San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

(Kenneth Rexroth’s complete columns from the San Francisco Examiner)



February 1960

New Forms of Art and Culture?
New Forms of Politics?
A Night Out in the City
Merits and Faults of the San Francisco Ballet



New Forms of Art and Culture?

Money seems to come into the Ford Foundation faster than they can spend it; anyway they are endlessly fertile in new ideas for getting rid of it. Just now the Institute of International Education is touring seven youngish European writers around America on Ford grants.

For once they’ve picked quite a little galaxy of first-raters — I guess, seeing there are seven, Pleiade is the word, not galaxy. Three of them have called on me in the last couple of weeks, and we’ve spent some very entertaining evenings of meaty conversation. Another visitor was Harold Loeb, once the editor of one of the first, and far the finest, of the magazines that introduced modern art and literature to America in the ’20s — Broom, to which I subscribed when but a high school boy.

Loeb is also the original of the only likable character in The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway disapproved of him because he disapproved of bullfights. On the other hand, the people Hemingway did like come through in the novel as a most disagreeable and silly bunch. Which shows how much literary intentions are worth.

It so happens that, with no urging from me, every one of these evenings we talked about the same thing — where are the new forms for the new age we are entering? Loeb is approaching 70, the others are in their middle 30’s and early 40’s. Hugo Claus is a Flemish poet, novelist and playwright; Italo Calvino is an Italian novelist, short story writer and editor; Matitayaha Meged, an Israeli novelist and essayist.

All have been active participants in the life and responsibilities of their time. Loeb was one of the first to bring to America a whole idiom, a whole way of looking at life, and also one of the first publishers of a new American literature. In the Depression he was the leading Left Technocrat. Meged, besides being an “engaged” writer, was parachuted into Germany from Israel and fought in the most dangerous of all undergrounds during the war. That, I’d say, is about as “engaged” as you can get.

Everybody was worried about the same thing. Not just where are the Picassos, the Stravinskys, the Apollinaires of a new generation, but where is the new idiom? Where is the change in thinking and in expression to match the vast changes in science, technology, manufacturing, which have followed the Second World War? And not just in the arts alone. Where are the political forms to cope with the new ways of living and new demands on life? We were all depressed by the news from France and Algeria. The news from Cuba left us at a loss. Here were whole nations trying to solve problems that involved life itself by the methods of 1806 or 1848 or 1917, but never by methods of 1960.

It seemed that, Left and Right, all over the world, men were fighting hopeless battles in a war that no longer existed. Sputniks, automation, cobalt bombs, wonder drugs, they all went on, regardless. The world of technology had come to have its own dynamism, as though the machines were intelligent and struggling for their own freedom while men lagged behind.

Harold Loeb asked, “Where are the Hemingways and Hart Cranes of 1960?” The Europeans asked, “Where is the American avant-garde?” They all asked, “Are the Beatniks really all there is?”

I had just got through with a young man from CBS, microphone and portable tape recorder in hand, who spent a whole morning trying to get me to say something else than that the uniform of beard, sandals, dirty sweatshirt and torn jeans was something else than a gray flannel suit worn inside out. At least I could assure them that the Beatnik was only the Organization Man walking around on his hands in his own stereotyped orbit of Togetherness. But the real thing, where was that?

Here we were in San Francisco, and all over the world everybody knows that San Francisco and Warsaw are the two cities that are just jumping with a new cultural life. I couldn’t for the life of me give a straight, unqualified answer. Robert Duncan, William Everson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Denise Levertov, is this the new poetry, new in the sense that Rimbaud or Apollinaire or Eluard were new? I don’t think so. Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, Mark Tobey, Ernest Briggs, is this a new painting, new as Picasso, Klee and Kandinsky once were? Yes and no, probably no more so than the poetry, but already the great leap forward that took place in San Francisco and along New York’s Tenth St. after the Second War has become a worldwide formula.

