San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



November 1960

Style versus Pretension
Bruce Conner and the Royal Ballet
Matters of Taste
Mathematical Elegance and Classic Fiction




Style versus Pretension

Herbert Read has a little essay about an insignificant piece of sculpture, somewhere in a back case in a museum. He points out that it is important because it was never considered important. It was just one of millions of such objects classic civilization produced along the way. Yet it is the faultless achievement of a great style.

The Greeks and Romans were able to do things like this all in the day’s work. Great civilizations have been great because they possessed great style. Individual artists may transcend society and live in bitter conflict with it.

Style, in the sense I am using it, is a social thing. It is a standard of workmanship and of appreciation which is readily available throughout a society. In certain periods it would seem that all the finest sensibilities of a people cooperated to produce a kind of legal tender of excellence.

When such a happy state of affairs occurs, art seems almost effortless and casual, and it affects all life deeply, precisely because hardly anybody is aware of it. I wonder to what degree this can be said of our own time and country.

Last week, gallery crawling and concert trotting and all, I have been thinking quite a bit about style. I was seeing and hearing an awful lot of stuff, and I began to think about how I was sorting it all out in my mind. I realized that the principle that was operating unconsciously was a judgment of the success or failure of style. We didn’t run into any Michelangelos or Mozarts. What turned up was, however, ambitious, more or less in the class of the little head that so pleased Herbert Read — the workaday art of the highbrow world.

We saw the Mexican entry at the Film Festival, Macario. It was self-conscious and contrived, a picture, as somebody said of the movie that had so obviously influenced it, the Japanese Ugetsu, patently aimed at Venice, Cannes, San Francisco — at the refined taste of a Film Festival jury. This was the opposite of style, a manufactured product for a set of deliberately well-bred standards. What redeemed the picture was the acting of Pina Pellicer, one of the finest and most modest actresses in pictures today — a girl who just does what comes natural — superlatively.

Sculpture by Henri Marie-Rose at the de Young, paintings by Diebenkorn at the Palace of the Legion of Honor. Here in each case was the achievement of contemporary style. Each artist has mastered the alphabet of what he wants to say. There is no longer any conflict. The channels of communication are all open, the artist can say what he wants to say. He doesn’t play tricks on the medium and it doesn’t play tricks on him.

Ever since the war, painting and sculpture have been floundering about, seeking a new idiom. At last this idiom is beginning to take form. We seem to be approaching another of those great periods of universally negotiable style like the Cubist or Impressionist epochs.

Wozzeck. Oh, no! This is a false and foolish work from beginning to end — the “Cabinet of Caligari” of opera. In Joyce’s Ulysses Dedalus sends a telegram to Mulligan: “The sentimentalist is he who would enjoy without incurring the immense debtorship for the thing done.”

All this abysmally deep caterwauling about the soul of man, how inexpensively it tries to buy our sympathies! If it’s vulgar when Cho-Cho San tells him someday his daddy will come back, what pray tell is this stuff? And all this deliberate violation of the medium — for what? — for a new thrill for a fashionable German audience of 40 years gone. The years have passed, and now it just seems messy and dated. Yes, of course, the music is interesting, although that’s about the only term that fits it. But it is so self-consciously anti-operatic. And to what end? Fashion — like a hobble skirt.

It is “not for nothing” that the play was written by the professional eccentric of another century, Büchner. Expressionism failed because it never became a style — like Cubism — and it could not, because it never was a thing in itself. It was just warmed over German Romanticism. Certainly, the lunatic fringe of German Romanticism was a deliberate attempt to manufacture a style out of snob appeal and bourgeois baiting — essentially the same thing.

The Threepenny Opera is so much better in the same tradition because Brecht and Kurt Weill really try to cope — they grapple, not with some muggy abstraction — The Soul of Man — but with problems they considered grave, vital and immediate. Furthermore, they coped with them with the best of artistic instruments — irony. There is no iron whatsoever in Wozzeck, it is all soulful mush.

