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Editor’s choice: ‘Feast of Excess: A Cultural History of the New Sensibility’

Feast of Excess: A Cultural History of the New Sensibility by George Cotkin, Oxford University Press, 433 pages, $35. It’s hard not to sympathize with exasperated members of Gen-X and Gen-Y – not to mention millennials. It’s understandable why they might scowl “enough already” when confronted with still more sanctified tales and holy artifacts from the American avant-garde of the ’60s and ’70s.

The trouble, of course, is that particular avant-garde was the greatest to bloom on native grounds since the 1920s and 1930s. There was no question that there was, in fact, a bloodline connecting the two. There were, for one thing, giant surviving holy monsters whose colossal wingspans touched both – Marcel Duchamp, for instance.

Looked at objectively, it is foolish for anyone to underestimate the newness of what Susan Sontag labeled “the New Sensibility” in the early ’60s – not even now.

And therein lies the smart and tidy triumph of this artfully written introductory history of it from 1952 to 1974. While it’s true that it avoids some of the video advances Buffalo was steeped in throughout the ’70s courtesy of Gerald O’Grady’s Media Study encampments, it is marvelously concise and fresh about everything else. It begins with John Cage’s mother Lucretia worrying that her son had gone too far with his 1952 piano piece “4’33” (where “nary a key had been touched nor a note sounded from the piano during the performance. But the ever-sly and mischievous John Cage had created music in a manner.”). And then “jumps” to the early 1970s in Southern California where “a baby-faced artist named Chris Burden, wearing only a skimpy swimsuit, hands behind his back, slithered and crawled, body bleeding, across a fifty-foot gallery floor strewn with broken glass.” (In 1974, he was crucified on a Volkswagen Beetle. In 1971, for a piece called “Shot,” “from a distance of fifteen feet, in front of an audience of friends, Burden had himself shot.” The bullet was only supposed to graze his arm. It had other ideas and entered the fleshy part.) From there to Johnny Knoxville, Cotkin doesn’t miss a trick in his tale of a cultural feast of “excess as exemplified by the New Sensibility.” –Jeff Simon