Excess Under Control: The New Sensibility in Midcentury Art

"Feast of Excess" is a fine study of the "New Sensibility" in American art.

Excess Under Control: The New Sensibility in Midcentury Art

Feast of Excess by George Cotkin. Oxford University Press. 336 pages.

FEAST OF EXCESS is a nuanced account of the development of the arts in America from 1952 to 1974, two-plus “crucial and chaotic” decades during which, historian George Cotkin argues, “our house of culture has settled permanently in the concrete of excess.” He twice invokes poet Anne Sexton’s aesthetic of “excess under control,” and this could serve as a motto for the book itself.

In chronicling this long, strange artistic road trip, during which Dionysus was doing much of the driving, Cotkin sensibly brings Apollo along for the ride; in other words, he does justice to the radical vision of the New Sensibility by presenting it with considerable craft. Instead of broad, brash strokes of cultural criticism, Cotkin creates “vignettes,” each chapter dealing with a single year in which he focuses on a representative artist, profiling “cultural creators” ranging from Marlon Brando to Amiri Baraka, Robert Rauschenberg to Erica Jong.

For this reader, Cotkin’s more focused approach was a particularly rewarding experience, as it allowed me to reencounter some of the American artists (and partners-in-excess) who had such a jolting influence on my developing sensibility. I came of age in the Ireland of the 1980s; our house of culture, even then, had its extreme spaces, but the concrete was still wet. The ’80s were the last decade in which the Irish Catholic Church dominated the political and cultural landscape. I can still remember standing in a daze at a suburban bus stop — this was 1986, and I was about to turn 18 and go to college — trying to process the defeat of the referendum on removing the constitutional ban on divorce. My mood had very little to do with the right to remarry (or the lack of it), and everything to do with a sense of living, as my parents’ generation had, in a stifling and circumscribed atmosphere. The 1950s refused to end. The dregs of censorship, which had been one of the toxins of independent Ireland, meant that films by the likes of Monty Python still got banned. Like a lot of people my age, I yearned for “a more open sea of possibility” (to recycle a phrase Cotkin uses in relation to Stella Adler’s acting pedagogy).

That more open sea was the Atlantic. Since it felt as if the 1950s weren’t quite over, transgressive American art from that era was still potent. When I was a first year at Trinity College, a senior I’d been in a play with lent me her copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl — the small, black-and-white City Lights edition. She’d brought back this hipster talisman from her J-1 summer in San Francisco. The J-1 visa program was (and still is) a rite of passage for many Irish university students, allowing them to live and work (a great boon in the ’80s) in the US for several months. The long, roisterous lines of Ginsberg’s poem transported me across the Atlantic — and back in time, more than 30 years, to the famous showcasing of Howl at San Francisco’s Six Gallery (I’d already learned about this 1955 reading in Ann Charters’s biography of Jack Kerouac). Gary Snyder, another Beat poet who read that night, reacted to Ginsberg’s intoxicating (and intoxicated) performance by saying, “we had finally broken through to a new freedom of expression,” and realized that “the imagination has a free and spontaneous life of its own, that it can be trusted that what flows from a spontaneous mind is poetry.”

That inaugural evening would be the first of many wild nights for the New Sensibility, which Susan Sontag — arguably its most eloquent advocate and certainly a central figure in Cotkin’s narrative — defined as “reflect[ing] a new, more open way of looking at the world.” This New Sensibility “had become by the mid-1960s,” Cotkin asserts, “the dominant cultural style in the United States.”

The signature of that style “was excess, whether in the direction of minimalism or maximalism.” Back in the summer of 1952, composer John Cage had traveled heroically in both directions, producing on separate occasions a multimedia extravaganza and 4’ 33” of ambient silence. That heady season made him the amiable godfather of the whole sensibility. As I heard John Cale, formerly of the Velvet Underground, say on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast a few years ago, “Cage knocked down the walls of the concert hall.”

