- Feast of Excess: A Cultural History of the New Sensibility by George Cotkin
George Cotkin's brisk and engaging Feast of Excess retells a familiar story, about how a series of innovative art works, essays, and performances created between 1950 and the mid-1970s transformed American culture. The sensibility they expressed—what Cotkin calls "the New Sensibility"—remained avant-garde during this initial, formative period, but has since become dominant. By the 1970s, as Cotkin sees it, American culture had been resituated along an emphatically rebellious, confessional axis. "Acts of excess; going to extremes; focusing on violence, sexuality, and madness; blurring lines between genres, between artists and audience, had always been present in art and culture of the past," Cotkin acknowledges (2). Yet in the decades following World War II such acts of excess "became more common, pronounced, and pervasive. They came to constitute a culture—our culture—which still enthuses and beleaguers us to this day" (2).
In retelling this story as he does, Cotkin hopes to reframe longstanding debates over a set of cultural transformations most often referred to as "the sixties" (14). What did it all add up to: the postmodern novels and confessional poems, the pop art and the happenings, the funk and rock 'n' roll and new jazz, the sexual revolution and the culture of determined, unapologetic protest? Conservative critics have tended to see all these developments as negative, part of a more widespread and calamitous erosion of traditional values; defenders of the era have seen them as at once affirmative and inevitable, part of the necessary movement of democracy towards democracy, of freedom towards freedom. Cotkin invokes such debates as briefly and efficiently as possible (unmistakably siding with the defenders) and chooses to focus instead on original moments of production and reception. Why get bogged down arguing over postmodernism or the culture wars when you can return readers to Black Mountain College in 1952 for the first and only performance of John Cage's Theatre Piece no. 1, to James Brown's electrifying concert at the Apollo in 1962, or to Erica Jong's composition of—and critics' responses to—Fear of Flying, published to considerable fanfare in 1973? [End Page 426]
Cotkin borrows the idea of the New Sensibility from Susan Sontag and Tom Wolfe, expanding on it through a series of chronologically-ordered vignettes, narratives of a single year in the career of a single artist (or sometimes a trio or a pair). In the most general sense, the New Sensibility indicates an historically-specific dedication to style, something like what Raymond Williams, in his own writings from the period, called a "structure of feeling."1 Cotkin uses the term to signal both the renewed embrace of experimental form after World War II and the introduction of controversial new content, in particular a "common core of subjects: violence, liberation (especially sexual), and madness" (5). The willingness to make art out of frank depictions of mental illness and sexual desire, or out of images—even explicit performances—of violence, connect Allen Ginsberg's Howl (1956) and Jong's Fear of Flying (1973), Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953) and Andy Warhol's silkscreens of car crashes and the electric chair. The New Sensibility combined genres, mixed media, and blurred the line between author and character, artist and audience. As Sontag argued in 1966, "one important consequence of the new sensibility" is that "the distinction between 'high' and 'low' culture seems less and less meaningful."2 This fundamental reassessment of culture, wherein literature's Arnoldian authority begins to wane and critics acknowledge the insight and sophistication, not to mention the pleasures, of popular forms, has of course been central to descriptions of postmodernism and the rise of cultural studies. It remains crucial to Cotkin's account as well, implied by his choice of artists and texts even more than by his arguments, where his emphasis on subject matter sometimes overshadows his insights into the postwar recombination of avant-garde and popular forms.
Cotkin gathers his...