John Rice sits alone in a modest bedroom at Robert E Lee Hall, a three-story YMCA assembly building in the tiny North Carolinian community of Black Mountain. It is September 1933. Writing in his autobiography a decade later he ponders:

“Some day, perhaps, a clever scientist will be able to pick my thoughts off the walls of that room, record them on a film, and translate through his cold lips the history of a man’s soul. It will be, as he will demonstrate, not mine, not anybody’s; it will be the record of every sentient man; not a work of art, a hodgepodge rather: comedy, tragedy, tragicomedy, farce in plenty, simple blundering that those words do not include, and hope and joy too—everything.”[1]

In April that year, the modest but outspoken classical scholar had been dismissed from his position on the faculty of Rollins College, Florida, for resisting educational reforms supported by the College’s president. Subsequently, many of Rice’s supporters tendered their resignation or were purged, but by August 1933 this group of nonconforming professors had gathered a fund for the establishment of a new institution. Owned and operated by its faculty, Mary Emma Harris writes that “if there was a single unquestionable assumption underlying the college’s structure and philosophy, it was the belief in democracy as a way of life.”[2] In 1942, Rice – its founding rector – remembers the College’s principal commitment: “Black Mountain, we said, would be a means; the end was the individual.”[3]

Looking back from our position in the present, it is sometimes difficult to understand the particular resonance of this word, ‘individual’, for the early 20th century. If, in 1933, the continuing freedom of the individual seemed truly endangered by ascendant totalitarianisms, expressions of an insipid collective will, we citizens of the 21st century are used to thinking of the individual and his/her unruly desires as the overwhelming focus of our international social and economic systems. However, reading the history of Black Mountain College, the evolutionary leap by which the individual ceases to think, feel, experiment, struggle and begins to consume, purchase, trade and speculate is thrown sharply into relief. It’s as though, between now and then, the very meaning of the individual has been lost. Perhaps now is the time to remember the College and its project.

At Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof this year, an exhibition entitled ‘Black Mountain: An Interdisciplinary Experiment 1933-1957′, ran alongside a series of recitals and symposia from June to September. Its object: to “understand, reactivate, and sympathetically ‘revive’ the legacy of Black Mountain College.”[4] Collecting a vast archive of printed material, workshop studies, photographs and artworks, the exhibition’s curators reflect on the importance of “open-ended experiments”, “interaction between art and science”, and “the context in which art is taught and mediated”.[5] Certainly, in the years after the Second World War, Black Mountain became associated with research at the cutting edge of art and performance. Even so, in recalling these experiments we should never forget that larger vision, not only of a new art but of a reformed personhood, which underpinned the College’s work.

In 1937, Anni Albers published a statement in the Black Mountain College Bulletin mentioning some intended outcomes of the College’s educational approach. Albers and her husband Josef had fled the closure of the Bauhaus for Black Mountain in 1933, where they spent the next 16 years teaching. She argues that “most important to one’s growth is to see oneself leave the safe ground of accepted conventions and to find oneself alone and self dependent.”[6] The promotion of personal growth and rounded development were a key part of Black Mountain pedagogy. Reflecting on the intimacy of life at Robert E Lee hall in the 1930s, John Rice explains that “a man taught by the way he walked, by the sound of his voice, by every movement. That was what it was intended to be, … the education of the whole man.”[7] These comments, especially Anni Albers’ use of the term ‘growth’, mark the influence of American philosopher John Dewey, a personal friend of John Rice and occasional visitor to the College. For Dewey, heavily influenced by the work of Charles Darwin, ‘growth’ meant the development of ‘adaptive capacity’. A key focus of Dewey’s educational theory, this was the capacity to meet new challenges and learn from them, to be active and searching and unafraid in one’s navigation of the world.

Another concern shared by Dewey and the College founders was that for the welfare of individuals within a community of others. In 1942, John Rice theorised that “The history of man had been the struggle between man and … the corporation of his fellows”.[8] For Dewey, the democratic society was one that reconciled these two entities. In his seminal 1916 essay Democracy and Education, the philosopher defined an ideal society as one “which makes provision for participation in its good of all its members … and which secures flexible readjustment of its institutions.” Such a society, he believed, should “have a type of education which gives individuals … the habits of mind which secure social changes without introducing disorder.”[9] An undemocratic society, by contrast, would repress and stifle the will of individuals, its institutions ossifying into unyielding paranoid bureaucracies.

josef_albers_drawing_class_black_mountain_college

Perhaps it is natural that, observing the war in Spain, the rise of Hitler and the rule of Mussolini, thoughts would turn to the role of the individual in announcing dissent and resisting oppression. But this is more than a matter of historical contingency. For the faculty at Black Mountain, the individual was not only a synonym for the subject which navigates and seeks to reshape his/her environment. Rather, the individual and their interior world was the fountain of wisdom and the well of art, itself a domain of experience and knowledge. As such, the individual demanded to be searched, but was impossible to encompass. According to Josef Albers, “art does not exist on a material, but on a spiritual level. It rests within us instead of upon a canvas or marble.”[10] Hence it is that, in the long quote which begins this essay, that film of personal history envisioned by John Rice produces “not a work of art, a hodgepodge”. Removing a man’s dreams from the secret world to which they belong, these become instead an anonymous “record of every sentient man”.[11] Like the archive disordered by plundering foreign hands, all the varieties of human experience become incoherently mixed. At Black Mountain the complexity of human beings commanded appropriate respect. By contrast, the sense in which our present economic and political order respects the individual seems facile, even specious.

The question not asked by the curators of the Hamburger Bahnhof display, perhaps because to ask it would be fatal, is whether the Museum is capable of staging the recovery of ideas and practices they desire. Like a machine which captures and preserves the traces of thought and experience left floating in the wake of our passage, the Museum produces a static world without the warmth and intensity of living things. Its staged events remain re-enactments, incapable, I worry, of inaugurating genuinely defiant or radical communities. Even so, in a society where the importance of a full interior life is called subtly and not-so-subtly into question by new structures of knowledge and power, the act of inquiry into the individual, human condition achieves a newly revolutionary quality, and a new urgency.


 

[1] John Andrew Rice, I Came Out of the Eighteenth Century, Columbia, SC, University of South Carolina Press, 2014 (1942), p. 320.

[2] Marry Emma Harris, The Arts at Black Mountain College, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1987, p. 7.

[3] Rice op. cit., p. 324.

[4] Wall text, ‘Black Mountain. An Interdisciplinary Experiment, 1933-1957’, Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin, on 2 July 2015.

[5] Wall text op. cit.

[6] Anni Albers cited in Vincent Katz, ‘Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art’ in Vincent Katz (ed.), Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art, Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 2002, p. 31.

[7] Rice opcit., p. 322.

[8] Rice opcit., p. 328.

[9] John Dewey, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, on 15 July 2015 at: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/852/852-h/852-h.htm.

[10] Josef Albers cited in Harris opcit., p. 16.

[11] Rice opcit., p. 320.