At Escudero’s age, few men are left alive, and most of them could not walk spryly across a stage, much less dance. True, he doesn’t dance on and off the table, dueling with the Gypsies, like he once did, but then, neither does the young Goyo Reyes who has succeeded him in the role.

What is still there, vibrant as ever, is great style. In his case, it is not just a great folk and national style — “the greatest of the Spanish dancers” — but great personal style as well, which makes him the only one, not just the best, of his kind. It’s like Pablo Casals, who is not just the best cello player, but the greatest interpretive artist of any sort in the twentieth century.

So, in a lesser field, Escudero, who has outlived everybody else but Picasso, can still impart a secret luster to a whole company of people. Even the youngest person in the company, who I assume is Raquel, is thoroughly infected, and dances with that same hauteur and precision that so excited the world when Escudero first came up out of Spain, a beautiful arrogant boy, so long ago. (She, incidentally, did it with almost as serious a handicap as old age — a bandaged knee.) Style — it can be communicated and learned, but it cannot be manufactured or taught. It just has to rub off on disciples or audience alike. It’s a question of intimate touch.

One of the signs of civilization is cuisine. The great cooking of the world is Chinese, French, Greek — and recently and slowly — don’t laugh — American.

Uncivilized people never learn to relax and view themselves with enough irony to learn to eat well. I never eat Mexican food without thinking how much better it would be if they’d just come off it, take the beef out of chili con carne, put back the dog meat, and stop pretending.

Japanese food can be cuisine in the grand style, but it isn’t easy to come by. In recent years several good Japanese restaurants have opened up hereabouts, and the best is the newest, the Cho-Cho. Here again is a place where people know and love food, enjoy cooking it, serving it, and watching people enjoy it. It is all so quiet and unpretentious and in perfect taste. The owner, Mr. Sakada, is not only a gracious host, but a most cultivated and knowledgeable man.

A week spent thinking about what makes great style — I think I found it in an aged Spanish dancer and a Japanese restaurant . . . the really bright spots of a week of going out.

[November 6, 1960]



Bruce Conner and the Royal Ballet

Herbie Barman, whose big band jazz concert I wrote about some time back, will be doing it again next Sunday afternoon at the Neve. On the same day, North Beach will hold a carnival for FM station KPFA, with special shows in the clubs, exhibits, readings, discounts to subscribers in many shops. Theory is, it will help erase the Beat Image and will do KPFA good, too. Should be quite a thing.

On Upper Fillmore, in the heart of the new high-toned Bohemia, the Batman Gallery has opened with a bang. The owners are fine people, the decor is original and effective, the place is crowded — opening night it was jam packed, and best of all, the pictures sell. And well they might. They are by Bruce Conner, a young man full of beans.

Mike McClure introduced me to the work of Conner when he was still in school somewhere in the Middle West — paintings with that certain umja-cum-spiff that is the only sign of a truly original creative talent. A few months later I was being shown around Joe Pulitzer’s collection in St. Louis. In his bedroom and study where he could get the most good out of them were the oldest favorites and the latest acquisitions.

“Aren’t those by Bruce Conner?” I asked. He had seen them in the window of an obscure gallery some place in the sticks and gone in and come out with then under his arm, convinced that here was a significant painter. I was the first person he had ever met who could give him any information about Bruce. There they still are, I guess, with the Pissarros and the Gris’s. This is the response Bruce’s work seems to elicit from all people of sensibility — “This is the real McCoy.”

I think the best things he does, in the long run, are paintings and drawings. The wax sculpture, like the famous Baby in the highchair, and the corpse stuffed into a packing box, and the three-dimensional collages hung up in torn nylons, are what the nineteenth century called “machines” — gallery art, designed for immediate effect. There’s no doubt that they have that. He’s oddly nineteenth century, this young enfant terrible, a traveler from another time. In the last analysis, his shockers are moral criticisms of contemporary society, and from, really, the point of view of the sylvan utopias of William Morris, just as the visions of his sensitive drawings are close to those of William Blake and Odilon Redon.

