Book Review

Book Review: VENICE, CA: A CITY STATE OF MIND by John O’Kane

By Carlye Archibeque

In setting out to tell the tale of alternative past, present, and possible future of the Venice Beach community of California, author John O’Kane has set a daunting task for himself, while also creating a fascinating read for anyone interested in this city by the sea. O’Kane takes the reader on a tour of an amazing community, that for a short time, was run by its artists, and can’t quite let go of the reigns, but also can’t quite marshal its forces to fight its impending doom. The book is about more than simply the community though, it reaches into the community and shakes lose its ideals, fears, loves, hates, and most importantly the thickly layered, sometimes psychedelic, sometimes postmodern, always contentious history. Still this can’t be considered an exhaustive history of the artistic community as there is no mention of the city’s literary arts center, Beyond Baroque (founded in 1968), nor very much said about its performing arts center, the Electric Lodge.

O’Kane is a skillful storyteller with a firm grasp of his subject. He uses the his own voice, like an alternative Huel Howser, to show us the historical background of Venice, stopping here and there to talk with favored citizens, and wax philosophic on what this history means politically. Then he gives the reader transcripts of full on conversations with key players in Venice’s alternative community, like Peggy Kennedy of Food Not Bombs, and the late Carol Fondiller of the Venice Beachhead, neither of which, despite both being part of the same alternative community, can agree in any friendly way, how the encroaching development and new boardwalk laws should be handled. In the end, this is a political tome about the struggle for the soul of Venice between capitalists and socialists, and where the players fall on the scale between the two.

He begins his tale, by way of introduction, with his own arrival in the city in the 1980s, and comes out of the gate fast citing Lawrence Liption’s book, The Holy Barbarians (1959) as the seminal report on the emerging spirit of the alternative Venice he’s focusing on. His arrival also coincides with a wave of retrospectives about Venice in the 60s, which along with what seems like his own natural inclination towards an alternative view of the world, cements the authors fascination with the city’s creative arts oriented culture.

He then uses this well-schooled fascination to carefully, and fully show the reader how Venice, without a plan, became a mecca for a unique underclass of citizens: first under the radar after its founding by tobacco heir, Abbott Kinney; then very successfully after the 1929 depression drives off speculators and naysayers; and now how it is less and less successful as threats from market forces looking toward the underdeveloped oceanfront property grow. O’Kane gives us several brilliantly conceived analogies that use the real world example of alternative Venice as the focus for a discussion of capitalism, socialism and each economic theory’s views of where Venice should be headed. It should come as no surprise to the reader that the artist underclass, those considered unsightly anyway, are targeted for expulsion, and that this underclass is not going to go without a fight.

When O’Kane gives flight to the fantasy of a perfect socialist community full of artists who live to create and enjoy their surroundings, the reader gets a sense of hope and longing. However, when the text turns to transcribed conversations and interviews, it’s clear that the citizens of alternative Venice might possibly be their own worst enemies. Dedicated for years to the anarchist ideal of a ruler-less society, combined with a lack of cohesive vision among the citizens themselves and distrust of political machinations have left them ill equipped to fight the trolls coming in from Mordor. When O’Kane asks, “What will make this fantasy (of the alternative Venice) real?” his final pages, possibly meant to provide an answer, turn to the ideals found in surrealism and alchemy for support thereby underlying the problem inherent in the system as neither idea has firm footing in reality.

It is possibly only in his discussions with the now deceased Poet Laureate of Venice, Philomene Long, that the reader can become most comfortable with the duality of a Venice that thrives in the alleys, gutters and few remaining cafes from its heyday, and the shadow of a hip, slick and cool Venice on the horizon. In one simple sentence she reveals the reason why, possibly, it might be better for the arts community of Venice to rage against the dying of the light than have their fantasy fulfilled: “…creativity needs sacrifice and struggle.” What better struggle than one against capitalism, and what better struggle than the daily effort it takes to live as an artist?

Solutions to the problem of how to save this last remaining artist enclave of the California coast aside, VENICE, CA: A STATE OF MIND is a must read for anyone interested in the concept of living outside the system in order to stay in touch with the things that are truly valuable in life: family, friends, art, communication, community, and love.

Categories: Book Review