The Bohemian Diaspora

But in contrast to the publicity-mad East Villagers, many artists in Greenpoint don't seem to want their neighborhood publicized. As a friend who's lived there for years put it, "We don't care about getting validated by people from Manhattan." There's nothing for the hype to stick to, anyway. No trendy new ism. No glamour. No "No Wave." Just cheap rent. But the artists find one another. There's a knot of community. For example, Mike Ballou and Adam Simon run a symposium called Four Walls out of Ballou's home. ("Don't print my address.") Simon started Four Walls in Hoboken a few years ago, so its move to Brooklyn follows the trail of cheap loft space. Once a month now, guest curators hang a show in ballou's studio for a day; it ends with a discussion of the work among the exhibitors and artists from the neighborhood. It's always crowded.

But there are crowds and then there's the Crowd. Last June, intrigued by flyers wheat-pasted all over the East Village, I made my way to an abandoned warehouse on the Williamsburg waterfront for a one-night-only art extravaganza called the Fly Trap. I'd heard good things about an earlier event called the Cat's Head, and so had everyone else, apparently. By midnight, the line waiting in the rutted dirt road to the warehouse was two blocks long, complete with the old buzz surrounding the place-to-be. Inside, I found 20,000 square feet of huge and uninspired installations, live bands, and beer—club fun, a contrived atmosphere of outlaw revelry. Hanging art in some decrepit quasi-forbidden old building? A veritable tradition—and we did it better in the '70s (Times Square Show). Then we did it better in the '80s (Real Estate Show, Warren Street Pier).

Artists who fled to Williamsburg precisely to escape trendification are horrified to find it following them. Painter Amy Silliman, a longtime resident of the area, said of the Fly Trap: "Don't assume that this is a summary of the neighborhood. It's just the bad old East Village come to haunt me."

Allen Ginsberg gave his first public reading on October 13, 1955, at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. Kenneth Rexroth played MC for the five young poets who would all go on to achieve some measure of poetry-fame—Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen—while an unpublished and unknown Jack Kerouac, too shy to read, passed jugs of wine through the packed gallery. But this became a legendary evening on the strength of the one poem, still unfinished, read by Ginsberg: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness/starving hysterical naked. . ."

As his biographer Barry Miles reports it, Ginsberg was "transported . . arms outstretched, eyes gleaming, swaying from one foot to the other with the rhythm of the words" while Rexroth listened with tears in his eyes and the audience yelled "Go!" at the end of each line. "Howl" was an explosion in consciousness heard round the world, the collective howl reverberating through every outsider enduring the lonely-crowd '50s. This was poetry that changed people's lives.

In Memoirs of a Beatnik, Diane di Prima describes the electrifying moment when she first encountered the poem and sensed that, for better or for worse, her isolation was over. Someone had brought Ginsberg's now-familiar little square book to a dinner party at her "pad." Scanning the first lines, she immediately left her own party to read the whole thing, then returned to read it out loud to everyone. "Allen was only, could only be, the vanguard of a much larger thing. All the people who, like me, had hidden and skulked, writing down what they knew for a small handful of friends—and even those friends claiming it 'couldn't be published' . . . all these would now step forward and say their piece . . . I was about to meet my brothers and sisters."

It's hard to imagine anything with "Howl"'s impact emanating from "high culture" now. The breakthroughs, such as they are, seem to come from the "low"—the first Sex Pistols record, for example, which rewrote every rule about what music could be or say or spit on. It was during the '50s that the spite of "danger" and "rebellion" began to shift from the art world to mass culture. The Beats were the first bohemian movement born under the eye of the mass media. Ginsberg's biography notes that "he took pains to show the difference between the Beat Generation . . . and the beatniks." But the media didn't observe the distinction, "and the public perception was that Allen was the progenitor of all the bearded young men who wandered around Greenwich Village in handmade leather sandals." The Beats thought they could inject their vision into mass culture, but what the "bearded young men" really signaled was the beginning of the community as artifact.

In the '50s, the media image of the beatnik became a corollary to masscult images of rebellious teens. James Dean, that icon of Misunderstood Youth—wasn't he also the Tortured Artist? As for Elvis Presley—wasn't the emblematic scene in each movie the one where he dropped the dumb ballad and learned to rock, blow, go-man-go? Today it's easy to forget how two people as different from each other as Presley and Ginsberg would have grated against the status quo in the Eisenhower years.

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