In just about a week I’ll kick off another road trip, this time southeast to North Carolina for a weekend in Black Mountain. Back in May I took a similar trip as a result of my research into Black Mountain College as a Masters student in Scotland. My interest in the subject began as a Masters thesis topic (or dissertation, depending what country you’re reading this in!) on a little-known liberal arts college that ran from 1933-1957 in the mountains just outside of Black Mountain, North Carolina. I discovered it through the writings of Scottish counterculture novelist Alexander Trocchi, and from there I dove into the treasure trove of history that is Black Mountain College.
My research focuses on the unusual amount of exploration and experimentation that occurred at the college and how that directly correlated to the intimate, collaborative, communal atmosphere of the college itself. I argue that one of the reasons this rural, out-of-the-way school attracted students such as Robert Rauschenberg, Kenneth Noland, and Ray Johnson as well as teachers like John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, and Josef Albers, is that its reputation for true creative exchange in an open-minded environment was unlike anything found anywhere else. It was a place in which the arts permeated every area of study as a way of teaching or learning, as opposed to one subject among many. Previous posts on this blog about my experiences researching and visiting the historical home of Black Mountain College can be found here, here, and here.
Black Mountain College, as I mentioned, is defunct, and has been for nearly 60 years. Researchers, such as Mary Emma Harris, who have dedicated decades of work to the topic of BMC now find themselves at a sort of critical mass where BMC studies are concerned, as those who attended the college are now well into their 80s or 90s and many have passed on, and their personal stories with them. What does that mean for the legacy of BMC?
The “legacy” of the college is something that gets thrown around a lot, used variously as a way of interpreting what the college accomplished for the education, art, and literary fields, and also as something of a metaphorical shield to protect the image and oeuvre of its history. To make a very long story short, its progressive educational philosophy based on the writings of theorist John Dewey opened up new ways of thinking about how a college should be run; it played an inextricable role in the formation of the midcentury modern American art movement as we know it; and writers/poets such as M.C. Richards, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Jonathan Williams emphasized the literary arts by publishing the first Jargon Society Press titles and informally producing a group of poets who became known by scholars as the “Black Mountain School” because they published their own and others’ works in their very own Black Mountain Review.
The legacy of Black Mountain College is perpetuated through annual conferences and arts events in and around that area of North Carolina, presented by the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center in Asheville. Its conferences (one running this weekend, as it happens) and events “in the spirit” of Black Mountain College strive to honor its legacy as a place of creation and experimentation.
But what about those who were not there, who are not involved in the museum, but for whom the college and this so-called legacy has had an impact? Is it possible to put the legacy of Black Mountain College to use in the contemporary art world? Without a doubt, the art world has changed immensely since the 1940s and 1950s. And though they may take a different shape (at least at first glance), there are still problems in art education: its often prohibitive expense, its true usefulness, its (lack of) diversity–just to name a few. Do contemporary artists need an MFA, let alone a PhD, in order to “make it” these days? What does that mean, to “make it?” What are the alternatives to current art education? These definitions have changed and are changing, and it’s clear that a change in attitude and response is necessary.
Reflecting after this past weekend in Minneapolis as part of the Hand in Glove conference, presented by Common Field, for artists, artist-led organizations and alternative art spaces, it is clear to me that there is a surge in the number, quality, and directives of these individuals and organizations. Some are trying to change the world; some are just trying to make their towns better places, or show more artists’ work. All of their work is admirable, and yet I would argue that most of us were highly educated and privileged by virtue of our ability to be there. What about the self-taught artists, those who come from small communities or rural areas, those who cannot afford school, those who feel for whatever reason alienated from “the art world?” How can the type of education itself become a platform for change?
That is where Black Mountain School comes in. To clarify, Black Mountain School is different than and completely unassociated with the original Black Mountain College, the group of poets, or the current museum. Black Mountain School as an entity, in fact, does not exist yet. It is the brainchild of two Black Mountain-based artists, Chelsea Ragan and Adam Void, who are back in the south after spending several years in New York and other urban northeastern locales. Inspired by the history of the college that is evident in the local history of Black Mountain, they decided to bring a group of people together to discuss this new project.
I will spend the first weekend in October in Black Mountain among nearly two dozen other artists, curators, and intellectuals who are convening to discuss the possibilities around the legacy of Black Mountain College and how that legacy might be used to create a brand new alternative platform that addresses today’s problems with art education and accessibility. In the same do-it-yourself spirit that Black Mountain College founder John Rice encapsulated by breaking away from the system-at-large, I hope that Black Mountain School can be an alternative to what is often seen as the very inaccessible world of contemporary art and education.