Utopia and Dissent
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 a moribund art school and made that school thrive. There is much in the book that shows how good art can flourish only under the right conditions—those fostered by sufficient money, abundant freedom, and the example of disciplined study. Smith also covers what might be called the great events of California art, such as Allen Ginsberg’s reading of HOWL at the Six Gallery in October of 1955, and Denise Levertov’s participation in the People’s Park demonstrations at Berkeley in 1969. The book’s stories of artists are also used as the frame for discussions of esthetics; theory is discussed in terms of the people who developed the theory. This approach makes what could be a daunting topic quite approachable.
Beautifully printed on high-quality paper, UTOPIA AND DISSENT is a valuable addition to art history and a pleasure for anyone who enjoys art.