At Gump’s a show of work by Ariel Reynolds, wife of the poet, critic, teacher, Tom Parkinson. This is the opposite pole from Bruce Conner, a gracefully lyrical talent, “figurative” paintings with the charm of a Renaissance notebook. Elegiac is the word, rather than lyrical, there is a subtle quality of sadness, fading off to wistfulness about them. They may be at opposite poles, but both these young artists are equally removed from current academic painting — Abstract Expressionism and its like, and that is all to the good. As painters, neither is of the stuff from which fashions are manufactured, although it is appalling to think of what it would be like if Bruce’s “machines” caught on and all the galleries filled up with such.

* * *

The Royal Ballet has provoked, as they say, widely divergent critical response. There are those who think it simply gorgeous and those who think it is awful. One of the leading critics welcomed it with one of the most scathing bits I’ve ever read in a paper. Let me say that I agree with him all the way, but I don’t feel very scathing about it. I agree with the other side, too. I think we have to realize what the Royal Ballet is. It is not highbrow, or even very civilized entertainment, except for ballet technicians.

This is wholesome ballet, for a mass audience, graceful and nice, but something else again from the perverse elegance that Diaghilev taught us to expect. It is so British that the palace in the third act of Swan Lake is copied from the chapel of Henry VII at Westminster, and rural backdrops look like Constable. The characteristic Royal Ballet “style” is a sweet, Kate Greenway grace, straight out of an expurgated fairy story. English society today, compared to American, let alone French, is remarkably free from tension and conflict. The Royal Ballet reflects this state of affairs. It is as mild as fish and chips.

Ballet of this kind is not just for spectators, it is for spectator participation. Always the audience is full of mamas and little girls who twirl in the lobby during intermission. Don’t forget, all the world of little girls, from Singapore to Reykjavik, “takes ballet” today. These youngsters are the hard core of the Royal Ballet audiences, like the Little Leaguers in the bleachers at Candlestick Park.

Such an audience has the critical standards that prevail at a Parish Hall Pageant. (This trip they even applauded the simply appalling orchestra — excuse me, band.) For them, what could be better than full-length fairy tales? Not only that, but the Royal Ballet does the Christmastide, ballet school showpieces best, and does other things indifferently.

What are the truly original pieces in its full repertory? Donald of the Burthens, music by Ian Whyte, design by Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde; Miracle in the Gorbals, music by Bliss, design by Burra; Adam Zero, Bliss-Furse; Job, Vaughan Williams-John Piper; Antigone, Theodorakis-Tamayo. Most of their own inventions are tourist ballet, like Pineapple Poll, and foolish things to the flaccid music of the Russian Ballet in its great days of dumfounding.

Diaghilev introduced almost all the major composers and artists of the first quarter of the century to a wide public. Some of them have never yet surpassed the things they did for him. Everything new and vital from Derain to Moholy-Nagy, from Faure to atonalism, got on his stage. Wyndham Lewis says the Russian Ballet was the high point of artistic expression of the first half of the century. Maybe it was. The Royal Ballet is moved by no such goals and it would be as idle to demand that it try to fulfill them as it would be to ask the same of the Giants.

Final Note — The Playhouse is showing all the wonderful comedies of James Broughton every Sunday for a while. He is certainly San Francisco’s best filmmaker. He’s won dozens of prizes and well deserved them. With the local population explosion, the town is full of people who’ve never seen them. I hope the Playhouse is packed every Sunday. It should be.

[November 13, 1960]



Matters of Taste

By and large, I think if I used this column to engage in controversy with my colleagues, I’d just bore the readers. It would seem that in the last two pieces, about Wozzeck and the Royal Ballet, I have tread on all sorts of toes. I don’t need to take up a column to point out that because I do know music I know when John Coltrane is asleep on his feet and doesn’t care what he is doing.

