Saturday, January 2, 2016

George Cotkin's "Feast of Excess"

George Cotkin is a Professor Emeritus at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. His books include Dive Deeper: Journeys with Moby-Dick, William James, Public Philosopher, Reluctant Modernism: American Thought and Culture, 1880-1900, Existential America, and Morality’s Muddy Waters: Ethical Quandaries in Modern America.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Feast of Excess: A Cultural History of the New Sensibility, and reported the following:
Feast of Excess: A Cultural History of the New Sensibility begins in 1952 with composer John Cage and concludes in 1974 with performance artist Chris Burden. In 1952, Cage had composed a minimalist work, 4’33” – a piece for piano where for the complete duration nary a key was struck nor a note sounded. He also organized the first Happening, where “coordinated,” maximalist chaos reigned. In either case, excess was the key element. Burden gained fame for testing the limits of the body’s endurance and the audience’s relation to what was occurring. In one infamous work, in front of a dozen or so friends, he had himself shot. In another piece, he was crucified against the back of a Volkswagen.

In between 1952 and 1974, many other figures attempted to push limits, to break through boundaries, and to question the very nature of art. Each chapter in the book is devoted to a particular year, with a focus on an artist (or in some cases, more than one) at the moment when their work was teeming with excess, entering upon uncertain terrain. Diverse figures, across the cultural spectrum are placed within this emerging tradition: Patricia Highsmith, Lenny Bruce, Allen Ginsberg, Marlon Brando, Anne Sexton, Andy Warhol, John Coltrane, Bob Dylan, Erica Jong, Diane Arbus and Susan Sontag). The conclusion examines how, and why, this imperative to excess might be useful – and also dangerous.

In the chapter that includes page 99, I examine rock singer, Jerry Lee Lewis. He was famous for excess. In the midst of the presumably conservative 1950s, Lewis’s songs dripped with sexual innuendo. He pushed performance, too, by pounding the piano keys and jumping atop the piano to dance lewdly. He was even reported to have set a piano on fire to prove that no other act could top him for volatility. On page 99 specifically, I look at the minefield of sex, race relations and music. While Lewis did cause a whole lotta shakin’, he was soon to be stilled, in part because he had married a remote cousin, thirteen years of age, while still legally married to another woman. Now that was excess aplenty.
Learn more about Feast of Excess at the Oxford University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Dive Deeper.

--Marshal Zeringue