Beat Era Photo Exhibit Skips a Beat
A National Portrait Gallery show of Allen Ginsberg's photography is noticeably monochromatic.
The National Gallery of Art unveiled Beat Memories earlier this month, a photo exhibit showcasing beat poet Allen Ginsberg's less-known work as a photographer, on display until September.
The narrative created by Beat Memories is benignly incomplete. For sure, the gallery curators were limited by the photos they were given. However, the fact that none of the women or blacks are included who played a significant role in the intellectual life of the beat scene that thrived in New York and San Francisco in the 1950s is disappointing--and ultimately dishonest. This is where culture watchdogs are necessary.
There are moments where those who believe in culture wish for a post-racial America--maybe for a split second--for art's sake. Since much of our historic narratives present limited, whitewashed versions of American life, the job of writing about culture is a challenge because most of the reference points are skewed. If there were no upsides to privileging one side of history over the other, the work that culture writers do could actually be about discovery and learning and expanding our vision of all that constitutes the American story.
Art has an amazing power to expand our humanity; however, when misappropriated, art can serve as a tool of the oppressor. The major intellectual contributions that black writers have made to movements outside of the Harlem Renaissance and the black arts movement are rarely discussed. But increasingly, we're finding that the world is smaller than we once thought. Albert Einstein knew Paul Robeson. Alice Walker was a student of Howard Zinn. The narrative of America is peopled with a diverse cast of people.
Arguably the most famous non-white beat poet is Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones). His friends simply called him Roi. He was (and still is) the restless intellectual of the past 50-plus years. Before the Jones-Baraka transition from Greenwich Village to Harlem, Jones was known for his poetry, plays (Dutchman won an Obie in 1964), and his criticism (the seminal Blues People arrives in 1963). He and his first wife, Hettie Jones, founded Totem press, which published many of the stars of the Beat Generation, including Jack Kerouac and Ginsberg. He and Hettie Jones, feverishly engaged in the ideas and politics of the day, held salons in their Village flat. Hettie Jones writes in her memoir that Jack Kerouac coined the term ''the Beat Generation,'' explaining beats as being ''pushed up against the wall of oneself.''
The art that bloomed out of the Beat Generation was a response to the political climate of the 1950s. Sen. Joseph McCarthy was unleashing several programs that oppressed creative types like the Beats and artists of color who were thought to be subversive. (Think the Hollywood black list). In 1954, Brown vs. Board of Education declared segregated schooling unconstitutional. In 1957, Ginsberg was on trial for his poem ''Howl,'' which a San Francisco prosecutor called ''filthy, vulgar, obscene and containing disgusting language.'' Probably most significant on the cultural front, in 1959, Miles Davis'sKind of Blue arrived alongside Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, which opened on Broadway and was a hit.