and its dedication to absolute frankness (“I have neither omitted anything bad nor interpolated anything good”).

Yet it would be a mistake to confuse the “I” which begins every sentence of the first page of this book with simple narcissism (though that too is there); or to view the studied effort to shock the reader with dismaying detail (“. . . in agonies of death she broke wind loudly”) as nothing more than a form of exhibitionism. What Rousseau was attempting in the Confessions was to exemplify, as ruthlessly as seemed necessary, his dictum that truth is grasped through instinct or feeling, rather than through rational judgment or abstract reasoning. “I feel, therefore I exist.” Thus Rousseau’s Vicar revises the axiom of Descartes and at one stroke overturns the classical definition of authenticity as well as the definition of artistic creation which flows from it.

How can one know whether an experience is “authentic”—i.e., whether it i’s true and therefore valid for all men? The classical tradition had always identified authenticity with authority, with mastery of craft, with knowledge of form, and with the search for perfection, whether aesthetic or moral. Such perfection could be achieved, in Santayana’s words, only through “purification,” though a purging away of all accidental elements—the sentimental, the pathetic, the comic, the grotesque—in the quest for that essence which signifies completeness of form. Even where art is identified with experience, as in the theories of John Dewey, the emphasis remains on completeness as a criterion of aesthetic satisfaction. For Dewey, art was a process of shaping which involved an interaction between the “directive intent” of the artist and the refractory nature of experience. The work of art was complete when the artist had achieved “internal integration and fulfillment.” Art, in other words, remained a matter of pattern and structure, and the relationships among its separate elements had to be perceivable for a work of art to have meaning.

But the new sensibility that emerged in the 1960’s scorned such definitions completely. Authenticity in a work of art was defined almost exclusively in terms of the quality of immediacy, both the immediacy of the artist’s intention and the immediacy of his effect upon the viewer. In the theater, for example, spontaneity was all; the text was virtually eliminated and the reigning form became improvisation—exalting the “natural” over the contrived, sincerity over judgment, spontaneity over reflection. When Judith Malina, the director of the Living Theatre, said, “I don’t want to be Antigone [onstage], I am and want to be Judith Malina,” she aimed to do away with illusion in the theater, as the painters have eliminated it in art.

But to forgo the “respresentation” of another, in this instance, is not merely to forgo a text, it is to deny the commonality of human experience and to insist on a false uniqueness of personality. Antigone is a symbol—traditionally acted out on a stage spatially separated from the audience—which restates certain perennially recurrent human problems: the demands of civil obedience, the faithfulness of vows, the nature of justice. To eliminate Antigone, or deny her corporeality, is to repudiate memory and to discard the past.

Similarly, writing in the 60’s was judged by its genuineness of feeling, by its success in projecting “the unvarnished imaginative impulse,” and by its assertion that thought should not mediate spontaneity. Allen Ginsberg has said that he writes “to let my imagination go [to] scribble magic lines from my real mind.” Two of his best-known poems, we were told over and over, were written without forethought or revision: the long first part of Howl was typed off in one afternoon; Sunflower Sutra was completed in twenty minutes, “me at my desk scribbling, Kerouac at cottage door waiting for me to finish.” And in the same improvisatory manner, Jack Kerouac came to the point of typing his novels nonstop onto enormous rolls of paper-six feet per day—with never a revision.

Most of these reports from the artist’s workbench were approving, for the critics of the new sensibility were hardly less personal in tone than the artists. Faced with a play, a book, or a film, their purpose seemed less to evaluate it in traditional aesthetic terms than to express themselves about it: the work served mainly as an occasion for a personal statement. Thus did each work of art, whether painting, novel, or film, become a pretext for “another” work of “art”—the critic’s declaration of his feelings about the original work. “Action” art thus brought “action” response, and every man became his own artist. But in the process, all notion of objective judgment went by the board.