Jazz? Charles Mingus, the Modern Jazz Quartet, do they speak fully for the present day? We agreed that they were very good, exciting — real swinging cats, but we also agreed that if you didn’t know anything about music it was easy to overestimate the musical advances of even the most modern jazz.

I, for one, in these discussions, found myself gradually coming to a sort of conclusion. I found myself explaining that what was changing most profoundly today was not the avant-garde, which was really lagging behind, but the mass culture. It seems to me that our culture is growing horizontally at the expense of vertical development. The standard of living is rising in America and Western Europe, and now in Russia. Where it isn’t rising, people are loudly demanding to know why not. It is possible to buy well-designed furniture in a cheap shop. Grand Rapids no longer means what it used to. True, the print of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers or Cézanne’s Apples that the Filipino busboy puts over his mantlepiece is not the most ideally perfect facsimile, but, on the other hand, it isn’t a worse reproduction of The Lone Wolf or September Morn, either. Somebody may still listen to “The Poet and Peasant Overture,” somebody probably listens to “Cohen on the Telephone,” too, but who buys all those records by Alban Berg and Buxtehude? Once this diffusion of “high culture,” once this democratization of art, has reached its natural limits, I imagine the quantitative growth will slacken off and a new qualitative flowering will burst forth.

After all, as I pointed out to Harold Loeb, it may have been very exciting to have been part of the avant-garde of the first 30 years of the century, but there weren’t very many of us. We all knew one another. I may have subscribed to his magazine Broom when I was just a high school boy in a provincial city, but when I walked into the office and introduced myself, the secretary said, “Why, you’re a subscriber!”

[February 7, 1960]



New Forms of Politics?

“Les dieux ont soif” — The gods are athirst. So Françoise Giraud, one of the owners and editors, and the writer of the “first leader” of the French weekly, L’Express, began her recent column, closing the season that witnessed the death of the movie actor Gérard Philippe, the writer and Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus, and the folk hero of all Europe, the bicycle champion Fausto Coppi. The leaders, the demigods of our generation are already passing, said she; in substance, the Post-War II generation is coming to an end, and it seems as if it had just begun.

“Fate is absurd,” said Camus. Certainly it was the absurd that struck him down, and likewise the others, who died deaths so easily preventable. It is the same on both sides of the Atlantic. Norman Mailer glories in his hipsterdom, while his novels deteriorate. Edith Piaf follows, as if hypnotized, in the footsteps of our own tragic Billie Holiday. The Beat novelists and poets no sooner get started than they are blown to pieces by their own myth. It looks as though an epoch was burning out without ever having accomplished a single major work — without ever having, as they say, embodied the central myth of its time, given an enduring picture of itself to the future.

The Lost Generation after the first war may have given itself that name, but it really wasn’t very lost. Most of its leaders are still around; in fact, they are still unchallenged at the top of literature and the arts today — by default of their successors. What a ridiculous waste — Dylan Thomas, Charles Parker, Lester Young, Jackson Pollock, the list could go on and on. What is happening? What doom of the absurd haunts the spokesmen for our own “postwar world,” after our own world war? Our fathers created what we still call 20th-century culture after as bad a war, in fully as troubled a time.

I think we have failed to come up with anything in which anybody could believe, except Art or Experience, “kicks” in the lingo. I don’t mean “have faith in.” I mean believe in the way you believe the table is there or you have two feet. Our accomplishments are not just not inspiring, they are not even very probable. You see, there isn’t any such thing as just Art or just Experience. Art can be as abstract as you wish, but it must be meaningful. Experience can be “kicks,” it can be as ecstatic as you can make it — but ecstasy as an end in itself is nothing — it’s just nerves burning out in a vacuum.

There have been three big art shows here recently, the San Francisco Annual, a big invitational show of the region, and an expansive spread of the very latest canvases from Europe. I couldn’t agree more with Alexander Fried. In fact, I go him considerably better. They simply didn’t move me at all. Several acres of canvas, all painted for Art and Kicks and not a kick in them. It is not that they were all just formulas, they were tired formulas. It’s not that they all so obviously fed on each other — they weren’t even hungry.

