Black Mountain College Conference
The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw plainly. John Ruskin
The conference held in Asheville October 9-11 about Black Mountain College and its legacy was a stunning success. A myriad of diverse presenters joined with performers, poets and artists to celebrate the influence of the college and the accomplishments of its alumni, both teachers and students. A collaboration of The Black Mountain College Museum + Art Center and UNC-Asheville, the conference was a long-awaited gathering of energies from across the country and beyond, searching for the memory and meaning of Black Mountain College.
BMC existed just 24 years, from 1933 to 1957, but this conference made clear that its radical vision of education and incredible nexus of creative individuals resonates deeply in our arts and culture. There were so many threads of research and inquiry presented, I can only speak of my own journey through the presentations. Planning to focus on Ray Johnson, I found myself captured by powerful ideas about the basic philosophy and significance of BMC, and intrigued by new perspectives on the creative processes which emerged there.
Initially, students at BMC were required to take only 2 courses: philosophy from John Andrew Rice and art from Josef Albers. Rice’s philosophy, informed by John Dewey, created a new mode of education at BMC, one that featured the internal discipline generated by students doing as much as absorbing. Michael Kelly’s presentation on Dewey in relation to BMC brought out the powerfully humanistic nature of liberal arts education as conducted at BMC. With art central to his view of experience, Rice designed the curriculum to elevate the quality of experience in students until they were prepared to be democratic citizens. Seymour Simmons helped connect the educational philosophy to the artistic act with this wonderful description of the act: “an inventive response to genuine problems involving collaboration and conflict while engaging and integrating multiple human capacities.” Josef Albers wanted for his students no more or less than a new mode of seeing, and his manifest genius was the nugget of magnetism that drew such stellar powers to the place.
The place! Over and over the theme of place ran through the conference. Black Mountain was a unique haven of sorts, and a bivouac as well for the sorties against New Criticism and the strictures of Modernism. It was literally a quiet spot in the harried life of urban artists and teachers who came. Yet there were privations, great stress, and no assurance of the fame and influence we look back on today. Two living Black Mountain figures, Dorothea Rockburne and Michael Rumaker, presented at the conference and helped establish the sense of the place.
I found the presence of two deceased BMC figures, M.C. Richards and Ray Johnson, to be very strong due to the passionate work being done on them by current young scholars. M.C. Richards embodied the highest principles of the Dewey aesthetic in seeing and living the connnection between art and life. Jenni Sorkin of Yale University described Richard’s costly rejection of a conventional academic career for the esoteric but rewarding concepts of Rudolph Steiner and Matthew Fox, the “Centering” of being required for art in clay,and the attempt to practice the apprenticeships of art to prepare for “the big art… our life.” Kate Dempsey and Sebastian Matthews both offered invigorating interpretive perspectives on Ray Johnson, and convinced me once and for all that Ray is the epitome of Black Mountain students, and carried into the world a fundamental store of post-modern concepts gained at Black Mountain.
More than one speaker described the roots of post-modern thought to be discerned in the Black Mountain canon. Andrea Lui from NYC named three: 1) knowledge as contingent and partial, 2) photography as art, and 3) promiscious mixing of disciplines. The relation between and hierarchy of the disciplines at BMC provided some interesting contention among the scholars. Speaking of the interdisciplinary approach, Louly Peacock Konz offered perhaps the most purely entertaining talk of all with her description of the play “The Ruse of Medusa,” translated from Satie’s French by M.C. Richards, and performed by Buckminster Fuller as the baron and Merce Cunningham as the “costly mechanical monkey,” among others. Black Mountain College established a perceived “school” of poetry, encompassing authors who never set foot on the campus. Rachel Stella from Paris described the Black Mountain Review as the base for a “textual community” which helped transform the structure of literary publishing of the era. Charles Olson’s massive literary influence came up again and again, with Jonas Williams of SUNY-Albany reminding us that Olson said: “art does not describe, but enacts.” Forming, transforming, teaching by action, seeking the transcendent in the material: these were the forces that coursed through education at Black Mountain. Over several near-future posts, I will recount some of the amazing insights shared at this conference, especially my greatly enlarged perspective on Ray J. The central role of experience in learning and the intellectual freedom derived from Socratic and democratic principles were key elements in Black Mountain’s existence and lasting influence. From this cauldron of intellectual striving and artistic practice emerged various and wonderful creative expressions with much to tell us today. This conference did not dissect a historical movement, but uncovered living roots of a vital cultural force that sends wick green shoots upward as we speak.