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The democratization of genius is made possible by the fact that while one can quarrel with judgments, one cannot quarrel with feelings. The emotions generated by a work either appeal to you or they don’t, and no man’s feelings have more authority than another man’s. With the expansion of higher education, and the growth of a semi-skilled intelligentsia, moreover, a significant change has taken place in the scale of all this. Large numbers of people who might previously have been oblivious to the matter now insist on the right to participate in the artistic enterprise—not in order to cultivate their minds or sensibilities, but to “fulfill” their personalities. Both in the character of art itself and in the nature of the response to it, the concern with self takes precedence over any objective standards.

This development has not been unforeseen. Thirty years ago Karl Mannheim warned that:

. . . the open character of democratic mass society, together with its growth in size and the tendency toward general public participation, not only produces far too many elites but also deprives these elites of the exclusiveness which they need for the sublimation of impulse. If this minimum of exclusiveness is lost, then the deliberate formulation of taste, of a guiding principle of style, becomes impossible. The new impulses, intuitions and fresh approaches to the world, if they have no time to mature in small groups, will be apprehended by the masses as mere stimuli. . . .

Other theorists of mass society like Ortega y Gasset, Karl Jaspers, Paul Tillich, Emil Lederer, and Hannah Arendt, whose writings were so influential in the 1950’s, were also concerned with the social consequences of the loss of authority, the breakup of institutions, and the erosion of tradition; but their emphasis was political rather than cultural. They saw mass society as highly unstable and a prelude to the onset of totalitarianism. But while their theory about the relation of the “masses” to society seems in retrospect overly simple in its judgments about social structure and crude in its analysis of the nature of politics, it did prove startlingly relevant to one segment of society—the contemporary world of culture. What these theorists called “massification”—to use one of their clumsier terms—is now taking place in the world of the arts. Style has become synonymous with fashion, and “new” styles in art displace one another in constant and bewildering succession. The cultural institutions do not work in opposition to the present, thereby providing the necessary tension for testing the claims of the new, but surrender without struggle to the passing tides.

High art, as Hilton Kramer has observed, “has always been elitist, even if the elite was only an elite of sensibility, rather than of social position. High art requires exceptional talent, exceptional vision, exceptional training and dedication—it requires exceptional individuals. . . .” Such a requirement is of course repugnant to any kind of populist ideology—including the populist ideology which holds sway in present-day American culture.2 Hence the haste with which so many critics have rushed to align themselves on the side of mass culture.

For the serious critic the situation poses a real dilemma. “The profession of criticism,” as Hilton Kramer points out, “made its historical debut at the very moment when high art needed to be defended against a large, ignorant public for the first time.” But that situation has long since changed. High art itself is in disarray, if not “decadent” (though that term has never been adequately defined); the “public” is now so culturally voracious that the avant-garde, far from needing defenders among the critics, is in the public domain. The serious critic, then, must either turn against high art itself, thereby pleasing its political enemies, or, in John Gross’s phrase, “resign himself to being the doorman at the discothèque.” This is the trajectory of the democratization of cultural genius.

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IV

The Loss of Self

The situation is most grave, perhaps, in the area of literature. The novel came into being some two hundred years ago, created by the sense of a world in upheaval. It was a means of reporting on the world of fact through the imagination, and the touchstone of the novel was involvement with experience—in all its variety and immediacy—refracted through the emotions and disciplined by the intellect. A novelist is, so to speak, a sample of one whose personal experiences are a kind of ur-experience. When he goes back into his own unconscious to scrape the burns of his psyche, he is in touch—if he is a good novelist—with the collective unconscious as well.

For the first hundred years or so of the novel’s existence, the task of the novelist was to elucidate society. But that task was eventually to prove impossible. As Diana Trilling has written, in seeking to define the contemporary burden of the novelist: “For the advanced writer of our time, the self is his supreme, even sole referent. Society has no texture or business worth bothering about; it exists because it weighs upon us and because it conditions us so absolutely. . . . [The] present-day novelist undertakes only to help us define the self in relation to the world that surrounds us and threatens to overwhelm it.”

