Robin Eichele and John Sinclair – Getting Out From Under
Getting out from under
Reprint from New University Thought, Vol. 4, No. 2, Summer, 1965
By Robin Eichele and John Sinclair
N.U.T editors’ comment: This article describes one attempt to build a “counter-community” (See N.U.T. Vol. 1, No. 4) – in this case, primarily focused on artists. Robin Eichele, poet, photographer, and film-maker, is a senior at Monteith College, Wayne University; John Sinclair, poet and jazz critic, is a graduate student in American literature at Wayne. They have been working on N.U.T. as well as co-directing the Workshop this year.
Detroit, despite all its pretensions, has been artistically “dead” for longer than most people here want to admit. Young artists of all disciplines – music, poetry, painting, photography, film-making – have made it a necessary point in the past generation or two to get out of Detroit as soon as possible for the vital centers of U.S. kulchur – New York, San Francisco, even Chicago – because the Detroit milieu is if anything anti-artistic. Detroit has really been nowhere, as the saying goes; one half-way decent theater, one museum, a decaying jazz scene, no community of poets, painters, writers, anything.
A group of young Detroit artists – at first primarily poets and musicians, most of them students at Wayne State University – got together in the late summer of 1964 and decided to do something to make Detroit a viable and vital place to live and work. A number of them, having found Detroit an inhabitable urban environment with little of the intense pressure of New York city or the residual hangers-on of former centers of activity like San Fransisco and Chicago, had made various efforts to provide a focal point for Detroit artistic activity in the past: poet George Tysh’s “Touchstone” was a storefront gallery and meeting place that failed to survive due to lack of strong support, and more recently Tysh and painter Carl Shurer operated the Red Door gallery, a center of avant-garde film showings, exhibitions of paintings, and general “hanging out” that ceased operation with Shurer’s departure for Greece in June 1964.
The people who had been active in these ventures formed the nucleus of a new group, the Artists Workshop Society, a totally cooperative organization designed and structured to draw upon the resources of every participating individual in order to perpetuate itself – and promote community thinking on an artistic and person level – through its own cohesive community nature. Two artists who had not been around to take part in the previous activity met in June of 1964 and immediately began looking for ways to draw the generally dispersed artistic community back together into an effective, working group. Charles Moore, a musician, and John Sinclair, a writer involved in the Detroit jazz scene, were at first concerned with providing a place for musicians to rehearse and present formal concerts of the new jazz music. As they talked to more and more people about their plan, they found a large (although rather cynical) interest, and their original conception of an Artists Workshop grew broader as more of their friends and associates offered ideas and support for its implementation.
The Artists Workshop Society was formed in October by sixteen charter members, all of whom donated five dollars each toward the cost of renting a suitable facility out of which they could operate. After examining a number of buildings and storefronts in the area, they found a house in the “urban renewal” area around the University for their headquarters. Robin Eichele moved into the second floor of the house, assumed the greater share of the rent, and the Artists Workshop was a physical reality.
The 1st of November the Society presented the first in what has become a series of weekly Sunday afternoon “events,” which integrate jazz, poetry readings, and exhibitions of graphic art and are presented with no admission charge to interested members of the community. Moore’s group, the Detroit Contemporary 5, donated its time and talent for free concerts, the readings were done by Workshop members and supporters, and Detroit photographers and artists displayed their work – all for the benefit of the community rather than financial remuneration.
The group wanted more than this surface unity, however; our goal was (and is) to pull together the active and potential artists in the Detroit area into a working, cooperative community of human beings that would offer to each individual an open, supportive artistic environment. Having become thoroughly disenchanted with the established methods of “dealing with” art, we determined to create our own human milieu by working as independently as possible, within the economic framework the established order left us. We saw Detroit as essentially virgin ground – there was everything to be done, the raw material was at hand, and we started working to exploit the situation in the best interests of every artistically-oriented individual in the community.
With the physical forces in operation, a spiritual focal point quickly evolved. The Sunday programs began to draw upwards of 100 people weekly, almost wholly from the peripheral student-“beatnik”-artist community that already loosely existed. No “outside” advertising was done – in the first place, we had no money; in the second, we had seen too many times what havoc the average “dilettante” intelligence could wreak. The people in the immediate vicinity were informed of the Workshop’s doings by mimeographed flyers announcing each week’s program, passed out by members to their friends in the area. The Workshop had come into being, after all, as an emergency measure to help salvage the salvageable; “outsiders,” e.g. entertainment-seekers and “culture-vultures,” would have defeated the group’s purposes.
The charter members began passing around copies of the Society’s “manifesto” and urging our friends to join. As the group gained more support and became assured of its continuing existence, new programs were instituted. Cooperative “self-education” classes in jazz history and appreciation, practical film-making, and contemporary poetry were organized and “taught” by Workshop members as a supplement the University’s meager programs in these areas and as a means of educating members in the community in the artistic disciplines in which they were interested…Like the Sunday programs, the classes were designed and implemented by the artists themselves; Sinclair and Moore, who were working in jazz as individuals, combined their forces in the jazz class; Larry Weiner and Robin Eichele, both of whom were actively engaged in the process of making independent films, taught their class the basics of filming and editing; and Sinclair, Eichele and Tysh, all working poets who had done a great deal of independent study of contemporary poetry, shared what they had learned through their study and their work with younger, less informed poets and serious readers.
