Politics at Black Mountain College: Digital Exhibition

Dive into the archives to gain new insights into Politics at Black Mountain College.

A supplement to the exhibition at Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, on show February 1 – May 18, 2019.

Navigate through the key themes of the exhibition by selecting a button below, or simply scroll through as if walking through the exhibition space. Watch videos, listen to oral histories, and view archival images, FBI Files and more.

With thanks to the Western Regional Archives for their partnership as stewards of BMC history.

Education in a Time of Crisis

The history of Black Mountain College is inextricably linked with the rise of fascism in Europe, which prompted the exile of numerous artists and intellectuals. When BMC opened its doors in 1933, the Bauhaus—Germany’s pre-eminent school of modernist art and design—was forced to close under pressure by the recently elected National Socialist Party. That year, the college welcomed the arrival of Josef Albers to head up its art program, as well as his wife, the weaver Anni Albers, who started the college’s textile program. In the following years BMC added to its faculty roster other distinguished Bauhaus artists such as Walter Gropius, Lyonel Feininger, and Xanti Schawinsky, along with many other notable exiles, including composer Heinrich Jalowetz, psychologist Erwin Straus, and mathematician Max Dehn. Black Mountain College provided a welcome and liberating environment for its refugee faculty who contributed much to, and gained much from, the college’s emphasis on artistic and pedagogical experimentation.

A Living Democracy

The educational philosophy of American pragmatist philosopher, John Dewey, had a profound influence on John Andrew Rice’s efforts to reform higher learning by opening a new–and fundamentally new kind of–liberal arts college. Dewey’s writings catalyzed much of the progressive education debate in the United States, which forged a direct link between education and democracy, understood not simply as a political system, but as a “way of life.” These ideas underwrite both the organizing principles of the college as well as its innovative approach to experiential learning with a curricular emphasis on the arts. Dewey, who had visited the college several times and served on the college Advisory Board, was asked to offer a “brief statement about Black Mountain College” (a political move in itself), which yielded the philosopher’s famous description of Black Mountain College as “a living example of democracy.”

BMC as Pure Democracy

by John Andrew Rice, Founder of BMC

A Living Democracy

by John Andrew Rice, Founder of BMC

Difficulties of Liberty

by John Andrew Rice, Founder of BMC

Experimentation vs. Tradition

The legendary debate that erupted between John Cage and Erwin Bodky in the summer of 1948 over their radically divergent approaches to musical composition poignantly highlights a central tension at Black Mountain College between tradition and experimentation. Cage, who had planned a series of concerts by the avant-garde composer Erik Satie (culminating in the well-known Ruse of Medusa performance), offered a defense of musical experimentation by way of an uncharacteristically brash critique of Beethoven as “deadening to the art of music.” This incensed Bodky, who had been teaching and performing the works of Beethoven that summer, as well as a number of German composers present in the audience. According to several accounts, the controversy that erupted in the dining hall that night was settled by a raucous food fight.

Below: Listen to alumnus Jerrold Levy talk about what it was like to be there during the Summer of Satie, then take a moment to compare these iconic works from Satie and Beethoven. Where do you stand in this debate?

Politics of Art

Even amidst global turmoil, very little of the college’s prolific artistic output directly addressed the politics of the time. However, in retrospect we now see that many of the defining elements of Black Mountain College’s notable artistic legacy—abstract expressionism in painting, John Cage’s experiments in sound and music, Merce Cunningham’s new ideas in dance, the “Happening,” the Black Mountain poets—were grounded in principles of experimentation with artistic form that represented radical shifts from prevailing norms and were, by their very existence, political.

The prevalence of abstract expressionist painting was bound up with a broader postwar campaign to develop a distinctly American style of modern art associated with ideals of individuality and freedom of expression, an advancement led by influential art critics such as Clement Greenberg (and, we now know, covertly supported by the CIA). The contrast between the works of BMC artists Robert Motherwell and Ben Shahn, however, reflects a broader the debate at the time over which painterly approach—abstract or representational—carried more social and political significance.

Integration at BMC

Beginning in early 1944, political science instructor Clark Foreman brought to the forefront an issue that had been simmering for years at BMC: how could the college could move forward to integrate its student body? The majority of BMC students were in favor, but the faculty was divided, some because they feared for the safety of the college, and others saw no need to take such progressive action. After many lengthy discussions over several months, they finally decided to invite an African-American female music student from Atlanta named Alma Stone to attend the college for its first ever Summer Institute in Music in 1944. Funding for this radical move was provided by the Julius Rosenwald Fund, a foundation that supported BMC’s efforts to integrate its student body and faculty for as long as it remained a point of emphasis at the college.