This is a brilliantly accurate statement about the first half of the century; by the time we reached the 60’s, however, the novelist had lost even the self as referent, as the boundaries between the self and the world grew increasingly blurred. Mary McCarthy has said that a new kind of novel, “based on statelessness,” was beginning to be written at this time, and she cites as evidence the writings of Vladimir Nabokov and William Burroughs. I think this is to some extent true. In any event, writing in the mid-1960’s became increasingly autistic, and the voice of the novelist grew more and more disembodied.

In reading the novelists who have touched the nerve of the age, one finds that the major preoccupation of the 60’s was madness. When the social life has been left behind, and the self, as a bounded subject, has been dissolved, the only theme left is the theme of dissociation, and every important writer of the 60’s was in one way or another involved with this theme. The novels are hallucinatory in mode; many of their protagonists are schizoid; insanity, rather than normalcy, has become the touchstone of reality. Despite all the social turmoil of the decade, not one novel by these writers was political; none (with the exception of Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet) dealt with radicalism, youth, or social movements—yet all were anagogical in one way or another. What all this adds up to in the sensibility of these writers is an apocalyptic tremor—like the swallows before a storm—that seems to warn of some impending holocaust.3

The “simplest” writers are the Black Humorists—Joseph Heller, J. P. Donleavy, Bruce Friedman, Thomas Pynchon, and, for the “pop” audience, Terry Southern. They deal with absurd and nihilistic situations, the plots are nutty and mischievous, the style cool, farcical, zany, and slapstick. In all of the situations the individual is a kind of shuttlecock, batted back and forth by the inanities of huge and impersonal institutions. In Catch-22—one of the most popular novels of the 60’s—the protagonist cannot escape from the Air Force because by invoking a rule to show that he is mad, he proves he is really sane. It is the classical theme of folly.

In the science fiction and futurism of Anthony Burgess, Kurt Vonnegut, and William Burroughs the absurdities are heightened as the characters undergo actual changes in their physical form. The emphasis is on the gratuitousness of events and on the blurring of good and evil. In John Barth’s Giles Goat Boy, the world is fought over by two giant computers. In Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, the “plot” centers on a worldwide conspiracy—a theme that also occurs in Burroughs—and we await the end of America in an onrush of doomsday saturnalia.

Schizoid themes are made explicit in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Barth’s The End of the Road, and Mailer’s An American Dream. In Kesey’s book, parts of it written under the influence of peyote and LSD, a character fakes insanity to escape a jail term but ends up being lobotomized, while a schizoid Indian giant who has been a patient in the same hospital breaks out and “goes sane.” In Mailer’s An American Dream—with its obviously symbolic title—the protagonist Stephen Rojack acts out a variety of omnipotence fantasies—including confrontation by the CIA and other mysterious forces—and ends up by celebrating the power of thought waves to reach out to the beyond.

In the other major novelists of the period-Nabokov, Bellow, Burroughs, and Genet—the themes of fantasy predominate. Nabokov’s Pale Fire is a kind of fantastic detective story (as well as a melodramatic, labyrinthine conceit about power, love, and learning) consisting of an elaborate commentary on a long poem by a protagonist who may be a spy or the deposed king of an imaginary country resembling Russia—the confusion of identity is crucial. Ada (or Ardor, or many other versions) is an equally complex fantasy about love, which deliberately plays with anachronism to obliterate all distinctions between past and future time.

Saul Bellow—the only writer who in the end is anti-apocalyptic—raises the question: “Was it the time . . . to blow this great, blue, white, green planet, or to be blown from it?” Mr. Sammler’s Planet revolves, in large part, around the plan of an Indian physicist to colonize the moon as an escape from the overcrowding of the earth. Interwoven with Dr. Lal’s plan is a purported memoir of the life of one of the pioneering futurists, H. G. Wells. And Mr. Sammler himself—the novel’s beautifully rendered protagonist—is stateless, as though to emphasize the dissolution of all past structures.

