Before the laughter, there’s a moment after a joke has been told when the listener understands or “gets” the joke. It’s an instant but a glorious one. It has the same effect on brain chemistry as being in love. Liberating. Cerebral and physical. A supreme and sublime rush.
A handful of humans through history have cultivated the fine art of capturing that moment of getting the joke, managing to live in a state of perpetual bemusement at the absurdity of everything.
This is an example of being constantly aware.
The constantly aware people have been referred to as both heretics and hipsters. As we all know, “hip” now means you’ve seen Brad Pitt’s latest movie, rendering the word null and dull, but there are still authentic hipsters. Not a lot. Exactly eleven on the entire planet at any given time and that list is fluid, changing from moment to moment. We are humans and therefore undependable, so almost no one can be aware all the time.
Except for my hero Anton Rosenberg.
After Anton died on February 14, 1998 at the age of 71, the New York Times ran the coolest obituary of all time. Anton had been a pal of Jack Kerouac and a model for characters in novels by Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. A fine painter and jazz pianist who jammed with Charlie Parker, he never worked for fortune or fame and was “cheerfully” supported by his schoolteacher wife until his death. According to Robert McG. Thomas Jr., the Times’ obit writer who was a legend himself, Anton “was the epitome of hip, an extreme esthetic that shunned enthusiasm, scorned ambition and ridiculed achievement.”
Anton earned an obituary in the New York Times for never having–in the accepted definition–done anything. That’s hip.
What this means is NOT that Anton was without many talents, but that he simply wasn’t interested in marketing them. Can you imagine a world where all humans were infinitely gifted but scornful of ambition? (No greed, no war, no rulers, lots of artists.) I’m sure some of you can’t, but I imagine it all the time. This idea squatted in my imagination many years ago. It does not pay rent because it cannot afford to. But I allow it to live here because dreams make me happy, the special kind of happy we are when we get a joke.
Anton was born in Brooklyn and became a grown-up do-nothing in 1950s New York, timed perfectly for the emergence of the Beat Generation. He also became a junkie and as my other hero Terry Southern told another hero Paul Krassner (I have as many as I choose to have), “About the hippest anyone has gotten so far, I suppose, is to be permanently on the nod.” Terry explained that this “eliminate[s] all the negative emotion and retain[s] the positive.”
Truth is, all my heroes are men and women of great accomplishment and maybe my endearing love for Anton–whom I never heard of until he died–is a kind of a joke. Maybe some of you are laughing along with me.
Christopher Felver is a photographer of great accomplishment and I’ve long dug his work capturing the souls of hipsters on film. His new photo and ephemera collection is called BEAT and is published by Last Gasp. Here’s 200 pages of Beat Generation poet/writer/artist heroes like Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and many others. It includes those who didn’t strictly belong to that generation but who made art of some kind with first allegiance to the art, not commerce. Ed Sanders, John Sinclair, Hunter S. Thompson, Abbie Hoffman, Paul Krassner, and Ken Kesey are six younger-than-Beat heroes in Felver’s book who did not pimp out their muse.
For all the drugs, alcohol, suicide, and profuse misery justifiably associated with sensitive artists, Felver captures his subjects at the moment they are getting a joke. Many are already laughing. The ability to capture this precious instant proves that Felver is at the same high watermark as his subjects. One cannot purchase the ability to get the joke, but if you’re searching for smiles, you’ll find them a-plenty in BEAT.
It’s near-impossible to be a proper art-for-arts’-sake artist in 21st Century America. Cheap rents in major cities have disappeared. One apparently needs an arsenal of technology to create in the cyber age. Mechanized transportation is becoming prohibitive with the price of fuel and reality of global warming. Constant awareness is no longer merely an artistic state, but mandatory for the survival of the planet. Recognition of the absurd and the laughter that accompanies it will help beat off the squares and their Apocalypse. We can, in part, thank Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Chris Felver, and Anton Rosenberg.
This article is from the print edition of the Summer 2007 issue of Artillery Magazine.
MICHAEL SIMMONS is an award-winning journalist and currently filming a documentary on the Yippies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.