Edith Trumpler’s letter last week is another matter. It is certainly a well-considered criticism, and deserves some consideration in return.

First, my little disquisition on style was far from a columnist’s gimmick. I am sorry it gave that impression to anybody. Great epochs of civilization do work out each their own characteristic modes of coping with reality — with the environment, with the relations of humans to one another, with the predicament of man in the strange universe.

When it is successful, this coping finds expression not just in the big things — the Sistine Chapel or the Ninth Symphony, but also in all the minor graces of life. Japanese civilization finds expression not only in The Tale of Genji or the Horiuji frescoes, both a long time ago, but in a rather limited (as the seventeen-syllable haiku poem is limited) but still exquisite cuisine.

Nowadays women’s clothes have usurped the very word “style” in popular speech. When we think of the Minoan civilization of Crete, I am sure that one of the images that springs first to mind is the Serpent Priestess, with her bare breasts, her flounced skirt, and her mid-twentieth century make-up. The head of Nefertiti, possibly the most popular piece of sculpture in existence, with its weary, over-sophisticated chic, tells us more about ancient Egypt than does the dreary Book of the Dead.

Not only that, but it is significant, socially significant, if you wish to call it that, that the Minoan priestess and Nefertiti are “stylish” today. They sure weren’t once. They don’t look very much like Mary, Queen of Scots, or Diane de Poitiers, or Pompadour, archetypes of feminine beauty in past centuries. They look still less like the Gibson Girl. In this year of grace, however, you can always see three or four Nefertitis and Minoan priestesses sitting in boxes at the Opera, or flirting with the piano player at the Matador.

Don’t say it’s a columnist’s gimmick, but it occurs to me, with a spasm of nostalgia, that the type was invented by Ida Rubinstein. Just as a dancer, she was probably the poorest that Diaghilev ever featured as a ballerina. As a myth, as the physical embodiment of a style, she was unsurpassed.

Diaghilev gathered up and focused the taste of the first three decades of this century. Ida Rubinstein in her way has as great a conquest. She was not just a heroine to the foolish D’Annunzio, she was a heroine to my mother. And today, Girl Fridays of television personalities, buyers at Gimbels as well as Altman’s, Junior Leaguers, models and cocktail waitresses, little realize how hard they try to look like her. Last month she died, a very old lady, who had left an indelible mark on history.

One of the privileges of having good taste is the right to disagree with other people who have it too. Only new arrivals in the arts consider themselves duty bound to like everything everybody else does.

I, for one, have a profound distaste for everything connected with German Romanticism and its grandchild Expressionism — except Paul Klee, if you have to include him. I don’t like Mahler, or Bruckner, or Schoenberg, or Berg, or even the later serialists. They give me the meemies. It isn’t the idiom. Now that Stravinsky has come to use the same idiom as Schoenberg and his disciples, I like it fine — when Stravinsky does it.

I don’t like Nolde. I don’t like Kokoschka. So there. I don’t think there is anything wrong with people who do like them, it’s just that — a difference of taste.

I seem to have touched a nerve in Wozzeck. People have written letters the purport of which has been, “Uh-huh. We knew you’d sell out. . . . You’ve been sucked into the Establishment.”

Really. If anything is part of the Establishment right now, it is precisely Wozzeck. It is windy rhetoric and twelve-tone howling about monstrous generalities that are diverting attention from the very ordinary, very specific problems bedeviling humanity.

Man’s most serious problems are concrete, not abstract. What the Indian peasant needs is not Communism or Free Enterprise, what he needs is a square meal. France is headed into chaos, not because of Jean-Paul Sartre’s demonstration that the soul of man has nowhere to lay its head, but because of vested interests in fraud — in a simple and simply crooked misrepresentation of simple social facts.

