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Going underground to get aboveground
"I've confined my quest to the underground that is not the domain of the vice squad. (No time.)"
Read time: about 11 minutes. This post has turned into part two of what might become a three-part series on arts practices — their adoption and nurture. A sort of rough draft of ideas. The first part appeared in May. I’ll return with a third part in late summer or fall, probably. I hope the series might prompt some discussion and action.
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The Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room is quieter than all the other Duke libraries. First, you have to run through a gauntlet to get into the space, so casual encounters are unlikely. It isn’t like the library’s lobby or drop-in study spaces, which are filled with chatter, mostly muffled, sometimes not. Second, the works you peruse are rare, sometimes even unique. That evokes a kind of quiet reverence.
I had returned to look more closely at “box ten” of the Colin Dawkins papers. A memo I skimmed seemed to relate to my conversations with artists, and I wanted to give the words a more attentive look. I was not disappointed. When I got to a section on The Mad Show,1 which was running Off Broadway, the writer’s charm broke through. “Here is black humor gone pink with respectability,” said the author of the memo. He observed that the “establishment” audience took the show “to its collective bosom.” He described the show as a collection of sketches that “flog fairly dead horses” much like the eclectic pages of Mad Magazine, which inspired the show. (Alfred E. Newman is credited at “Conceiver” and “Director” of the original production.) “Far-out graffiti are flashed on two cartoon clouds between sketches: ‘In case of atomic attack, the Haddasah meeting will be cancelled’ ” … and the author listed other wry and absurd snippets.
At table three, my assigned place in the room, I let out a repressed laugh when I read about the cancelled Haddasah meeting — a chortle, I suppose — the only noise in the reading room. No doubt I blushed, as though I had just farted in church.
Among the delights of mining an archive is the gem that surfaces, having long been buried in a manilla folder or forgotten drawer. You get to read something that fewer than a handful of readers had looked at decades or even centuries ago. My discovered gem lay in the humdrum and often tedious genre: the business memorandum. When I first skimmed it, I was researching Ford Motor Company’s public relations efforts and promotion of its record-breaking Mustang. But I returned to read it more closely for clues about how art cultures — really, all cultures — change.
The memo was nestled in a folder labeled “Ford Motor Company: Understanding Pop Culture in the Marketplace, Presentation by Ford Creative Group for Don Frey, 1966, n.d.” between three other documents (informative, though term-papery) and the heavily marked up script of the presentation, bound in a plastic spiral binding. Frey was the Ford designer who led the Mustang’s development.
“Pop Culture” was a dark mystery to Ford designers and engineers, apparently — as it probably was to most Americans in the mid-1960s.
As I sat in my chair in the reading room I detected what many archival researchers experience. Archived words transport you, and for those who dig into archival records, the feel and the look of the artifact is part of the magic carpet you’re riding. You see not only the words. You see and, if you’re lucky and perceptive, begin to understand the context in which they originally had meaning.
Here’s the first page of the memo, and you can download your own PDF of the whole thing at the bottom of this post.
Frank Cucci banged out the memo to Arnold Grisman, probably on an old manual typewriter that could today be repurposed as a boat anchor. At the time, Cucci might have been loosely connected to the J. Walter Thompson agency, perhaps as a contract worker or a casual “copywriter”; in the memo he refers to a “nosy copywriter” in a manner that suggest he may have been the nosy guy.2 Whatever his status, his prose shows a youthful wit, energy, and humorous irreverence. Cucci’s voice is flip, often profane, and conversational, the voice of a person who is comfortable in the setting and fluent in prose.
In some ways, Cucci’s manner feels like a psychedelic tour through the New York arts underground.
He also shows off deep personal knowledge about New York’s 1960s arts and theatre scene, including such odd-ball happenings as a film on “an endless slow-motion game of Monopoly” played by “sleepy-eyed teenagers and another that focuses on rock crystal formations and a goat “lyrically buggering another goat.” He comments: “nature is wonderful.”
Cucci’s final topic, though, is the paradox of the arts “underground.”
“How can the underground be aboveground? Yet there it is,” he writes. “And the fact that people persist in calling it an underground tells a lot about its intrinsic appeal.”
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The memo enumerates aspects of the New York “underground” arts scene — eleven points in all — and Cucci provides an on-the-scene report of each. Nearly half of the six-page, single-spaced memo is devoted to theatre and film; the remaining pages briefly comment on aspects of the 1960s youth underground (“LSD, Peace-Marchers, Pot-Parties”; “Underground buttons”; “Sex”; and “Camp”) and The Evergreen Review (Cucci refers to it as an “egghead review”). The rest of the exposition — probably under a page total — is introduction and conclusion.
