Kenneth Rexroth

Three Columns from the San Francisco Examiner of 1963

Stravinsky’s Mass

Sometimes I wonder. I’m always telling people that San Francisco is the world’s least provincial city, and then something happens to make me eat my words.

The other night at the Chamber Music Society’s performance of Stravinsky’s Mass, a brawny young man was filing out behind me at the intermission and I heard him say to his doting girl, “I don’t like things like that. What has all that outworn ceremony and ritual got to do with modern life? It doesn’t mean anything to Stravinsky, that’s for sure — he’s one of those Russian atheists.”

Of course the concert, recorded for KPFA on the “Petrillo Fund,” was free and anybody could come, and too, I’m sure you could find similar remarks in the boxes in London or Paris.

My picture of San Francisco as the modern Athens or Florence got a little fuzzy around the edges. Then I recalled a remark of Alfred North Whitehead’s, in a lecture to the Harvard Business School. “You gentlemen doubtless imagine that if I were to return to ancient Athens, I would be accorded a heroic welcome. On the contrary, if I kept my courage and integrity I might well be forced to drink the hemlock. Otherwise I would probably be ignored. The most popular visitor from our age to theirs would be Mr. Jack Dempsey.”

What was in fact most impressive about the Stravinsky Mass, which, by the by, I have never heard better done, was its deeply felt Catholic piety. Few modern Masses show such respect for the meaning of the words, or realize so movingly the dramatic tension of the reenactment of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion.

Stravinsky of course knew what he was doing when he wrote the music — but too many conductors seem to have difficulty in reading his intent. Not Gerry Samuel. This man’s musicianship, and his disciplined sympathy, his comprehending identification with the artistic expression of another — in his case others, both composer and instrumentalists at once — never ceases to astonish me.

Empathy is like “viable” and the verb “to contact” and the utterly misused “trauma,” a word I eschew. It is not a synonym for sympathy. It means Einfühlung — nervous and muscular identification with the object of an esthetic experience, literally feeling one with it. Most people, like most conductors and actors, assimilate the artistic experience to themselves. Great conductors and actors, and I suppose great livers, too, assimilate themselves to the object of the experience.

For all I know, Mr. Samuel may be without religion, at least I rather doubt that he is a Russian Orthodox Catholic with considerable sympathy for the French Roman Catholics, Maritain, Mounier and the “Personalists.” It is all too easy to make Stravinsky’s later religious choral music sound like a dodecaphonic outboard motor. Samuel, guiding the utterances of singers and musicians, made it sound at once devout and joyous, and curiously intimate — personalist, if you will — the dialogue of I and Thou.

Why don’t we do things like this in our local churches? I am all for the liturgical revival, the dialogue Mass, and lots of plain song. Still, once in a while the larger and better trained choirs in our Anglican and Roman Catholic churches might undertake something vital and unhackneyed. Lent and Holy Week are coming up. The literature is enormous. The opportunity is unlimited. Music not only soothes the savage beast, it attracts the indifferent and troubled agnostic. And a great Mass, even if it’s by Beethoven or Verdi, is best when it is actually a Mass in a church and not an oratorio.

It doesn’t necessarily require a big choir to sing some of the finest liturgical music. I will never forget the Good Friday I chanced on in the Anglo-Catholic parish in St. Louis that was singing Byrd’s St. John’s Passion and Mass of the Pre-Sanctified. Three clergy, four cantors, a choir of 12, and the congregation. A simple, rather poor church, as most churches of that persuasion are, on the edge of the slums and the Negro ghetto, with the neighbors for singers, but, or perhaps I should say, therefore, it was one of the five or six great musical experiences of my life.

Byrd is my favorite composer, and one reason is the chaste simplicity of his means. He was simple by nature but also perforce. His Latin Masses were written for the underground Elizabethan Roman Catholic Church and were literally for four or five voices, not for four or five parts of a choir. Of course, he also wrote two Great Services for the Established Church.

In our Post-Christian Age we are all underground and the intimacy of William Byrd or Igor Stravinsky speaks directly to our secularized hearts.
[February 3, 1963]

Academicizing the Avant-Garde

One evening, just after doing a bit on Rocca’s Restaurant, I came into the place and there was sitting a rival columnist, complete with blonde. With a broad grin he said, “I always believe everything you say.” I always believe everything he says, too. And I always, or almost always agree with Alexander Fried. You know how it is, if you’ve gone into many movies you know that all newspapermen think alike.

Anyway, I don’t want you to get the impression that the paper is undertaking a campaign. The Top Brass did not issue a memo — “Get the S.F. Art Institute and the Art Association.” We just agree.

I’ve been thinking for some time of doing a piece, or a series, on the new academy of domesticated revolt. The upcoming San Francisco annual art show is an excellent opportunity. What is wrong with this event is not that it is reactionary or exclusive in the old way that such shows used to be, but that it is insufferably academic. That the new academy is institutionalizing those forms and attitudes that were once the property of those who rejected and condemned the academy, doesn’t make it any less academic.

After the first World War a tremendous revulsion swept over the world in the arts, as in politics, those who were felt to be morally or ideologically responsible for the catastrophe were turned on by the young with violence and loathing. The whole structure of liberal humanitarianism was not only called into question; organized groups and disorganized individuals everywhere attacked it with dynamite.

