San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



June 1966

Two Legal Wrongs
Urban Alienation Renewal
Excellent Dramas at S.F. State
Ornette Coleman
Fundamental Cultural Change
An Absurd Obscenity Decision
Unconstitutional Initiatives
More on Culture
The New Brundage Collection
Art and San Francisco’s Chinese
The Cultural Nullity of the New Rich
Cultural Potpourri




Two Legal Wrongs

Two issues now agitating the public mind are the charges pending against a number of perfectly reputable physicians for performing abortions on women with German measles, a disease which is very likely to result in hopelessly physically and mentally deformed babies, and the sterilization-or-jail alternative offered a young woman of Mexican ancestry on trial for “being in a room where marijuana was smoked.”

Both cases involve, if not Catholic doctrine in the strict sense of the word, certainly two points in the most commonly accepted Catholic philosophy of man.

I am inclined to agree with Bill Buckley, a man I am usually not at all inclined to agree with, that the conservative Catholic positions on birth control, divorce, abortion, marriage and sex relations are so widely at variance with the accepted practice of non-Catholics, including most conservative Protestants and Jews, that the church makes a great mistake in trying to force her ideas on society.

The contemporary state and its legal and police structure is a reflection of the society, and that society is completely secular. We do not live in a Christian country, but a pagan one where a few Christian superstitions are occasionally employed by politicians for the purposes of coercive rhetoric.

I personally believe in birth control. If statistics are any guide, so do most Catholics. At least, if they don’t “believe” in it, they practice it anyway.

The abortion of fatherless or unwanted infants fills me with horror. On the other hand, I am inclined to agree with doctors who abort a foetus certain to become a deformed imbecile. But the society in which we live, including the wives, mistresses and daughters of judges and lawyers, resorts to abortion of unwanted children, illegally, expensively, septically, and in wholesale fashion.

Against the mass practice of illegal abortion the church has proved powerless. The problem is one of the most serious in our society and it certainly will not be solved by turning the heat of ecclesiastical wrath and political pressure on 50 conscientious and reputable obstetricians.

As for the violation of the integrity of person and body of a young Mexican mother for the most trivial of misdemeanors — here the issue is crystal clear. The position of Catholic philosophy and ethics coincides not only with some imagined “natural law” and with the legal principles of a democracy, but with any principles of stable social order.

If a woman can be deprived of the right to bear children because she was a witness to, not a participant in, an act about which there is violent controversy amongst not just the public, but specialists — criminologists and lawyers and doctors — there is no legal bar left to prevent violation of the person and body at the whim of any court for any reason.

Political subversion is obviously more serious than inhaling dilute second-hand marijuana smoke at a distance. Should a judge in such cases be permitted to offer the alternative of a maximum sentence or sterilization?

[June 2, 1966]



Urban Alienation Renewal

Three weeks or so ago Bob Commanday did a piece on Lincoln Center. Immediately people started asking me why I didn’t answer it. Fact is, though I have considerable respect for Bob’s taste in music, I didn’t read it.

I consider Lincoln Center a shocking failure to achieve an end which was bad in the first place. Then Alexander Fried came up with a column on the necessity for rebuilding the Civic Center “culture complex” which made many of the same points. He disapproved of Arnold Gingrich’s remarks at the recent culture pow-wow, and on the same page I approved of them. Controversy is the life of critical journalism, so here and now I speak my piece.

First things first. American society is sinking deeper and deeper into a cultural crisis, true, but this means “culture” in the deepest sense of the word. Where once there was a class war over wages, hours, working conditions, profits — basic economic conflict that resulted in disastrous and bloody strikes, either bloodily established and made permanent, or bloodily suppressed, today in America social conflict revolves around issues which ultimately boil down to questions of the meaning of life.

An ever growing sector of our society finds no meaning in life; and when the conventional goals are made available to them, looks on them not as goals at all, but as frustrations.

One of the main reasons for the objections to urban renewal by almost all qualified “urbanists” is that it builds hopelessness, namelessness. High-rise subsidized housing means ready-made moral and spiritual slums.

Nowadays with the fantastic increase in building costs, it means physical slums as well. The reason for the struggle going on in every city of any size in the country to preserve the older residential districts and encourage deslummification is that these neighborhoods have still the potential, if rehabilitated, of being natural communities.

Civic and federal money has been spent in the millions to try to achieve community in high-rise housing projects, both rich and poor. The result has been total failure.

The leading urbanists today have come to the conclusion that our ancestors knew best. When urban population density exceeds three or four families to a single lot, community begins to break down and the humane values of city life decay.

Furthermore, the older sections of our cities were built in a time of abundant natural resources, cheap labor, architectural exuberance, and, most important, strong emphasis on family life.

San Francisco’s bay window flats, duplexes and single-family homes, built around the end of the last century, are better built, of better materials, than even the best condominiums, and in addition, they are far more functional than the fraudulently named “functionalist” modern domestic architecture.

And, built into them is not namelessness, but family life. They do not look like any suite in any here-today-and-gone-tomorrow motel — as do all but the most expensive new homes today.

