Modern history

Feast of Excess: A Cultural History of the New Sensibility

Feast of Excess: A Cultural History of the New Sensibility

In 1952, John Cage shocked audiences with 4'33", his compositional ode to the ironic power of silence. From Cage's minimalism to Chris Burden's radical performance art two decades later (in one piece he had himself shot), the post-war American avant-garde shattered the divide between low and high art, between artist and audience. They changed the cultural landscape.

Feast of Excess is an engaging and accessible portrait of "The New Sensibility," as it was named by Susan Sontag in 1965. The New Sensibility sought to push culture in extreme directions: either towards stark minimalism or gaudy maximalism. Through vignette profiles of prominent figures-John Cage, Patricia Highsmith, Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, Anne Sexton, John Coltrane, Bob Dylan, Erica Jong, and Thomas Pynchon, to name a few-George Cotkin presents their bold, headline-grabbing performances and places them within the historical moment.

This inventive and jaunty narrative captures the excitement of liberation in American culture. The roots of this release, as Cotkin demonstrates, began in the 1950s, boomed in the 1960s, and became the cultural norm by the 1970s.

More than a detailed immersion in the history of cultural extremism, Feast of Excess raises provocative questions for our present-day culture.

Introduction: The New Sensibility

Prelude: A New Year: Judith Malina

Part I: Emergence, 1952–1960

Chapter 1. 1952: Sounds of Silence: John Cage

Chapter 2. 1953: Erasure and Addition: Robert Rauschenberg

Chapter 3. 1954: The Wild One: Marlon Brando

Chapter 4. 1955: Ever Mysterious: Patricia Highsmith

Chapter 5. 1956: Howling in the Wilderness: Allen Ginsberg

Chapter 6. 1957: “Great Balls of Fire”: Jerry Lee Lewis

Chapter 7. 1958: “To Nullify Explanation”: Robert Frank

Chapter 8. 1959: Making a Connection: Judith Malina and Jack Gelber

Chapter 9. 1960: All About Me: Norman Mailer

Part II: Explosion, 1961–1968

Chapter 10. 1961: Say What?: Lenny Bruce

Chapter 11. 1962: Pop Goes the Paradigm

Chapter 12. 1963: Picking His Nose at Tradition: Andy Warhol

Chapter 13. 1964: Naming the New: Susan Sontag

Chapter 14. 1965: “How Does It Feel?”: John Coltrane and Bob Dylan

Chapter 15. 1966: Living and Dying: Anne Sexton

Chapter 16. 1967: “Utmost Freedom of Imagination”: William Styron

Chapter 17. 1968: “An Extreme Gesture”: Gore Vidal

Part III: Cultural Commonplace, 1969–1974

Chapter 18. 1969: “Terribleness”: Amiri Baraka

Chapter 19. 1970: “I Just Love Freaks”: Diane Arbus

Chapter 20. 1971: Vegas, Baby!: Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Hunter S. Thompson

Chapter 21. 1972: Erectile Destruction: Samuel R. Delany and Thomas Pynchon

Chapter 22. 1973: Zipless Abandon: Erica Jong

Chapter 23. 1974: Crucified and Shot: Chris Burden

Conclusion: The Shock of the Old—and New

Notes

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