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Beat Generation in Literature and Visual Art

Poet Allen Ginsberg and writer William S. Burroughs represent an influential movement in the history of American literature and culture, called the Beat Generation. The Beat Generation evolved in American Literature of 1950-1960 with works of Ginsberg, Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and others. There were a few main reasons why the beatniks appeared. This movement was closely connected with new developments in music, visual art, cinema and overall cultural processes in the post-World War II American society. The literature of the Beat Generation was fueled by the protests’ reaction on the further commercialization of America. It reflected growing fears and paranoia of the Cold War and ideological Witch Hunt that started to unfold in the USA. Beatniks also broke taboos with the depictions of sexuality in their works. They experimented with different literary forms and unconventional narrative. The lifestyles of these authors also challenged the Puritan customs of the 1950s in America. The literature of the Beat Generation with its openness to experiment, innovation, social protest, and deliberate obscenity mirrors other artistic movements that began to flourish during this period. Other artistic movements heavily influenced and connected The Beat culture with abstract expressionism, junk art, and funk art. Much like the beatniks in literature, artists like Bruce Conner experimented with different forms and ideas, utilized motifs of popular culture and challenged conventions of art. Artistic works of Bruce Conner are similar to the writings of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. This research will study the common motifs in the works of these artists, and the historical and social climate, which influenced them.

Social and Cultural Context

The Beat Generation emerged in the 1950s and was an expected reaction of artistic bohemianism on the cultural and social processes in American society. World War II caused unification in the American culture, as it served an ideological purpose. Researcher Jonah Raskin writes: “During World War II, American writers were, on the whole, enthusiastic on the global battle to defeat fascism. Most novelists, poets and playwrights were patriotic and optimistic” (Raskin 3). The post-war period was a time of growing prosperity, the formation of the middle class, which was satisfied with the comfort and amenities of civilization. However, some troubling processes began to emerge. Consumerism and conformism became the leading ideologies in America in the 50s. The post-war culture was suffering from the existential crisis, fueled by paranoia of the Cold War. The Witch Hunt, initiated by Senator Joseph McCarthy, was aimed at searching for communists and other so-called unreliable elements, including homosexuals, in the society (Raskin 11). This combination of fear, suspicion, commercialization of culture, and post-war depression caused young progressive artists to protest. Consequently, an image of a rebel, who challenges the world around him, emerged in popular art. The rebel was represented by such characters as Stanley Kowalski from the playA Streetcar Named Desire(1947) and Jim Stark played by James Dean in a movie rebel Without a Cause (1955) (Gair). Poets and writers, who would subsequently form what is now known as the Beat Generation movement, did not share the universal optimism about the growing prosperity of America. Their frivolous lifestyles, the use of drugs and alcohol and open sexuality contradicted the hypocritical piety of puritan America. These writers, poets, and artists also stood by their artistic freedom and experiments in the narrative and language.

The term “beat” originated from the jazz music terminology. The beatniks explained the term, as quoted in William Lawlor’s book “Beat Culture: Lifestyles, Icons, and Impact”, as being “exhausted, at the bottom of the world, looking up or out, sleepless, wide-eyed, perceptive, rejected by society, on your own streetwise” (Lawlor 14). Such a complex description accurately reflects the peculiar features of the Beat Generation. It existed not only as a movement in literature but as a lifestyle and a social phenomenon, which consequently generated various countercultures. While often declaring to be apolitical, the beatniks opposed mainstream culture by their mere existence. They often used their art as a mean of expressing their concerns about the development of America. Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs are considered to be the holy trinity of the Beat Generation (Lawlor 29).

The Poetry of Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg was the pioneer of the beat poetry and, along with Jack Kerouac, one of the ideologists of the movement. Ginsberg’s poetry was not well known until the famous Six Gallery reading in 1955 in San Francisco (Raskin 1). Ginsberg wrote his legendary poem Howl, which caused roaring reactions among the public and other authors. The poem was experimental in its structure and controversial in its content. The Howl (1955 -1956) heavily criticized American society, including lines with sexual references and mentioning the drug use. It also drew a portrait of a generation, which the poet identified with and admired. Furthermore, The Howl was full of cultural and historical references, which will become a signature of the beat poetry. Another interesting aspect of the Six Gallery reading was Ginsberg’s performance that was important as an artistic act. Jazz music inspired the performance and broke barriers between different forms of art (Raskin 17). Furthermore, Ginsberg presented his political views in the poem A Supermarket in California (1955), where he directly doubted the correctness of the path chosen by the American Society. Ginsberg addresses Walt Whitman, one of his literary and philosophic influencers, during the existential journey to the supermarket. The author questions the great poet if America is as he imagined. Ginsberg draws a sad image of what he calls lost America. Jonah Raskin mentions that his vision was dark and pessimistic: “unlike Whitman Ginsberg had a deep abiding sense of evil, and saw the city as the modern Inferno” (20). Thus, parallels between consumerist America and ancient Greek hell – Hades, are obvious. A Supermarket in California directly criticizes consumerism and artificiality, which are symbolized by the glossy shelves filled with products.