By building what are really big city imitations of Indian reservations we are building social disaster. The demoralization of the American Indian by the reservation system could be swept under the rug. There aren’t all that many Indians and the reservations are, by definition, places nobody else wants, and a long way away.

How many millions now live in low rent, high-rise, brand new slums, in the heart of our cities? How many of these people are entering the third generation on relief? The pseudo jet set in the almost identical apartments that rent for $600 to $1200 a month or are sold as expensive condominiums are no better off. The “anomie,” the namelessness, the lovelessness, the loneliness, the frustration, are just the same — to an observer from another civilization, the ways of life differ only in expense and perhaps cleanliness.

The girl Fridays who haunt the financial district cocktail bars looking for love, and the junior executives who haunt them looking for a quick one differ very little from the lost people in the pool halls and shoeshine parlors or hustling the streets in the Fillmore District. They are just lonelier.

A series of feature stories on “How to be a Chippie” and “How to Take Dope” may, or may not, sell papers, but it doesn’t illuminate the dark and threatening center of the problem.

The upwardly mobile, technical, professional and employee classes are coming to adopt precisely the same patterns of behavior as those at the very bottom of the social ant heap. Why? What has gone wrong? I’ll have more to say about this next week.

[June 5, 1966]



Excellent Dramas at S.F. State

The excellent S.F. State College production of Gorky’s Lower Depths plays tonight through Thursday night at the Playhouse.

Stanley Eichelbaum has already done a piece on this and also on a new drama project emanating from State. Drama Ring will open in July with The Devils at the old headquarters of Opera Ring.

This is a group recruited from State’s Drama Department, and includes Donna Sebrakian, Tom Tyrrell, George Armstrong, Dan Caldwell, Weland Lathrop, Arlen Heicken and others, both directors and actors and designers, who have been responsible for the extraordinarily high quality of performances at the college in the last few years. Following The Devils they plan to do Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard.

The plan is rather, to use a comparison which will upset everybody, like the halfway houses, now so common, which function as first steps back into society between life in a state hospital and life “outside.” The difference is that Drama Ring should go a long way towards injecting some mental health and strict standards into the local little theater scene. More important still, it moves the academic theater into direct contact with the larger community, which is where it belongs.

Leon Katz, Arlen Heicken, Kermit Sheets, all at State, are amongst our very best directors hereabouts, and in the past five years I’ve watched at least six actors and actresses develop there who were quite as good as almost anybody in the local theater. All this work, all this talent, two weekends a semester — and that was the end of it.

State has one of the best theater plants on the Coast, but it is simply too far away for the townspeople to journey out there to see a show. It is a great pity that the performing arts were not kept down in the old campus on Haight Street, now occupied by the UC Extension. That is where they are needed, where they would give badly needed life to the community. But who foresaw the cultural problems of today 15 years ago?

I understand that in the social sciences and related subjects at State there is considerable talk about developing a program of community internships for senior and graduate students. I wonder how welcome young people eager to help and learn would be in some of the local organs of government and social service? I don’t want to dismiss the scheme with a cynical snicker. Who can deny they’d do a world of good — if given the chance?

Which brings me to Robert Over, the director of the excellent Madwoman of Chaillot I saw at Poly High recently. Here is a man of immense talent in the theater, and the rare pedagogue’s genius to demand and get the best out of young people, many of whom the average teacher would dismiss as “unpromising.” I’m sure he could make many times the money he does in Hollywood or New York. Persons as dedicated as this are priceless assets to any community, yet how many people ever know they exist?

At least, once again, when Over does build a fine show, against all the odds, it’s a great pity it doesn’t get more of a showing before the community. There are literally hundreds of similar opportunities for our community itself to enrich its own life which we miss, ignore, or neglect.

[June 7, 1966]



Ornette Coleman

Ornette Coleman is coming to the Both/And on June 21. This is quite a scoop. He almost never plays club dates out of New York, and there only where he is sure of enjoying the best conditions.

Although he plays the Monterey Jazz Festival, he seems to have found the experience rather unnerving. So we are very lucky to have him here, where the music of his group can be enjoyed in what is certainly one of the most salubrious jazz rooms in America.

The owners of Both/And have managed to create an atmosphere of the sort serious lovers of the music, both listeners and musicians, want, and almost never find. It is relatively inexpensive, the patrons are relaxed and friendly, there are no whoopy infants, no hustlers, the music is the best — and, at the same time, it is a neighborhood place where folks come for an evening of pleasure. This is a situation inconceivable in New York or Chicago, where jazz has been taken over by the underworld.

If you don’t know who Ornette Coleman is, you’ve missed an experience. He is the young man who, a few years back, began a musical revolution in jazz comparable to that of a generation ago led by people like Charles Parker, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus.

Whereas they only managed to bring jazz abreast of the developments in other music of 50 or 60 years ago, musicians like Coleman, and later John Handy here in San Francisco, play in truly contemporary styles.

Jazz is notoriously conservative, and when Ornette Coleman was around the West Coast some years back he could only get dance dates for colored high school groups and such like, and nobody even wanted him to sit in at Jimbo’s or Jackson’s Nook — except the redoubtable Stanley Willis, our own homegrown modernist pianist, who thought he was just great.

