Black Mountain College

February 1, 2012

It’s a shame it was so short-lived. 1933-1957. Only 24 years.

But maybe that’s the life-span one would expect from an entity like this: a mid-size player. That’s what Black Mountain College was. It didn’t have the power and scope of institutions such as General Motors or the CIA. But it was nonetheless some form of collective life, not reducible to the biological individual and, in that way, a good starting point for us to think about various non-human scales.

While it lasted, it must have been an incredible phenomenon. In fact, I can’t imagine what it’s like to be there, on a daily basis, a place with so little separation between poetry, the visual arts, music, and dance that “interdisciplinarity” isn’t even the right word to describe their comminglings.

And when it ended, Black Mountain College would always be on record, a way station, a non-trivial stopping place for people and movements to pass through and pass on. The first geodesic dome was designed here by Buckminster Fuller. Merce Cunningham started his dance company here. John Cage had his first “happening.” And Jacob Lawrence was on the Arts Faculty in 1946 while working on his “Migration series.”

Meanwhile, just minutes down the road in Asheville, NC, Warren Wilson College is still flourishing, on a smaller scale, but still a place where poets like Steven Dobyns, Heather McHugh, Alan Shapiro, and Ellen Bryant Voigt can spend evenings together and write poems about one another, just as Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan once did at Black Mountain.

Corporations are defined by law as “legal persons.”   Surely, forms of aesthetic collectivity need to be theorized as such.  The PBS “American Masters” series includes Black Mountain College in its lineup.  It’s an interesting way to think about personhood.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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