The Bohemian Diaspora

If this didn't quite make for a mass bohemia—yet—Kerouac could still complain that the Beats were noting but "a fad." His own overnight transition from vision-seeking subterranean to flavor-of-the-month celebrity was a painful one. When On the Road appeared in 1957, he'd been trying to get the book published for six years. Suddenly The New York Times declared it the testament of a new generation, and one day later, the interviewers began to arrive. What was it really like to be Beat? they wanted to know. Soon Kerouac was appearing on talk shows spouting metaphysics to the likes of Mike Wallace ("we are great empty space . . . an empty vision in one mind"). He never seemed to understand that the press wanted hot copy, not enlightenment. It was a San Francisco journalist who invented the word beatnik (after Sputnik), and soon the media had the movement boiled down to jive talk and a set of bongo drums. By 1959, the most famous beatnik in America was Maynard G. Krebs.

Back in 1957, while the brand-new Village Voice covered a few Beat moments like Kerouac's appearance at the Village Vanguard, it featured much longer pieces on old bohemians—infamous Village characters like Joe Gould and Maxwell Bodenheim, who were virtually unknown outside the neighborhood. Fierce rivals, these two impoverished writers were reportedly fed and given drinks at one Village bar for awhile "so customers would come to watch the hostilities."

Bohemia itself was moving from West Village to East at the end of the '50s, and would house a very different sort of "freak." There would be no more Goulds. The Voice piece on his funeral speculates on the whereabouts of Gould's lifework, The Oral History of Our Time —11 million words written in dime-store notebooks as he sat in Goody's Bar on the Minetta Tavern. (Oral History remains a lost work.) Today, Gould's portrait hangs in the Minetta Tavern, but surely someone so unkempt, ornery, and wild-eyed would no longer, uh, suit the decor. This was the boho as hobo: the rebel who could not be televised.

What the full flowering of electronic media made possible was alienation as a growth industry rather than an emblem of community. Malcolm Cowley, part of the so-called Lost Generation, describes in Exile's Return how the First World War and a new set of values set his generation irrevocably apart from the one before it. In the '60s, of course, this feeling infected mass culture, creating the infamous "generation gap"—for it took no more than loving the Beatles, the world's most popular group, to set one apart from one's parents. While "do your own thing" was the notion at the heart of the old bohemia, during the '60s it found a place in the heart of every teen consumer. Nonconformity, transgression, risk—adjectives once associated with bohemian values and avant-garde art—suddenly described superstars whose hits played in Peoria. And Jimi Hendrix became a Fluxus artist when he burned his guitar.

On February 9, 1967, 16 patrol cars pulled up around the Filmmaker's Cinematheque on West 41st Street. Helmeted police converged on the stage inside and arrested artist Charlotte Moorman during a performance of Nam June Paik's Opera Sextronique. Moorman had been playing the cello topless. The Brahms Lullaby. A "lewd act."

Three months later, a Manhattan criminal court judge convicted her of indecent exposure. Moorman faced one to three years in prison. Judge Milton Shalleck suspended the sentence, however, calling the cellist "weak and immature." His 29-page opinion is a classic artifact of official contempt for the avant-garde, with its references to "bearded, bathless Beats" and "those 'happeners' whose belief it is that art is 'supposed to change life' as most of us know it." There the judge had a glimmer of art's true potential for transgression. It could change life.

And that never seemed more possible than it did in the '60s, when every art form broke apart into something rich and strange. Remember cynaesthetic cinema? Cybernetic sculpture? Intermedia? Destruction art? Underground film? The death of painting? The death of the novel? The death of the theater? One could make a case for the '60s as "the end of the avant-garde." But the media gravitated to Warhol and Ginsberg and the other supernovas of an official demimonde, ignoring the aesthetic ferment behind the personalities. It was up to critic/advocates like Jill Johnston (performance) and Jonas Mekas (film) to witness the revolution. Certainly Charlotte Moorman, an emblematic figure in the '60s avant-garde, could not expect a Times review. Nor a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

To be part of the art netherworld then was to be part of something suspect, outré, and perhaps even illegal. Moorman's arrest was no anomaly. In 1961, postal inspectors busted LeRoi Jones and Diane di Prima for sending obscenity through the mail—their literary magazine, Floating Bear. (A grand jury failed to return indictments.) In 1964, Lenny Bruce got a one-year sentence for using words like fuck and cocksucker onstage at the Cafe Au Go Go. (It was overturned on appeal after Bruce's death.) That same year, two detectives broke up an East Village screening of Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures, arresting Jonas Mekas, who had programmed the film. (Mekas got a six-month suspended sentence, and Smith's film was banned in the state of New York until 1970.) These were people who'd chosen a life in art that would keep them impoverished, marginal, embattled. They were "don't-wannabes." Bohemians.

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