Even now, the old bop generation, frightened that they might get crowded away from the all too small trough, put him down as not knowing what he is doing. He knows.

And he certainly is, in Dewey Redman’s phrase, a dedicated artist. After a long session at New York’s Five Spot, playing a plastic alto saxophone in cross-currents of tonality with Cherry on the miniature trumpet, he gave it all up and retired for a while.

“I was becoming stereotyped and playing for audiences to whom what I was doing was just a gimmick.”

A couple years passed and he returned, playing the fiddle like no jazz fiddle had ever been played, to launch another wave of disciples.

The great trouble with most jazz is that it has so little to communicate that it wears out the listener who is listening for musical realities. You tire and give it up for a while until another jazz revolution.

Ornette Coleman and John Handy belong to that small company of musicians who don’t wear out, along with Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus, and Ellington and Basie at their best. Why? Because they are saying something important in truly individual and always growing styles that can’t wear out. Their styles are them, not passing fashions.

[June 9, 1966]



Fundamental Cultural Change

To go on from last Sunday’s column. What do we want to build when we build “culture,” sticks and stones that break our bones, or creative communities of people, actively engaged getting the most out of life with one another?

Once society was made up of interrelated functioning groups, men were members of working parts of an organic whole, their roles largely determined by how they made their livings.

The family had an economic structure, with father the breadwinner and authority in relationships with the outside world, the mother the homemaker and authority in most of the internal relationships. The children, as soon as they were able, became helpmates. Authority was not imposed arbitrarily, it was a reflection of different kinds of responsibility.

The only place you see anything like this today is in the very small groceries and other businesses run by Chinese in San Francisco. They are noticeably happier than the people around them.

Workers were organized, either by the trade union, or before that in the guild, or lacking either, by the actual demands of the craft, into similar groups of graded, interdependent responsibilities and skills. All this is gone even in the so-called skilled trades.

A modern trade union is simply a monopoly control of a certain group of jobs. Where the old “cultural” life lingers on, as in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers, especially around New York, this is not due to the survival of community relations in work, but to traditions surviving from the homelands of the garment workers, first the Jewish ghetto and village, then the tight community of the Italian peasants, then the powerful mutual aid ethic of the Puerto Ricans, as each group moved into the garment trades.

In addition, there were the activities of dedicated second- and third-generation intellectuals, drawn from the same origins.

Similarly, the once rich cultural life of the churches was due to their being parishes, city neighborhoods as tightly knit as villages, all the members traveling together through life with its rounds of births, baptisms, marriages, eating together, growing up, choosing a vocation, being reconciled to the community after offense, getting seriously ill, dying.

These are the sacraments. They are, amongst other things, moments of the most significant relationships of the community of the parish, and they greatly reinforce the significance of the individual to himself.

Around them as a framework, a trellis, once grew a luxuriant vine of intense life together, covered with blossoms of “culture” in the narrow sense — music, drama, the plastic arts, poetry.

For all the mighty efforts to revive it, for all the morris dances and jazz masses, not a vestige of that cultural life survives today above the most commonplace and infantile level.

Today our society is fragmented, atomized. Its relationships are reducible to the exchange of money, or they are not admitted to have any meaning in modern times. “So much for so much.” And how much is determined by the pure exercise of nameless power.

The people who emerge as wielders of power are not persons, but mouthpieces and “images.” This is a world of ghosts and inhuman forces like electricity and the rate of exchange, the world of a species of social animal which has lost its talent for community — without which it cannot survive, any more than there could exist solitary ants.

The revolt against this state of affairs, an actual degeneration in the instinctive life of the species, is worldwide, growing constantly, and is particularly focused in the young and in groups like the Negro who have never quite been included in the process and so have preserved a certain minimum species health.

It is widely assumed that man is a rational animal, with the power, the intelligence, and the technology to change his environment, whether physical or social, if it begins to menace his survival.

I see very little evidence about me or in history to warrant such an optimistic assumption.

We assume that, if they could, the dinosaurs would have warmed up the marshes that were chilling around their lumbering bodies. We assume that, if they could, the passenger pigeons would all have worn bulletproof vests.

Maybe they wouldn’t have. We have thermometers to measure the temperature of the social morass in which we are trapped. We have experts who can read and interpret them. We have other experts who can turn on the heater. Who asks? Who listens? Who minds?

However, those who do know and speak refuse to be silent, even if the few who listen will never be enough.

There is remarkable agreement today on what needs doing. There is a shadowy region of sectarian differences, but there is a clearly defined central area where all the diagnoses overlap and all the doctors agree.

Man is an animal who flourishes only in a community of mutual aid and cooperative life enrichment. Anything which advances that condition liberates man at his best. Anything which inhibits that condition impairs and impoverishes his life, as an individual and as a species.

Today we have come close to a critical point where more of the things we do in our relations with each other work against us, for our destruction, than for us as free and healthy human beings.

We know, fairly clearly, how to reverse the process. We can change history. We are beginning to understand it. Our problem now is to change the forces of change.