Much of the memo simply reports scenes of Cucci’s “quest” through his somewhat skeptical, even jaded, lens. Consider his description of where you can rent an underground movie:
414 Park Ave. South is a non-descript office building with a slum interior that looks as if it had been caught in the act of collapse. On the third floor, past a sad sad club for octogenerian Armenians (I think they were Armenians), is the Film-Makers Cooperative. Dingy offices, invoices all over the floor, cans of film stacked untidily to the rafters. While someone rattled cans in a part of the room I couldn’t see, a hungry-looking young man plunked at a typewriter. He seemed fiercely proud of the place, and as I talked to him, a certain dignity came across. (For all I know, he could have been Jonas Mekas himself, whom the New Yorker movie critic calls the Napoleon of the underground movie.)
Or, Cucci’s report from the Inevitable, “Andy Warhol’s New Discothèque”:
The flimsiness with which it was slapped together suggests that Mr. Warhol, or whoever put up the money, has no illusions about its permanence. Take away the projectors, the discothèque machine and the “lightworks,” and in three hours the Inevitable could convert to the cavernous Polish music hall (the Dom) it always was…. The crowd runs the full social gamut, from a hard core of sharply-dressed young mods jerking their elbows off on the dance floor … to sleekly dressed swells who seemed basically to have come to watch the show.
He asks “who was watching me, I wonder,” and concludes that it wasn’t Andy Warhol in any case.
The description cuts, but Cucci approaches his subject asking to be convinced of something — even though he seems not to know what he wants to be convinced about. And so, in the case of Warhol’s “discothèque,” the whole flimsy multimedia event boils down to a “total saturation of all the senses” and “as perfect an example of the media being the message as anything I’ve seen.” But the Inevitable message is garbled, and Cucci seems to side with “[t]wo homosexuals in off-the-pelvis hipster pants [who] arrived, downed a beer, studied the place, and left shrugging.”
Cucci’s memo hovers over a final judgment about the “underground” as a cultural force. Like “establishment” society, Cucci feels the tension between being intrigued, being disappointed, being offended. He is captivated, too, in part because he interprets the “underground” as a marketing concept, a term that a “nosy copywriter” might cotton to. As his ennumerated list of topics unfolds, a pattern emerges: Cucci points out that the “underground” is in fact “aboveground” and seeping into mainstream: He notes that underground films frequently are featured at film festivals and get rave reviews, the concept of the underground has “attracted the general reader,” and a “black-hearted play” like Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade succeeds despite its attacks and shocks and underground-y scenes. (It won a Tony, too.) “The night I saw it, on New Year’s Eve,” he reports, “Barbara Streisand was sitting in the next row.”
Theater arts royalty also paid attention to the shock of the underground. And apparently praised it.
“I am forced to conclude that the underground has caught on … aboveground. But that the movement would have had considerably less impact without that intriguing tag ‘underground,’ ” he writes. “The magic lies in the word ‘underground.’ ”
A side note: Cucci’s memo echoed in the final minutes of the presentation to Don Frey, so his homework on the arts nooks-and-crannies of New York was useful to J. Walter Thompson’s ad men.
Can there be an underground today?
By the time Frank Cucci typed the final period on his memo to Arnold Grisman, the underground had already emerged as a new cultural force — certainly not yet tamed or completely acceptable to the establishment or the mass audiences of America but nonetheless acknowledged and discussed as a new artistic force (as opposed to mere delinquency and deviance).
The Museum of Modern Art ran underground movies, after all, and they were so popular you couldn’t get tickets. And, in an ironic twist, a scathing review in the Chicago Daily News of Warhol’s “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” show (a sort of traveling Inevitable, it seems) didn’t cause the show to wither. Rather, the show was extended, contrary to conventional expectation, because it was described as “an assemblage that actually vibrates with menace, cynicism, and perversion. To experience it is to be brutalized, helpless — you’re in any kind of horror you want to imagine, from police state to mad house.”
With vigor, the underground surfaced as a rejection of whatever supported the Daily News view. It was intriguing and tantalizing.
Today, Andy Warhol is, well, almost passé. Pop culture has been completely captured by a capitalist art world with Jeff Koons likely standing as a new icon of success. A core for judgment or, to use an unpopular word, “taste” is for all practical purposes simply squashed into price tags and record-breaking auctions. Likewise, trends — the small green shoots of possible cultural foliage — are “dead” because anything with a web page or a TikTok video can be a trend, if only for a week, a few days, or a few minutes. “Subcultures” have become “aesthetic submarkets” (my italics), which tells you what’s really important.