Nabokov and Bellow are by temperament observers of the world, but with Burroughs and Genet the apocalypse is upon us. The world is literally and symbolically dismembered. In Burroughs, the excremental vision becomes tactile. Though Naked Lunch is ostensibly about the author’s battle with drug addiction, the theme of feculence runs like an open sewer through the book: there is a great preoccupation with anality, with bodily discharges of all kinds, with a horror of the female genitalia, and a lingering upon such images as the reflexive ejaculation of a hanged man during an execution. People are turned into crabs, or huge centipedes, or carnivores. Burroughs has said that the “novelistic form is probably outmoded,” and writers will have to develop more precise techniques “producing the same effect on the reader as lurid action photos.” His novels—Naked Lunch, and the trilogy including The Soft Machine, Nova Express, and The Ticket That Exploded—are “cut-up” books: “You can cut into Naked Lunch at any intersection.” It is a “continuous showing,” for Naked Lunch has no use for history. The other novels are written in strips and pasted up arbitrarily. Reality has no reality, for there are no more dimensions and no more boundaries.

Similar preoccupations run through the work of Jean Genet, but his writing is above all a celebration of the underclass. As Susan Sontag has written, “Crime, sexual and social degradation, above all murder, are understood by Genet as occasions for glory.” Genet sees the world of thieves, rapists, and murderers as the only honest world, for here the profoundest and most forbidden human impulses are expressed in direct, primitive terms. For Genet, fantasies of cannibalism and bodily incorporation represent the deepest truth about human desires.4

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V

The Dionysian Pack

Nowhere was the apocalyptic mood acted out more tirelessly than in that movement which called itself the “Dionysiac theater,” and which regarded the acting troupe as a kind of Dionysiac pack. Its main emphasis was on spontaneity, on orgiastic release, on sensory communication, on Eastern mysticism and ritual; its intention, unlike that of the older radical theater, was not to change the ideas of the audience so much as to reconstruct the psyches of both audience and actors through joint participation in ceremonies of liberation. The movement fostered a school of theater which was anti-discipline and anti-craft, on the ground that any shaping of performers or text, any form of artifice or calculation, was “non-creative and anti-life.”

In the traditional theater of the well-wrought play, there are no loose ends, no moral ambiguities, no unused bits of plot; there is always an underlying logic that guides the action to its conclusion, for the playwright wants to make a point. But the “new theater” distrusts what is orderly and condemns it as arbitrary and selective. Necessarily such a theater is not one of playwrights, for a written play is to some extent circumscribed and bounded, while the new theater wants to break open the action, to erase the distinction between spectator and stage, between audience and actor. Distrusting thought, it seeks to recapture in the theater a sense of primitive ritual.

The prototype of the new sensibility in the drama was the Living Theatre, organized by Julian Beck and Judith Malina. After traveling in Europe for several years, the troupe evolved a new style of random action and preached a form of revolutionary anarchism. In their new credo, “the theater must be set free” and “taken out into the street.” In words reminiscent of Marinetti’s Futuristic Manifesto, Beck launched an attack on the theater of the past:

All forms of the theater of lies will go. . . . We don’t need Shakespeare’s objective wisdom, his sense of tragedy reserved only for the experience of the high-born. His ignorance of collective joy makes him useless to our time. It is important not to be seduced by the poetry. That is why Artaud says, “Burn the Texts.”

In fact the whole theater of the intellect will go. The theater of our century, and centuries past, is a theater whose presentation and appeal is intellectual. One leaves the theater of our time and goes and thinks. But our thinking, conditioned by our already conditioned minds, is so corrupt that it is not to be trusted. . . .

Accordingly, in Paradise Now, the star piece of the Living Theatre, audiences were invited to cross the footlights and join the actors onstage, while other performers wandered all through the house smoking marijuana and engaging members of the audience in conversation. Now and then one or another actor would return to the stage, strip down to a loincloth, and encourage the audience to follow his lead. The intention (seldom achieved) was to organize some sort of mass saturnalia. Finally everyone was exhorted to leave the theater, convert the police to anarchism, storm the jails, free the prisoners, stop the war, and take over the cities in the name of “the people.”

