Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Wichita gets and doesn't get beat culture

Believe it or not Wichita, Kansas had a real connection to the beats. Allen Ginsberg came through Doo-Dah several times and wrote what I am told is one of his better poems ("Wichita Vortex Sutra") here. Several folks with Wichita or Kansas roots were significant players in the beat art scene. There's a website devoted to the Beats and Kansas Local musician and historian Pat O'Conner has preserved some of this history in his book Moody's Skidrow Beanery.

(Info on MSB and other books by O'Conner is here and a chapter is available on-line here.)

So it is cool that the Ulrich Museum at WSU is hosting from April 21 to July 9, the international traveling exhibition "Semina Culture: Wallace Berman and His Circle."

Berman was "the quintessential visual artist of the Beat era. Showcasing the artists and poets who contributed to "Semina", Berman's free-form journal published in California in the 1950s and 60s, this multimedia exhibition includes rarely seen collages, paintings, assemblages and films by Toni Basil, Jay DeFeo, Allen Ginsberg, Walter Hopps, Michael McClure, Dean Stockwell, and Berman himself."

Even better the Ulrich is has a program devoted to the films of McPherson born Bruce Conner (May 11-12) and partnering with the Murdock Theatre to show a number of movies with "beat" themes.

But just when you think Wichita gets it, the town's cultural mavens once again show that there is just about nobody more hick and gauche hereabouts than our cultural "elite."

On Thursday night April 20 there's an exclusive $20 a person for members only preview party. Bad enough. I happen to think it might make an authentic beat--or anyone with a genuine respect for the beats--a little queasy. But then there's this part of the invite

Beatnik attire encouraged

"Beatnik" is, of course, a derogative term. Years ago Wichita's beats gathered at Moody's Skidrow Beanery. It is hard to imagine a greater gulf between the Beanery and this reception at the Ulrich. Is it written somewhere that every exhibit has to have a big-donor reception. This come dressed up as a "freak" invite is just plain disgusting. It's rich folk slumming. It reminds me of the crude stereotyping of beatniks and hippies in TV shows like Dragnet and Dobbie Gillis.

Not that much has changed. Here's a paragraph from O'Conner

The artists, musicians, and poets who gathered at the Beanery were involved in expressing ideas for the betterment of society. The symbols chosen, modern art and Beat poetry, were to serve a "new generation." The humble cast of the dwelling and the shabbiness of those who went in acted as clear indictments of an insensitive majority. This same majority labeled the Wichita Beats and folk singers as deviant.

So even when Wichita recognizes the beats, it really doesn't get it.

(And, here's another question. Why hasn't the Ulrich invited Pat O'Conner to give a talk on the beats in Wichita. I imagine he knows more about this subject than just about anyone.)

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