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16 February 2010

Some thoughts on Black Mountain College & the nature of communities

If you know nothing about Black Mountain College, where the above photo was taken, start here. Its teaching ranks were not populated by academics but practitioners. Among those who taught there during its brief, 24-year lifespan were Josef and Anni Albers, Alfred Kazin, John Cage, Harry Callahan, Robert Creeley, Merce Cunningham, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Walter Gropius, Franz Kline, Charles Olson, Aaron Siskind, and Robert Motherwell. (I’ll let you Google the unfamiliar names.) Guest lecturers included Albert Einstein, Clement Greenberg and William Carlos Williams. (You better know them.) It wasn’t just a school, it was a community with a unique gravitational pull.

There was also fun with problems. To jump right into it, here’s a passage from Martin Duberman’s history of the place, Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community

    “Drawing on the familiar distinction between negative freedom from rules and restraint, and positive freedom to be constructive and creative, Wallen argued that Black Mountain had concentrated too much on producing the first kind of freedom (‘laissez-faire’) and not enough on the second (‘democracy’). The difference between the two hinged on the lack of structure and leadership characteristic of the laissez-faire climate. Their absence created insecurity and frustration, which brought passivity and confusion, which led to a reversion back to autocratic methods in order to restore some semblance of productivity and harmony.”

For evidence of that laissez-faire spirit espy these two photographs. At left, a 1951 picture of writer Francine du Plessix Gray next to poet Joel Oppenheimer. At right, a snap of inventor and gadfly Buckminster Fuller.

Bucky — as his friends knew him — was really into these things:

Not exactly well-ordered! Or, well, so extremely well-ordered, in such a specific manner, that there was inevitably static:


I wish to say we could always use more wonder in the world. But communities require more than that; and communes–which is more or less what Black Mountain was–require far more than wonder to survive and thrive.

Anyway, I digress.

It seems as if the dude who wrote the passage above, Martin Duberman, has touched upon some intense realms of experience in his time on earth, much like the institution he studied so closely. Wikipedia’s capsule biography describes him as a playwright, professor, gay rights activist, mohel (!?!), and Pulitzer Prize-nominated biographer.

I’m unfamiliar with Duberman’s work outside of his Black Mountain tome. But since I read it a few years back, I’ve held its lessons & flaws deep in my memory. Not so much because it’s a genius recounting. In fact, Duberman’s book is a bit a of a muddle. He used it as a forum to announce his coming out as a gay man. In and of itself that’s an awkward way of breaking the traditional academic boundaries between objectivity (good) and subjectivity (bad). But moreover, in crossing that boundary, the book bears traces of the loose-limbed experimentalism and narcissism-tinged, encounter-group creepiness that I associate with the “Me Decade” of the 1970s. As Tom Wolfe defined the time period’s governing mental aesthetic “The new alchemical dream is: changing one’s personality–remaking, remodeling, elevating, and polishing one’s very self . . . and observing, studying, and doting on it. (Me!).”

Duberman put this mode of consciousness on open display at the conclusion of his Black Mountain book:

    “Sunday, September 26, 1971: Alone in my apartment on a dank, gloomy day. The gypsy moth caterpillars, having stripped the trees in the backyard bare during the last two weeks, have almost disappeared, their transformation invisibly completed… I completed the book a few minutes ago. I’m strangely, idiotically, near tears. So many completions are involved, my own and Black Mountain’s, that they blend into some indistinguishable sadness. Is it really over; do I want it to be over — the place, my writing about it?”

Whoa.

Just whoa.

Okay, more than just whoa.

The good news about this book is that, published in 1972, little more than 15 years after the final incarnation of Black Mountain shut its doors, it is an impressive example of real time history. And, in a way, its topical rarity justifies its formal eccentricities. It’s hard to find good, accessible books which document communes, utopias, and collective living arrangements that have existed throughout history–or, as Duberman describes them, “explorations in community.”

Why is this? I believe the problem is twofold. One, collectives tend to drink their own Kool-Aid. Two, if they leave behind any documentary evidence, it’s quite likely it will prove impossible for an outsider to parse.

The very point of utopias, communes–and let’s throw in the word cults for good measure–is that they are insular, that they’ve turned their backs on the “real” world and created their own, that they do not have the needs or conventions of the larger society in mind. After they’ve wrapped up their affairs, there are rarely objective observers left to tell their tale. Chances are anyone not exhausted by the experience–anyone with an interest in dwelling on it–is going to have an agenda. The stories which former participants tell will be more than a dry recounting of facts. Rather any lingerers will inevitably be drawn toward subjective myth making, be those myths positive or negative.

Duberman’s book is especially valuable at a time like now, in a world increasingly obsessed with nanocultures. In the years to come, I believe it will become increasingly important to understand the practice and metaphor of the cult, the commune, the niche. Black Mountain College taught fewer than 1,300 students in its 20something years but the students who did pass through would understand it for what it was: an education as serious as your life. So, sure, Duberman’s writing is, at times, too deeply indulgent for a casual observer to bother with. But it’s my guess that Black Mountain was, similarly, a place too indulgent for casual observers to stand. In that way, the book does the place perfect justice.

Is there anything more one could ask?

Well, I’ll grant you some pictures, a form of storytelling that tends to depict reality not as it is, but how we want it to be, in that only the photographs people love tend to get preserved. Below, a young Cy Twombly (left) & a young John Cage (right) both photographed during their tenure at Black Mountain:

And Josef Alberts as teacher communicating wisdom to a student:

And, finally, Merce Cunningham as a younger man:

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

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