The average man in Russia, whether worker or peasant or intellectual, was convinced he had been betrayed and was sick with disgust. The Bolsheviks were able to organize this revulsion into an anti-liberal, anti-humanitarian political regime. It was precisely the rejection of the humane values of German social democracy that attracted the young to the nationalist and pro-Nazi movements.

In the arts, Dadaism was the popular and sensational expression of this rejection and alienation. The artist who exhibited a log of wood with an ax attached and the legend, “If you don’t like this piece of sculpture you dirty bourgeois, make one of your own” — or the other who wanted to mount a loaded pistol pointing out from the frame, with a card attached: “Tirez s’il vous plaît [Please pull (the string attached to the trigger)]” — these people did not believe that the academy was “reactionary”; they believed it was lethal, and organized society along with it.

Years later, Allen Ginsberg was to write one of his funniest lines — “who threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism . . .” — with little foreknowledge that he would himself shortly be part of the pseudo-Dada academy. This is what has happened. The nihilism and disorder (the technical term is “antinomianism”) which arose from the broken heart of Europe in 1918 has become a gimmick peddled in all the academies of the world, a do-it-yourself kit complete with instruction book in 30 languages and pictographs for those who can’t read.

In 1918 its price was a broken heart. Today it doesn’t cost a thing; it is one of the perquisites — or is it prerequisites? — of the Welfare State.

A couple of years ago my friend Léon-Gabriel Gros, editor of Cahiers du Sud and feature writer for the Marseilles daily, Le Provençal, came up to see me in Aix, all agog. He was going to what was still French Equatorial Africa on a story. He’d never been that far south and was very excited about the new culture being created by all those lads with rising expectations, due to be “liberated” in a month.

“Look,” said he, “here in the Conakry paper it says they are having an exhibition of the work of the local art students. I wonder what it will be like? I’m curious to see how the new generation is transmitting their heritage from the great tradition of African sculpture.”

“Uh-huhn,” said I, “Gaby, you’re very naïve. I bet you 2000 francs it will be indistinguishable from the Rue de Seine, 10th Street, or the California School of Fine Arts.”

Two weeks later he showed up for lunch with a large portfolio. Out of it he took, with a grin, six watercolors, done by a boy at the lycée in Conakry, a boy whose father was serving a sentence for cannibalism. They looked like mules, an infertile cross between Sam Francis and Deborah Remington. “Spengler was right!” said he, and paid over the 2000 francs.

I have been informed by researchers on the WPA that I was the first abstract painter in the Bay area. May be, but I long now for the good old days of Ralph Stackpole, Ray Boynton, Rinaldo Cuneo, Maynard Dixon and Spencer Macky. Then I was a big toad in my own puddle. Now I am just an aging tadpole, stuck in the drying mud. Gee, I’d like to see that old gang of eucalyptus and eschscholtzia and naked lady painters. Come to think of it, I’d much rather see them than the 1963 Annual, and I know that, sight unseen.
[February 17, 1963]


The Guggenheim Museum in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Art are showing comprehensive exhibits of the work of Wassily Kandinsky, a founder of German Expressionism and one of the first nonobjective painters. I haven’t seen the Guggenheim show, but this one is certainly ample.

There are characteristic pictures of his youth, when he was part of the Jugenstil-art nouveau movement in which so many of the Old Masters of modernism grew up. Others are flamboyant landscapes in even more flamboyant colors. They have the linear design of art nouveau, but in addition a palette and a naïve treatment of form derived from Russian peasant painting. As such they are typical of the Russian modernism of the 1900’s, the painters who first came to international attention in the backdrops of the early Ballet Russe.

Then there are about 25 of the free-form improvisations painted on the eve of the First War. Because he painted so few, these are precious paintings. They are landmarks in the history of art. For a brief while they had a few imitators in Germany and America, but it was not until the rise of American abstract expressionism in the years of the Second World War that they became the ancestors of what is now the dominant school of painting.

The rest of the show is taken up with Kandinsky’s puzzling and disappointing geometric painting. Just on inspection it is impossible to tell why these pictures should have been painted. They are decorative in the most superficial sense, and yet they have an odd, annoying eccentricity that prevents them from fading prettily into the wall. The forms are patterned according to naïve application of the rules of golden section, “dynamic symmetry” design. The colors have no functional inevitability — nor any other that one can notice. My daughter said, coming out of the show, “This man has the taste of a commercial artist.” I’m afraid she is right.

There is no doubt about why Kandinsky painted the way he did. When I was a boy I read his Art of Spiritual Harmony, a windy melange of Goethe, Rudolph Steiner and Mme. Blavatsky. This is a typical manifesto of the intellectual half-world that produced at that time the Rosicrucian Movement in French art, the Nabis, and the followers of Sar Péladan, who claimed to be the reincarnation of the Babylonian god Marduk. I suppose the major representative is the composer, Scriabin.

Like Scriabin, Kandinsky was a crank, certain he was revolutionizing art and freeing the Soul of Man. The Soul of Man is a hard thing to free. It puts up a struggle. And as the centuries pass, most of the spectacular attempts to free it, via the arts, slip into perspective as artistic curiosities. Sometimes, like Scriabin’s mystical harmonic theories, or Kandinsky’s similar notions in painting, they incidentally accomplish a breakthrough into new modes of expression. But only by accident are the pictures in this show ever “spiritual harmonies.” Mostly they are the exercises of a doctrinaire who put notions ahead of paint.
[March 13, 1963]

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