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Prose by William S. Burroughs

While considered one of the co-founders of the Beat movement, William S. Burroughs was never a part of the beatnik community. He was an inspiration and a symbolic role-model to Ginsberg and Kerouac. However, Burroughs was in self-exile, hiding from the American law for accidentally killing his wife (Lawlor 29). During his journey to Mexico and Europe, Burroughs was under the heavy influence of various drugs. His psychedelic experiences and tragic life story contributed to the creation of his most well-known novel Naked Lunch(1959). The novel is considered to be among the most important literary works of the Beat Generation. Naked Lunch consists of a number of loosely linked vignettes. It is made of semi-autobiographic episodes, drug-fueled monologues, and grotesque violent satirical fantasies. In his book, Burroughs depicts his critical vision of America’s obsession with violence and its addiction to materialism. Not surprisingly, the novel had troubles with publishing in the USA, and, like Ginsberg’s poetry, was prosecuted for obscenity. In defense of Burroughs’ work during a trial over the book’s explicit nature, Allen Ginsburg pointed out Burroughs’s intention to criticize American society:

On a larger scale what he conceives of as the United States addiction to materialistic goods and properties. Addiction to money is mentioned in the book a number of times; and most of all, an addiction to power or addiction to controlling other people by having power over them. (The Boston Trial of Naked Lunch)

Along with its controversial content and unconventional narrative structure, Naked Lunch boasted a powerful language full of slang words and obscenity. It is not surprising that the book, just like Ginsburg’s poetry, faced censorship attacks.

Both authors were great masters of the word, bringing youthful energy, sharpness, and originality to the American literature. Among all the beatnik authors, Burroughs was most interested in other forms of art outside literature. He was practicing visual art and created paintings, using similar methods to Jackson Pollock’s action painting. He created paintings by shooting paint at the canvas from a gun. Burroughs’s artworks reflected his personal tragedy and obsession with weapons (Jones). This connection between one of the greatest beatnik writers and innovative movements in visual art is not accidental. Beatnik literature did not exist in a vacuum but rather was one of the elements of the developing protest culture, which began to spread in music, cinema, and visual art. Such artistic movements as abstract expressionism, funk art, junk art and developing pop art were closely connected with the Beat Generation (Lawlor 273).

Junk-Art by Bruce Conner

Works of the Beat Generation writers are often compared to the artworks of the representatives of the abstract expressionists. This artistic movement emerged at the same time as beatniks started influencing American culture, and it was very innovative in its language and presentation (Gair). However, there were other artistic movements ideologically similar to the Beat Generation. For example, junk art that was represented by Bruce Conner. Junk art implied the usage of scrap, trash and various other materials in creating complex mixed assemblages (Lawlor 276). It used things that people throw away to reflect their lifestyles, views, and obsessions. Artist Bruce Conner was working with different techniques, from photography and sculpture to experimental film. His most famous video work A Movie (1958) was created from the documentary footage and parts of B-movies and is considered as an influential avant-garde film (Lawlor 70). Conner’s early works were created in the 1960s when the Beat Generation already began to influence artists in America. Thus, he is often called a beat-artist. Conner made assemblages from scrap and cloth, most famous of which were Child(1959-60) and Black Dahlia (1960). His works incorporated motifs from mass culture and popular cinema and reflected the glorification of violence and scandal media. Scenes of death and sexual violence emerge throughout most of Conner’s body of work. His exhibitions were as scandalous and provocative, as Ginsberg’s poetry readings and Burroughs’s literary immersions in narcotic madness. Conner’s works ideologically were very close to Ginsburg’s and Burroughs’ writings.

Researcher David Pagel writes:

Prosperity’s roots in violence – in the horror and devastation of World War II – are revealed. His works expose a nightmare repressed by the American Dream: consumerism and planned obsolescence leave little room for idiosyncrasy and imagination. (Pagel)

Conner’s assemblage Black Dahlia is a great representation of these themes in his work. It was inspired by the mysterious real-life murder of the Hollywood actress Elizabeth Short (Crow 30). The artwork explores the nature of American obsessions with shocking violence of the celebrity culture. Formally, the work was also experimental; it utilized mixed techniques and consisted of different materials such as woman stockings, cloth, feathers, scrap, and photography. With its bleak color palette and visually decrepit fragile structure, the assemblage evokes associations with death and decay that directly contrast Hollywood’s glamour. In his artistic work, Conner actively opposed the culture of political oppression and the glorification of violence. He was also in opposition to capital punishment, which was a symbol of state implanted violence (Crow 30-31). Formally, Conner’s collages made of scrap were also similar to chaotic and loosely structured beatnik literature. They created a dark and nightmarish vision of the world, challenging popular perceptions of art and causing a vivid reaction among the public. Conner also used references to current events and other cultural icons to make his works recognizable to the public. These innovative formal decisions and controversial ideas make Bruce Conner an equal representation of the Beat Generation in the field of visual arts.

Conclusion

The Beat Generation is an important step in the development of American literature, art, subculture movements, and overall culture. As most of the protest movements, it arose from deeply hidden problems that were brewing in America in the 1950s. Sexual and ideological oppression, fascination with the culture of violence, the aggressive international policy of the USA and persecution of people with other views by the government contributed to creating an unhealthy social climate. At the same time, all of these social problems were camouflaged by the gloss of Hollywood, the comfort of suburban America and imposed moral values. The Beat Generation, which was essentially the bohemian art community and formed by young and rebellious authors, did not meet so-called high moral standards. Their open sexuality, use of drugs and alcohol, and obscene nature of their art made beatniks politically “unreliable”. At the same time, these social outcasts were among the most promising young authors, whose vision of literature and art made major social changes. The beatniks fought for their freedom of expression and artistic integrity against censorship and canons of mainstream art. Defiant lifestyles and equally provoking works of Alan Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Bruce Conner, and their numerous contemporaries broke the barriers of permitted in art. The influences of the Beat Generation were seen in literature, visual art, cinema, music, protest countercultures, and are evident even now.

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