[June 12, 1966]



An Absurd Obscenity Decision

I just got from my clipping bureau a stack of clips on the Ralph Ginzburg decision of the Supreme Court. They come from every variety of opinion represented in the American press except the actual Left.

Most of them are from moderate Republican papers, because that is the policy of most American papers. Not one in 50 has anything good to say for the decision.

Newsweek, “dizzying . . . puzzling.” N.Y. Herald Tribune, “deplorable . . . outrageous . . .” Oakland Tribune, “a feeling of unease . . .” London Economist, “astonishing decision . . . danger . . . pure comedy . . .” N.Y. Herald Tribune again, “shrunk the limits of free expression . . .”

Saturday Evening Post, “unwise, uncharitable” (referring to the prison sentence). Wall Street Journal, “a defeat for civil liberties advocates . . .” Life Magazine, “an oddly musty statement, a harsh verdict . . .”

Library Journal, “incredibly jumbled decision . . .” Greensboro, N.C. News, “Shocking . . . cynical . . . confusing . . . disappointing . . . bewildering . . .” Trenton Trentonian, “it may presage a more regressive climate in the future . . .” Wilmington Journal, “We cannot believe that this is progress.”

This is only a selection of the typical language of the more conservative papers.

(Ginzburg was sentenced in the Pennsylvania courts and his appeal was denied by the Supreme Court, not on the grounds of publishing pornographic literature, but the courts held that he had promoted his magazine, Eros, and two books with salacious advertising.)

The whole question of obscenity, pornography, censorship, is knotty indeed, and the Supreme Court decision has reduced it to a tangle and snarl and rat’s nest which will tie up the lower courts in legal confusion for years to come.

In effect the majority decision sets up the demonstrable good moral character of the defendant as the ultimate criterion in an obscenity or pornography case. But of course such criteria are not legal concepts, for the simple reason that they are not objective facts or even clearly held ideas, but subjective, emotional reactions, the very material courts of law were invented to exclude.

The emotional nature of the case is clearly shown by the fantastically excessive penalties, five years in jail and an immense fine.

The least the Supreme Court could have done was throw out an unjustified verdict because of the extreme bias shown by the lower court.

Then too, the decision was reached by a majority of one — always a source of years of legal trouble. In addition, all the justices felt impelled to write decisions, and all these are separate, mutually contradictory documents which will provide lawyers with material to bedevil and demoralize the courts and authorities ad infinitum.

The Philadelphia News said they sounded like nine college freshmen in a bull session.

The first thing to do is to apply to the original court for a mitigation of sentence. I understand Ginzburg’s lawyers are now preparing such an application.

Next move will be to get the case back to the Supreme Court once again for reconsideration, which, considering the cry of wrath from the nation’s press, may be easier to do than it might seem.

[June 14, 1966]



Unconstitutional Initiatives

To continue the discussion of censorship I began with the case of Ralph Ginzburg Tuesday — I have a letter from one of San Francisco’s leading attorneys pointing out that my own statements against the so-called CLEAN amendment initiative do not stress the principal danger.

The initiative does not adopt the definition and test in the Roth case, the precedent which has governed all subsequent decisions, that redeeming social importance shall determine whether a work which employs four-letter words or contains sexual episodes shall be judged obscene.

As is admitted by all qualified persons, removal of this safeguard would result in the removal of most of the world’s classics from the bookshops and libraries — including the works of Shakespeare, Goethe, all but a handful of the greatest novels.

The question of obscenity is really irrelevant, the basic purpose of the amendment is to remove the chief protection for good books — a dead giveaway as to the motives behind the initiative.

In 1965 every single proposal to that end was first rejected by the State Assembly Criminal Procedures Committee and then by almost the entire Assembly itself.

The legislators knew the purpose and objective of such proposals. Also, of course, being many of them lawyers, they knew the great expense to the taxpayers of a law which would be thrown out, after long legal hassles, as unconstitutional.

Recent Supreme Court decisions, including the Ginzburg decision and dissents, reaffirm that nothing can be held obscene unless the prosecutor proves the material is “utterly without redeeming social importance.”

I am all for those old slogans of the Progressives in my father’s day, “Initiative, petition, and recall.” However, there is no question but that the proliferation of cranks amongst the electorate and demagogues amongst their spokesmen, has led to a yearly abuse of the initiative. Last time we had two patently unconstitutional initiative measures on the ballot at once.

In the long run it is the taxpayer — or consumers — to whom all the cost of legal proceedings to decide that such measures should never have been proposed is passed on, as well as, in more devious ways, the initial election expenses.

Pay TV, Proposition 14, CLEAN, this is the democratic process. It isn’t very enlightened or enlightening, and it is certainly expensive.

I guess it can’t be controlled or reduced or abated. Here we face precisely the problem we do in censorship. Controlling bluenoses, smut hounds, little old ladies in tennis shoes, and unscrupulous, greedy operators can only be done by law by abridging democracy itself.

The price of keeping unconstitutional measures off the ballot, like the price of keeping bad words out of books, is too high a price to pay. The only answer is that thing nobody’s ever seen, “an informed electorate.” At least you can always vote against bigotry or greed and hope for the best.

