Sunday, March 21, 2010

Dodie Bellamy and the arrival of the "Mission School"

I’ve always thought that an art museum is like a zoo, where artworks instead of animals are held prisoner and displayed for public gawking at some extortionary admission price. Zoo animals behave like they've been lobotomized, but what's missing in the case of artworks is their history—how they tumbled forth from the mind the artist, how they were meant to be one thing and turned out another, and how the artist lived and worked in a community that nourished and sustained him/her. Sanitized of a context and paraded on display in a museum, an artwork loses its subjectivity, referencing an absent agent whose biography and community of friends seem to have gone missing. 

Dodie Bellamy backgrounds the hidden life of museum art beautifully in a recent  SFMoMA blogpiece. Speaking of the “impenetrable cleanliness of the institution,” and the corresponding lack of memory of the “living community that created the objects,” Dodie goes on to lament the impermanence of neighborhood art scenes in general, and her perceived vanishment of an artist community in the Mission in particular.

This aching after forgotten scenes and lost communities unfortunately does not abate with age. Writing recently about Bob Kaufman took me right back to Grant Ave in 1959, the year of my initial discovery of San Francisco. Where hundreds once gathered, nothing remains to remind but a few faded pages of print and a photo or two.

The Summer of Love 1967 on Haight Street proved life-changing. It was followed by the Castro era, which in many ways produced some extremely imaginative social and street-artsy behaviors--it wasn't just politics. There were mini-scenes elsewhere: on 24th Street in the 70’s, in the Lower Haight in the 80’s, on Valencia Street from the 90’s and after, intermittently also on Telegraph Avenue going back to the political 60’s and Café Med days, where poetry arguments often raged among total strangers.

It is a trick of the mind that if you are involved with a scene, it seems considerably more stable than it actually is. I can remember some hippie friends in 1967 talking about buying property in the Haight-Ashbury, thinking that the life of the community would endure for decades, so forceful the outbreak of a major cultural revolution seemed at the time.

The years of yuppification have all but put an end to low-rent neighborhoods and cheap places to eat, the essential requirement for artist scenes and popular culture movements in America since jazz music was born a century ago. As poets retreat from the streets to the "impenetrable cleanliness" of college classrooms, digitization fills local cafes with laptop zombies and young nerdlings chatting online to remote locations. People are now everywhere but here. Or as Gertrude Stein might put it, there’s no here here. It seems to have disappeared in a cloud of electrons. Certainly there’s hardly anyone left to chat with about obscure pieces of blues music over a cup of coffee or herbal tea.

Dodie remarks upon a cat with bladder problems at the Adobe Bookstore. I knew that cat, but I was more impressed by two others resident at the Aardvark on Church Street. The first was a somnolent tabby which sat meditatively on a stack of books on the counter and looked benevolently upon the proceedings but without a whole lot of inner involvement. And there was a black cat, which mostly didn’t like anyone, and would rise occasionally to stalk patrons around the store, rejecting strokes from all but a very few. 


  1. I thought that it was an interesting essay. But then, what artist community isn't transient? From the artists' who hung around the cafes and Montmarte in pre-WW I Paris to today, it seems that the nature of such groups is to have a short, if intense, life span. Maybe it is also something that you only experience once in a life time, usually when you are young and adventurous.

  2. I didn't see your post on the black cat at Aardvark but I remember him well. He was called Henry and was protected by two of the women who worked in the store. But the owner - and I - hated him. Henry peed all over the place and towards the end, would get up on the counter and pee on any books and magazines I was planning on buying. I told them, "Cat pee means no sale" but Bonnie and Brandie were so besotted with the animal that they'd didn't care. On time, he started to pee (and dribble more than pee) on a stack of books that I particularly wanted. I swatted him away and you would had thought I'd killed a beloved member of the family. I stopped buying books there until Henry died because they all started smelling of cat piss. Phew!
    I miss the real cafe scene as well - I wouldn't mind sitting in a cafe, chatting with a friend, reading or writing and watching the scene but they almost all play such loud, intrusive, dreadful music. I can't stand rap (crap) - nobody plays soft good jazz or, heaven forbid, classical music, in public spaces any more. What's now played makes elevator music sound good.

  3. Nancy, thanks for your comment, you're obviously much better positioned to speak authoritatively about book shop cats, especially since I seldom get to the Church & Market neighborhood anymore.
    But tell me, what do you think of SFMoMA's notion of a "Mission School?"

    [Nancy Ewart writes for the Examiner and runs a local arts blog at]

  4. I have bought books at Aardvark for 30 (ahem) some years so I've met all the cats. Henry was a black cat with a personality to match, next was Ace, a huge golden marmalade tabby and the current cat is Owen, who is simply lovely. He has the same coloring as Ace and huge, unearthly eyes. But Henry is the one with the most personality and the one that I think all of us who frequented the store most remember.

    SFMoMa and The "Mission School. " That's a good question and I've been thinking about it all afternoon. Museum categorize and label art, partially to make it more accessible to the viewer and partially to make it easier to hang on the museum walls. To label the art that came out of a particular time and place - even if it lacks a coherent theme - is a way of putting it into a tidy framework. Does it work with the "Mission School." Well, sort of but also begs the question about the validity of the art produced by this school. To me, most of the work seemed very juvenile and shallow, work by a bunch of (mostly) young men. It's bright, colorful and probably won't even merit a foot note in the art history books. Now, compare that with the work of the beats and the work that came out of that movement - the poets that you've been discussing, painters like Beatrice Bing and Jay De Feo or the Bay Area Figurative painters like Diebenkorn, Clyfford Still and David Park. The visual contrast is very telling - which art has gravitas, literacy and emotive power? Mission School? No so much.
    But I'm glad to see the work of local, contemporary artists up at the museum. If they want to make a living as artists, you need that kind of validation. Otherwise, they do what all of us have done - have the day job and do the real vocation in the evening. Dodie's essay mourns the sterile atmosphere of the museum but I don't know if there is any alternative if that art is to survive. Without the value that a museum places on the pieces, it will all end up at the trash heap.

  5. I just saw that Dodie referred to your piece at the SF MoMA blog site!