Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Art of Parties

This article 'Retort Goes to a Party' by Holley Cantine was originally published in the Autumn 1951 issue of Retort, a journal of anarchism, poetry, literature and essays edited by Cantine, with contributors including Paul Mattick, Kenneth Rexroth and Paul Goodman. It was reprinted in the Portland-based journal Communicating Vessels (Fall/Winter 2008-9). There are more Retort articles here - it was published in New York in the 1940s and 50s.

A 1950s report of a 1920s retro party might seem obscure even for this site, but there are some interesting reflections on the art of parties.

'On last March 24th, in Greenwich Village, a party, was thrown for the ostensible purpose of commemorating the 1920s. The editors of Retort, being at the time on one of their occasional visits to New York, attended. It was a fairly large party — upward of 100 people, most of them costumed in the styles of the period — either authentic or reasonably faithful representations. There was a competent Dixieland jazz band and an adequate amount of drink, the price of admission being a bottle. The party was held in a commodious sculptor's studio on the top floor of a loft building in a non-residential section of the Village, so there was both plenty of room and sufficient isolation to permit complete freedom from the usual urban inhibitions about noise.

Yet, in spite of all these manifest advantages, the party, as a party, and especially as an attempt to recapture the spirit of the '20s, didn't really come off. There was a good deal of boisterousness, some fairly wild dancing, and a determined effort on the part of the sponsors to keep things moving, but the atmosphere was not at all that of the period that was supposed to be commemorated, and the level of intensity that a really good party attains was never observable. The present writer, who has a very warm feeling for the '20s, perhaps because he was just a little too young to take part in the revels of that era, but old enough to have witnessed some of them, stayed on to the bitter end, hoping that  something might turn up, but unfortunately the evening just wilted away, and when at 3 or 4 in the morning the last remaining revelers began looking for their coats, it was as if nothing had happened.

To the connoisseur of parties — and in the '20s, the party was an art form with many zealous devotees, not a few of whom gave their lives as a result of their single-minded dedication to art — a party is not really successful unless something happens other than the usual banalities of passings out, corner seductions, et al. Exactly what is supposed to happen is impossible to foresee (this is the chief charm of the party as an art form). At some point in the evening, usually well after midnight, when the more inhibited guests have gone home and the rest are sufficiently liquored up to be ready for anything, a sort of spirit of the party begins to take over, fusing the participants into a spontaneous organic whole which is capable of very curious and memorable acts.

At the party in question, the focal point of the evening was the so-called Charleston Contest, and had the party been sufficiently alive, this could have been the spark that started things moving. As it turned out it was merely an exhibition of rather extreme dancing (none of it the Charleston) with most of the people reduced to spectators while a dwindling number of couples competed. I can recall parties in the '20s when an event of this nature suddenly evolved into a mock revival meeting or voodoo ceremony, with everyone taking part, or at least experiencing the excitement — a sort of pseudo-religious ecstasy that could be quite breathtaking.

Of course, such a performance is only possible in an entirely spontaneous andabandoned atmosphere, and the heavy aura of self-consciousness that hung over this party was a serious detriment to even bogus spirituality. Perhaps we who have endured the terrible '40s are unable to recapture the fine, free and essentially naive gusto for wickedness that characterized the lighter side of the '20s. The '20s, despite the fond belief of its Flaming Youth, was — at least in perspective — a very innocent period. There was something ingenuous and good-natured about its revolt against Victorianism. The bottomless pit that the First World War had opened up before the Lost Generation was a shallow ditch compared to that which our generation has witnessed, and the consequent cynicism was childlike and lighthearted, in comparison to the numb apathy that is characteristic of the more advanced youth of today.

The "wild" party was the perfect vehicle for expressing this spirit, especially since, as the result of Prohibition — that last desperate stand of the forces of Puritanism — the simple act of taking a drink was transformed into a wicked and excitingly illegal event. (Today, the youth must resort to the more deadening narcotics to achieve a similar thrill). A party in the '20s that commemorated the '90s was a lively, good-natured spoofing of the previous generation's foibles; we of the '50s, with our prevailing atmosphere of doom and disintegration, are hardly in the proper mood to give the same sort of treatment to the youthful follies of our parental generation'.

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