Weekly business meetings were held at first, giving each member the opportunity to help direct the organization. As the organization grew, the meetings became less necessary, and members were assigned tasks on an informal basis, the emphasis being on getting jobs done rather than informing non-functionary committees and other bureaucratic encumberances. The Artists Workshop Press was organized to mimeograph weekly bulletins and other propaganda, with the ultimate goal (soon to be realized) of printing books of poetry and prose by Workshop members for national and local distribution. Benefits for independent poetry magazines and presses were staged at the workshop, and a number of the finest small independent literary magazines were obtained for sale to members of the community because the bookstores in the Detroit area didn’t stock them; a film-screening group started bringing in avant-garde films by contemporary American film-makers who have no popular economic support; another jazz group, the Workshop Arts Quintet, was formed by Workshop member Pierre Rochon specifically because the Workshop gave its members a place to rehearse and play under optimum performance conditions (e.g., an intensely attentive audience, no musically-ignorant clubowner dictating the music to be played, etc.); and a series of Friday night readings from the “new American poetry” – i.e., the vital body of non-academic work that has had to make its own audience in the face of total opposition and even suppression by the Establishment hacks – was begun by Workshop members in order to expose more young poets and readers to the work they should have been getting all along.
The Artists Workshop Press will bring out a series of books of poetry by Workshop people this spring, and a new poetry magazine, WORK, will be edited and printed by Workshop members, with contributions from both Detroit writers and members of the national community that exists among the post-1945 American poets…
These are immediately measurable realities of the Artists Workshop as it has progressed (at this writing) in the last five months. What has been done, however, is only a small part of what can and will be done, and is only vaguely indicative of the overall orientation and philosophy of the group. [To give a fuller picture of what the Artists Workshop aims and goals are, see the Society’s “manifesto” of November 1, 1964. Webmaster note: since the portion of the Manifesto quoted in the “Getting out from under” article appears edited and revised, we offer the original version in its entirety, penned by John Sinclair and distributed on 11/1/64.]
We find that we must repeat over and over again to individuals who have been lied to so often that they must distrust our motives that the Artists Workshop is not simply for artists, in the strictest sense, but is a community organized by artists designed to give any human being disenchanted or, more honestly, humiliated and disgusted by the present order a means of, first, surviving in a dangerous world, and then creating something meaningful from what is left, what he has to use. The Workshop is a serious attempt to counter the feelings of powerlessness prevalent among perceptive individuals who feel that they need to have something to say about their own destiny. We are not a discussion group, or a “society” of dilettantes, we are human beings who believe that direct action is the only way to get anything done in this world. We are involved in a confrontation of the corrupt social reality that has been passed on to us for us to live in; a confrontation on an active and engaged, not merely a reflective, level.
The Artists Workshop is ideally a context in which vital political and aesthetic dialogs can take place, can grow into a unified outlook instead of disintegrating and splintering. It is a social organism within an organism, but its structure, in contradistinction to the general social context in which we must operate, is a cohesive one, artist and spectator (in the original Greek sense of “participator”) coming together in community, each having and assuming his responsibility in the relationship. Our ultimate goals depend almost strictly upon each individual’s faith in what can be done, in view of what has been done and, most important, what has not been done, by those on whom we’ve depended to do something, anything, to make the world a better place in which to live. The world is evolving faster and more carelessly than some of us would like…America has failed in learning how to live with her machines, her objects, her wealth, her power. The road to correcting this failure is not completely clear, but there are immediate imperatives – no insane talk of war, any kind of war; no absurd drivel about surviving atomic attacks, or “living with the Bomb” – and there are immediate courses of action to be taken. The Artists Workshop is one approach and one result.
We are operating on what is truly a “grass-roots” level – dealing with people, people who still can be saved – and the success, however large or small, of such a venture depends entirely on personal, individual, immediate direct action in the radical sense of cutting to the root of the problem and working from there. We will work with anyone, any group, who demonstrates through his actions that he is as ready to take whatever measures necessary to try to establish, in our small but not insignificant way, a human environment in which artists and other people can live and work to their fullest capabilities. We have come from nowhere – powerless, no money, with only our personal visions and energies to keep us working at what we believe is useful – and we have made a dent in the huge mountain of ignorance and greed looming high before us in the dark. What we believe we can do, and should and must do, is partially outlined in a personal “manifesto” by poet and jazz guitarist Ron English, from which we quote in conclusion.
We at the Artists Workshop are not crazy enough to believe that this [i.e., the revolutionary society depicted by Ron English] will happen tomorrow, if ever; but we do believe that it can be done, if enough of us are willing to start at the bottom, recognize the walls that our general society has put up for us (and not, as is usually claimed, we for them), stop beating our heads against these walls, organize, and GET TO WORK, to avert the “total disaster now on tracks.” We don’t claim to have the “only way,” or the “true way” – these labels are not relevant – but we do have a way, and we are following it. And we do mean business.