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  • Bohemian California and Political Dissent
  • Anthony W. Lee (bio)
Utopia and Dissent: Art, Poetry, and Politics in California. By Richard Cándida Smith. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995. 560 pages. $35.00.

Ever since the gold rush, early Californians worried about the state’s geographical isolation and the kinds of adverse effects this might have on its high culture. The new inhabitants were, after all, transplanted easterners and midwesterners whose sense of elevated culture was bound up with old, or at least older, institutions, relatively recognized cultural producers, and an identifiable patron class that mediated debates about the fine arts. The anxieties led, for example, to the 1872 founding of San Francisco’s Bohemian Club, which was comprised of journalists, novelists, painters, and poets, along with the enormously wealthy members of the Comstock generation and their newly found, arriviste pretensions. The Club was dedicated to the promotion of the arts and “good [male] fellowship.” This pattern of collectivization and cultural promotion was to be repeated, with each new group proclaiming that its very existence was a sign that the state had overcome its unfortunate distance from the centers of high culture. The developing urban arenas were the new artistic centers, so it was argued, and its artist and patron members comprised the new cultural elite. But more often than not, these claims were followed by [End Page 708] others immediately pointing to their speciousness. As late as 1928, a skeptical critic could protest, without too much worry of being contradicted, that “San Francisco is frequently proclaimed as an art center—but only in San Francisco.” 1

For most observers of California’s art and culture, the real and imagined marginality of the state has been an impediment to more probing analyses. It has led to a number of familiar scholarly modes which tend to reproduce the same verdict of inferiority. San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, for example, is frequently understood as an overblown display of old world taste and culture, an apparent compensation for the city’s real worries of being uncivilized. This assessment seems to hold despite the fact that expositions were notoriously overproduced affairs to begin with. As another example, the Bay Area painters known as the Society of Six are lauded because of their naïveté. As one art historian argues, their paintings are worth scrutinizing precisely because the Six were “innocent of theory, dogma, and establishment ambitions.” 2 And perhaps most exemplary of all, the critical subtext has led to an apparent disjunction between California’s art and culture before and after World War II. How do we account for the state’s sudden, post-war flowering of ambitious and compelling art and poetry? The answer, until now, has been that we do not, at least if it means dredging California’s pre-war culture and trying to make it the basis for some kind of renaissance. According to conventional wisdom, there was nothing really worth reviving.

Richard Cándida Smith’s ambitious Utopia and Dissent is the first book to change this pattern. Smith argues that the pre-war culture not only was a foundation upon which truly daring art and poetry developed but, in fact, was a basis for the entire countercultural movement of the 1960s. Reaching this conclusion requires an intricate argument, and it leads Smith to consider the kinds of linkages between pre-war and post-war cultural institutions, the contentious character of bohemian subcultures, the various means by which these rather marginal groups reached public attention, and the complex interactions between late modernist artistic ideas and political dissent. Along the way, he discusses in detail such diverse practitioners as Lorser Feitelson, Helen Lundeberg, Kenneth Rexroth, Joan Brown, Jay DeFeo, Wallace Berman, Connor Everts, Edward Kienholz, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Robert Duncan. The Beat writers Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Allen Ginsberg make cameo appearances; the painters Clyfford Still, Hassel Smith, Elmer Bischoff, and David Park receive useful, if somewhat passing, attention; the unjustly forgotten [End Page 709] artist, Clay Spohn, is given a serious look and a much more central place in the state’s art history; and so on. Utopia and Dissent...

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