[June 16, 1966]



More on Culture

To continue from the columns of the last two Sundays. The question of buildings versus works is not all there is to the problem of the cultural life of our modern urban society, which is now standing on the brink of either collapse into demoralization — like Baghdad or Leopoldville — or a great leap forward into a world of abundant leisure and life-enriching experience.

If rebuilding the Opera House, Veterans’ Auditorium complex at San Francisco’s Civic Center will cost $20 a person for all the inhabitants of The City, if New York’s Lincoln Center cost $40, or, more likely, $60, this means each and every Negro, Puerto Rican, Mexican, poor white, every illiterate, every man who prefers baseball and who will never hear, even on TV, a symphony, play or opera, and every person who prefers alcohol, or sleep, as a leisure-time activity.

Modern society is an integral whole, and bond issues, taxes, even donations, are costs which eventually diffuse out to everybody, except maybe the totally and permanently unemployed.

Costs are always passed on to the consumer. Except in the case of the entertainment of the educated middle and upper classes, when an appreciable amount of the expense is passed on to people who are totally and incurably disinterested.

So edifices to satisfy the edifice complex of the “power structure” must justify themselves to those who will pay the bills. Now.

The most progressive and democratically oriented symphony in the Bay Area was bussing kids from the culturally deprived quarters to special concerts. The mothers, including the PTA mothers, in the slum schools protested. Why? Because the expense of dressing the youngsters in a style befitting a symphony concert was more than they could bear. This is it, the copacetic, the heart of the problem.

It is not a question of providing more up-to-date operas and symphonies. It is true that the Spring Opera repertory this year was an insult to the educated technical and professional classes of the City. It is true that the bill of fare for the Symphony this fall is a course in music appreciation for senior citizens. It is true that the potential audience for Spring Opera voted with its feet and stayed away.

It is shocking that the administration too could find no better out than to blame the bad attendance on the Greyhound strike — one of the silliest excuses I’ve ever heard. But characteristic.

It is true that the Bay Area teems with new industries staffed by new men, the modern cultivated technicians and technocrats, with even more cultivated young wives — the electronics engineers who have read T.S. Eliot and who own maybe a modern painting or two, and at least a Marlboro or Tro Harper silk screen of a Braque.

As far as these people are concerned, the Opera House is not being used, it is being abused. That is their problem, and in the not distant future the weight of their numbers will automatically solve things are far as they are concerned.

Vastly more important than these elitist concerns is the real meaning and ever growing threat of the “culturally deprived.”

The anthropologist Pitt-Rivers, whose father had sacked the African capital of Great Benin and looted its marvelous bronze sculptures, years ago wrote a book called Culture Clash in the Pacific in which he pointed out that the destruction of the pagan culture patterns and their replacement by dollars, or L.s.d. (which meant in those days, pounds, shillings, pence), alcohol, Mother Hubbards, and Bibles, had resulted in the destruction of will, and even the physiological preconditions, for life. The demoralized peoples were dying of broken hearts.  Life without meaning was simply stopping.

We go on creating such conditions right in the heart of our “metropoles” all the time. This is what “culturally deprived” means, it means culturally depraved. But our hopeless populations don’t die off, they proliferate.

And they aren’t far off in the South Sea atolls. They are right here, under the never-ceasing blasts of the lures and drives of the effluent culture. They read the fashion sections and the society sections, or at least look at the pictures. On the transistor radios that never leave them they hear, every couple of minutes, how they too can enter the behavior patterns of the Jet Set for “a dollar down and a dollar a day.” And they get madder and madder.

It is only due to historical accident that it’s a race question — and even then, it’s that only in part; everybody that’s poor and frustrated in America isn’t black or tan or yellow.

As they say nowadays, it’s an input-output problem. Where is it most important, at this historical juncture, to feed in expensive transfusions of “culture”?

The answer is obvious, it is where you have an ever-growing cultural demoralization, not where you have a disagreement as to whether Boulez is better than Brahms.

Believe me, if we don’t feed in meaning, significance, into the open veins at the bottom of the society, it is going to feed back chaos.

How do you do this? More next week. Let me leave you with this thought. First the grand rich, most of whom couldn’t tell a Sung vase from a Chinatown ginger jar, then the politicians, and then hordes of common people flooded to the new Brundage collection. That Sunday, in the Fillmore parks nothing at all was happening of interest to the neighboring inhabitants. Coming home from church I passed three large vacant lots filled with rubbish. Right in front of them kids were playing ball amongst the traffic in the crowded street.

[June 19, 1966]


The New Brundage Collection

Now that a little of the rumpus attending the opening has died down, maybe we can take a cool look at the Brundage Collection. Seldom in the history of museology have more people said rasher things.

Avery Brundage can be excused. He is the poppa and his pride and enthusiasm for his child are understandable and his great generosity is more than commendable — it is unparalleled in present-day San Francisco patronage. No Native Sons and Daughters have done anything like this for their community in a long, long time.

The collection is very far from being “the world’s greatest collection of Oriental art.” It does not bear comparison with the Musée Cernuschi in Paris, which was a purely personal collection, left intact, in the original mansion, by the collector.

