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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.
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Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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