Recently I braved the hordes of college students at the University of Texas on my way to the Harry Ransom Center which is located directly in the center of campus. For the next six weeks the center will play host to the writings, rants, manuscripts, sketches, paintings and music of Beat Era Icons such as Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Ted Joans, Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
The beat movement is hard to pigeon hole into specific dates but can easily fit between late 1940’s and well into the middle 1960’s. These years were riddled with racial tension and post World War Two idealism. It was the beginning of the cold war and the nuclear family; mother in pearls cooking dinner while little Johnny feeds the dog is how history remembers these golden years before Vietnam. Ginsberg and Kerouac were disgusted with the blatant paper thin idealism that shrouded the country at the time. Such structure and form confined their freer sensibilities. They were the ideal deviants.
Enthralled by the Jazz music they frequently listened to in the dives bars of Harlem, the Beats latched onto the musician’s ability to create new rhythms as they went allowing for development in any possible direction. They rejected structure for free form, content for process, statics for motion, and careful planning for improvisation. Jack Kerouac assimilated this strategy in the book, On the Road. Before writing he took many sheets of paper and taped them together to create multiple scrolls of more than one hundred feet each. The idea was that while typing using his scrolls he would not be confined with having to reload his typewriter after each page. This would allow him to write continuously without interruption in a manner we would term today as “stream of consciousness”.
They seemed to be on a constant quest for “here and now” never concerned with past or future. Education on a subject served only as a template for revision. Beats struggled to create and live outside of societal norms in an effort to ponder their purpose while still being delighted to exist within them, for without these norms they would have nothing to question. “I am learning by the week, but my poesy is still not my own. New rhyme new me me me in words. I am not all of this carven rhetoric”, Ginsberg writes in a letter to Kerouac during his years at Columbia expressing his frustrations with accepted written forms. Ginsberg delivers “Howl” October 13, 1955 at the Six Gallery six years after graduating from Columbia.
Beat filmmakers struggled with similar issues of form and content. How does one access the unconscious and spontaneous in a medium that requires such careful consideration? Filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, Christopher Mclaine and Maya Deren all dealt with these questions differently. Brakhage attacked the acceptable structure of “story” form from such a different angle that people weren’t quite sure what to make of his work. He would paint and glue things on clear leader. The result was a flash of color and a shape unlike anything ever done before it. Must a story be a linear tale of people or can it not be the transition from blue to red over the course of hundred frames. Kenneth Anger dealt with cultural acceptance of sexuality and innocence in an era where anything homosexual was considered to be socially deviant, almost criminal.
Beatniks where labeled by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover as one of the greatest “menaces” to the stability of America in 1960. I wonder what he would have to say about them now.
The exhibition runs from Feb. 5 to Aug. 3 in the Ransom Center Galleries at The University of Texas at Austin.
Beat Film Series screenings take place at the Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz at 7 p.m. consult www.hrc.utexas.edu/events/2008/beatfilm for show times.