I am sorry, but I must be an incorrigible pagan or maybe a bit of a fellow traveler of St. Thomas Aquinas. I do not respond to the “existentialist dilemma” at all. Its inventor, Soren Kierkegaard, has always seemed to me a sick man who treated his girlfriend wretchedly. A man “badly in need of help” as the headshrinkers say.

I don’t think uncomprehending man confronts an ominous and indifferent world without a single weapon. I believe he has reason, or will, or a coherent religious belief to sustain him. I, for one, am pretty sure I have a reason, reasonably sure I have a will, and I fancy that I have chosen to put together a coherent system of belief — religious or not. I do not look on my Being every hour as a dreadful meeting with reality. I like it.

I am sitting at the window in the midst of the woods, in northwest Marin County, while the rain is coming down like a fire hose. I came over to brood and work on a ballet scenario.

My own column is beginning to influence me. For reading matter I brought along two Penguins, S.L. Grigoriev, The Diaghilev Ballet—1909-1929 and a new translation of the greatest of the Icelandic Sagas, Njal’s Saga — known as Burnt Njal in the old Everyman’s Library edition.

The first is a joy to read even if it does make me feel old. “Time was when the little toy dog was new . . .” What a terrific rumpus it all was! You discover how realistic the comic novels of ballet by Brahms and Simon, Bullet in the Ballet and Six Curtains for Stroganova, actually are. (All ballet fans should read these books, too.) Raptures, follies, quarrels, all epic — but so much creativity.

As the poet Richard Eberhart says, “It is not possible to live always at the pitch that is near madness.” When they say to me, “Were the first thirty years of the century really like that?” I am going to stop being modest or afraid to sound middle aged. I am going to say, “Yes. Don’t you think two world wars, a world economic crisis, and the Russian Revolution have cost anything?”

Njal’s Saga is one of the five greatest works of prose fiction. Sometime, in slack periods, I would like to devote a column to each of them. But apropos of now, here is the story of man in a thoroughly hostile and indifferent environment, but full of will and reason and faith, and a great deal of cunning and common sense as well. It is a tragedy though, in which the weaknesses and flaws in man’s relationships to man work out to a terrible dénouement. It is believable, as the Romantic tragedy is not, because it is underlain with courage and honor and loyalty. Without them it wouldn’t be a tragedy, but just another foolish debacle.

[November 20, 1960]



Mathematical Elegance and Classic Fiction

Still brooding in the woods. Days and days of rain. Hardly a bee ventures out of the hive in the wall of the house during the day. At night an owl comes and sits under the eaves and grumbles. Curtains of rain obscure and reveal the low mountains. Tatters of cloud drift between the Douglas firs and the redwoods. Out of my window in every direction there is a Chinese ink-brush painting.

After a week of rain the California autumn, which isn’t a real autumn, begins to give way to the California spring, which comes four months early. The first green shoots appear under the withered grass. The yellow maple leaves fall, pulled down by the rain. The buckeyes fall from their jackets and the purple green plums of the laurel fall.

Slender varied thrushes come from the Northwest and sit silently, close to the fir trunks under the rain, or flutter through the branches of the madrone, eating the ripening berries. In the shabby gray patches of withered thistles, where there were goldfinches a while ago, now there are flocks of natty black, gray and white Oregon juncos.

There are mushrooms everywhere along the muddy lanes. The streams begin to rise. Soon the salmon will be coming up them to breed and die.

The earth is pregnant with another year.

I’ve been too busy lately with things of no importance. It is good to sit and look out the window at the drifting mist, to read, and write, and walk in the rainy forest.

It is good to read only books that have nothing to do with the problems of the day that are bound to pass. All the books on the shelf beyond my desk were written hundreds of years ago. I will reread some of them with sherry and a cigar beside the fire in the evenings. The others I can just look at. I know well what is in them.

People have written to ask what I meant by the five greatest works of prose fiction. They are there on the shelf, too, but first I would like to talk about the books that stand at the head of the row, and that, as a matter of fact, I have been reading now. They are Thomas Heath’s History of Greek Mathematics, his three-volume Commentary on Euclid, his Works of Archimedes, and Apollonius on Conic Sections. Taken together, these books are a presentation in English of the main body, or the heart, of Greek mathematics.

