The inimitable hotelier Stanley Bard provided a place where dozens of truely original and iconclastic artists of the Sixties could challenge the status quo. And in so doing, Stanley came closest in this period to fulfilling the ideals of the 19th Century utopian socialist Charles Fourier, whose philosophy inspired the hotel in the first place. Historian Sherill Tippins, author of the upcoming Dream Palace, covers a lot of ground here in bringing us up through a turbulent decade of activism at the Chelsea.
Through the late 1950s and early 1960s, Chelsea resident Harry Smith's Anthology of Folk Music touched a forgotten chord in the consciousness of American listeners, reminding them of who they were before the dividing wall of enormous wealth descended on American society--and thus sparked the folk-music tradition that had once inspired Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and the I.W.W. movement and now laid the groundwork for the civil rights movements and anti-war protests of the 1960s. Smith's brilliant, hand-painted films and meticulous artwork spurred the liberating underground film community forward, and his encouragement and recording of the poet-comprised rock band, The Fugs, used satire and comedy to undermine the complacency and ignorance of mainstream America. As Smith's multimedia film-art-and-music experiments developed into multimedia happenings at the Cinematheque, which in turn evolved into such explosive experiments as the Velvet Underground's Exploding Plastic Inevitable events and Warhol's Chelsea Girls, New Yorkers found a way to recover their own true identities and lives from the delusional value system of the larger society--to break the hold placed on them by mainstream media and the pressures of business and governmental control.
Other Chelsea residents and guests contributed to this effort in other ways. William Burroughs' "cut-ups"--phrases and words cut out of such mainstream publications as Time and Life, rearranged to create an often revelatory new message--undermined the power of traditional media just as Warhol's films called into question the assumptions and machinery supporting the Hollywood system. Terry Southern attacked the status quo through satire in Candy and Dr. Strangelove. Larry Rivers shocked the art world with nude portraits of his mother-in-law, Birdie, and his "pornographic" sculpture, "Lampman Loves It" (title contributed by Terry Southern). Maurice Girodias published "forbidden" books despite constant efforts at censorship. Timothy Leary passed out hallucinogens in his effort to enable individuals to access their own true selves without having to rely on psychiatrists or other intermediaries. Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, and other rock musicians drew on the musical roots and ideas supplied by Harry Smith to create a new, genuinely American musical tradition. Allen Ginsberg moved from Harry Smith to Bob Dylan to William Burroughs to Timothy Leary to Larry Rivers to Abbie Hoffman to Stanley Bard, spreading the "pollen" of guerrilla-warfare tactics and ideas from one group to another in an effort to resist the power of wealth, self-interest, and government control.
During the Sixties, Chelsea residents showed the world how individuals could fight the system, and how artists could use their words, images, music, and theatrical techniques to create social change. At the same time--even as the ideas of the utopian philosopher Charles Fourier were enjoying a renaissance in 1960s Paris--the Chelsea under young Stanley Bard's care more closely resembled that utopian ideal than at any other time in its history. The Chelsea truly had become a haven for every kind of individual, in which creative work was encouraged and facilitated to the point at which resident artists could realize their responsibility to help move society forward. If some aspects of building maintenance were neglected in the chaos of this never-equaled intensity of creative living, at least the Chelsea's original intent was finally being realized to the extent possible within the larger culture that surrounded it. Thus, Stanley--often chided and sometimes even ridiculed by neighboring businessmen, some reporters, and even his own partners on occasion--became one of the guerrilla warriors helping in the fight to fight the co-opting of American energy and talent by the mainstream powers.
Without these individuals' efforts, the American voice that had nearly died in the Gilded Age, struggled through the Roaring Twenties, and flourished during the Depression thanks to WPA subsidies, might have finally been crushed beneath the sheer weight of the triumphant, mainstream American Century. As it was, these much-reviled artists laid the groundwork for more direct political activism aimed at combating racism and at ending the war in Vietnam. In those efforts, Chelsea residents would play a major role as well.