The Musée Guimet, the first-ranking French Oriental museum, is incomparably better, and it too was a personal collection in its inception, though it has been added to very largely since.

State museums like the British Museum and the Berlin have immense collections of Oriental art of the very top quality. The Fenollosa collection in the Boston Museum, the Freer in Washington, are somewhat superior to the Musée Guimet, and just behind the British and Germans.

The Philadelphia collection is, in turn, just behind Washington and Boston, and is exhibited with extraordinary skill and imagination.

As a purely personal collection, the William Rockhill Nelson in Kansas City compares favorably with the Brundage Collection, in the discriminating taste shown and in the representative character of the choices, as well as, considering the date in which it was formed, the extraordinarily high quality of some of the things, especially the paintings.

This is the problem. The very greatest works of Oriental art are already in museums and have been for up to a century. Those still in their native countries cannot be exported if they are classified as “important,” and in the case of some countries, cannot be exported at all. Furthermore, Japanese millionaires, the Japanese, Indian, and both Chinese governments, all try to buy back from the world art market the art of their own countries now “in exile,” and in the case of the Japanese, both public and private buyers, everything else from the Orient as well.

To form a collection as Avery Brundage has done, has required dedication, persistence, and a great deal of money — many times the amount it would have cost 50 years ago.

If Mr. Brundage really said, “What the Metropolitan is to New York, what the Louvre is to Paris, and what the Prado is to Madrid, that is what I hope the de Young will be to San Francisco. You’re in the big league now,” all I can say is, he is an optimist. Except of course in the sense that they are all museums in cities, as one would say, “What the Richmond Museum is to Richmond, so the Louvre is to Paris.”

The de Young has a long, long way to go to even knock at the doors of any big league of museums. Mr. Brundage has done the best he could to help it along the way. But it’s a long, long way a-winding, and in another statement he said, loud and clear, exactly why. About that, come Thursday.

[June 21, 1966]



Art and San Francisco’s Chinese

Avery Brundage said he came to San Francisco expecting to find a great collection of the art of the Far East in one or all of the local museums and found in fact practically nothing. He said he just couldn’t understand why the patrons of San Francisco, many of whom had made fortunes in the Orient, had never given such a collection to the community. Me, too; that’s just what happened to me when I came here 40 years ago.

There are many reasons for this, some of which I will try to explain. The Chinese came to California substantially as slaves, to work in the Gold Rush in gangs. Most of them came from one section in Canton — a “culturally deprived” section, even for that city of impoverished millions. They still speak the Siap dialect of the Cantonese language.

Long after they had scattered throughout the lower levels of California society they were still poor, illiterate even in their own language, and subject to worse conditions than the Negroes in the South.

You may live in a restored Victorian house, for which you have paid, if you bought it recently, a pretty penny. Under the soffit of the staircase, you may have a little windowless closet which you have always assumed was a coal bin. It was not. It was the “Chinaman’s room.” In a space maybe three times the size of a well-fitting coffin the old faithful Chinese house servant spent his few leisure minutes smoking his pipe, and here, ventilating himself with his tobacco or opium smoke, he slept.

Today, above the deluxe chop suey joints and the tourist bric-a-brac shops, Chinatown, that colorful and romantic quarter, so profitable to The City, is still, judged by Public Health statistics, just as bad a slum as anything in the Fillmore or Hunters Point.

The number of elected and appointed political officers and executive public servants of Chinese ancestry in the history of San Francisco can be counted on the fingers of one hand. In the heart of town, running through the financial district to Chinatown, is a street named after a Negro. I never heard of one named after a Chinese.

There is no school of Oriental or Far Eastern studies at any local college or university. At Berkeley, it is still the Department of Oriental Languages, dominated by traditions derived from the pre-revolution Czarist military academy, probably the most snobbish and hidebound and anti-student, anti-public little nest in all that immensely constipated institution.

The fact is, there exists no tradition of taking the Far East seriously, except as a now-bygone source of many fast bucks, in the Bay Area. The significant thing about Avery Brundage is that he is not a Native Son, he is a Chicagoan, in the great tradition of the socially responsible and personally involved Chicago collectors — who, in addition, were not bargain hunters and gatherers of studio sweepings, but who were willing to spend very, very large sums of money — the Ryersons, the Birch-Bartletts, Arthur Jerome Eddy, John Alden Carpenter, and all the rest who made the Art Institute the great museum it is.

San Francisco is the beneficiary of a miracle. If one of these people, late born into this generation, had not showed up out here, we would never, ever, have had a Far Eastern art museum.

The second miracle is that Avery Brundage could ever have pulled it off. I shudder to think what this stuff all cost. Maybe 50 times Washington’s Freer collection, maybe a hundred times Boston’s Fenollosa. Almost all great Oriental art has long since gone from the market, and what is left is priced beyond belief and every piece is fought over by collectors. Cherries, you may have noticed, are expensive this June, at the height of cherry season. Try buying fresh cherries, top quality, come Christmas.