I was attuned to Cale’s words because, circa 1985, it was through listening to and reading about the Velvets that I first learned about John Cage and another of Cotkin’s New Sensibility trailblazers, Andy Warhol. On a free day from high school, I took the bus into the center of Dublin to buy Victor Bockris and Gerard Malanga’s Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story (another beautiful black-and-white book). There, on a page reproduced from a 1963 edition of The New York Times, was a grainy photo of Cage taking over at the piano from a young and nattily dressed Cale during the Cage-organized marathon performance of Erik Satie’s Vexations. Marathon, in fact, is an understatement: a relay team of 10 pianists played the piece 840 times; as this took over 18 hours, the Times covered the event with their own relay team of reporters. (I love the story, related during Cale’s appearance on the game show I’ve Got a Secret, that at the end of the performance one of the few people present in the auditorium had the wit to shout out “Encore!”)

With such a preparation in extremity, it makes aesthetic sense that, just a few years later, Cale, with his feral electric viola, would make such a vital contribution to the feast of excess that was the first two Velvet Underground albums. The first of these, The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967), was officially produced by Warhol, though critics agree that his most important contribution, besides providing the now iconic banana image for the front cover, was to give the band free reign over their sometimes haunted, sometimes howling sound. Cale and main songwriter Lou Reed became a kind of short-lived Lennon and McCartney of the New Sensibility, with Cale’s avant-garde credentials matched by Reed’s lyrical candor. The most celebrated Reed solo album, Transformer (1972) — another American artifact that still enjoyed great currency in 1980s Dublin youth culture — could serve as the soundtrack for much of Cotkin’s book. Indeed, the last vignette concerns the extreme, self-wounding performances of Chris Burden, who “[o]n occasion,” Cotkin reports, “referred to himself as the ‘Lou Reed of the art world.’”

I first saw New York on my own J-1 summer, in 1988. One of the terms of the program was that you had to spend your first night in country at a hostel and attend an orientation session the following morning, so a bunch of us J-1ers were put on a bus from JFK to the city. As soon as we hit the mean-ish streets of Manhattan, someone sitting behind me said out loud what I was thinking, “It’s like something out of Lou Reed.” Someone else sang a few lines from “I’m Waiting for the Man,” the second track from The Velvet Underground & Nico, the point where the album hits its seedy stride. In my mind I could hear its hypnotic staccato attack.

I spent a fair bit of that summer, when I wasn’t earning my keep as a vacation-relief doorman in midtown, playing catch-up with hip American culture. Cotkin’s chapter on photographer Robert Frank reminded me that I went to a screening at a revival theater of Pull My Daisy (1959), the Beatnik film he directed with Alfred Leslie, though I don’t think I took much notice of the credits; I was mainly there to see Ginsberg on film and hear Kerouac’s jazzy narration, allegedly improvised while drunk. (At a bookstore on Greenwich Avenue, the genial owner had made my day by introducing me to one of the minor Beats, Herbert Huncke; he makes a cameo appearance in Cotkin’s book, “in a stolen car” with Ginsberg; even in the late ’80s, he had an edgy presence.) After the film was over, I enthused about it to the arty usher, who nonchalantly replied, “Yep, it’s quite the time capsule.” America, he was telling me, had long moved on from the Beat Generation. But for me, the film remained instructive. “Reviewing the film for the Village Voice,” Cotkin writes, “Jonas Mekas exulted that Pull My Daisy offered ‘new ways out of the frozen officialdom and midcentury sterility of our arts, towards new themes, a new sensibility.’” In my Irish mind in the 1980s, the melt was still underway.

After graduating from Trinity, I crossed the Irish Sea to attend the University of East Anglia, where, back in the early 1970s, the novelists Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson had founded what many British people regarded as a very American and rather dubious enterprise: a creative writing program. The most important American influence I encountered at UEA, however, was my future wife, a fellow writer. In 1993, we moved to her hometown, Houston, where we have lived ever since. This migration had to do with jobs and other life logistics; Ireland has changed so rapidly in the last 30 years that the tradition of exile practiced by freedom-seeking writers like Joyce and Beckett now seems as antiquated as a turnip snedder. Shortly before I left Ireland, a friend of mine, in providing a wry commentary on my imminent relocation, quoted not the closing pages of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but the opening monologue of the Velvet Underground’s live album 1969, specifically Lou Reed’s barb about “whatever makes life bearable in Texas.”

