Chapter 4 Arts and Beats
While the country rejoiced in its post-war prosperity, Venice had become a "slum by the ocean." Ironically, this cultivated the perfect environment for artists, poets and dissidents to create a counter-cultural haven and an artistic movement that redefined American art in the last quarter of the 20th century.
The post-war years were seemingly rewarding for America's hard work. GIs returned home to newly designed, planned communities with manicured lawns, efficient appliances, and TV dinners. In the 1950s a new social order was being established, to 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, selling 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, 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 were not interested in publishing or being discovered, but quite content with "digging" the essence of life and be left alone. The book The Holy Barbarians by Lawrence Lipton chronicled the lifestyle of these poets, and the Venice beats came to national prominence and were labeled "beatniks."
Venice also 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 ideal light. Unlike the beats, these creatives were not interested in living on the edge of society, but rather redefining the concept and production methods of modern art. By incorporating the vernacular, materials and lifestyle of popular culture into their work, they bought East Coast aesthetics, prominently abstract expressionism, into question.