To go back to my column of last week. My new friends from Europe are still here and we are still chewing on the question, “Who embodies the new forms of social action, here in America?” Immediately, spontaneously, I could answer, “Martin Luther King.” This young man, hardly out of divinity school, has already become one of the world’s leading citizens. Why? Because he just went ahead, without any previous training for such a role, and did what he thought had to be done in the simplest and easiest way he could think of to do it. When he started, any unbiased observer of Southern ways would have said that he would fail, that the Montgomery bus boycott would not last a week, that it would be impossible to hold a whole community to passive resistance and even love and respect for its opponents, that everybody would end up — at the least — in jail. He succeeded, and his people with him, not because he was a Negro, not because he had any high-flown theories about Non-Violence in capital letters, but because he was a quite ordinary man, a conscientious small Protestant minister, almost an “exurbanite” type, but an ordinary man with integrity and the sense to know and act on the fitness of things. He succeeded, someone should tell the hipsters, who, as Mailer says, try to imitate Negroes about whom they know nothing, because he was a square, but a brave square. The forms of social action, like the forms of art, lay all about us, asking to be used. All we have to be is bold enough to pick them up.

Sometimes, the new forms force themselves into use. The colons threw up barricades in Algeria. How silly — what is a barricade in the face of the most portable modern armament — but it was the correct, the formal, thing to do. Hadn’t Frenchmen been doing it for 200 years? What happened? The government was helpless, it could do nothing but wait. France was in the grip of a revolt in which nobody on either side wanted to do any dying. After a week of waiting, the barricades tumbled down of their own inertia. Once barricades represented a living future; here they represented only an extinct past. The government may not have represented much, but it represented in this conflict the faintest gleam of hope for the future. It represented all there was available and it busied itself in Paris trying to do nothing as creatively as possible, and it won. I think this is very significant. This is hardly the way history used to be made. Barricades, indeed!

On the other hand, look at Cuba. Who does not sympathize with the demand of the Cuban people for freedom and economic independence? But what a costume picture! And what a high admission! It begins to look like all this sound and fury is going to defeat itself. Kassem over in Iraq is beginning to find this out. Social melodrama is coming to bore even its participants today. Like all other modern products, social change is acquiring its own built-in obsolescence. The people ask, “Is this means worth this end, and vice versa?” before they buy, nowadays — or what is more of a comeuppance — midway in the sale. And yet, all over the world, it’s a seller’s market. People are clamoring for the full benefits of the science and industry and technology that has grown up about us. The significant thing about Algiers is that most Frenchmen and most Algerians are sick of all this tohubohu and want to get on with it.

And so with all the world in all departments. It is this need, and this real growing up of vast sectors of the population that we have to cope with. In politics, yes, but right now, here, in the arts. Where were the artistic developments in those three big art shows to match the moon rockets? They, indeed, were lagging in the missile race. Sure, they were hand-painted pictures, very carefully painted over, but, as Gertrude Stein once said, painted to represent empty space.

[February 14, 1960]



A Night Out in the City

Spring has come to California. It began at the turn of the year, when the steelhead and salmon started up the rivers seeking the shallows to lay their eggs and die. We went walking in Devil’s Gulch, between the bright green hills and the dark forest and the males were surging and fighting in the riffles over the narrow thread of eggs. My little girls stole cautiously along the bank and cried out each time they saw them. Next week was Chinese New Year. The fish were still there, but worn and tattered. In a few days they were scattered, rotting along the bank. The first blue flowers of the hound’s tongue were already out. Next week the first trillium were up. In Golden Gate Park the first almond blossoms were blooming, just as they bloomed for us last year outside our little villa near Aix-en-Provence, overlooking Cézanne’s Mont Sainte Victoire that he painted so often.

