Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Venice Beats

Did you know there were beatniks in Southern California at around the same time beat scenes were developing in SF and NY? It's a long forgotten history and since I'm in L.A. now I decided to do some research on it recently. I knew that Venice was where they had congregated oh so many years ago, so I took a drive there to walk around. I thought of J&T and it made me a little sad as I walked along the idyllic Venice canals. Things seemed lost in another time there. Aside from some nearby building development and gentrification, not much seems to have changed. It has a different feel than contemporary North Beach or Greenwich Village...more seedy and bohemian.

After this excursion, I went to the library and found:

Venice West: The Beat Generation in Southern California
John Arthur Maynard
Rutgers University Press, 1993

Wow, what an eye opener. I had no idea that the concept of "dedicated poverty" came from the Southern California beats. It's why you don't hear about them as much as the more famous beats (Ginsberg, Burroughs, Kerouac, Whalen, etc.). Aside from the older Lawrence Lipton, who pseudo-documented the scene in The Holy Barbarians (1959), the only other successful poet was Stuart Perkoff. And unfortunately, he was a junkie. It's clear from reading this book that there was a connection in the minds of the Venice beats between living freely and living in poverty. Yet the ones who really dedicated themselves to asceticism were able to do so because they had family or spousal financial support. In any case, their whole idea - very novel for the time (when consumerism was on the rise in suburban America in the '50s) - was that the only way to be free to create would be to work as little as possible and form few material attachments.

Lipton was a colleague of Kenneth Rexroth who was a big influence on the Northern California beats. Rexroth was more academic, though, and didn't approve much of the Venice West lifestyle. The book compares and contrasts Lipton and the Venice writers with Rexroth and the SF writers. There's a bias against Lipton, warranted or not, due to the belief that he was somewhat of an opportunist and took advantage of his younger protégés. Many of the younger poets later resented him for publishing The Holy Barbarian, which is really interesting to me since I think a lot about how culture is documented. Lipton's book was sensationalistic, but it brought California beats to the attention of the rest of America. It made the American media take serious note of the ideas and creative works that were flowing freely out of the minds of an underground community.

Would it have been better if Lipton's book had never been published? Venice West's author, John Maynard, does a good job at critiquing the many issues and personalities at play. I really enjoyed reading this book. But it made me realize that I don't believe in dedicated poverty, because I no longer buy into the romanticized


Tobi Vail said...

Hi Decomposition, welcome to the Bumpidee Reader! Thanks for taking the time to write. I take it "dedicated poverty" is a form of self-marginalization, where the artist is encouraged to revoke the material world and economic prosperity for a more "purified existence" of suffering, which would make their art more legitimate re: the crede of Romanticism? Is that right? I'd like to talk more about this!

decomposition said...

Yes, exactly! Philomene Long, one of the few female poets/artists to come out of Venice West, explains in an online interview:

"The Venice Beats upheld the dream of salvation through creativity, wrote poems for the act of writing itself, had no mind for publishing; were determined to stay underground. The Venice West Beat scene was the subculture beneath the subculture. It was about as deep underground as one can get - lives of 'dedicated poverty' to 'dig' (50s hipster term) to the roots of things."

Tobi Vail said...

it's interesting to trace it back to romanticism and the suffering of the artist making the work great...as the beats were working in that tradition (with maybe the exception of william s burroughs?)...and then to trace that to the 60's counterculture, which of course was influential on punk and 80's underground DIY...but what i often here, is a post-90's 'there's no such thing as selling out, just selling more' type analysis. like, stop being pure and righteous and just cash in while you can. i wrote about this in jigsaw #7, in "underground ideas", where I tried to point out some of the ironies involved--that somehow wanting to participate in the making of a decentralized folk culture (folk in the sense 'of the people, not mediated through the market place) had been turned into "elitism", while selling a song to an advertisement was now "populist". more recently i've heard persuasive arguments against 'self-marginalization' from people critiquing the privilege sometimes associated with such a choice....however I still think it's important to recognize there is value in rejecting consumerism and to remember that material gain is not the only way to be successful. there is also community, social change, political motives. it's not an either/or situation. it's also important to recognize that all kinds of people reject materialism, not just the rich or upper-middle class. of course it's annoying when class guilt makes people want to be poor, but you can usually see that a mile away, and by the time those kids turn 30 they go back to the world they came from. i'm not saying anything new here, just recognizing some of the complexities surrounding this idea. it's reminding me to review Unmarketable by Anne Elizabeth Moore, a book I haven' made up my mind about yet...did you read it?

decomposition said...

