Beats & Fetish in Venice of America

The post-war years were, on the surface, the reward for America's hard work. GIs returned home to newly designed, planned communities with manicured lawns, efficient appliances and frozen TV dinners. In the 1950s America was creating a new social order that was the envy of others; a vast and balanced middle class unparalleled in the history of humanity. But for some this ideal was a manufactured image that sold a pre-determined lifestyle that was unattainable, or undesirable even, to millions.

While the country was rejoicing in this prosperous new identity, Venice had become a "slum by the ocean". Abbot's gondolas and amusement parks no longer existed, oil wells had dried up and local officials had turned their backs on the area. Ironically, this deterioration and abandonment cultivated the perfect environment for artists, poets and dissidents to retreat from the promised dreams of post-war America and create a counter-cultural haven for years to come.

The Venice beat poets were the first to move in, settling in cheap apartments overlooking the boardwalk and the canals, and creating an alternative lifestyle of "dedicated poverty", as poet Philomene Long once said. They gathered in places like the Gas House and the Venice West Cafe to read or "blow" each other's poetry; unlike the San Francisco beats, Venice poets, such as Frank Rios, where not interested in publishing or being discovered, they where quite content to simply "dig" the essence of life and be left alone. However, with the publishing of the book The Holy Barbarians by Lawrence Lipton, which chronicled the lifestyle of these poets, the Venice beats came to national prominence and were labeled "beatniks".

In parallel to the beats, Venice saw the emergence of an artistic movement that redefined American art in the last quarter of the 20th century. The likes of Ed Moses, Billy Al Bengston, Robert Irwin, Ed Ruscha and Craig Kauffman, better known as the Ferus Group, moved to Venice in search of cheap loft spaces and light. Unlike the beats, these creatives were not interested in living on the edge of society, but rather in re-defining the concept and production of modern art by incorporating the vernacular, materials and lifestyle of popular culture into their work and, in turn, calling the East Coast aesthetic, mainly abstract expressionism, into question.

This week we will look at some of the people and places that defined the era and interview some of its key players, from artist Ed Moses and Ed Ruscha, to beat poet Frank Rios and many others.

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