We took some foreign friends to Nam Yuen restaurant for Chinese New Year’s dinner and had a sumptuous meal. There was a stupendous battery of dishes, amongst others a very French dish of stuffed, boned chicken breast and wings (yung gai yick) which would have cost a pretty franc in Laperouse. We finished off with Ng Ka Pe (a liqueur made from a blend of herbs), which my friends thought a most odd drink with food. Then to Enrico’s for cognac or espresso, and the lively comments of that Belgian waiter named Moriarty. Then to the Cellar where a whole band of visitors was blowing up a storm behind Pony Poindexter. All the town was out. It looked like the Boulevard Montparnasse on a warm June night all over North Beach.

We sat and compared the scene with other places, other cafés, other times — Piazza San Marco, the Closerie des Lilas under the trees by the great fountain in Paris where the poets used to go 50 years ago, the cafés along the wonderful boulevard in the Cour Mirabeau where the shade of the ancient plane trees is so thick it seems as if the world had sunk deep in an underwater seaweed jungle.

We agreed that these California crowds, out in the first warm nights of this early spring, were different. Obviously, they had more money. But they had something else, something that Europe once had far more than America, and now, it seems each year, has less and less. Good manners and a kind of radiant good will, the happy courtesy that is the sign of a full, confident, civilized life. Americans are supposed to be driven, frustrated, competitive, predatory, sex ridden. These people certainly didn’t look it. They looked like they were having an easy time relaxing. Our marriages fail, our juveniles are delinquent. Nobody seemed to be noticing. Strontium 90, the Berlin Corridor, failure to plant the Stars and Stripes on the moon, everybody should have been harried and worried, but they weren’t. They were far from being the idle rich, either. Most of them were young white collar workers, but plenty were blue collar workers, out for the evening, in Ivy League suits, and all their wives looked, as my friend said, like fashion models.

There was another difference, though. In comparison with a European crowd, they had, with few exceptions, a strangely virginal, unspoiled look. To a European writer who had spent years under bombs and months in concentration camps, they looked childishly innocent. A few looked hard, but far fewer looked wise with that special expression of wisdom that comes only with experience of long drawn out social tragedy and final disillusion. It was just a little frightening to think that in the hands of these people between our two oceans lay the destiny of at least half the world. They didn’t seem to know it, and it seemed they cared less. Furthermore, all unprejudiced observers agree that the crowds out for a holiday in Moscow are marked by a very similar innocence.

In spite of all the efforts of 40 years of propaganda, ordinary Russians seem to have difficulty keeping their own pictures as men of destiny in focus. Instead, the two peoples in whose hands does lie the destiny of mankind right now, act like good children trying out a reward called History just like it was a piece of pink candy. All except a few opinionated intellectuals, anyway.

Then we went to the Chinese theater. Whirling pheasant plumes, clashing banners, oversensitive heroes, weeping maidens, righteous magistrates, all-wise grandmothers who can always straighten everything out — for at least 800 years, night after night in millions of theaters before billions of people, the Chinese drama has built and reinforced and ensured for perpetuity the dominant image the Chinese people have of themselves. This is all the common people knew of history or philosophy or literature — but they knew it thoroughly. All our “media” from the funny papers to highbrow chamber music can hardly compare for impact. Communist China has absorbed this drama as it has everything else, but after a few false starts, they discovered that they could tamper with it very little — too much alteration, and immediately they passed a point of diminishing returns. The public demanded an image of what it knew itself was like. By and large it’s an admirable image — brave, magnanimous, sympathetic, temperate, and if need be, wily. Whatever happens to the Chinese people, even if weren’t for their immense numbers they would probably never come to disaster, simply because of the clear, confident, and yet very wise picture they have of themselves.

Back to the sidewalk café at midnight and it was easy to understand the difference between these crowds and those you’d see on a similar night from the terrasse of the Coupole or the Deux Magots. “The Image of Modern Man” — like the Chinese, those French crowds, too, have an image of themselves. It is a badly battered image, a lot of them don’t like it, in fact they hate it, and one of its principal social functions is precisely that so many do reject it — “alienation” they call it. But it is there to reject. One way or another it has to be coped with.

