So What

It’s a biography, of sorts. It’s a book about history, of sorts. It’s a book about art and artists, of sorts. It’a s book about sociocultural events and the people behind them. It’s a book about revolution and the attempts to put into practice philosophical ideals. It’s a book about the life cycle of a building and the subculture that inhabited it. And it’s a book about failure.

Sherill Tippins takes us on a one hundred year tour of the Chelsea Hotel in her book Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel. Interestingly, it wasn’t always a hotel. It started its life from a radical idea that the ideal community is comprised of a wide cross section of people—smart & not so, creative & practical, hard working & lazy, logical & intuitive, young, old, green, yellow, red, and rainbow. This blend of every characteristic known to humanity, and a spectral balance of them, was the vision of Philip Hubert, French-American architect, who conceived the building as a social experiment, and founded his concepts on the thinking of French philosopher Charles Fourier. Brilliant and idealistic, Hubert’s goal, and the structure of the building, was about moulding a creative, collaborative, and productive environment for its residents. It was to be a model for American social progress. It was also the first cooperative apartment in New York City, a concept that survives today. Despite the success of cooperative apartment buildings, the other dreams infused into the Chelsea’s brick & mortar failed, as did other similar community projects during the late 1800s, and still more attempts in the 20th century. The usual explanation is, the concept is fatally flawed. The question rarely asked—Is that the actual reason, or is it the naysayers’ unreflected conclusion based solely on conceptual prejudice?

Tippins builds us a curious story. Dozens of familiar and less familiar names are dropped and spun into the historic timeline. I’m in awe at how she’s pulled together the vast biographical accounts of so many people into a mostly cohesive story that not only didn’t loll me into a somnambulistic stupor, but actually had me caught up in the operatic drama—not usually my poison of choice. Consequently, when I got past the introduction, then the first chapter, and the second, I was hooked. I checked it out (ebook version) with a big question mark in my head. I was not really expecting to get through the first fifty pages. The big appeal lies in the book’s undercurrent, which to some may appear obvious, but to others the not so sneaky yet never voiced message is just as likely to get passed off with a shrug and a whatcha expect from those kinds of people?

Another curious thread reveals how the residents spiraled downward in sync with the building’s degradation. It raises a chicken & egg question, however, without saying it directly, she shows us how the process was an organic one fed by a series of feedback loops. In the end, the causes & effects get blurred into an illusion of a continuous analog stream that in reality is a countless number of tiny quantum leaps and turns.

She recounts one of the early stories of the Chelsea’s decline.

With the artist of the moment regurgitating onto the floor, Guggenheim’s guests made their excuses and fled—though Hazel McKinley, savvy as always, did take the time to advise the restaurant manager to cut out and frame that piece of vomit-spattered carpet, as it was likely to be worth millions someday. While Guggenheim, seething, tended to the aftermath of the disaster, Pollock staggered out through the crowded lobby into the street.

Here is one of the foreshadowing moments of the end of modernism, and the transition to postmodernism, from which we have yet to escape. Some years after this event, when Jackson Pollock was now drunk on fame in addition to alcohol, he was heard to shout to hangers-on in San Remo, “Do you think I would have painted this crap if I knew how to draw a hand?”

“. . . the logical conclusion that art didn’t have to be anything and, conversely, that anything could be art.” This sums the resulting new attitude of the self proclaimed artists and the art intelligentsia who ride on their backs. (Or is it the other way around?) As the Chelsea moved into the 1960s we see the downturn get serious, just as, “. . . it was time to take the seriousness out of serious art.” As simple as that phrase is, the speaker was too blind to see its inherent irony. We get comments from Rex Reed who described one of the hot experimental movies as “a cesspool of vulgarity and talentless confusion which is about as interesting as the inside of a toilet bowl.” This opinion was not the only one expressed, another thought the film, “simply exposed the toxicity in the soul of a nation addicted to [surplus luxury.]” At the time the US had 5 percent of the world’s population and was consuming half the world’s goods. No argument with either of those assessments, but the film never expressed the criminality of surplus luxury, especially considering the producer’s goal in life was to turn art into a mass market commodity, and get invited to as many parties are possible. Parties, mind you, hosted by the rich and powerful. Reconciling these disparate responses to experimental cinema can’t be done.

The book exposes the postmodern artist’s posturing. The way they make claim to the production of deep insightful art, the protest of commercialism, the protest of war, the protest of elitism, the rejection of tradition, while they throw the baby out with the bathwater reveals their ignorance. Engaging emotions to motivate change has been tried. It’s the technique that continues to be used, and yet, continues to fail. Emotion certainly appears to be the way to motivate people to action, but curiously, it never sticks. The problem too often is the use of antics rather than tactics. The madcap Yippies continued on the anarchy trail guaranteeing not a revolution towards a utopian society, instead, they ensured the demise of the progressive movement and every other movement even remotely resembling similar core values.

With a good dose of the occult, along with various drugs, the Chelsea becomes the capital of counter-culture bent on changing the world, or more likely pandemonium. The ideals of the 19th century utopians were lost in a haze of pot smoke, heroin, alcohol, voodoo, and raging psychopathy. Jesus-complexes and bizarre obsessive behaviors reeled the aims of the original tenants into harebrained frivoling by the hotel’s later denizens.

Tippins rambles on as the postmodernists and punks become a sapped version of Dada gone gaga. Even before the book gets into the 1970s, the drama, the angst, the addiction, the obsession, the self-torture, the FUH-Q attitudes, were getting as tired and decrepit as the building. I finished reading just to see where she might end the story. Her point though had been made well before the halfway mark. Though I’m bashing the latter chapters, my earlier comments stand. The long drawn out end reflects the long drawn out death of the Chelsea.

Its death isn’t peaceful nor dignified, but it whispers a lesson none of its famous tenants ever made. Folk art, folk rock, American Realism, Soviet Realism, nonobjective art, anti-art, protest, mind altering drugs drip-dropped down from the art nouveau, romantic-impressionistic, communal ideals of a 19th century apartment building. Over the years the original high-concept message along with the building devolved into a dilapidated single room occupancy flophouse, that in turn spiraled into inane pop-art, pop-culture. So what? Millions of records, books, theater tickets—millions heard and watched and “got it.” So what? It’s all fallen flat. Cultural revolution? So what? Artists, authors, musicians believed they had the keys and the powers to change the world. So what? These solipsistic artists were(are) too lost in their own incestuous inbreeding to realize that their message was(is) scrambled in the maelstrom of mass media poppism. The media frenzy-fed on the noise. The masses missed the point and the media had(has) no desire to make the point, or any point for that matter. The self-important deluded egoists who think “I can change the world,” have accomplished nulla. So what?

The old authority had shown its incompetence and hollowness, and the effects could be seen in the cynicism that had infected the national psyche. This was the America where students admitted to cheating at nearly double the rate of the previous decade, where more than a quarter of American workers acknowledged that the goods they produced were so shoddily made that they wouldn’t buy them themselves, and where kids sent off to farms in Vermont returned to New York to become drug dealers, publicists, and lawyers on the make.

Art is a mirror. The hotel’s story is a mirror. Artists simply polish the mirror. Smashing mirrors, or turning them on themselves is an empty pursuit. It takes a special form of consciousness to recognize oneself in a mirror, and a still higher form to recognize oneself in art. Humans haven’t uniformly reached that latter level. Until then, art and artists are a whole lotta so what.

Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel, Sherill Tippins, Mariner Books, 2013

*music sample, “So What”, Derek Trucks Band, 1997

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