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 . Where hundreds once gathered, nothing remains to remind but a few faded pages of print and a photo or two. San Francisco
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.
The Summer of Love 1967 on
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.