Well, some political considerations aside, life has been pretty good in Texas. Living in the burgeoning and diverse city of Houston has provided me, à la Sontag, with new ways of looking at the world. My favorite Houston writer is Donald Barthelme (if his Texan identity comes as a surprise, check out Tracy Daugherty’s excellent 2009 biography, Hiding Man — there New York and Houston emerge as the twin cities of Barthelme’s imagination). Like Lou Reed, Barthelme is another “cultural creator” whose vignette would not be amiss in Feast of Excess. He comes to mind when Cotkin is writing about architects and theorists of excess Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown: “The aim of Learning from Las Vegas was to think about that city, its signs and symbolism, as a case study of how chaos can slide into a different type of order.” Learning from Houston (to mention two salient examples from Daugherty’s book), Bartheleme loved the neon jangle of Westheimer, the city’s main drag, and, during the year he was director at the Contemporary Arts Museum, he curated an exhibition entitled “The Ugly Show.” Indeed, his gleefully innovative stories can be read as reshapings of modern chaos into different types of order.

But Barthelme was also one of those artists who was both of the New Sensibility and skeptical of it — a category for which Cotkin readily allows. Grounded in modernism, Barthelme shared T.S. Eliot’s belief (articulated after he saw cave paintings in France) that “art never improves.” He said as much in his 1981 Paris Review interview: “the notion of an avant-garde is a bit off. The function of the advance guard in military terms is exactly that of the rear guard, to protect the main body, which translates as the status quo.” As both an old soldier and a veteran writer, Barthelme knew what he was talking about.

Susan Sontag, too, had her doubts. By the 1990s, she was reassessing some of her early appraisals of the New Sensibility:

Some authors that she had claimed to adore for their ability to stimulate through repetition had become boring. “I thought I liked William Burroughs and Nathalie Sarraute and Robbe-Grillet,” she recalled, “but I didn’t. I actually didn’t.”

Sontag was also troubled by the New Sensibility’s often cozy relationship with capitalism. Cotkin acknowledges this tendency toward commodification, tenaciously resisted by some artists, embraced by others. “[A]s Thomas Frank has argued,” he notes, “a hip style […] proved liberating to the advertising industry.” The howl of the New Sensibility was indeed taken up by a chorus of mad men, but perhaps there were as many Don Drapers in their ranks as Allen Ginsbergs.

And of course excess is itself an inherently problematic concept. Many artists have leaned on the William Blake aphorism “The road of excess leads to the place of wisdom.” (Cotkin points out that Blake’s assertion entered the consciousness of the New Sensibility generation through the work of “renegade” philosopher Norman O. Brown.) But that now well-traveled road can also lead to shacks of misery and ignorance. Performance artist Chris Burden “felt that his works reflected back upon American society the violence that was its own beating heart,” but, as Cotkin admits, cultural production planted in that “concrete of excess” can also promote misogyny and violence. The New Sensibility may have given artists vital freedoms, but has it also given carte blanche to trolls and opportunists?

Cotkin implicitly responds to such a question. “The excess of the New Sensibility is to be celebrated,” he argues, “not as a simple end, but as a process, an experimental imperative for finding new truths, new critiques, and going in new creative directions.”

As we travel in those new directions, some influences stay with us like identity cards, others we drop as excess baggage. I haven’t read the Beats in years, though I still listen to Cale and Reed — in fact, Cotkin’s chapter on Andy Warhol and his “colorful industrial panache” prompted me to revisit their 1990 reunion record, Songs for Drella, a tribute to the Velvets’s old mentor. It’s a minor miracle that the album happened at all, and the song cycle has stood the test of time; in fact, the album is more haunting today than it was 25 years ago, with Reed himself now gone.

I think the “new” in the New Sensibility is best explained by a definition for the word Barthelme offered in that Paris Review interview: “it’s a kind of shorthand for discovery.” The “spirit of creative excess” encouraged me to light out for some new territory, even if I didn’t stay there. Its wisdom was perhaps best expressed by one of the most significant “cultural creators” Cotkin sketches, John Coltrane, who said: “We have to keep on cleaning the mirror.”


Robert Cremins is the author of the novels A Sort of Homecoming and Send in the Devils.

LARB Contributor

Robert Cremins is the author of the novels A Sort of Homecoming and Send in the Devils. Recent fiction has appeared in The Dublin Review. He teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston.


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