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The whole truth about Buffalo's avant-garde arts scene

It was, no doubt, the preceding Buffalo Sabres 40th-anniversary exhibition at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery that poisoned the waters. Its incontrovertible "civic boosterism" may have looked playful to some eyes, but to many others, it was the nadir of exhibitions at one of the greatest cultural institutions we've had in the last century.

Without that exhibition, it might not have been quite as easy for Wall Street Journal critic Richard B. Woodward to dismiss the Albright-Knox's superb exhibit "Wish You Were Here: The Buffalo Avant-garde in the 1970s" as "an act of civic boosterism couched within an adventurous historical survey."

I'd call it something else -- "an act of historical correction couched in a geographical survey," a way to convey that a dumbed-down America that has chiefly thought of Buffalo for, in Woodward's words, "its curbside mountains of winter slush" probably needs to understand a community that has been culturally progressive since the Pan-American Exposition of 1901.

Buffalo's extraordinary avant-garde activity in the '70s radiated into the world the minute it could. It didn't matter whether it was Hallwalls co-founders Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo or, most importantly (I'd argue) the musical avant-gardism imported here by Lukas Foss and joyfully continued by Michael Tilson Thomas, the Creative Associates, and the UB Music Department. Once famous for the residences of Aaron Copland and the Budapest String Quartet it became known for pioneer computer composer Lejaren Hiller and the radical and unique Morton Feldman.

The great critics, novelists and poets who took refuge in UB's English Department (Leslie Fiedler, Lionel Abel, Charles Olson, John Barth, Robert Creeley, Irving Feldman -- and briefly Dwight Macdonald, Anthony Burgess and Donald Barthelme) engendered offshoots, cohorts and disciples all over America. Think of literary interviewer and catalyst Michael Silverblatt and the brilliant novelist and short story writer who became his mordant, fictional portraitist in "The Soul Thief," Charles Baxter.

But it was the UB Music Department that had the greatest and grandest international impact. The first recording of Terry Riley's immensely influential minimalist masterwork "In C" was by Buffalo residents, as was the first complete set of the music of Carl Ruggles, finally released on CD in the past month.

That, I would submit, is the chief trouble with Woodward's review in the Wall Street Journal. It is a review, with precious little context, of an exhibit in an art museum -- an ambitious one that recognizes a wide range of avant-garde culture to provide context. But, visual art is its chief focus, however much it also moves to explore the visual territory staked out by Gerald O'Grady and his Media Study enterprise.

Even so, while perusing the otherwise fine catalog of curator Heather Pesanti's exhibition, I am, once again, stunned by how badly history has served this era in Buffalo.

There has been a lot of that history written in the last 15 years -- a couple of Buffalo history books by Mark Goldman, Renee Levine Packer's marvelous "This Life of Sounds: Evenings for New Music in Buffalo," "Buffalo Heads: Media Study, Media Practice, Media Pioneers 1973-1990" and now Pesanti's catalog.

And what I am noticing everywhere is an almost total disinclination to report one utterly undeniable fact -- the extraordinarily attentive and admiring attention to all of it in Buffalo newspapers, especially this newspaper's arts department under the editorship of Terry Doran.

I understand that in saying this I'm not merely taking the risk of being self-serving, I'm jumping into self-service with both feet and wallowing in it, defiantly and shamelessly.

But I submit that history in general -- and especially cultural history in a small city such as Buffalo -- cannot be written with any accuracy at all without attention to the media envelope around it. Hallwalls co-founder Charles Clough told arts critic Colin Dabkowski, "The fact that art is a public relation, that's what makes it art. Art functions as an element of society. It's not about being introverted and stuck in your studio. You have to do that, but then you have to turn it into a public event and object that makes it communicative. Luckily the Buffalo News, Jean Reeves and Tony Bannon and Nancy Willig at the [Courier-Express] were all responsive."

And that is slighted almost completely in the "Wish You Were Here" catalog. Gerald O'Grady, in his contribution, mentions all the wonderful reviews he used to get (mostly from Bannon, later the director of the Burchfield Gallery, Rochester's George Eastman House and soon again to be director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center). And Levine Packer acknowledges the support of News staff critics led by John Dwyer (virtually our departmental mentor).

But the one name no one seems to find room for anywhere -- even elsewhere in a published history of this newspaper -- is Doran, The News' first arts editor, first editor of Gusto and a cultural progressive who not only never turned down a story idea by Bannon or me, no matter how esoteric, but welcomed every last one with open arms. His own support for avant-garde theater -- and contributions to it -- were similarly tireless.

It is simply not possible to overstate the importance of The News as an enclave of understanding and support for avant-garde arts during that whole extraordinary period.

And yet what I know -- and Levine Packer and O'Grady know -- to be the facts about all that is packed off to the side to make room for the skewed "history" that needs to be served.

In Tracy Daugherty's especially fine biography of Barthelme, he takes as his only source about Barthelme at UB and the activity begun in the UB English Department by its onetime chairman Al Cook, a memoir Bruce Jackson wrote for Buffalo Beat (when it was edited by The News' current pop music critic, Jeff Miers).

Jackson's inside piece was heavily into town-gown conflict, which is certainly understandable because of law enforcement squashing of student uprisings and Sheriff Michael Amico's shameful pot bust of Fiedler (ultimately -- and expensively -- thrown out of court).

But you simply can't characterize that period as merely a town/gown brawl when the "town's" major newspaper welcomed Barthelme to the UB faculty with a full-page story (by me) about his extraordinary art. That brawl might make for good paranoid melodrama, but it isn't the truth.

This much I know from being an eyewitness to history -- and, as part of a collective, part of it: that history will always be written to flatter survivors and institutions and the historian's patrons, long before it bothers to fulfill any responsibility to tell the whole truth.

Henry Ford once told the world, "History is bunk." The older I get and the more I see written about things I saw firsthand, the more I'm getting the chilly idea he wasn't wrong.