[June 23, 1966]



The Cultural Nullity of the New Rich

After all this buildup in the last three columns about the problem of building culture in a modern city, you may expect that I will be coming up with something startling indeed. Quite the contrary.

I think we do need a drastic remodeling and extension of the present Civic Center complex. The Opera House needs to be rebuilt backstage and its acoustic defects corrected. The Veterans Auditorium should be made usable. It’s very pretty, with the old Brangwyn panels from the Fine Arts Palace on the walls, but what acoustics it has work in reverse. It should be made into a good small concert and chamber music hall.

With proper seasons for the Opera, the Symphony, the Ballet, and the Spring Opera we can keep the Opera House in use all year round. But to do this we need rehearsal stages. We need a decent theater for the Actor’s Workshop. We need a small theater, like the Veterans Auditorium but with adequate backstage facilities for modern dance concerts and similar activities.

All these things are needed very urgently. We should think big. The last proposal, Proposition B, just took care of existing needs. We should think of a whole bank of new facilities, lining Franklin Street for two blocks across from the Opera House and the Veterans Building, enough to take care of our rapidly expanding centralizable cultural needs for at least 20 years to come. Besides this, we need a new home, and a new collection, for the San Francisco Museum. We need a new Main Library, and we need a new use for the present structure.

The idea that all this can be financed by a bond issue for which two-thirds of the electorate will vote is so optimistic it’s comic. For all the busloads of school children, for all the student tickets, for all other activities designed to bring people to Art, these are really elitist entertainments — symphonies, chamber music, ballet, opera. What we are really doing with our cultural education in these fields is bringing a few of the people, the young especially, to the culture of the elite.

In most cases the vaccination isn’t going to take. It is worth it for the few who do acquire such leisure-time tastes. But in the final analysis the cut-off point is the upper middle and professional classes. Even the old Italian working-class audience that once filled the gallery has moved downstairs and into the middle class.

The only way we will ever finance the building of a new, big, efficient complex of facilities for such purposes is through immensely increased private patronage. Los Angeles recently, Chicago 50 years ago, Pittsburgh today, the Anderson brothers and their friends in New Mexico — this is patronage on a scale that the Forty Families of San Francisco simply can’t conceive of. But if they don’t conceive — if they don’t start thinking of checks with three or four extra zeros over in the right hand of the first line — they just aren’t ever going to get the facilities they want, and that’s a fact.

The last election should demonstrate that the drift to the Right is accompanied by a taxpayers’ revolt. The majority of the electorate doesn’t want to spend money for anything, much less for a new dressing room for Joan Sutherland. The vote for Reagan, the defeat of the Marin Park Bonds, these are aspects of a change in the electorate in California of a most ominous character. The idea that the Birch Society consists of “little old ladies in tennis shoes” is false and dangerous. Quite the opposite, it consists of the upwardly mobiles, the new rich, the sport car to Land Rover set, the boys and girls who go to Puerta Vallarta for fun, the Junior Jet (or squirt) Set.

These are people who never knew such tax brackets existed until suddenly one spring they found themselves in them. They are furious that they can’t spend all that money on themselves and they certainly won’t spend any on highbrow music, nor Bach, nor Boulez. In fact, they’ll shut the place down first.

The problem of the New Rich is exactly the same problem as the problem of the New Poor. If culture means the creative activity of a well-integrated society, they ain’t got none, don’t want none. The job is to involve them. But how?

I am constantly reading about new homes in Hillsborough or Atherton or Belvedere which cost, the papers say, upwards of a quarter million dollars. Nobody amongst my friends in the younger generation of the Forty Families ever heard of the owners. Nobody ever saw their names on checks for cerebral palsy or baroque music. If they could only be found, sought out, involved in social responsibilities commensurate to their wealth, a few of these people could double the patronage of the Bay Area. Instead, I fear that the few who do show up are all to often “put in their place” and don’t come back.

The majority, of course, live like the culturally depraved at the other end of the escalator, television, booze, gambling, promiscuity, broken homes, psychiatrists, juvenile delinquency, petty crime. Society just has to write them off as the well-bathed redundants, but the others, those redundant people who can’t even get on the escalator, those we can do something about, and those I want to write about next week.

We can have, to use a bit of Russian gobbledygook, a genuine “people’s art” right here and now in San Francisco, and for relatively little money.

[June 26, 1966]




I have been getting a lot of mail lately asking my opinion about LSD and the current craze for pharmaceutical religion. Off and on since I have been doing this column I have stated my position, but time passes and I have to do it again.

First marijuana. The scientific work, both medical and sociological, as well as criminological, on the use of the milder, New World, species or subspecies of Cannabis Indica, or Mexicana has long been done.

There is no evidence that smoking it is physiologically any more harmful than smoking any other weed. It is certainly much less harmful physiologically than tobacco. It is not addictive in the strict sense. That is, it does not set up a biochemical condition in the body that results in physical craving and sickness if it is withdrawn, as do the opiates like morphine and heroin, or, to a lesser degree, and in a different way, tobacco.

It does not turn people into killers or sex maniacs. On the contrary, it lessens all physical activity, quiets aggressive behavior, and reduces sexual drive and potency. However, it does make the subject highly suggestible and autosuggestible, subject to strong and easy influence by others and by his own imagination.