I discovered them when I was a boy of 19. Few books have influenced me more. I got them one by one from the library and read them in a kind of exaltation. Although they were frightfully expensive by the standards of a self-supporting adolescent, I saved my money and bought them as fast as I could.

Now the most important ones, the history, the Euclid and the Archimedes, are published as paperbacks by Dover Press for a few dollars. Since those days the mathematical works of Pappus, Proclus and Diophantus have been published in French translations in Belgium — amongst the most beautifully printed books I own — and there is a little set of Greek Mathematical Works in the Loeb Library.

This is almost all there is left of Greek mathematics, less than a two-foot shelf of books. Western civilization is founded on these books, just as much as it is founded on the Bible and Homer, Plato and Aristotle, and the Greek tragedians. Like Homer and the tragedians, and in a sense, like the other books, too, they are great works of art.

The Greeks scorned any practical application of mathematics. Apollonius’s Conic Sections were a study of what seemed a minor aspect of geometry, with no connection with everyday reality whatsoever. For over a thousand years this continued to be true. Then Descartes restated conic sections in modern algebraic terms, and they became the foundation on which is reared most of today’s science. The orbits of the heavenly bodies are conic sections. Without them, the equations of Einstein and Max Planck would never have existed. The curves of statistics are formulas of a similar kind. Artificial satellites follow such curves.

In the first instance, however, the great mathematicians have always been artists. We can use their formulas to fly to Mars or to exterminate the human race, their equations and constructions are indifferent to the morals of the use we make of them. As such, in themselves, they have something more important to teach us.

The mathematical term for beauty and perfection in the work is “elegance.” In this term are embodied a group of moral qualities — the human mind’s confidence in its own order, nobility and discipline, and the realization that the order of the universe, beyond the narrow confines of the human mind, is also of the same kind. On this realization, all art, philosophy and science are based. It is the first human lesson of experience, and if it is not learned, man, in the words of the Greek astronomer Ptolemy, is only an animal, and the thing of a day.

The greatest works of literature are great because they too share this grandeur and show it forth. The great works of prose fiction are great, not because they try to talk about deep things, as do so many novels of the passing day, but because they are themselves profound.

Any fool can chatter about nobility and magnanimity and courage. It is another thing to embody these virtues. The love life of a Japanese prince, the conflicts in a Chinese harem, the adventures of a crazy country gentleman in Renaissance Spain, the sad story of chivalry and betrayal in a Britain that never existed, the capers of a pair of fantastic giants, the domestic affairs of a handful of Icelandic farmers, a boy and a young Negro drifting down the Mississippi, the guilty troubles of three neurotic Russian brothers, a little English boy growing up, the disasters of a French popinjay — out of these unimportant materials, as trivial in themselves as the lines and circles of Euclid, the great prose dramas of mankind have been made.

These are the books which have, each in its own distinctive guise, each so different from the others, the same nobility and mystery that Archimedes surprised in the spiral and Apollonius in the parabola. To them too, in the mathematician’s sense, can be applied that rare word of final artistic approval — elegance.

The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki; The Dream of the Red Chamber by a doubtful Chinese author; Cervantes’s Don Quixote; Njal’s Saga; Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur; Dickens’s David Copperfield; Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel; Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov; Stendhal’s The Red and the Black; and not least of all, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

Not everybody has the equipment to follow the speculations of the great philosophers, saints, scientists and mathematicians. Everybody can read a good story, and in these stories, so widely different and so absorbing, the human mind is again at its finest. Today they can all be found in cheap paperback editions. One by one I hope, as the months go by, to write about them.

[November 27, 1960]

NOTE: Instead of in these columns, Rexroth later discussed all of these works in Classics Revisited, except that he substituted The Pickwick Papers for David Copperfield.


“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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