_____________

 

If there is a single avatar of the new sensibility in the theater, it is the French writer and critic Antonin Artaud, who died in 1948. Trained originally as an actor, Artaud in 1928, together with Robert Aron, founded the Théâtre Alfred Jarry, where, in the spirit of Jarry, he proceeded to exorcise the audience. Artaud believed that one had “to put an end” to the subjugation of theater to text, and to recover the notation of a kind of unique language halfway between gesture and thought. While he did not advocate cruelty or sadism in daily life, Artaud believed that the ritualized violence of his theater could serve a therapeutic function by providing the audience with a sense of release. In this respect, he is part of the large stream of post-modernists who have attacked rationality and sought to return to the primitive roots of impulse.

In the United States of the 60’s, where the children of the affluent played, sometimes fatally, at revolution, and toyed, sometimes fatally, with hallucination, it was inevitable that theories like those behind Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty” would become fashionable without ever being really understood. (The “poor theater” of the Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, with its elimination of costumes, lighting, and sets, and its emphasis on suffering and death, enjoyed a similar vogue during this period, though its creator—an austere and isolated figure with a religious sense of calling—has since repudiated much of his following.) For in all the talk which went on during this period about the theater as ritual, there was a curious sense of emptiness, lack of conviction, and sheer theatricality.

Ritual, as Emile Durkheim has pointed out, depends first of all upon a clear distinction between the sacred and the profane, agreed upon by all participants in the culture. Ritual guards the portals of the sacred, and one of its functions is to preserve those taboos essential to an ongoing society through the sense of awe that ritual invokes; ritual, in other words, is a dramatized representation of sacred power. In a society which does not, however, start with this fundamental distinction between two realms of being, and which denies all notions of a hierarchy of ordered values, how can there be anything like meaningful ritual?

What the new theater called ritual devolved inevitably upon some celebration of violence. At first the violence remained within the confines of the work itself—as in the rite of exorcism in The Blacks in which the murder of a white man by a black is symbolically reenacted. Later, however, when the hunger for sensation had escalated into a demand for something more lifelike, Happenings gradually came to replace written plays as the chief arena for the enactment of violence. The theater only simulates life, after all, but in a Happening real blood could—and did—flow. In the “Destruction in Art” symposium, held in the Judson Church in New York in 1968, one of the participants suspended a live white chicken from the ceiling, swung it back and forth, and then snipped off its head with a pair of hedge clippers. He then placed the severed head between his legs, inside his unzippered fly, and proceeded to hammer the insides of a piano with the carcass. At the Cinémathèque in 1968, the German artist Herman Nitsch disemboweled a sheep onstage, poured the entrails and blood over a young girl, and nailed the carcass of the animal to a cross. At this “Happening,” performers of the Orgy-Mystery Theater hurled quantities of blood and animal intestines over each other, presumably reenacting the taurobolium rite of Rome, where a sacrificial bull was slaughtered over the head of a man in a pit as part of his initiation into the Phrygian mysteries. Both these events were reported, with pictures, in the magazine Art in America. Another event presided over by Mr. Nitsch, involving the ritual slaughter of an animal, was featured in a front-page picture in the Village Voice.

Traditionally, violence has been repugnant to the intellectual as a confession of failure. In discourse, individuals resorted to force only when they had lost the power of persuasion by means of reason. So, too, in art the resort to force—in the sense of a literal reenactment of violence on the canvas, on the stage, or on the written page—signified that the artist, lacking the artistic power to suggest the emotion, was reduced to invoking the shock of it directly. But in the 1960’s violence was justified not only as therapy, but as a necessary accompaniment to social change. Watching the children of the French upper bourgeoisie mouth the phrases of violence and chant from Mao’s Little Red Book in Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise, one realized that a corrupt romanticism was covering some dreadful drive to murder. Similarly in Godard’s Weekend, where a real slaughter of real animals takes place, one realized that the roots of a sinister blood-lust were being touched, not for catharsis but for kicks.