It also usually greatly lowers all inhibitions unless there is definite suggestion to the contrary. It usually produces a state of mild euphoria, elation and carefreeness.

The intoxication can be turned off by eating a big meal, taking a nap, drinking large quantities of water, taking a hot bath, or by autosuggestion — “effort of will.”

The principal objection to marijuana always has been that it is illegal, sold through underworld channels, tied into organized crime, and is therefore used as a “high school” to introduce young customers to the idea of narcotics, and then to turn them on to “hard” — that is, heroin.

A heroin habit, of course, is a true addiction. Withdrawal results in at least three days of agony and sickness of a sort few people will endure unless restrained. It is frightfully expensive so that only the very rich person can support a well-developed habit without becoming a criminal. Also, it wears out, the addict needs more and more as time goes on, until at last he has to submit himself to withdrawal with all its horrors and start over afresh to obtain the effects of the drug.

Heroin, like opium, but unlike morphine which is now a rare drug amongst addicts, does seem to have slowly accumulating deleterious effects.

Marijuana also, in the “drug taking culture” in which it flourishes, is usually accompanied with habitual overdosage with a variety of pep pills and hallucinogens and hypnotics which do have bad physiological effects and which are often addicting in the true sense.

If marijuana could be legalized and lifted out of the context of criminal activity and made a social drug like alcohol, it probably would do a great deal less harm both to individuals and society than either alcohol or nicotine.

However, three things stand in the way. One, both the underworld and the agents of the law have built up a vested interest in things as they are in the field of narcotics control. Two, billions of dollars, which course through the life veins of both business and politics, flow like corpuscles in a plasma of alcohol. Liquor is one of the biggest businesses. What cheap marijuana, which you can grow in a window box, would do to this torrent of gold beggars imagination. Government, of course, at all levels, obtains a big share of its revenue from alcohol.

This is the strongest and conclusive argument against legalizing marijuana as far as the state is concerned. Nobody can figure out how to tax it.

Meanwhile, people who do not use it have no conception of how widespread and ever growing its use is. I doubt if there is a reputable criminologist who believes it can be stopped. Given the prevailing attitudes of the majority, I simply do not know the answer.

[June 28, 1966]



Cultural Potpourri

Big doings for us the last couple of weeks. First, Music In The Vineyards. This is the sort of event that is the perfect realization of an ideal. As my daughter Mary said, “This is what the word culture means.” The Fromm brothers and Otto Meyer and their respective wives have never let it turn into just a concert. It is a personal relationship between musicians, host and hostess and guests.

Philosophers are always debating: “What is the nature of the aesthetic relationship?” Maybe in the deepest sense it is a relationship between people — not between objects of art and spectators at all.

Furthermore, Music In The Vineyards is a perfect example of corporation patronage at its best. It’s not something a cynical PR man thought up, it is something the heads of the wine company themselves wanted to do. They really look on their business as an opportunity to perform a social service.

As big business in northern California goes, Paul Masson is small business indeed. There are industries and financial institutions a hundred times richer. In fact, there are businesses whose PR and advertising budget alone is several times the total capitalization of Paul Masson. When are some of them going to learn that it would pay them handsomely in genuine, not Madison Avenue, public relations to do things like Music In The Vineyards?

Spring Opera finally got off the ground with The Turn of the Screw. This is the sort of thing they should do all the time, productions that can be put on more cheaply than the great operatic chestnuts, that do not demand stellar voices, that are contemporary or seldom performed, and that are capable of fairly wide appeal to a literate audience. Benjamin Britten is a middle-brow composer, tuneful, and with a genuine music-drama sense of theatricality. Yet opening night the main floor was half empty. It would be pretty hard to justify the rest of this season, but maybe Turn of the Screw made up for all the dogs.

Ornette Coleman at the Both/And. When I wrote of Ornette at the Five Spot in New York some years back, I pointed out that there wasn’t anything wild or outrageous about his music. He knew exactly what he was doing, and his extremely radical jazz was musically about where square music was around the time of the First War. Now he has been assimilated, as well as widely imitated, and the very conservative jazz audience is beginning to relax and enjoy him. If you haven’t heard him, you oughta should.

The Bolshoi Ballet, second only to the Kirov in the Great Tradition, and first for some things, is now, like Ornette Coleman, working with an established American audience. People no longer respond to them as though they were a troupe of acrobats. The audience has recovered from its first shock and now appreciates them for what they are, the first company in the world for massive power of statement.

I, too, do wish Sol Hurok would show us new, original and characteristic work of all the companies he tours instead of always the time-tested standards. But the Bolshoi probably is best in the full-length traditional classic or romantic ballets. There they get the chance to bring up all their forces and deploy them with maximum impact.

The Kirov reminds you of the intense sensibility of Turgenev or Pasternak, the Bolshoi of Tolstoi’s War and Peace. When they make a full-length artistic statement, Giselle, Nutcracker, Swan Lake, there’s no arguing back — you realize that these are the people who defeated Napoleon and Hitler.

[June 30, 1966]


“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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