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I think about the place of arts practices in the university. For today’s students, arts practices play out in an internetted landscape and that changes the ways that cultural life plays out. If everything in today’s Internet society is permitted aboveground, especially if it pays for itself, can anything be underground? What if being underground is good for an emerging arts community, and what are the conditions for that to take place?
With the backdrop of a war in Southeast Asia, student unrest and hard-hatted opposition, and fearfully fading conformity of the 1950s, the mid-1960s underground that Frank Cucci explored had a bogeyman, a foil — or at least could conjure up a reasonable facsimile of one in “The Establishment.” For youth on campus in the 2020s, the terms of cultural contribution seem narrowed to terms of the marketplace. And arts practice feels like a sideline to pursuit of “ROI.”
Is a new underground possible? Considering that is for another post.
Got a comment?
I’ll be attending a conference beginning today (June 1). It’s CHARM, which itself is an acronym for the Conference on Historical Analysis and Research in Marketing. (I’ll hold my nose and bear the acronym, I guess.) I think it’ll be good, and the conference somewhat intersects with the general flavor of this post.
Tags: 1960s arts, pop culture, Andy Warhol, underground, arts practice
Links, cited and not, some just interesting
You, too, may chortle when you read your very own PDF copy of Frank Cucci’s memo. Cucci, Frank. “Notes from Underground [Memorandum to Arnold Grisman],” April 25, 1966. Box 10, folder: “Ford Motor Company: Understanding Pop Culture in the Marketplace, Presentation by Ford Creative Group for Don Frey, 1966, n.d.” J. Walter Thompson Archive, Colin Dawkins Papers. Hartman Center. Rubenstein Library, Duke University.
A twenty minute “psychedelic” film that depicts some of the goings on in Andy Warhol’s Inevitable: Exploding Plastic Inevitable, 1966. http://archive.org/details/exploding_plastic_inevitable.
What’s Andy Warhol without Arthur Danto? Danto said that art ended, but he made sense of Warhol’s Brillo boxes and Campbell’s Soup cans. See Danto’s “Stopping Making Art”: “Arthur C. Danto Online Exhibition.” Wayne State University Art Collection, June 24, 2020. https://artcollection.wayne.edu/exhibitions/reimagining-spirit.
Good overview of the NY underground with lots of links. Anania, Billie. “A Series Spotlights NY’s Underground Art and Cinema in the Early 1960s.” Hyperallergic, July 14, 2022. http://hyperallergic.com/747433/a-series-spotlights-nys-underground-art-and-cinema-in-the-early-1960s/.
“We Are Your Friends is a warm bath for anyone who remembers when the last spasm of countercultures (be they hip-hop or punk rock, literature or early internet utopias) were transformed from subcultures into aesthetic submarkets too glutted with angst over sincerity and irony to ever be spaces of genuine opposition.” Siddiqi, Ayesha. “Our Brand Could Be Your Crisis.” The New Inquiry (blog), May 19, 2016. https://thenewinquiry.com/our-brand-could-be-your-crisis/.
Why trends are dead, and what that means for culture. Nguyen, Terry. “Trends Are Dead.” Vox, May 11, 2022. https://www.vox.com/the-goods/23065462/trends-death-subcultures-style.
The Velvet Underground — Official Trailer | Apple TV+. YouTube video. Apple TV, 2021.
W. David Marx’s section on Internet culture is particularly perceptive and a good cap to the well wrought argument of the book. Part of a growing literature that I think will be important to explore the impacts of new technologies and human culture. Marx, W. David. Status and Culture: How Our Desire for Higher Social Rank Creates Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion, and Constant Change. New York, NY: Viking, 2022.
In case you missed the essay on arts practices at Duke and elsewhere:
The show opened on January 9, 1966, and ran for 871 performances. The music was by Mary Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim (who also contributed to the lyrics). The author of the memo, Frank Cucci, noted that “[a]ccording to the Establishment Theatre (interesting name for an Off Broadway house), the Mad Show is the only Off Broadway show playing to capacity every night.” The theme song of the show was called “Eccch!”
Information about Cucci of the memo is a bit scarce. He may have written a play that opened in September 1969 Off-Broadway. The Ofay Watcher ran forty performances at Stage 73 theatre and closed after a month. The Internet Movie Database lists The Andros Targets (1977), Firehouse (1973), and Lily in Love (1984) as his work. That Frank Cucci was born Francis X. Cucci on June 28, 1935 and died July 1, 1989, in New York City of AIDS, according to an obituary in the New York Times published on July 21, 1989. I’m reasonably confident that this Frank Cucci is the author of the memo, but I’ve not been able to find a document that establishes the link to the ad agency. If this Frank Cucci is the author, he would have been thirty years old when he submitted the memo to Grisman.