Artistic Community


Identifying and declaring artistic genius is fraught with difficulty. Battered around too liberally the word loses power, slips into the colloquial world inhabited by the likes of “awesome.” Driven by obsession, the leaders of each great art movement (those genres that art history places “isms” on) often take the elusive designation.

In film, the depiction of Louis Kahn via My Architect fits my notion of the artist genius. Family life disregarded, finances a secondary thought, Kahn searches for a perfection that many can see, but only he can truly understand. There are a good number of films that portray individual artists, who share the obsessive drive to perfection in a given medium. For no particular reason, I have always found the idea of genius far easier to grasp in architects, and thus in architecture, than any other art. I love space, movement and texture. I love to be enveloped by structures.

Praising the individual is pretty easy. Less complex than thinking critically about the mass of apprentices, carpenters, contractors, electricians, and what have you that go into the actual creation of a building. But, while it is important to remember that these “geniuses” are pretty brilliant, their talents were fostered somewhere, aided by someone and those experiences too tell a great story. 

As an awkward segue — my family does Christmas stockings. This year along with a Cooks Illustrated magazine and a bottle of hot sauce, I received Fully Awake a documentary about Black Mountain College. Covering the short history of the College, the film reveals a remarkable story about communal invention and the fostering of individual expression. The list of people with connections to Black Mountain reveals a few familiar names: Willem de Kooning, Josef Albers, Jacob Lawrence, Buckminster Fuller and Ben Shahn. But, as easily as they stand as individuals, the nature of the College, and really the experiment stands above. I am fascinated by where things happen, and love their tales, so the film really fit the bill.

Fully Awake is not one of those documentaries that is likely to become part of the cool guy must see list. The music is bad, the people interviewed are a little over the hill, and it has an aura of museum video about it. Yet, looking past the minor faults, the whole thing is fantastically engrossing.

The school was founded on a premise of progressive education and from initial seed to launch, it all happened in six weeks. There were no sports. No grades. No fraternities. It wasn’t like any other place around. And, this was in the 1930s. Students were encouraged to pursue their interests, with the idea that art cultivates independence and self discipline (you may begin to gather how I slowly fused this story with some of the ideas I have about street culture, and have discussed many times over).

Josef Albers brought to Black Mountain the Bauhaus notion of pedestrianizing the arts, and pushed students to see themselves and to understand material, texture and color. This sophistication, transferred to the college by European refuges like Albers, followed into the progressive nature of the pedagogical system at Black Mountain. A co-op structure from the start, all faculty worked to build the curriculum, and students were always involved in the goings on.

Things weren’t easy, as you might imagine, but perseverance through economic downturns proved the power of the environment and the faith in the experiment. People simply believed in the idea of liberal freedom and the power of imagination to yield a total education. They fought through the McCarthy era, a time where the communal nature of Black Mountain was certainly a risk. Freedom of exploration being one of those perceived tenets of American life, Black Mountain provided an actual venue for something often so closed off.

By 1948, the American avant garde had emerged, and Black Mountain remained central to the growth. Fuller came, there was tremendous collaboration on campus and the mingling of the arts flourished. Happenings were invented. Things that speak of a slightly later generation (or at least do for me, probably because dates confuse), came to early fruition down in North Carolina.

The school closed in 1956.

I don’t want to discuss too much of the film, because I honestly believe it worth watching. It struck a nerve, and began to fulfill a much needed push away from personal biography and the lauding of the individual in the arts (for me) toward a greater and better understanding of the strength of community to inspire, grow, reflect and invent.

That can, and does, happen in street culture. There is mingling of the arts, and it’s fun and exciting in that way. I can’t help but think that the hyping of the individual works to circumnavigate that truth. Think about where street art is moving as it infiltrates the art market, how the artists are removed from context, and divorced from the creative environment that birthed them.

Suddenly, Banksy becomes Louis Kahn, and I’m struggling to find the great community story.

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