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Beat Generation
22 jun 2016 / 3 oct 2016


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The Beat Generation, a literary and artistic movement that appeared in the USA in the late Forties after the Second World War and in the early days of the Cold War, scandalised the puritanical America of the McCarthy era, heralding the cultural and sexual liberation of the Sixties, and the lifestyle of the younger generation. With its rejection of Western scientism, technological ideals, racism and homophobia, and its defence of a new tribal ethic and the use of psychotropic substances, it directly inspired the events of May 1968, the opposition to the vietnam War, and the hippies of Berkeley, Woodstock and the entire world.

Firstly perceived by the dominant culture as subversive rebels, the Beats are now seen as protagonists in one of the 20th century’s most important cultural movements. Beat literary works, originally viewed with contempt and suspicion, are now part of American literary canon and are taught in universities. The term «beat» (borrowed from street jargon, and meaning «down and out», «poor» or «homeless») perpetuated the romantic, bohemian myth of the lost generation. The French-Canadian writer Jack Kerouac, whose novel On the Road was the movement’s cornerstone, added a contemplative subtlety to it: in «beat», he said, we should also hear the word «beatitude». The Beat Generation thus nurtured a profound attachment for big open spaces, nature and shamanic spiritualties in which humankind is seen as an integral part of the Cosmos. And of course, «beat» also reflects the rhythm of jazz, the music organically linked with the movement, notably through the figure of Charlie Parker – and the jazz and Bebop culture inspired the prosody, rhythm and improvisatory techniques of Beat poetry.

The group came together in New York when Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg met at Columbia University in 1944, joined later by Gregory Corso, but moved to the North Beach district of California during the Fifties, with Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore and publishing house acting as catalysts. Gallery Six on Fillmore Street in San Francisco was where Allen Ginsberg read his poem Howl in 1955: an event that led to a spectacular trial and helped to put the Beat writers on the map. Paris was the chosen venue in Europe for this essentially nomadic movement: their meeting place was the «Beat Hotel» in Rue Gît-le-Cœur, where Burroughs, Corso, Ginsberg, Orlovsky and Gysin also lived in the Fifties and Sixties, and where they developed relationships with French artists like Jean-Jacques Lebel, one of France’s most active defenders of the Beat culture. As well as being a place imbued with magic, the Beat Hotel was a genuine laboratory for visual and sound experiments. This was where Gysin and Burroughs developed the cut-up technique.

Beat territory also extended beyond New York, San Francisco and Paris to Mexico (where artists, writers, photographers and film directors found alternative lifestyle models at the same time as a way into Indian thought and culture), to Tangier (where Ginsberg, Burroughs and Gysin joined Paul Bowles for long periods), and to India and Japan (where Ginsberg and Orlovsky explored the basics of Zen philosophy with Gary Snyder).

The «Beat Generation» exhibition is organised geographically, taking the analogical route traced by the huge typed roll of On the Road as an itinerary, and is divided into three main sections (New York, California, Paris), with two smaller areas dedicated to Mexico and Tangier. Although restricted to a precise historical framework from 1944 to 1969, the exhibition nonetheless makes a few incursions into contemporary times. One example is Allen Ruppersberg’s installation Singing Posters (2003-2005), directly inspired by Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, exhibiting a phonetic transcription of it. To emphasise the Beat writers’ crucial interest in recording and mechanical reproduction techniques, a charter of influences in this respect has been produced for this occasion by Franck Leibovici.



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