Racial Tensions in Asheville

by Josephine Levine, BMC Alumna | Content Warning: Harassment, Assault

"Scared to death to be caught in a white man's lake"

by Emil Willimetz, BMC Alumnus

Politics of Gender

1933, the year Black Mountain College was founded, marked the beginning of the exodus of 60,000 artists from Europe fleeing the Nazis. Gender roles, both in the US and Europe, were clearly defined, but there were changes coming: President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Francis Perkins as the first female cabinet member, and the Nobel Prize that year went to Thomas Hunt Morgan for his discovery of the hereditary transmission functions of chromosomes, forging our modern understanding of genetics and raising new questions about what ultimately determines sexual difference. In spite of these changes in the world at large, women, particularly faculty wives who were active in many positions at Black Mountain College, were given neither title nor compensation. When Karen Karnes was recommended as a teacher of ceramics in 1952, BMC rector Charles Olson wrote “…husband David Weinrib is the one who gets the official post….and we get both.”

Faculty Harrassment

by Suzanne Willimetz, BMC Alumna | Content Warning: Sexual Assault, Rape

Wunsch Resignation - "Indecency" Arrest

by John Andrew Rice, BMC Founder

The Work Program

 

The ideas of philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey (1859-1952) had a profound influence on the founding ideas and practices of Black Mountain College. Primary among those ideas was that learning was most effectively achieved through practical experience. The work program at the college met the twin objectives of providing learning experiences for students and accomplishing the practical and ongoing needs of the community without having to hire people to do the work. Typical tasks ran the gamut, from kitchen chores to construction projects, road maintenance to apple picking.  

In 1933—the year the college opened—Ralph Borsodi published “Flight from the City,” a first-person treatise on self-sufficiency, which proved to be a source of inspiration for many students and faculty at BMC. Its philosophy of independent living removed from urban life encouraged a group of students to start the college farm, believing that it would help provide food and potential income to the small BMC community. They grew crops such as corn and soybeans, tended a vegetable garden, and cared for animals including pigs, chickens, and cows. The BMC farm continued until 1954, three years before the college officially closed.   

The BMC Community: A Totality of Experience

 

Black Mountain College was brought into existence in a matter of months during the economic uncertainty of the Great Depression. The founders envisioned a small, experimental, and experiential college community where students and faculty would live in close proximity, share meals together, learn and work together, socialize and create together. BMC was an educational, social, and cultural community, self-governing, and organically growing and changing as circumstances required. Two unwritten rules were to “Be Intelligent” and if one encountered a “Do Not Disturb” sign hanging on the door of someone’s individual study to never violate that command.

Internally, BMC faced an array of challenges: shaky finances, ideological differences, artistic differences, accidental death, suicide, marital infidelity, personality conflicts, and more. In the small, intense community, many problems and disagreements could be solved through collective meetings, where the goal was to reach consensus. Sometimes an issue, such as how to racially integrate the college, was discussed repeatedly, until finally a way forward was found and agreed upon.

FBI Investigations

 

FBI agents scrutinized BMC until its waning days. Documents from 1956 record the bureau’s investigation of how the “very unusual type of school” was staying afloat—in part, with nine students who were funding their education via the G.I. Bill. A Veterans Administration official had concerns that what was going on at the college might entail a threat to “internal security,” the FBI noted.

In one of its final reports on BMC, the FBI summed up a key reason it had cast a wary eye on the college—one of the school’s core and unabashedly unconventional values: “A student may do nothing all day and in the middle of the night may decide he wants to paint or write, which he does, and he may call on his teachers at this time for guidance,” the FBI gravely noted. “They advised that everything is left to the desires of the individual.”

Ben Shahn FBI File

Under McCarythism many BMC alumni and faculty were investigated as communists or communist sympathizers. Ben Shahn, faculty of 1951, was simultaneously investigated by the House of Un-American Activities Committee and ostracized by influential figures in art. At the time, Abstract Expressionism was being promoted as a purely American form of expression, a venture promoted by the CIA as well as figures like Clement Greenberg. Representational, politically driven artists like Shahn faced suspicion from within the art world and without.