[February 21, 1960]



Merits and Faults of the San Francisco Ballet

Saturday evening we took the children to the Ballet. I had the bright idea there would be a nice story in their reactions. They are usually extremely communicative about ballet. But this time they were quiet and absorbed. “What did you think about it?” “It was fine.” Katherine, age 5, was glad the lady in Filling Station wasn’t really dead, but just fooling. Mary, age 9, thought the sets could be improved. So here I am thrown on my own resources.

It is wonderful that the San Francisco Ballet is going to have a real season. Nothing develops a company like working away steadily, week after week, at its repertory before its own audience. Certainly, nothing develops the audience better. Then, too, what better way is there to spend an evening? One thing to be said for the San Francisco Ballet, it is entertaining. There is an atmosphere of good will on the stage that crosses the footlights and draws in the audience. The company may have faults, but it has two great virtues — esprit de corps and precision. Lacking either of these, ballet can be a rather distressing experience, and alas, so many companies do lack exactly these indispensable qualities.

I felt at Christmas time, although it is hard to tell at that big show, and feel even more now, that the company is growing. As a group it has come to function without a single hitch. Even more important, individual talents are maturing. Sue Loyd is simply superb. For my taste she has more sense of style than almost anybody on the stage; it is about time she got a chance at some of the leading roles. Michael Smuin, too, has grown. Con Amore is a perfect piece for him — it might have been written just for him — but I would like to see him in a deeper, more substantial role that really used all his possibilities and even challenged him to surpass himself. Each year it is a joy to watch Suki Schorer growing up in the Company. She’s the cutest thing in ballet now, what will she be when she does grow up?

The company has faults. Worst are the rigid prima donna assoluta masks the stars have both adopted. Both Sally Bailey and Jocelyn Vollmar are splendid dancers, but one dances with one’s face too, not just one’s body, and a graceful face is not one set like a toothpaste advertisement. I’ve never seen the company do Lady of Shalott or The Dryad. They pride themselves on the minimum of romantic ballet. “No Swan Lake, no Giselle,” says the program. Perhaps they need more roles which are like maidens’ dreams. That’s what is so good about Sue Loyd — she doesn’t look precisely as if she was dreaming, but she does look as if she was always imagining herself into her dance.

Another fault, and really after all the major one, is the banality of costume and decor, and the superficiality of plots. This is all one fault, the expression of one thing on the part of the responsible leaders of the company. It is either a lack of general culture or a very much outdated theory of what the public will accept. A generation ago, Adolph Bohm was using local artists and writers for his “novelties,” and very good some of them were . . . local composers, too, for that matter. It isn’t at all necessary that the show look as though it had been staged by a commercial costume shop and scenery painting studio. No city in America outside of New York has more talent available. Lew Christensen is a good choreographer, but he is not a poet or a dramatist. Obvious, hackneyed little stories are all right for a company that aspires no higher than popular entertainment, but the ballet, and especially so efficient an instrument as Christensen has created, has greater possibilities than that. San Francisco has outgrown the Pantages Circuit.

How about a ballet by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, with sets by Bob La Vigne? What about, say, The Dark Night of the Soul by Brother Antoninus, sets by Diebenkorn? Robert Duncan’s Faust compressed into a ballet, sets by Bruce Connor or Jess Collins? James Broughton has won prizes with six different fantastic movies — he should have a really spectacular ballet in him somewhere. If necessary, I’ll do one myself, sets by Bruce Connor or Jay De Feo, or, if I have to, I’d be willing to paint them myself. Think of the musicians who have been around here in recent years! Darius Milhaud, Roger Sessions, Lou Harrison, John Cage, Henry Cowell, let alone superlative jazz arrangers like William Smith and Dave Brubeck himself — or why not Turk Murphy and all his present and former cohorts playing Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha with a new libretto? If the Cristensens are under the impression that the public won’t accept this sort of thing, that it’s not commercially feasible, they are very, very, very wrong.

[February 28, 1960]


“San Francisco Fifty Years Ago” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns for the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967). Each of the columns is being posted on the 50th anniversary of its original appearance. Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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