The staff of the Oakland museum finally noticed that I've lost the ability to write. Then—I don't know how—they found out that I live in San Francisco, which is death for someone trying to write about Oakland. My termination was hastily tendered. The museum was kind about letting me go. We had a tete-a-tete in the Blue Oak café. They bought me a pastry, which sat untouched on the table. I watched the guilt congeal on their faces as I began weeping. "Please stop," they said. I nodded and wept. "Pull yourself together," they told me. I performed a sniffling pantomime indicating that I understood that things would be better if I stopped crying. There was a long moment. Then their resolve broke. "You can stay," they said. "Keep blogging about Oakland and the concerns of the museum. Just... do it from this utility closet. We don't want to look at you." I cried more, this time out of gratitude. I repeated thanks in a blubbering loop. So here I am.
The historian John McMillian came to town to read from his new book, Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America. In a hotel bar, I asked him questions about the history of Northern California's alternative media. My tape recorder convulsed and died. McMillian's book uses as its primary source the underground newspapers of the 1960s. These papers were the ancestors of our alternative newsweeklies, the East Bay Express and the SF Bay Guardian—McMillian writes about the Berkeley Barb and the LA Free Press, among others. We talked about the radical politics and apolitical hippie culture that mixed in these newspapers, which blended dogmatic, activist antiwar articles with comics, record reviews, and back-page sex ads.
The next night, at the Political Poster Jam, I gave my copy of McMillian's book to the museum's political poster archivist Lincoln Cushing. Cushing then sat on a panel with the legendary Black Panther poster artist Emory Douglas, the fearless and accomplished printmaker Favianna Rodriguez, and the brilliant, outspoken director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, Carol A. Wells. The room was packed with an attentive and appreciative audience—many of whom, it became clear during the Q&A period, were veteran poster-making colleagues of the four experts sitting on the panel.
Favianna Rodriguez's work, which she showed in a rapid-fire slideshow, is bright and powerful: text and images are calibrated for maximum impact, driving home as directly as possible their political messages—fighting for migrant rights, or against gentrification, or the war in Iraq. Some of her work focuses on the problem of whiteness in American culture—one poster depicts Rodriguez in front of a mirror, removing a blindfold whose whiteness, she told the audience, symbolized the oppressive dominant white culture in the U.S. Someone asked her about the resurgence of screenprinting in the past few years. Rodriguez dismissed this development as belonging mostly to "hipster white kids," arguing that the "politics wasn't there." Carol A. Wells then complained of the preponderance of "art for art's sake in this country."
A week ago, the poet Andy Fitch came to town to read from his new book, Ten Walks and Two Talks. (Something called the Song Cave also recently published Island, a chapbook in an edition of 100.) Both of Fitch's books begin as tape recordings of his walks around Manhattan, narrating things as he experiences them, and then carving them into tight poetic litanies:
Back at Church a girl's wheelchair glistened. A cook drenched the sidewalk with soapy water. In Park Dayschool it was story time. The woman had gray dreadlocks.
I thought he might be a good person to walk with me to Gertrude Stein's childhood home, on Twenty-fifth Street and Thirteenth Ave in Oakland, which I'd promised I'd do a while ago.
Each walk in Ten Walks is composed of sixty sentences. They have no real narrative to speak of, but the walks' shapes take on a sculptural quality. They might be the literary equivalent of what Carol A. Wells and Favianna Rodriguez were responding to—art that revels in the pleasures of its formal aspect without worrying about its political impact. Fitch's books are interested in urban spaces, but it's a highly aestheticized interest. There's a strong social element to his walks, but it's an abstract, aestheticized social awareness, with none of the activist, social-justice awareness of the political poster artists.
Is Fitch able to ignore the political implications of urban life simply because he has the privilege and safety—as he himself acknowledged, as we walked down International Boulevard toward Stein's house—of being a straight white male? Is he taking attention away from artists who might have a stronger political conscience, who have less of a voice in American culture?
It feels absurd and noxiously privileged for me to defend apolitical art. Rodriguez argues in an eloquent interview with the Oakland blog Oakbook that "the art world continues to be an elitist body [that] caters mostly to the needs of white men." Abstract Expressionism and "Soft Conceptualism" don't need passionate (white) defenders—at least not nearly as much as disenfranchised communities do. I still want there to be a way for art that speaks for social justice to happily exist alongside art for its own sake in a way where neither side need deride or supplant the other. I hope they could even support each other.
Gertrude Stein lectured on art throughout the trip to the U.S. that brought her back to Oakland, to find her childhood home with no there there. One lecture is about "pictures":
Once an oil painting is painted, painted on a flat surface, painted by anybody who likes or is hired or is interested to paint it, or who has or has not been taught to paint it, I can always look at it and it always holds my attention. The painting may be good it may be bad, medium or very bad or very good but any way I like to look at it.
I feel the same way about carved sentences in books. I like to look at them, even if they're written for their own sakes, or if they're written to comfort the afflicted. I hope it's not irresponsible of me, or merely a function of my privilege. Stein says, "Anything once it is made has its own existence and it is because of that that anything holds somebody's attention. The question always is about that anything, how much vitality has it and do you happen to like to look at it." I'd like to share the pleasure that the kinds of art I like to look at give me with any and every community who'd also maybe like them.
Fitch and I didn't leave ourselves enough time to make it all the way to Stein's house, so I'll make another attempt soon.