I think what surprised me most in reading about the Venice West beats is that I had no idea that a lot of the ideas about DIY and non-materialism that became popular in the '60s counterculture and with punks stemmed from the Southern California bohemians. And now that you bring up the link to Romanticism, I'm even more intrigued. Why is it that the DIY and underground ethic is so similar to Romanticism? And why is that now, as you say, there is a reaction against that and a redefinition of what it means to be populist. I haven't read Anne Elizabeth Moore's book yet, but it sounds interesting.

I agree with your statement:
"I still think it's important to recognize there is value in rejecting consumerism and to remember that material gain is not the only way to be successful. there is also community, social change, political motives. it's not an either/or situation."

I think it's a matter of focus. One can define success in such a way that lets him/her live without suffering too greatly and without being overly materialistic. I don't think anyone is doing any good to anyone if they're suffering in poverty. And as I mentioned, the book makes it clear that those who dedicated their lives to poverty were only able to focus on creating because other people were providing them with money, food, shelter, supplies, etc. So the whole idea of devoting oneself exclusively to one's creative work without having to worry about money is unrealistic, especially in today's geopolitical economic situation.

But at the same time, no one is doing much good if they have to focus on money at the expense of other things in life. That's why I think right now there's a war on creative people. How can we afford to create when we are so focused on survival?

I think it's a challenge. There are always ways to create that don't depend on one's financial situation. History has proven this. So perhaps we need to reframe some of our ideas so that economics don't play such a major role in what we do or don't do. Can you suggest other contemporary writers for me to read on this subject?

Tobi Vail said...

hi sharon, check this out
blog link

if you scroll down, there's a post about 'white minority' and 'self-marginalization' and DIY
i think it's written by someone from that band Defiance Ohio. my friend rana sent it to me awhile back

Tobi Vail said...

also, as far as Romanticism and DIY go--what I was specifcally talking about was the Romantic idea of the suffering artist; that if you suffer, your art will be better...but what DIY often makes me think of is Puritanism...so where do the two meet? In literature, I'd suggest Nathaniel Hawthorne, maybe Herman Melville.
this is stuff I've been thinking about a lot in the past 10 years, still haven't figured it out....making connections...let's keep talking about it.

decomposition said...

Thanks for the link. I dug deeper and found that the reference in the blog to self-marginalization is attributed to writer/literary critic Daniel Traber. I googled him and found out he wrote a book last year titled Whiteness, Otherness, and the Individualism Paradox from Huck to Punk.

Here's the description:
"Traber reexamines the practice of self-marginalization in Euro-American literature and popular culture that depict whites adopting varied markers of otherness to disengage from the dominant culture. He draws on critical theory, whiteness and cultural studies to counter an eager correlation between marginality and agency. The nonconformist cultural politics of these border crossings implode since the transgressive identity the protagonists desire relies upon, is built from, the center's values and definitions. An orthodox notion of individualism underpins each act of sovereignty as it rationalizes exploiting stereotypes of an Other constructed by the center. The work closes by positing a theory of identity based on Jean-Luc Nancy's concept of the emptied self. In recognizing the already mixed quality of being, identity is made a vacuous concept as the standards for determining self and difference become too slippery to hold."

I'll try to check it out from the library and report back at a later date.

decomposition said...

A link to more info about Traber's book in case anyone else is interested.

decomposition said...

Well, I looked for the Traber book in both my local library and school library and neither had it. I searched online through WorldCat and found it's pretty much only at large university libraries. The book has a list price of $65, so you know no one is going to spend that much unless they have to. It's frustrating when books are only published for students and academics. And it's frustrating that art schools aren't considered scholarly enough to get a book like Traber's for its library.