What the rhetoric of revolution permits—both in the new sensibility and the new politics—is the eradication of the line between playacting and reality, so that life (and such “revolutionary” actions as demonstrations) is played out as theater, while the craving for violence, first in the theater and then in the street demonstrations, becomes a necessary psychological drug, a form of addiction.

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VI

In Place of Reason

By the end of the 60’s, the new sensibility had been given a name (the counter-culture) and an ideology to go with it. The main tendency of that ideology—though it appeared in the guise of an attack on the “technocratic society”—was an attack on reason itself.5

In place of reason, we were told to give ourselves over to one form or other of pre-rational spontaneity—whether under the heading of Charles Reich’s “Consciousness III,” the “shamanistic vision” of Theodore Roszak, or the like. “Nothing less is required,” said Mr. Roszak, one of the movement’s most articulate spokesmen, “than the subversion of the scientific world view with its entrenched commitment to an egocentric and cerebral mode of consciousness. In its place, there must be a new culture in which the non-intellective capacities of personality—those capacities that take fire from visionary splendor and the experience of human communion—become the arbiters of the true, the good, and the beautiful.”

Revolutionary change, we heard over and over, must embrace psyche as well as society. But when we sought clues as to what this might mean in real terms—what form this new, presumably post-revolutionary, culture might take—we were given only further exhortations to cast off the deadening weight of cognition, and further celebrations of “the shaman’s rhapsodic babbling.”

Do these exhortations add up to anything more than a longing for the lost gratifications of an idealized childhood? This has been the recurrent yearning of all utopian movements. What is new, however, about the present Arcadian fantasy-other than its being dressed up in the language of psychology and anthropology—is that while in the past such longings were largely rhetorical (regard only the “eupsychia” of Fourier), in the 1960’s one found the fantasies and sexual demands of childhood acted out during adolescence on a mass scale unprecedented in cultural history. For what else was the demand for negation and indiscriminateness than a denial of those necessary distinctions—between sexes and among ideas—which are the mark of adulthood? What else was the youth culture of the Aquarian Age, the rock-drug dance of springtime, than the democratization of Dionysus?

_____________


Footnotes

1 Encounter, May 1965.

2 “Ours is the first cultural epoch,” Lionel Trilling has written, “in which many men aspire to high achievement in the arts and, in their frustration, form a dispossessed class which cuts across the conventional class lines, making a proletariat of the spirit.” “On the Modern Element in Modern Literature,” in The Idea of the Modern, edited by Irving Howe.

3 This reading, I know, completely ignores many prominent novelists of the decade—such as Updike, Salinger, Cheever, J. F. Powers, Styron, Roth, Malamud, and Baldwin. I can only say that these men have busied themselves with the more traditional concerns of the novelist—which is to report the doings of man in a social framework, though Malamud, to be sure, has often gone off into the exploration of fantasy. Given my own sociological reading of the apocalyptic temper of the times, I feel that the novelists I have chosen are the ones making the more characteristic statements.

4 It may seem strange to include Genet in an “American” group, and to label him a writer of the 1960’s. Yet though his major writing was done in the 1940’s and 1950’s, the books which won Genet an American following-Our Lady of the Flowers, The Thief’s Journal, and Funeral Rites—did not appear in translation until the 1960’s. Burroughs, too, was writing in the 1950’s, but both men emerged fully in the American consciousness only in the 1960’s.

5 It would be a mistake and distortion to see this attack as coterminous with all radicalism. In fact, there is an older radical tradition which detests irrationalism, and a number of its adherents—Philip Rahv, Robert Brustein, Lionel Abel, Irving Howe—have in different essays attacked aspects of the new sensibility. The difficulty with many of their arguments is that intellectually and aesthetically they are all allied with modernism and accept its premises. Yet all the new sensibility has done is to carry the premises of modernism through to their logical conclusions.

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