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Utopia and Dissent

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

UTOPIA AND DISSENT grew out of author Richard Candida Smith’s work in oral history. Perhaps for this reason it has an engaging immediacy. What could be a dry and too-abstract roll-call of the aesthetics of individuals, movements, and art shows is a fascinating story of the lives, conditions, and imaginations of California artists.

The book is illuminating as social history. For example, it reveals how important the GI Bill was for art in California, how the Beats came to be, and how California’s geographical position—between Europe and Asia—has influenced the eclectic style of California’s art. There are also various stories of censorship, blue laws, and vice raids. These histories make clear, without authorial editorializing, the general doltishness of the censor. The reader also may expect to be impressed with the depth of learning and the ethical commitment that typify many California artists, contrary to the stereotype of the shallow Californian. The book’s examination of the work of Gary Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth, and Robert Duncan, for example, makes clear that these poets’ breadth and depth of knowledge and their ethical commitment as artists were inspiring, intimidating, and second to none. Smith also describes the California artistic community’s anguished responses to the war in Vietnam.

There are also engrossing stories of people. The book devotes many of its pages and many of its sixty-seven plates to Wallace Berman, for example, who might be considered one of the most famous and influential unknown artists of recent history. There is also the story of Douglas MacAgy, who, at age thirty-two, was hired by the desperate board of...

(The entire section is 414 words.)